4.1 Claims and Consequences of Moral Relativism

If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably – after careful considerations of their relative merits – choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best.

—Herodotus, The Histories

Opinion – this seems to be where ethics starts and in many people’s minds where it ends. You have a right to your opinion about right and wrong and I have a right to mine, so let’s just leave it at that. Given what we have been looking at so far, not to mention all of the unread pages still ahead, it is probably already apparent that that is not going to be the whole story about ethics. It is nevertheless a deeply rooted assumption that ethical claims must be opinions, since they are clearly not factual claims and that seems to be the only other sort of claim we can possibly be making when we are using language to state things. That this assumption does not in fact hold up to closer inspection is what this chapter is going to argue.

Humans are incredibly diverse and in many ways. We are diverse in appearance; we live in many ways in many different environments; we speak many different languages and embrace many different beliefs, practices and norms. People live in almost any conceivable physical environment, from dense tropical jungles, to frozen polar deserts, from small villages with thatched huts to modern industrial cities made of concrete, steel and glass. In addition, our cultural practices and norms reveal perhaps an even greater diversity. Some human cultures place value on devotion to the group at the expense of individual liberty, others emphasize the unique individual while downplaying our relation with others. Some cultures value continuity and tradition while others value innovation and rapid change. Some cultures value constant productive work while others place far more emphasis on living well and enjoying social interaction with others. Some cultures allow men and women to participate equally in all areas of social life, while others have entirely separate spheres for the two sexes. Recognition of this diversity is what has led some philosophers and social scientists to formulate a theory known as “cultural relativism,” which takes these casual observations and turns them into an explicit set of claims about the nature of value judgments. This theory is not only a popular theory about the nature of values. It also presents a challenge to the whole enterprise of philosophical ethics since it leads to the view that rational discussion and argument have little role to play in ethical decision making. Ethical decisions, opinions and judgments, according to cultural relativism, are always relative to the cultural environment within which they are made.

Cultural relativism is one particular variant of a broader position that holds that moral universals are impossible in principle and that moral judgments are closer to judgments of taste than they are to anything else. Just as with judgments of taste, according to this view, sometimes called “moral anti-realism” for its denial that there is any basis in reality for determining what is right and what is wrong, there is little point in arguing about moral issues since they reduce to personal preferences. I won’t go into the various versions of this idea here but will focus on the claim that moral values and judgments are essentially rooted in culture. The issues that this view raises, it seems to me at least are broadly the same as those faced by other variants and so dealing with cultural relativism will be enough for our purposes here.

So let us then look more carefully at what cultural relativism claims. It is a meta-ethical position that boils down to a few simple and seemingly obvious claims:

According to cultural relativism

  • Ethical or moral claims are not objective in the way factual claims are.
  • There is no neutral standard for determining right or wrong.
  • All value judgments are relative to our personal or cultural perspective.

A first case for relativism

At first this set of claims may seem obviously true. After all, given the diversity of human values and customs, how could there be anything more than relative standards, standards that are only applicable within a given culture? Many people find relativism intuitively appealing and might even offer as a preliminary case for relativism the following points:

  • Cultural diversity: Human culture has always been extremely diverse. And many people seem to have equally diverse views on what sort of behavior is acceptable. It seems to follow from this that there cannot possibly be any standards for deciding between these views.
  • How we learn about values: It seems obvious that we learn about values, and come to accept the values that we do because these are the values that are shared by the people who raise us. They are the values of our families and communities.
  • Intolerance: There have been plenty of cases throughout history in which one group of people firmly believed that their values were not just acceptable for them but absolutely right, and used this as a justification for committing atrocities against other people. Relativists insist that the only way to avoid this kind of intolerance is to accept that there are no ultimate standards.

