Moral Relativism


The moral relativist believes that ethical truths are relative to groups smaller than humanity as a whole.  That this is true of fundamental ethical truths, not merely derived moral rules, is essential to relativism.  To allow just one fundamental universal ethical truth that is independent of the say so of individuals or groups is to abandon relativism in favor of a realist view of ethical truth.  There are as many versions of moral relativism as there are groups or individuals ethical truth can be relative to.

A simple version of moral relativism, societal moral relativism, holds that a type of action is morally right relative to a society if it is deemed right by the majority of members of that society. Moral relativism is a view about what makes ethical truths true. It is not a view about how we come to hold moral beliefs.  There is very good reason to think that in fact we often acquire our moral views from elements in our culture. What people come to believe depends on cultural influences, but this is not moral relativism.  Moral relativism is the view that what determines the truth or falsity of moral beliefs is just what is endorsed by the prevailing culture. According to moral relativism, moral truths are made by the dominant view in a society, not merely propagated by the dominant culture.

Many would endorse some version of moral relativism on the grounds that it supports tolerance and respect for societies with differing moral views.  Moral relativism seems to be a view that allows for different societies to embrace different moral standards that are right relative to the respective societies.  Moral relativism rejects the notion that the moral standards of one society could be objectively correct.  So if moral relativism is correct, no society could be justified in forcing its moral standards on other groups because its standards are objectively correct. This line of thought has lead many who value diversity and tolerance of diversity to embrace moral relativism. But this is a mistake. because moral relativism leaves open the possibility of intolerance justified by other means.  In fact, the result of a straightforward application of societal moral relativism is that being intolerant towards other groups is right relative to a society if the majority of members of that society deem intolerance right. So for instance, assuming the majority of Germans in Nazi Germay approved of the persecution of Jews, then according to societal moral relativism, intolerance towards Jews was right relative to Nazi Germany. Those who value tolerance and respect of individuals or groups with differing moral views would do much better to endorse tolerance as an objective realist ethical value than to endorse moral relativism.

A strong argument against moral relativism is the argument from change. Sometimes our view about the moral status of some practice changes.  A person might, for instance, think that eating meat is morally unproblematic at one time and then become convinced that animals deserve some kind of moral regard that speaks against eating meat.  When a person’s moral views change in this fashion, the do not merely drop one moral belief in favor of another.  Typically, they also hold that their previous moral view was mistaken.  They take themselves to have discovered something new about what is morally right.  Likewise, then the prevalent moral belief in a society undergoes a significant change, as in the civil rights movement, we are inclined to see this as a change for the better.  But the relativist cannot account for changes in our moral beliefs being changes for the better.  This is because the relativist recognizes no independent standard of goodness against which the new prevalent moral beliefs can be judged to be better than the old prevalent moral beliefs.

A closely related problem for moral relativism is the moral reformer’s dilemma.  We recognize a few remarkable individuals as moral reformers, people who, we think, improved the moral condition of their society in some way.  Common examples might include, Buddha, Jesus, Ghandi or Martin Luther King.  While the relativist can allow that these individuals changed the moral views of their societies,  none can be said to have changed their societies for the better according to the relativist.  Again, this is because the societal moral relativist recognizes no standard of moral goodness independent of what is accepted in a society according to which a society that has changed can be judged to have changed for the better.  A relativist that takes ethical truth to be relative to the dominant view in a society seems to be committed to taking institutionalized racism to be morally right relative to per-civil rights American society and wrong relative to post civil rights American society. But since standards of goodness are determined by the prevalent views in a society, there is no standard goodness to appeal to in judging that the change our society underwent in the civil rights movement is a change for the better. According to societal moral relativism, anyone who takes Martin Luther King to have improved American society by leading it to reject institutionalized racism is just mistaken about the nature of ethical truth.

Three levels of ethical theory:


Meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics.

