Moral Relativism and Moral Subjectivism*

Michael Taber
St. Mary's College of Maryland


Moral Relativism

What makes the right actions right, and the wrong actions wrong? This is a question crucial in its importance, universal in its history, and difficult in its answering. Such a valuable enterprise requires proceeding carefully, with all options being considered.

And it is best not to undertake such a challenging endeavor in a vacuum. For this reason, some have proposed that the most plausible answer to the question must grow out of an appreciation of the diversity of cultural contexts. What better way to answer the question, therefore, than to give an anthropologically informed account? And hence, some continue, the most plausible answer is that what makes a given action right or wrong are the cultural norms within whatever is the context of the given action. This view is called, at its most precise, moral cultural relativism. It is more commonly referred to as simply moral relativism.


I. The Appeal of Moral Relativism

Moral relativism strikes many as attractive, and on at least three grounds. First, on empirical grounds there does seem to be a difference of codes of behavior across cultures. Given this diversity, would it be any surprise if morality itself differed across places and times?

Second, moral relativism appears to have the important social benefit of requiring a tolerant attitude towards those from different cultures. According to the moral relativist, comparative moral judgments across cultures would be conceptually illegitimate, for moral relativism requires that all moral standards are internal to some culture or another. The most we could say is that various cultural practices differ; we could not take the added step of saying that the differences are correlated with a better and worse. Over the past five centuries, inter-cultural contact has accelerated, and not always accompanied by a tolerant attitude on the part of the technologically advanced towards the technologically less advanced. From the treatment of the conquistadores of the native peoples they encountered, to Nestles aggressive marketing of baby formula to women in developing countries, to today’s beaming of episodes of Real Housewives into traditional villages the world over, the haves have tended to view have-nots as exploitable resources, lacking a cultural integrity of their own. It is as difficult to imagine a conquistador accepting moral relativism as it is to conceive of the amount of violent suffering which the world never would have seen had the conquistadors adopted such relativism.

Third, and most simply, moral relativism does provide an answer to the question What makes right actions right, and wrong actions wrong?” That is, it provides a grounding for the moral oughts. And a correlative epistemic point is that morality thereby becomes no mystery. Would you understand which action in a given context is morally good? Then you need not try to interpret a divine will or fast for mystical intuition. You need only ascertain the cultural norms of the given context. Although this may not always be a simple matter, all matters of morality become in principle ascertainable by conscientious and sustained observation and reflection.

Of course, not all that glitters is gold. We must accordingly be prepared to subject moral relativism to scrutiny, and endorse it only if it meets the toughest tests to which we can subject it.


II. Troubles in Paradise: Objections to Moral Relativism

 A.       First, some people accept moral relativism for misguided reasons. (There could still be, of course, other good reasons for accepting it.) Something as heady and important as moral relativism does not follow simply from pointing out that in some cultures it is permissible to eat with ones fingers, but in others the use of chopsticks is the norm and finger eating would raise eyebrows. Morality applies even to large issues, like rape, slavery, murder, and genocide. It is difficult, therefore, to see the connection between the undeniably different styles of eating or dress, on the one hand, and on the other, the issue of whether killing a particular person is morally justified. One should not argue for moral relativism on the basis of the diversity of codes of etiquette; one might say, ethics need not follow from etiquettes. Whether or not one should wear outdoor shoes indoors, or how closely two people should stand when conversing are matters of politeness, not necessarily matters of morality. Nothing follows about rape or murder from whether two people are to shake hands or bow. One might adduce this as an objection to an argument commonly believed to support relativism.

B.        The door is now open to a second objection to moral relativism: what is the matter with employing cross-cultural standards (which are anathema to the moral relativist) in evaluating how well or poorly people treat each other? That is, we can (though not everyone would want to) say, apparently without any great conceptual muddle, that it is morally wrong to make people subservient who belong to another sex, race, religion, age, social class, or sexual orientation, regardless of what the majority in the culture believes.

Although this does seem an innocuous claim, the moral relativist would appropriately ask what would ground such a cross-cultural standard. That is, if moral standards are objective and not relative to cultural norms, on what could such an objective morality be based?

