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A Critique of Ethical Relativism

Louis P. Pojman in Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, Third Edition (Wadsworth Publishing Company: June 1, 2001), pp. 37-41.

To sum up our discussion to this point, unless we have an independent moral basis for law, it is hard to see why we have any general duty to obey it; and unless we recognize the priority of a universal moral law, we have no firm basis for justifying our acts of civil disobedience against “unjust laws.” Both the validity of law and morally motivated disobedience of unjust laws are annulled in favor of a power struggle.

We are yet not finished with our critique of conventional ethical relativism. There is an even more basic problem with the notion that morality depends on cultural acceptance for its validity. The problem is that the notion of a culture is notoriously difficult to define, especially in a pluralistic society like our own where the notion seems to be vague, with unclear boundary lines. One person may belong to several societies (subcultures) with different value emphases and arrangements of principles. A person may belong to the nation as a single society with certain values of patriotism, honor, courage, and laws (including some that are controversial but have majority acceptance, such as the current law on abortion). But he or she may also belong to a church that opposes some of the laws of the state. He or she may also be an integral member of a socially mixed community where different principles hold sway and may belong to clubs and a family in which still other rules prevail. Relativism would seem to tell us that, if a person belongs to societies with conflicting moralities, then that person must be judge both wrong and not wrong whatever he or she does. For example, if Mary is a U.S. citizen and a member of the Roman Catholic Church, the she is wrong (qua Catholic) if she has an abortion and not wrong (qua U.S. citizen) if she acts against the church’s teaching on abortion. As a member of a racist university fraternity, KKK, John has no obligation to treat his fellow black students as equals, but as a member of the university community (which accepts the principle of equal rights), he does have the obligation; but as a member of the surrounding community (which may reject the principle of equal rights), he again has no such obligation; but then again, as a member of the nation at large (which accepts the principle), he is obligated to treat his fellow students with respect. What is the morally right thing for John to do? The question no longer makes much sense in this moral Babel. It has lost its action-guiding function.

Perhaps the relativist would adhere to a principle that says that, in such cases, the individual may choose which group to belong to as his or her primary group. If Mary has an abortion, she is choosing to belong to the general society relative to that principle. John must likewise choose among groups. The trouble with this option is that it seems to lead back to counterintuitive results. If Murder Mike of Murder, Incorporated feels like killing bank president Ortcutt and wants to feel good about it, he identifies with the Murder, Incorporated society rather than the general-public morality. Does this justify the killing? In fact, couldn’t one justify anything simply by forming a small subculture that approved of it? Ted Bundy would be morally pure in raping and killing innocents simply by virtue of forming a little coterie. How large must the group be in order to be a legitimate subculture or society? Does it need ten or fifteen people? How about just three? Come to think of it, why can’t my burglary partner and I found our own society with a morality of its own? Of course, if my partner dies, I could still claim that I was acting from an originally social set of norms. But why can’t I dispense with the interpersoanl agreements altogether and invent my own morality — since morality, in this view, is only an invention anyway? Conventionalist relativism seems to reduce to subjectivism. And subjectivism leads, as we have seen, to moral solipsism, to the demise of morality altogether.

If one objects that this is an instance of the slippery slope fallacy, then let that person give an alternative analysis of what constitutes a viable social basis for generating valid (or true) moral principles. Perhaps we might agree (for the sake of argument, at least) that the very nature of morality entails two people who are making an agreement. This move saves the conventionalist from moral solipsism, but it still permits almost any principle at all to count as moral. And what’s more, one can throw out those principles and substitute their contraries for them as the need arises. If two or three people decide to make cheating on exams morally acceptable for themselves, via forming a fraternity, Cheaters Anonymous, at their university, then cheating becomes moral. Why not? Why not rape, as well?

However, I don’t think you can stop the move from conventional relativism to subjectivism. The essential force of the validity of the chosen moral principle is that it depends on choice. The conventionalist holds that it is the group’s choice, but why should I accept the group’s “silly choice,” when my own is better (for me)? If this is all that morality comes to, then why not reject it altogether — even though, to escape sanctions, one might want to adhere to its directives when others are looking? Why should anyone give such august authority to a culture of society? I see no reason to recognize a culture’s authority, unless that culture recognizes the authority of something that legitimizes the culture. It seems that we need some higher standard than culture by which to assess a culture. Conventionalism seems perilously close to ethical nihilism.