Ethics is a normative discipline, not a descriptive discipline.  The aim of ethical theory is to give a reasoned account of how we ought to be or act, individually or communally.  Ethics is not concerned with describing the sorts of moral views people in fact hold or how they came to hold them.  Ethics is concerned with the justification of moral belief.


Meta-ethics is concerned with the nature of morality in general.  It is concerned with what justifies moral judgments.  Two central meta-ethical issues are whether there are any moral truths and, if so, what makes moral truths true. The view that there are no ethical truths is alternatively known as moral anti-realism, nihilism or subjectivism.  With regard to what grounds ethical truth, if there are such truths, the view that there are ethical truths and their truth is independent of any person or group’s power or command is moral realism.  The view that ethical truths are grounded in the power or say so of persons is called conventionalism.

If there are moral truths, an account of what makes moral truths true can be given in terms of a theory of value.  Another way to put the fundamental meta-ethical issue is asking if there is value to be discovered.  The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle would say all say yes.  While these ancients differ in their positive views about the good, they would all agree that goodness exists and is independent of the command of men or gods.  The modern empiricist Hume argues that there are no moral truths.  Hume takes moral expressions to be expressions of sentiment or feeling.  While the ancients were value realists and Hume was a value subjectivist, Nietzche offers a value conventionalist position according to which value is created by willing of great individuals. A society’s system of value is created by its great poets, artists, mystics or leaders.

Normative Ethics

Normative Ethics is concerned with how we ought to live and act.  A normative theory of right action is an attempt to say what it is for an action to be morally permissible, obligatory or wrong.  A normative theory of the good life is an attempt to say what it is for a human to live well.  A theory of social justice is a normative theory of how a society should be structured and how goods, liberties, and power should be allocated in a society.

Applied Ethics

Applied Ethics is concerned with applying general normative theories of how we ought to live, act, or structure our societies to specific types of circumstances.  For instance, whether or not abortion is justifiable according to a respect for persons normative theory of right action is an applied ethical issue.

Some meta-ethical positions:

  1. Moral subjectivism has epistemological and metaphysical variants
    1. Epistemological variants deny the possibility of moral knowledge or justified moral belief.  But this leaves open the possibility of there being unknowable moral facts.
    2. The metaphysical variants denies the existence of moral properties.  On this view, moral claims are either all false or they lack truth-value.
  2. Conventionalism is the view that there are ethical truths and that these are made true by the will or say so of some person or group of people.  Devine command theory, the view that what is right is right because God commands it, and moral relativism are both conventionalist views. Popular varieties of moral relativism are also typically conventionalist theories.
  3. Realism is the view that there are ethical truths and they are grounded in some aspect of the world that has objective value independent of the will or imperatives of persons or groups of people.

Some realist normative ethical views

  1. Utilitarianism, according to Mill, is the view that good actions are those that tend to produce the greatest amount of happiness conceived of as pleasure and the absence of pain.  The utilitarian theory of right action is grounded in a theory of objective value that takes happiness to be the only thing that has intrinsic value.
  2. Respect for Persons is the name often given to the view advocated by Kant that we have a moral obligation to respect persons as beings that have intrinsic value.  Kant’s theory of right action is given in his various formulations of the “categorical imperative” (one version says we are obligated to act only according to maxims (general motives) that we could consistently will that everyone act on.
  3. Aristotle offers a theory of the good life grounded in the functions and capacities that are natural and essential to humans.  The good life, according to Aristotle, is the life of actively exercising one’s rational capacities.
  4. Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice
  5. Rawl’s theory of social justice as fairness

Some issues in applied ethics

  1. Is abortion morally permissible?
  2. Ought we be vegetarians for ethical reasons?
  3. Under what conditions is a nation morally justified in waging war?
  4. Do moral responsibilities towards future generations require that we regulate our use of the environment and natural resources?



