Arguments for Ethical Relativism and Objections

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Puritan Board Junior
What do you guys think about the objections to the arguments for relativism? Do they work? How would you respond to what two others have told me [at the bottom]?


1. THE ARGUMENT FROM MORAL DISAGREEMENT: Many Sociologists and Anthropologists point out the fact that individuals, as well as whole societies, sometimes disagree about moral issues (Descriptive Fact). From this fact, some conclude that therefore, principles regarding moral right and wrong are purely relative, i.e., ethical relativism is true and there is no objective moral truth (Philosophical Claim).

OBJECTION #1: Even if we do find moral disagreement, so what? It does not follow from the mere fact of disagreement about an issue that there is no objective truth regarding that issue. For example, suppose we disagreed on the date of Barrack Obama’s birthday. The mere fact of such disagreement does not prove that there is no objective truth on this issue. That is, it does not follow that Barrack Obama wasn’t born on a certain date, or worse, that he was never born at all! So why should it be any different with respect to moral issues? The mere fact that people disagree about moral issues does not alone prove that there is no objective truth in morality.

OBJECTION #2: Suppose the Ethical Relativist insists that the mere fact of disagreement regarding the objectivity of moral principles does prove that ethical objectivism cannot be true, and that there is therefore no objective truth in morality. In saying this, the ethical relativist is affirming the principle: “Disagreement about X implies that there is no objective truth about X.” The problem is that this negates the relativist’s own position. For there is clearly no universal agreement regarding the truth of ethical relativism! Hence, according to the ethical relativists own principle [that disagreement about X implies there is no objective truth about X] it follows that ethical relativism cannot be objectively true!

OBJECTION #3: Disagreement is over-rated: In many cases disagreements are not moral disagreements at all, but rather, factual disagreements. For example, many people who live in India do not eat cows because they believe in reincarnation. That is, they believe that cows may possess the souls of deceased human beings. In the U.S. we do not tend to believe cows have human souls. For this reason, we eat cows -
but we do not eat Grandma. It appears on the surface that there is a fundamental disagreement in moral principle between Indians and Americans. This is a hasty conclusion, however, for both cultures believe it is wrong to eat Grandma; it is just that the Indians believe the cow may actually be Grandma, while we do not. Thus it is a disagreement regarding the facts and not a disagreement in fundamental moral principles that divides our culinary habits. (Francis J. Beckwith, "Philosophical Problems With Moral Relativism." (Christian Research Journal, Fall 1993, pp. 20.)​

2. THE TOLERANCE ARGUMENT: Relativists often defend their position by claiming they are more tolerant of other people and other cultures. In a multicultural society it is better to be tolerant rather than intolerant. Since the ethical relativist does not believe his moral beliefs and practices are any truer than the moral beliefs of others, he can be tolerant in a way that the ethical objectivist cannot. Hence, ethical relativism is preferable to ethical objectivism.

OBJECTION: In putting forth tolerance as a virtue that everyone ought to adopt, it seems that the ethical relativist is putting forth tolerance as an objective, universal value. But this is inconsistent with his relativist position that denies any objective, universal moral truths. Why should everyone take tolerance as a virtue to be valued if all values are relative? Furthermore, suppose a relativist belongs to a society whose moral code requires one to be intolerant of other cultures. Then it would follow that he should be intolerant, not tolerant!​


DISTINCTIONS. Consider these two arguments:

1. If Ethical Relativism were true, then Mother Theresa is no better than Hitler.
2. But it is absurd to believe that Mother Theresa is no better than Hitler.
3. Therefore, Ethical Relativism is not true.

1. If Ethical relativism is true, then no culture’s ethical beliefs are better or worse than any other.
2. But then the random torture of small children is perfectly right for no other reason than that it is believed by the culture that tortures the children.
3. But this is irrational and absurd!
4. Therefore, ethical relativism is not true.​

2. ETHICAL RELATIVISM AND THE PROBLEM OF MORAL REFORM: Suppose an activist sees a society in need of improvement and feels compelled to propose certain changes to improve the lives of its citizens. There have been times throughout human history where we find such reformers –indeed, these include many great moral reformers such as Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, etc. We admire these people precisely because they did not simply accept society as it is, but dared to change and improve it.