What is at stake

In a moment we will consider each of these points in greater detail. Before we do this it will be helpful to spell out what is at stake here. That is, we should consider what would be the case about ethical principles and decision making if cultural relativism were true. Its defenders make much of the positive consequences of this theory, while its opponents emphasize its negative implications. As we consider these consequences of the theory we must remember that whether or not we like where a theory leads us, in terms of its theoretical consequences, cannot itself determine whether the theory itself is correct. Reality does not care whether or not we like it. In the case of relativism at least, the extreme nature of its consequences helps explain why it is such a controversial theory.

Defenders of relativism present it as the best way to acknowledge the great variety of human value systems and cultures. If there are no ultimately correct moral principles, then all human cultures become equally valid as ways of life, at least for different groups of people. This seems to encourage tolerance of other ways, a welcome relief after millennia of people intolerantly fighting with each other over their different views. After all, if there are no ultimate standards for right and wrong, we would could never justifiably say, “Your group is wrong in doing what you do and so we have the right to force you to change your ways.” On the other hand, a relativist cannot really consistently promote tolerance – otherwise she would be granting tolerance for other cultural practices the status of a universal value, valid for everyone and this is what relativism says does not exist. So we should really say that relativism really only rules out one possible way of dealing with conflicts: the rational settlement of differences with reference to some kind of universal principles or values. Sometimes differences of opinions might be tolerated by the members of the groups that differ, sometimes one group will attempt to push its values on the other group. Both approaches are consistent with the claims of relativism.

The first troubling consequence of relativism is one you may already have suspected: if there are no real standards, standards about right and wrong that are independent of cultural perspectives, it doesn’t seem possible to condemn other cultures or individuals for doing awful things. For example, imagine that there is a society that has two major groups of people. One of these groups, who happen to be the majority of the population, decides that the other group doesn’t deserve any respect, perhaps even that they are somehow naturally deficient or inferior. As a result they perform painful and often fatal experiments on the minority group, force them to work without pay, and even decide just to kill them off because it makes them feel better about themselves. What would a relativist say about this? It seems that since the relativist is only willing to recognize local or relative standards, she would have to conclude that although she doesn’t like it, or that such behavior would never be tolerated in her society, she really can’t condemn what this group of people are doing as simply being wrong. Why not? Well, because it seems right to the majority of people in that other society.

Furthermore, relativism, if it were true, would require us to reject the idea that we can really make moral progress. Consider voting rights for women and African-Americans. In early American history both groups were denied these rights. Later on, after the Civil war in the case of African-American men and then in the early twentieth century in the case of all women, the Constitution was amended when people recognized that it was wrong to restrict these groups’ access to the political process just because of race or gender. Many of us would consider this a case of moral progress – a basic right was extended to people who had previously, for no good reason, been denied this right. What would a relativist say? Could they say that this was really a case of progress? Probably not, since progress implies that things are getting better, and this requires that there is some standard against which we can measure better or worse. So, for the relativist there is no such thing as progress, only different ways of doing things, none of which are really better or worse than any others. Is this a conclusion you are comfortable with?

Relativism seems like a plausible theory about the nature of value judgments. It also seems, at first glance at least, to be a theory with nothing but positive implications – it seems to encourage of diversity and lets everyone do their own thing. However, as we have just seen this easy-going character of relativism soon reveals a darker side. A relativist cannot really have any grounds for condemning any behavior at all, no matter how intuitively awful it seems, as long as someone believes that it is OK. In addition relativism does away with one of the most important parts of our moral thinking, the idea that maybe through our efforts we can make things a little better. This idea of progress is rendered simply meaningless by relativism. These implications of relativism do not by themselves let us know whether or not relativism is true. At best they reveal what the stakes are – if relativism is true we get tolerance at the expense of having to tolerate anything all at that someone feels is the right thing to do. To determine whether or not relativism is true we need to consider more explicitly the arguments in support of this theory.

Consequences of relativism

If relativism is true:

  • Nothing can be condemned as just plain wrong.
  • Moral progress is a meaningless idea.
  • Different cultures speak different, mutually incomprehensible moral languages.

But remember – just because a theory has consequences we don’t like doesn’t mean it’s false. Saying so would be a fallacy.