In this article I’ll be talking about moral relativism, the idea that moral truths are relative to some human opinion frame of reference (as to an individual’s opinion or society’s opinion) as opposed to moral objectivism which says there are moral truths that hold independently of human opinion. Moral relativism recognizes the existence of moral obligations but denies that moral obligations are objective. Both moral objectivism and moral relativism contrast with moral nihilism which says moral obligations do not exist and nothing is morally wrong, not even torturing infants just for fun. In this article I’ll focus on moral relativism and argue that moral relativism faces severe rationality problems.
One way to argue for moral objectivism is to point out at least one objective moral truth, e.g. at least one example of an objectively morally wrong action, whereby an action is morally wrong for someone only if they have a moral obligation not to do it. Ask yourself this question: is it morally wrong for a man to torture infants just for fun and would it remain morally wrong even if some baby torturer thought otherwise and killed everyone who disagreed with him (assuming infants were not yet capable of forming moral beliefs)? If so, then it seems you embrace moral objectivism, because that would be a case where something is morally wrong even when all human opinion says otherwise (since the baby torturer killed all who disagreed with him). So if torturing infants just for fun would be morally wrong in that scenario where all human opinion says it is not morally wrong, this suggests that moral objectivism is true.
Examples of objective moral truths could be multiplied; e.g. suppose some homophobic bigot liked to torture innocent lesbians just because of their sexual orientation and he killed or brainwashed all who disagreed with him; would his violent homophobic bigotry be morally wrong? If so, then we have another example of an objective moral truth, since the torturer’s homophobic bigotry would remain wrong even in the situation where all human opinion says otherwise. One could adopt a “bite the bullet” approach and say that e.g. there’s nothing wrong with torturing infants just for fun as long as you think so and kill everyone who thinks otherwise, but this view seems horrendously implausible (at least by my lights). Even apart from the arguments for moral objectivism though, moral relativism has serious problems.
Coherent Moral Relativism
First I’ll start with the coherent forms of moral relativism; these are the forms of relativism that, while they are mistaken, at least have the benefit of being logically coherent. Moral relativism says that moral truths, including those of moral obligations, are relative to some frame of reference.
One view of moral relativism which I’ll call cultural relativism (which goes by various other names, such as conventional ethical relativism and conventionalism) says the frame of reference is the culture, such that if a given culture believes a moral truth (say, an action being morally good, bad, right, wrong, etc.) this makes it true for them, but their belief in the truth is not binding on other cultures who think differently. For example, if culture N believe that exterminating the Jews is morally permissible, then it becomes morally permissible for that culture to do it. If our culture says it is not permissible, then it is not permissible for people in our culture to do, but this judgment is not binding on culture N, and so as long as culture N believes it is morally permissible, then they’re not doing anything morally wrong in trying to exterminate the Jews as long as they believe there is nothing morally wrong with it. Yet, it seems that a society committing anti-Semitic genocide would be doing something they morally shouldn’t do even if they thought otherwise, and if that’s the case, then cultural relativism is false.
Another version of moral relativism called ethical subjectivism (which also goes by various names, e.g. subjective ethical relativism) places the frame of reference on the individual, and says that the individual believing an action to be morally right/wrong/good/bad/etc. makes that action morally right/wrong/good/bad/etc. for that person. So if Adolph thinks that torturing infants just for fun is morally obligatory, then Adolph is morally obligated to do it. If Oskar believes torturing infants just for fun is morally wrong, then it is wrong for Oskar to do it. Under ethical subjectivism, Oskar can believe it is wrong for Adolph to torture infants just for fun, but that belief would be mistaken because Adolph thinks otherwise, and so on ethical subjectivism Adolph has a moral duty to torture infants just for fun. Yet it seems Adolph would indeed be doing something morally wrong in torturing infants just for fun, and if that’s the case then ethical subjectivism is false.
You might have noticed that in the case of ethical subjectivism, Oskar is not allowed to “encroach” upon Adolph’s frame of reference to declare that torturing infants just for fun is wrong for Adolph and not just for Oskar. Instead, Oskar’s belief about it being morally wrong to torture infants just for fun is confined to his own frame of reference: himself. On ethical subjectivism, Adolph’s view is more valid than Oskar’s with respect to whether Adolph should torture infants just for fun. A similar principle holds for cultural relativism; belief’s about moral truths stay within the culture’s frame of reference (the culture) and don’t encroach upon another’s. Now let’s consider a form of moral relativism that allows one to encroach upon another frame of reference: where Oskar thinks is morally wrong for Adolph to torture infants just for fun, Adolph thinks otherwise, and they are both right, with neither side being more valid than the other. Let’s call this encroachment relativism.
Incoherent Moral Relativism
It’s understandable then why someone might want to reject both ethical subjectivism and cultural relativism; who wants to say that e.g. it is morally obligatory for Adolph to torture infants just for fun? That wouldn’t make for a very plausible system of ethics. Ethical subjectivism doesn’t allow you to correctly claim that another individual’s ethical views are mistaken. Likewise, cultural relativism doesn’t allow one to correctly claim that another culture’s ethical views are mistaken. Both forms of moral relativism forbid this sort of encroachment upon people’s views.