Design for Living


Intelligent design theory posits the existence of an intelligent creator as the best or only available explanation for the appearance of design we allegedly find in natural phenomenon like the cell. Intelligent design theory does not provide an argument for the existence of a God as conceived by any particular religion because it commits us to nothing specific about the nature of the creator except its capacity for intelligent design. And intelligent design is not grounded or justified on the basis of religious belief. The grounds offered for the existence of an intelligent designer are phenomenon we have discovered scientifically. Michael Behe (Design for Living, The New York Times, February 7, 2005) offers the following argument for intelligent design:

1. “We can often recognize the effects of design in nature.”

2. The appearance of design is present in biological phenomenon.

3. “We have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn’t involve intelligence.”

4. “In the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life.”

5. So, we are justified in thinking intelligent design was involved in life.

Behe claims the first two premises of this argument are uncontroversial. We can look at the Rocky Mountains and at Mt. Rushmore and see that one is the product of human design whereas the other is not. The appearance of design in this case is explained by what we know to be the case, that Mt Rushmore was in fact designed by humans.

Behe thinks we also find the appearance of design in biological phenomenon, notably in the structure and functioning of the cell. In the functional aspects of its parts and organization, the cell seems much like a factory, complete with machinery for locomotion, chemical processing and waste removal. But do the specific aspects in which we find genuine similarities justify seeing the parts of cells as machines? Complex molecules in the cell perform the function of transporting proteins from one place to another. Trucks perform a very similar function. But is this similarity sufficient for seeing the molecules that perform this function in the cell as intelligently designed transportation devices? Transporting things is a relatively generic function. Stars transport their satellites around galaxies, but this hardly warrants seeing stars as trucks or any other sort of transporting machine. Any number of further similarities between designed artifacts and cells and their parts may be identified. But supporting the second premise of Behe’s argument requires that we show that natural things like the cell are similar to artificial designed things like trucks and factories in at least some of the respects that are relevant to our judgment that the artificial thing is the product of design. This may or may not be possible. My only point here is to identify an appropriate standard for the justification of (2). If accepted, the second premise provides prima facia evidence for life being the product of intelligent design. But this prima facia case for design holds up only in the absence of other ways to account for the appearance of design. In the absence of alternative accounts, the existence of an intelligent designer is the best explanation of the appearance of design and this would give us abductive grounds for believing in an intelligent designer.

(3) claims that evolutionary theory has failed to yield a complete and adequate account of the origins of life. This may be true for reasons that have nothing to do with any defect in the theory of evolution by natural selection. It may be true, for instance, because we simply lack access to the historical evidence that would be needed give a complete developmental history of the cell. So scientists might have pretty good excuses for not being able to tell a detailed story about the development of cells in terms of natural selection. But mere lack of evidence is not an argument against thinking that natural selection played the sort of role in the advent of cells that we have good grounds for thinking it played in later evolution.

Even if (3) is true, it is deceptive in its suggestion that we do have a good explanation in terms of intelligent design. Here is the salient question: in just what way does the hypothesis that cells were designed by an intelligent designer explain? That humans designed trucks has explanatory power because it makes reference to a causal process that we have some acquaintance with. It is a process that involves engineers sitting at computers, building models, and so forth. But an appeal to a supernatural designer posits non-causal means about which we have no grasp what-so-ever. A supernatural creator is in some way acting outside the causal order and thereby producing effects in the causal order. Intelligent design theorists owe us some account of just how the design hypothesis is supposed to explain at all.

Finally, the main defect I find in Behe’s argument is a formal difficulty. If (2) is accepted and we grant the appearance of design in biological phenomenon, then we require some explanation of the appearance of design. But the issue shifts in Behe’s third premise. (3) claims that no adequate explanation has been given of the origin of life. The result of this shift of issue in (3) is that the argument presupposes without warrant that nothing short of an account of the origins of life through natural processes would suffice as an explanation of the appearance of design. But why should we expect that explaining the appearance of design requires giving a complete developmental history of the origins of cellular life? It could be, and I think in fact it is the case, that we have perfectly good explanatory principles at hand in the theory of evolution by natural selection but we simply lack adequate access to the historical evidence to explain how all of the impressive features of cells came to exist through natural selection.