Reclaiming the Moral High Ground, Part 3: On the Failings of Moral Relativism

Reclaiming the Moral High Ground, Part 3: On the Failings of Moral Relativism

Previous articles in this series on morality: Part 1 and Part 2.

When asked if the glass of water (or wine, as I prefer to imagine it) is half full or half empty, there has never been any doubt in my mind as to the correct answer – it is both at the same time. Is it right to judge the optimist for thinking it half full, or the pessimist for thinking it half empty, given I approach the question from a different (realist) point of view? Of course it is. The mere existence of different beliefs about the nature of the glass of water does not preclude the existence of an objectively correct answer. The fact of the matter is that something cannot be half empty without also being half full at the same time, and just because the optimist and the pessimist think otherwise doesn’t make them right.

As with the glass of water, people approach moral questions differently, but the existence of different answers to moral questions does not preclude the existence of an objectively correct one (Wong 1993, p.39). The mistaken belief that it does is known as meta-​​ethical moral relativism. Here we will examine the shortcomings of this meta-​​ethical theory, what distinguishes it from other forms of relativism, and see why the relativist conclusion that culture is the truth-​​maker of moral claims is false. The truth is not made, it is discovered, and moral truths are as discoverable by science as any other truth.

Moral relativists contend that:

  1. morality is relative to time, place and person (descriptive moral relativism),
  2. moral questions admit of no objectively right or wrong answers (meta-​​ethical moral relativism), and
  3. for this reason we ought not to judge, but in fact to tolerate, what we perceive as the immoral behavior of others (normative moral relativism).

Moral relativism is correct in the descriptive sense, but only in that sense. It doesn’t follow that just because people hold to different truths that there exists no objective truth of the mater. Even if it did, it still couldn’t entail tolerance without contradiction, for one cannot argue that no non-​​relative moral principles exist, only then to argue that we must always tolerate other cultures, which is itself a non-​​relative claim (Williams 1976, p.34 – 35).

Normative moral relativists argue that we cannot judge other cultures, because we lack the necessary understanding to do so; yet they often praise other cultures, which is itself a judgement, and praise is worthless unless it is rooted in some form of understanding (Midgley 1993, p.176). The assumption made, though often unstated, is clear: it’s okay to judge other cultures as long as you’ve nothing bad to say. This unspoken rule seemingly doesn’t apply to one’s own culture, for moral relativists tend to be as critical of their own culture as they are praiseworthy of others.

Reflecting on one’s culture by comparing it to others is valuable. But if moral truth exists only within cultures, as moral relativists argue, why do they also recognise the benefit of such comparisons? The reason they do is because without reference to moral standards (including those of other cultures which can be better), all moral progress is impossible. These standards change over time as we weave through the ethical maze, but always with the (often unacknowledged) view that there is an end to it. Whether or not we will find it is another matter. It helps to meet others as we navigate our way through the maze, if for no other reason than they can show us their way leads to a dead end. The relativist trap in the maze is to think that they, and everyone else, all of them going in different directions, knows the right way.

The question then is by what standards do moral relativists judge moral progress? If the standards are entirely culturally dependent, as moral relativists suggest, then they shouldn’t require reference to other cultures at all. The reality is we’ve much to learn from each other. The problem on the part of those who identify as moral relativists is it appears they feel they’ve nothing to offer. Perhaps they don’t. But they should speak for themselves rather than collectively for their “culture” or “society”, or any other mass noun of choice. I’ll continue with “culture”.

Problems remain in defining culture. Whichever way one chooses to define it, one can’t ignore that monocultures don’t exist outside of agriculture. Even the most isolated culture – and such isolation is exceedingly rare in our globalised world – immune to influences from outside sources, is still subject to divisive forces within that lead to the formation of subcultures. The question then becomes who decides what constitutes the culture within which one resides? Do moral truths not exist within cultures, but rather within subcultures, or the individuals they’re comprised of? These are questions moral relativists must answer if they insist moral truths only exist within cultures because differences exist between them, in light of the fact that differences also exist within them. Meta-​​ethical moral relativism, whilst accepting of differences between cultures, seems to wrongly assume uniformity within them.