PROBLEM: Cultural Ethical Relativism prohibits such action because it requires the acceptance of society as it is. This is because what is morally right is defined in relation to a society’s moral beliefs and practices. Hence, anyone who advocates moral reform is not only mistaken but morally wrong! But this is absurd. Hence, Ethical Relativism is unacceptable.​

3. ETHICAL RELATIVISM AND IRRATIONALITY: According to Individual Ethical Relativism, whatever I choose to believe is right or wrong just because I believe it. I may have reasons to support my belief, but then again I may not. In other words, it really does not matter whether I have reasons to support my moral beliefs. For it is consistent with the theory to assert that whatever moral beliefs I hold, they are true simply because I believe them. Similarly for Cultural Ethical Relativism. The only difference is that we are dealing with what a Culture believes is right, instead of a single individual.

PROBLEM: The problem is that this is completely irrational! Think about it. Imagine an Ethical Relativist (or a Culture of Relativists) who really believes that he has the moral right to do whatever he wants to do. Thus, he rapes, kills and tortures people -and he can justify all of this by appeal to the pleasure he gets out of it, or his
need for power and control, or for no reason at all! Of course, we might respond by saying that he does not have any right to harm others like that. But what’s the point? There is no reasoning with such a person (or group of persons) because he does not have to listen to or provide any reasons! And that is precisely the problem. Ethical Relativism ultimately condemns itself to being a purely irrational (and dangerous) ethical theory. And that is why a reasonable person cannot accept it.​

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CONCLUSION: Taken together, the above arguments present us with a cumulative case against Ethical Relativism. If the ethical relativist disagrees, then he must rebut these arguments by presenting reasons why these arguments are flawed and unacceptable. In the absence of such rebuttal, it is more reasonable to reject Ethical Relativism in favor of some form of Ethical Objectivism.​

Here's two responses I've gotten before:
"First, you made a very basic mistake by asserting that moral relativism and moral objectivism are opposites. They are not. The proper dichotomies are: moral relativism vs. moral absolutism, and moral subjectivism vs. moral objectivism. It is possible for something to be both objective and relative, or subjective and absolute.
We can define the term "long" as meaning "of a greater length than average." As such, 2 feet is objectively long for a pencil, but objectively not long for a sofa. While "longness" is an objective quality, it is relative to that to which it is applied. Objective/relative.

That the color "red" is beautiful is a subjective judgment. But it is absolute in that, according to this subjective judgment, all instantiations of "redness" are beautiful- ie, true in all cases. Absolute/subjective.

So in order to demonstrate objective morality, you would have to defeat moral subjectivism, not moral relativism.

The arguments you present in your post don't apply to all forms of moral subjectivism- including mine. Let me demonstrate. The first two objections don't apply to my position, since I don't base my belief in moral subjectivism on the fact that people disagree, nor is "tolerance" my standard. The key to understanding my position, is to understand that a single word can be used to refer to different concepts (which is why dictionaries include multiple definitions for most words). When I use the words "morality" and "goodness," I am using them to refer to a particular concept. This concept cannot be instantiated in the random torture of small children- this act is contradictory to my concept of "goodness," just like squares cannot fit the definition of "circle." This is an objective fact.

Similarly, the judgment that Mother Theresa is morally no better than Hitler cannot be made, with reference to my concepts of "goodness" and "morality." This, too, is an objective fact.

Where subjectivity comes into play is in the selection of the concept itself. Concepts are not "true" or "false." There is no "correct" or "incorrect" concept of morality or goodness. The concept to which I refer with these words are subjectively chosen, and therefore I am not "right" or "wrong" in selecting a particular concept. But once I've selected the concept, it becomes a matter of objectivity. I am under no obligation to consider the concept chosen by another person, when making moral judgments. Just because someone has chosen to use the word "moral" to refer to a concept which is compatible with the random torture of children, doesn't somehow mean that it is compatible with MY concept of morality."

and 2.

"One problem is that different people mean different things when they talk about Moral Relativism.

I think you have provided a pretty good case against Normative Relativism, but that may just be because I disagree with it myself.

The thing is, there is also Meta-ethical relativism, which I don't think you have really touched at all."


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
The "response 1." above is still moral anarchy. And if it isn't, then it is the theory of "might makes right." In any case, he's merely playing semantical games with you, trading on equivocations in the definitions he chooses.

He starts with the claim that there is substantive differences (pertaining to your discussion) between "relativism and subjectivism" as well as "absolutism and objectivism." This is just a distraction, to keep you from pinning him with the pejorative that he is accountable to no power for his "moral" choices. In his own admitted view, there is no "objective" or "absolute" truth that governs his methods or motives. Nothing but his own subjective estimate can convict him of a sin. That he calls his "chosen standard" an "objective standard" relative to himself, is meaningless.