However, though we may fear the demise of morality, as we have known it, this in itself may not be a good reason for rejecting relativism – that is, for judging it false. Alas, truth may not always be edifying. But the consequences of this position are sufficiently alarming to prompt us to look carefully for some weakness in the relativist’s argument. So let us examine the premises and conclusion we derived earlier from Ladd’s statement and consider them the three theses of relativism.

  1. The Diversity Thesis. What is considered morally right and wrong varies from society to society, so there are no moral principles that all societies accept.
  2. The Dependency Thesis. All moral principles derive their validity from cultural acceptance.
  3. Ethical Relativism. Therefore, there are no universally valid moral principles, objective standards that apply to all people everywhere and at all times.

Does any one of these statements seem problematic? Let us consider the diversity thesis, which we have also called cultural relativism. Perhaps there is not as much diversity as anthropologists like Sumner and Benedict suppose. One can also see great similarities among the moral codes of various cultures. E. O. Wilson has identified over a score of common features,10 and before him Clyde Kluckhohn noted some significant common ground:

Every culture has a concept of murder, distinguishing this from execution, killing in war, and other “justifiable homicides.” The notions of incest and other regulations upon sexual behavior, the prohibitions upon untruth under defined circumstances, of restitution and reciprocity, of mutual obligations between parents and children – these and many other moral concepts are altogether universal.11

Colin Turnbull’s description of the sadistic, semidisplaced, disintegrating Ik culture in northern Uganda supports the view that a people without principles of kindness, loyalty, and cooperation will degenerate into a Hobbesian state of nature. But he has also produced evidence that, underneath the surface of this dying society, there is a deeper moral code from a time when the tribe flourished, which occasionally surfaces and shows its nobler face.

On the other hand, there is enormous cultural diversity, and many societies have radically different moral codes. Cultural relativism seems to be a fact, but, even if it is, it does not by itself establish the truth of ethical relativism. Cultural diversity in itself is neutral with respect to theories. The objectivist could concede complete cultural relativism but still defend a form of universalism; for he or she could argue that some cultures simply lack correct moral principles.12

On the other hand, a denial of complete cultural relativism (i.e., an admission of some universal principles) does not disprove ethical relativism. For even if we did find one or more universal principles, this would not prove that they had any objective status. We could still imagine a culture that was an exception to the rule and be unable to criticize it. So the first premise doesn’t by itself imply ethical relativism, and its denial doesn’t disprove ethical relativism.

We turn to the crucial dependency thesis. Morality does not occur in a vacuum, but rather what a society considers morally right or wrong must be seen in a context, depending on the goals, wants, beliefs, history, and environment of that society. We distinguished a weak and a strong thesis of dependency. The weak thesis says that the application of principles depends on the particular cultural predicament, whereas the strong thesis affirms that the principles themselves depend on that predicament. The nonrelativist can accept a certain relativity in the way moral principles are applied in various cultures, depending on beliefs, history, and environment. For example, a raw environment with scarce natural resources may justify the Eskimos’ brand of euthanasia to the objectivist, who would consistently reject that practice if it occurred in another environment. One Sudanese tribe throws its deformed infants into the river because the tribe believes that such infants belong to the hippopotamus, the god of the river. We believe that these groups’ belief in euthanasia and infanticide is false, but the point is that the same principles of respect for property and respect for human life operate in such contrary practices. The tribe differs with us only in belief, not in substantive moral principle. This is an illustration of how nonmoral beliefs (e.g., deformed infants belong to the hippopotamus), when applied to common moral principles (e.g., give to each his or her due), generate different actions in different cultures. In our own culture, the difference in the nonmoral belief about the status of a fetus generates opposite moral prescriptions. The major difference between pro-choicers and pro-lifers is not whether we should kill persons but whether fetuses are really persons. It is a debate about the facts of the matter, not the principle of killing innocent persons.

So the fact that moral principles are weakly dependent doesn’t show that ethical relativism is valid. In spite of this weak dependency on nonmoral factors, there could still be a set of general moral norms applicable to all cultures and even recognized in most, which a culture could disregard only at its own expense.