If who is to decide what constitutes any given “culture” is the majority we are reduced to mere conventionalism, because the majority usually decides the conventions. In this manner any practice can be condoned. Is the stoning to death of adulterers morally wrong in Australia but morally right in Saudi Arabia, simply because majority opinion of the practice varies from one place to another? We have entered dangerous territory. A democracy is only as good as its people. Morality is not a matter of consensus.

The majority of the people once thought that the Earth was flat and they could not have been more wrong. Whereas this particular misconception came from ignorance of the natural world, moral misconceptions come from the mistaken belief that morality is somehow removed from it altogether. This belief comes from an understanding of the distinction between facts (which are descriptive and relate to how things are) and values (which are prescriptive and relate to how things should be), and the subsequent belief that how things are has no bearing on how they should be. In other words, you cannot deduce an “ought” from an “is”. This is known as the is-​​ought problem, first described by David Hume in his Treatise of Human Nature (Hume 1739, p.335).

The fact-​​value distinction and the is-​​ought problem are intertwined, for it is thought that whereas facts relate to what is, values relate to how we ought to behave. Morality is thus seen as beyond the realm of scientific inquiry, which deals with matters of fact. And yet it remains the case that ethical sentences express propositions, some of which are true, and that are made true by objective features of the world, regardless of subjective opinion. There is room for debate about what those objective features should be, but wellbeing seems the ideal culmination of what Greek ethics, with its focus on pleasure, virtue, and flourishing, was building towards. It also avoids the trap of utilitarianism based on happiness or preference, because wellbeing relates to what is good regardless of what makes one happy or one finds preferable (a vaccination might make you unhappy if you don’t like needles, you might even prefer not to have it, but it is still good for you).

The moment one accepts that we should value the wellbeing of conscious creatures, it follows that there must be moral facts to be known, because wellbeing depends entirely on events in the world and states of the brain (Harris 2010, p.2). In short, just because morality is relative in the descriptive sense doesn’t mean it can’t be studied objectively within the context of the wellbeing of conscious creatures. And this remains true regardless of the argument currently going on about whether this falls under the domain of moral philosophy or science. The answer of course is both, because moral philosophy would serve as the foundation of moral science, just as natural philosophy did the natural sciences.

It has been argued here that although morality is relative in the descriptive sense, that as a meta-​​ethical theory moral relativism represents a thoroughly confused and dangerous view of morality: it reduces morality to conventionalism, provides no clear way to judge moral progress, and problems in defining culture leave open the question of how exactly it be applied. Furthermore, its normative implications are questionable: for all their talk of not passing judgement on other cultures moral relativists still often make positive judgements of them, and the entailment of tolerance remains logically contradictory, as well as morally vacuous given it can be used to justify absolutely anything.

Much remains to be said about what is morally right or wrong, but before we can even begin that discussion we must acknowledge that objective moral truths exist. In doing so one must be a moral realist as much as one is a realist about the glass of water. Morality being relative in the descriptive sense does not preclude it being studied objectively in the context of the wellbeing of conscious creatures. The only question remaining is why we should value the wellbeing of conscious creatures in the first place? It’s a perfectly valid question, but one which need not seriously be asked, unless someone has a good argument for why we shouldn’t.

A similar version of this essay was originally submitted for the following Macquarie University course: PHI110, Philosophy, Morality and Society. It was an excellent course and I highly recommend it.


Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. Great Britain. Bantam Press.

Hume, D. (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature. London, John Noon.

Midgley, M. (1993). “Trying out One’s New Sword”. In Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life. Sommers and Sommers (eds.). Harcourt Brace, Fort Worth.

Williams, B. (1976). Morality: an Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Wong, D. (1993). “Relativism”. In A Companion to Ethics. P. Singer (ed.). Blackwell, Oxford.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Nietnagel]