I am going to guess that you know that silly banter about what he thinks is right and wrong, versus what you think is right and wrong, is pointless; unless the point is to persuade you of his position, in which no real difference has been made. Besides this: that his version of morality involves you being "nice" to him, on his terms. If persuasion is "out," then either you have to walk away from each other in greater or lesser tension. Unless he then forces you to agree with his definition. This is also seen in "morality" by edict, or "government/state" morality. Whoever is in POWER determines what is "objectively" right and wrong for everyone.

You also see that this version of "morality" is the ethic of the baby-killer, etc. Whether he's got a "standard" of right and wrong, and he delights in his definition wrong, makes no difference. Now we're back to word-games, semantics. He's doing what he thinks he has a "right" to do, as determined by his "will." If he tells you (this killer) that he's got no "right" to do so, but does it anyway, he's either literally crazy, or else he's redefined his will-to-power as somehow standing outside of any definition of right and wrong. Well, that's the definition of megalomania, or narcissism, etc. He just "does what he wills to do," or what delights him.

But here, one should be able to see that any meaningful definition of "morality" is concerned with the government of human actions. It isn't about will or delight. Animals "act" without any moral compass. They may fear (fight or flight), but this is not morality either. They kill, they eat, they mate, they take, they leave. This is not "moral" activity, and any definition of human morality that reduces us to animalistic categories is "moral" nonsense. People who are discussing "morality" in these terms are simply trying to justify the "is-ought" fallacy. They may be trying to reason in evolutionary terms, the way some philosophers try to explain what seems like an innate "morality" by an appeal to highly developed, attuned "instincts." But without something that is "top-down," or "built(engineered)-in" by way of design, there is nothing permanent about this sort of morality.

There is nothing basic about it, nothing that isn't subject to a random mutation in what is right or wrong. If "nature" starts to "deselect" the baby-killer, and he "fights back," and overcomes, then what? So much the worse for "nature," eh? Besides, he's just trying to preserve the advantage for HIS genes, by reducing the stock of his competitors. His "objective" moral standard (see how meaningless that is?) justifies his baby-slaying--very rational. Rationality alone can't account for a meaningful conception of morality.

The very idea of "morality" implies something conceptual beside an internal, subjective sense of desert, right, longing, fear, guilt, etc. If nothing stands outside of us, then if someone steals my stuff, I've no more "right" to complain about that (to whom?) than the wolf who loses his den to a bigger, younger one. If I have an "objective" idea about what is right for the both of us, but it plainly conflicts with "that guy's," who cares? Either I swallow my resentment, or I fight him for "my" stuff (which is now "his stuff" by his "objective" definition), or I persuade a pack of others to assist me in taking it back, or I try persuading him that he's mean, and he should give it back.

We aren't interested in the "moral ideas" of a man who considers his choice a "standard," unless his version of right and wrong is "dangerous" to my well-being. Then, I'm very interested, because I my disagreement with him puts me in the position of an "outlaw" relative to his self-appointed standard. If neither persuasion nor force is in view, then I could care less about his private judgments. His "standard" doesn't apply to me. He doesn't (really) think it applies to me either, if he really doesn't want to persuade, to force, or even just inform me of his notions.

Augustine, the person you have this exchange with (assuming he's not just jerking with you) is most likely trying to "convert" you to his way of thinking, if not to his "standard of morality," then to the underlying principle of AUTONOMY, the principle of a self-chosen "objectivity." You are (presumably) committed to a different first principle, one that makes sense out of ONE morality for everyone. You are NOT (in true Christian evangelism) trying to convert a person to a "moral system." This is usually misunderstood by those who are self-consciously non-Christian. They think (sometimes with good reason) that Christianity is just one competing "moral system."

But we are not after the defense of a moral system. We agree that there IS a moral system, and that there is a UNIVERSAL morality, because we believe in a universal Judge. This concept makes sense of the "common" threads in so many "moralities," without having to rely on some fallacious is-ought reasoning. And it provides the necessary critique of both personal moral acts, as well as other (corrupt) moral systems. What we point to is the universal guilt of man in setting up ANY autonomous moral system, that is not subject to critique (allegedly). Our understanding of morality makes a statement about what is RIGHT or WRONG irrespective of the thoughts, attitudes, and intentions of the heart. It isn't a matter of "choosing my religion."

The person who acknowledges that the Judge doesn't need to defend himself, or the laws (moral) he enforces, has abandoned his autonomy.

Your interlocutor either needs to get honest with his terminology, or with himself. Just my :2cents:
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