Nevertheless, the relativists still have at least one more arrow in their quiver — the argument from the indeterminacy of translation. This theory, set forth by B. L. Whorf and W. V. Quine,13 holds that languages are often so fundamentally different from each other that we cannot accurately translate concepts from one to another. Language groups mean different things by words. Quine holds that it may be impossible to know whether a native speaker who points toward a rabbit and says “gavagai” is using the word to signify “rabbit,” or “rabbit part,” or something else. This thesis holds that language is the essence of a culture and fundamentally shapes its reality, cutting the culture off from other languages and cultures. But experience seems to falsify this thesis. Although each culture does have a particular language with different meanings – indeed, each person has his or her own particular set of meanings – we do learn foreign languages and learn to translate across linguistic frameworks. For example, people from a myriad of language groups come to the United States and learn English and communicate perfectly well. Rather than causing a complete hiatus, the interplay between these other cultures and ours eventually enriches the English language with new concepts (for example, forte, foible, taboo, and coup de grace), even as English has enriched (or “corrupted,” as the French might argue) other languages. Even if some indeterminacy of translation exists between language users, we should not infer from this that no translation or communication is possible. It seems reasonable to believe that general moral principles are precisely those things that can be communicated transculturally. The kind of common features that Kluckhohn and Wilson advance — duties of restitution and reciprocity, regulations on sexual behavior, obligations of parents to children, a no-unnecessary-harm principle, and a sense that the good people should flourish and the guilty people should suffer — these and other features constitute a common human experience, a common set of values within a common human predicament of struggling to survive and flourish in a world of scarce resources.14 So it is possible to communicate cross-culturally and find that we agree on many of the important things in life. If this is so, then the indeterminacy-of-translation thesis, which relativism rests on, must itself be relativized to the point at which it is no objection to objective morality.

What the relativist needs is a strong thesis of dependency, that somehow all principles are essentially cultural inventions. But why should we choose to view morality this way? Is there anything to recommend the strong thesis of dependency over the weak thesis of dependency? The relativist may argue that, in fact, we lack an obvious impartial standard to judge from. “Who’s to say which culture is right and which is wrong?” But this seems dubious. We can reason and perform thought experiments in order to make a case for one system over another. We may not be able to know with certainty that our moral beliefs are closer to the truth than those of another culture or those of others within our own culture, but we may be justified in believing this about our moral beliefs. If we can be closer to the truth about factual or scientific matters, why can’t we be closer to the truth on moral matters? Why can’t a culture simply be confused or wrong about its moral perceptions? Why can’t we say that a culture like the Ik, which enjoys watching its own children fall into fires, is less moral in that regard than a culture that cherishes children and grants them protection and equal rights? To take such a stand is not ethnocentricism, for we are seeking to derive principles through critical reason, not simply uncritical acceptance of one’s own mores.


Ethical relativism — the thesis that moral principles derive their validity from dependence on society or individual choice — seems plausible at first glance, but on close scrutiny it presents some severe problems. Subjectivism seems to boil down to anarchistic individualism, an essential denial of the interpersonal feature of the moral point of view; and conventionalism, which does contain an interpersonal perspective, fails to deal adequately with the problem of the reformer, the question of defining a culture, and the whole enterprise of moral criticism. Nevertheless, unless moral objectivism can make a positive case for its position, relativism may survive these criticisms.


  1. History of Herodotus; trans. George Rawlinson (Appleton, 1859), Bk. 3, Ch. 38.
  2. John Ladd, Ethical Relativism (Wadsworth, 1973), p. 1.
  3. Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (New American Library 1934), p.257.
  4. W G. Sumner, Folkways (Ginn & Co., 1905), section 80, p.76. Ruth Benedict indicates the depth of our cultural conditioning this way: “The very eyes with which we see the problem are conditioned by the long traditional habits of our own society.” [“Anthropology and the Abnormal,” The Journal of General Psychology (1934): 59-82.]
  5. Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (Scribners, 1932), p.4.
  6. This is a statement by Ted Bundy, paraphrased and rewritten by Harry V. Jaffa, Homosexuality and the Natural Law (The Claremont Institute of the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, 1990), pp.3-4.
  7. Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (New American Library, 1934), p. 257.
  8. Melville Herskovits, Cultural Relativism (Random House, 1972).
  9. The fallacy of objecting to a proposition on the erroneous grounds that, if accepted, it will lead to a chain of states of affairs that are absurd or unacceptable.
  10. E. O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Bantam Books, 1979), pp. 22-23.
  11. Clyde Kluckhohn, “Ethical Relativity: Sic et Non” Journal of Philosophy, LII (1955).
  12. Colin Turnbull, The Mountain People (Simon & Schuster, 1972).
  13. See Benjamin Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality (MIT Press, 1956) and W V Quine, Word and Object (MIT Press, 1960) and Ontological Relativity (Columbia University Press, 1969).
  14. See James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (Free Press, 1993), pp. 191-230.