Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy

Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

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Excerpts from David Wong's entry on Relativism in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (General Ed. Edward Craig)


Moral relativism

Often the subject of heated debate, moral relativism is a cluster of doctrines concerning diversity of moral judgment across time, societies and individuals. Descriptive relativism is the doctrine that extensive diversity exists and that it concerns values and principles central to moralities. Meta-ethical relativism is the doctrine that there is no single true or most justified morality. Normative relativism is the doctrine that it is morally wrong to pass judgment on or to interfere with the moral practices of others who have adopted moralities different from oneās own. Much debate about relativism revolves around the questions of whether descriptive relativism accurately portrays moral diversity and whether actual diversity supports meta-ethical and normative relativism. Some critics also fear that relativism can slide into nihilism.

Descriptive relativism

From the beginnings of the Western tradition philosophers have debated the nature and implications of moral diversity. Differences in customs and values the Greeks encountered through trade, travel and war motivated the argument attributed to the sophist Protagoras in Plato's Theaetetus: that human custom determines what is fine and ugly, just and unjust. Anthropologists in the twentieth century, such as Ruth Benedict (1934), have emphasized the fundamental differences between the moralities of small-scale traditional societies and the modern West. For example, many traditional societies are focused on community-centred values that require the promotion and sustenance of a common life of relationships, in contrast to both the deontological morality of individual rights and the morality of utilitarianism that are the most prominent within modern Western moral philosophy. Within this philosophy itself moral diversity is represented by the debates between utilitarians and deontologists, and more recently criticism of both camps by defenders of virtue theory and communitarianism. Such differences have motivated the doctrine of descriptive relativism: that there exists extensive diversity of moral judgment across time, societies and individuals, and that it concerns central moral values and principles.

Critics of descriptive relativism argue that it fails to account for important moral similarities across cultures such as prohibitions against killing innocents and provisions for educating and socializing the young. A relativist response given by Michael Walzer (1987) is to argue that shared norms must be described in an extremely general way and that once one examines the concrete forms they take in different societies, one sees significant variety, for example, in which persons count as "innocent". The descriptive relativist might go so far as to assert that no significant similarities exist, but an alternative position is that broad similarities exist that are compatible with significant differences among the moralities human beings have held.

Critics of descriptive relativism also argue that many moral beliefs presuppose religious and metaphysical beliefs, and that these beliefs, rather than any difference in fundamental values, give rise to much moral diversity. Also, differences in moral belief across different societies may not arise from differences in fundamental values but from the need to implement the same values in different ways given the varying conditions obtaining in these societies. One relativist reply is that while such explanations apply to some moral disagreements, they cannot apply to many others, such as disagreements over the rightness of eating animals or the moral status of the foetus or the rightness of sacrificing an innocent person for the sake of a hundred more.

Meta-ethical relativism

The most heated debate about relativism revolves around the question of whether descriptive relativism supports meta-ethical relativism: that there is no single true or most justified morality. There is no direct path from descriptive to meta-ethical relativism; the most plausible argument for meta-ethical relativism is that it is part of a larger theory of morality that best explains actual moral diversity.

Critics of meta-ethical relativism point out that moral disagreement is consistent with the possibility that some moral judgments are truer or more justified than others, just as disagreement among scientists does not imply that truth is relative in science. Some relativists are unimpressed by the analogy with science, holding that disagreements about the structure of the world can be sufficiently radical to undermine the assumption that there is an absolute truth to be found. This defence of meta-ethical relativism amounts to founding it upon a comprehensive epistemological relativism that expresses scepticism about the meaningfulness of talking about truth defined independently of the theories and justificatory practices of particular communities of discourse.

An alternative relativist response is to take a nonrelativist stance towards science and to drive a wedge between scientific and moral discourse. Defenders of such a morality-specific meta-ethical relativism argue that scientific disagreements can be explained in ways that are consistent with there being a nonrelative truth about the structure of the physical world while moral disagreements cannot be treated analogously. For example, much scientific disagreement may be traced to insufficient or ambiguous evidence or distortions of judgment stemming from personal interests. Relativists have argued that such explanations will not work for moral disagreements such as the ones mentioned above concerning the eating of animals, abortion, and the sacrifice of an innocent to save more lives.