Enter something I’ll call encroachment relativism, which does allow one to do this. The problem with this, as I’ll show shortly, is that this form of moral relativism is logically incoherent. To illustrate why, consider the following scenario. Suppose Oskar thinks it is morally wrong for Adolph to torture infants just for fun, whereas Adolph and his culture think Adolph has a moral obligation to torture infants just for fun. Ethical subjectivism may be implausible, but it at least provides a logically coherent answer to “Should Adolph torture infants?” with the answer being “Yes,” because on ethical subjectivism Adolph’s view is more valid than Oskar’s with respect to that question (something similar also applies to cultural relativism). With that in mind, consider what cultural relativism, ethical subjectivism, and encroachment relativism have to say about this scenario:
|View||Moral obligation exists for Adolph?||Should Adolph torture infants just for fun?|
It’s important to remember that on ethical relativism, moral obligations exist, even for Adolph in this example. One objection to cultural relativism and ethical subjectivism is that if this Adolph-and-Oskar scenario occurred, it would not be the case that Adolph should torture infants just for fun, and if so these two forms of ethical relativism are mistaken.
But what about encroachment relativism? If encroachment relativism is true, should Adolph torture infants just for fun? Adolph thinks he should, Oskar thinks Adolph shouldn’t, and, according to encroachment relativism, neither person’s view is more valid than the other’s. But then encroachment relativism, unlike ethical subjectivism, cannot provide any logically coherent answer as to what Adolph should do. Perhaps it can reiterate the beliefs of the people about what Adolph should do but it cannot give a logically coherent answer to the question.
To drive the point home further, imagine that Oskar is an encroachment relativist who is incapable of lying and dodging questions. Now suppose Adolph says this to Oskar:
I think I understand encroachment relativism, but I’m not sure. I believe in encroachment relativism but I am also looking for a meaningful and coherent guide of behavior for me about what I should do. I believe torturing infants just for fun is morally obligatory. But if encroachment relativism is true, should I do it?What answer can Oskar give to Adolph’s question? Oskar can’t say “Yes” because Oskar believes Adolph shouldn’t do it. Yet Oskar also can’t say “No” because Adolph believes Adolph should do it, and Oskar’s view is no more valid than Adolph’s. Encroachment relativism cannot provide any logically coherent answer for what Adolph ought to do here, and if there is no logically coherent answer for what Adolph morally ought to do, then Adolph doesn’t really have any moral obligations, and so encroachment relativism ironically implies that Adolph doesn’t really have any moral obligations. But encroachment relativism says Adolph does have a moral obligation (see the table above), and so encroachment relativism generates a self-contradiction: Adolph both does and does not have a moral obligation. Encroachment relativism is thus logically incoherent. We can structure this line of reasoning as follows:
- If encroachment relativism is true, then there is no logically coherent answer for what Adolph morally ought to do (vis-à-vis torturing infants just for fun).
- If there is no logically coherent answer for what Adolph morally ought to do, then Adolph has no moral obligation.
- Therefore, if encroachment relativism is true, then Adolph has no moral obligation (from 1 and 2).
- But if encroachment relativism is true, Adolph does have a moral obligation.
- Therefore, encroachment relativism is false due to being logically incoherent; Adolph both does and does not have a moral obligation if encroachment relativism is true (from 3 and 4).
A good example supports moral objectivism: it is morally wrong for a man to torture infants just for fun and would it remain morally wrong even if some baby torturer thought otherwise and killed everyone who disagreed with him. In that scenario all human opinion says it isn’t morally wrong to torture infants just for fun, and so if such torture would remain morally wrong even in that scenario, this suggests moral objectivism is true. The baby torturers should not torture infants just for fun even if they think otherwise and even if they kill everyone who disagrees with them. Moral objectivism is thus quite plausible.
In contrast, moral relativism is highly implausible. Cultural relativism (morality is relative to the culture) implies that genocidal anti-Semitism is morally obligatory if the culture believes it; ethical subjectivism implies that torturing infants just for fun is morally obligatory if the baby torturer believes it. Neither variety of ethical relativism is plausible.
Encroachment relativism isn’t merely implausible; it is logically incoherent. Encroachment relativism says e.g. Oskar thinks is morally wrong for Adolph to torture infants just for fun, Adolph thinks otherwise, and they are both right, with neither side being more valid than the other. Encroachment relativism implies there is no logically coherent answer for what Adolph morally ought to do (Oskar’s answer is no more valid than Adolph’s and vice versa), which implies that Adolph doesn’t really have any moral obligations, even though encroachment relativism does say a moral obligation exists for Adolph here. This generates a logical incoherency that renders encroachment relativism logically incoherent.
If one is to be a moral relativist, one should at least avoid forms of moral relativism that are logically incoherent. Also if one is to be a moral relativist, one ought to be aware of the intellectual ramifications of their view, e.g. a cultural relativist should be aware that a society believing genocidal anti-Semitism to be morally right makes it morally right for that culture, even if the cultural relativist thinks such genocide is morally abhorrent. Yet it seems to me that the implications of moral relativism render moral relativism horrendously implausible, and I think moral objectivism is the only viable, rational option.