In offering alternative explanations of moral disagreement, morality-specific relativists tend to adopt a "naturalistic" approach to morality in the sense that they privilege a scientific view of the world and fit their conceptions of morality and moral disagreement within that view. They deny that moral values and principles constitute an irreducible part of the fabric of the world and argue that morality is best explained on the theory that it arises at least in part from custom and convention. On Wong's view (1984), for example, a good part of morality arises out of the need to structure and regulate social cooperation and to resolve conflicts of interest. Meta-ethical relativism is true because there is no single valid way to structure social cooperation.


There are radical and moderate versions of meta-ethical relativism. Radical relativists hold that any morality is as true or as justified as any other. Moderate relativists, such as Foot (1978), Walzer and Wong (1984), deny that there is any single true morality but also hold that some moralities are truer or more justified than others. On Wong's view, for instance, certain determinate features of human nature and similarities in the circumstances and requirements of social cooperation combine to produce universal constraints on what an adequate morality must be like. It may be argued, for example, that a common feature of adequate moralities is the specification of duties to care and educate the young, a necessity given the prolonged state of dependency of human offspring and the fact that they require a good deal of teaching to play their roles in social cooperation. It may also be a common feature of adequate moralities to require of the young reciprocal duties to honour and respect those who bring them up, and this may arise partly from role that such reciprocity plays in ensuring that those who are charged with caring for the young have sufficient motivation to do so. Such common features are compatible with the recognition that adequate moralities could vary significantly in their conceptions of what values that cooperation should most realize. Some moralities could place the most emphasis on community-centred values that require the promotion and sustenance of a common life of relationships, others could emphasize individual rights, and still others could emphasize the promotion of utility.

Normative relativism

Does meta-ethical relativism have substantive implications for action? Normative relativism - the doctrine that it is morally wrong to pass judgment on or to interfere with the moral practices of others who have adopted moralities different from one's own - is often defended by anthropologists, perhaps in reaction to those Western conceptions of the inferiority of other cultures that played a role in colonialism. It also has application to disagreements within a society such as that concerning the morality of abortion, where the positions of the disputing parties seem ultimately to be based on fundamentally different conceptions of personhood.

As in the case of descriptive and meta-ethical relativism, however, there is no direct path from [meta-ethical] to normative relativism. One could hold consistently that there is no single true morality while judging and interfering with others on the basis of one's own morality. Wong has proposed a version of normative relativism consistent with the point that nothing normative follows straightforwardly from meta-ethical relativism. Meta-ethical relativism needs to be supplemented with a liberal contractualist ethic to imply an ethic of nonintervention. A liberal contractualist ethic requires that moral principles be justifiable to the individuals governed by these principles. If no single morality is most justified for everyone, liberal normative relativism may require one not to interfere with those who have a different morality, though the requirement of noninterference may not be absolute when it comes into conflict with other moral requirements such as prohibitions against torture or the killing of innocents.


References and further reading (excerpts):

Benedict, R. (1934) Patterns of Culture, New York: Penguin.(Argues that different cultures are organized around different and incommensurable values.)

Foot, P. (1978) Moral Relativism (The Lindley Lectures), Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.(Defends a form of moderate relativism.)

MacIntyre, A. (1988) Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.(Accepts a strong version of descriptive relativism in which different moral traditions contain incommensurable values and standards of rational justification, but argues against meta-ethical relativism on the grounds that traditions may be compared with respect to their ability to resolve internal problems and to explain why other traditions have failed to solve their own problems.)

Nagel, T. (1986) The View from Nowhere, New York: Oxford University Press.(Criticism of arguments for meta-ethical relativism from moral diversity.)

Williams, B. (1972) Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, New York: Harper & Row.(Criticism of some versions of meta-ethical and normative relativism.)

Wong, D. (1996) "Pluralistic Relativism", Midwest Studies in Philosophy 20: 378-400.(More discussion about the constraints that all adequate moralities would have to meet.)

Copyright: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London: Routledge
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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)