Well, there are options. It might be the will of an objectively existing divine being which makes right actions right, and wrong actions wrong. (This is called the divine command theory of morality.) Or it might be that people have some ability (to be self-conscious? to feel pleasure and pain? to have free will? to reason?) which grants them an intrinsic value not reducible to uses to which others may put them. (This is known as “deontological ethics,” the major expositor of which is Immanuel Kant.) Or it may be that what makes an action objectively right is that it creates more overall happiness than its alternative. (This is utilitarianism and was developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.) Or perhaps the psychological constraints on human well-being are sufficiently universal that what separates right actions from wrong is that all and only right actions conduce to the well-being of the agents character. (This school of thought is called virtue ethics, and finds its elder spokesperson in Aristotle.)

None of these (and there are others) is without objections, and some of these objections may turn out to be fatal. My point here is only that it is narrow-minded of us to proceed on the assumption that it’s moral relativism or bust. At least some of the alternatives do at least an initially plausible job of grounding cross-cultural moral standards. If any of these options withstands our further examination, then on what basis could we remain fixated on moral relativism, other than inertial conceptual stubbornness?


C.        Whereas these first two concerns have focused on what moral relativism is not (namely, not about matters of etiquette, not about cross-cultural standards, of which are made at least initial sense by some alternative theories), there are also some objections more central to what moral relativism is.

For starters, while moral relativism would require that we tolerate cultural norms different from our own, would it also require that we tolerate intolerant cultures? Apparently so. Although just about (after all, such a big country contains some nuts) no one in the U.S. wants the (Muslim) Rohingya minority so terribly mistreated by the Buddhist majority Burmese, a majority of the Burmese apparently have different values on this point. On moral relativism, we cannot say that our views are morally better (or, of course, morally worse) than the view of the Burmese majority. All we can say is that our views conform better to our standards, and the Burmese majority’s view fits better with their standards, full stop. There could be no moral comparison of the standards themselves, for according to moral relativism morality exists only within such cultural standards. The most we could say is that standards differ. The Rohingya would feel left out by this, but even tolerating genocide must be a price we pay in order to be thorough moral relativists.

Ditto for Turkey’s and Iraq’s treatments of their Kurdish populations. Or for the Serbs’ treatment of the Bosnian Muslims in the 1990’s. Ditto for even the worst excesses of corporate manipulations of other peoples. If ones corporate norms include “Business is business, after all,” then what could be the moral objection of a moral relativist to exploitative corporate practices? All the moral relativist could muster would be a mild admonition along the lines of “But it might hurt your bottom line in the long run, and that violates your profit-conscious norms.” Even if true, this seems to miss the moral point, and widely at that.

So the relation between moral relativism and toleration is at least far murkier than we may have first thought, and might even end up proving incompatible.


D.        Another objection about what moral relativism is, and one directed not so much as what its implications are as at its very conceptual foundation, concerns the distinction between moral beliefs and the truth or falsity of those beliefs.

Note that on moral relativism there is no talk of whether or not any moral belief is true or is false; all that can be framed is whether a given society believes that something is true or false. Another way to put this is that according to moral relativism, there is no such thing as whether or not a moral belief is true, but simply whether or not a moral belief is accepted by a culture. We must further note that this is more radical than the following claim: there is such a thing as whether or not a given belief is true, but with our imperfect human understanding, we may never be able to figure it out. Moral relativism is the claim that there is no truth to be known.

So if a non-relativist were to say of a given proposition about some matter of morality, “P is true,” then the relativist would reply, “The most you can say is that it is the predominant belief within your culture that P is true.” This relativist’s translation of the non-relativists claim, however, misses the point of the original claim. For it is entirely appropriate for the non-relativist to reply, “No, you miss my point. I was not claiming that P is popular. For it may be or it may not be. I was claiming that P is true. I may be correct, or time may prove me wrong. Others may agree with me, or they may not. But in either case, it’s not the predominance of the belief that’s at issue. Those agreeing with me are agreeing with something other than the claim that P is popular. And those disagreeing with me are not taking exception to the statistical frequency of P in a given population.”


 E.        As a related concern about moral relativism, let me ask what most people have in mind when they say such things as “Morality is relative.” I submit that what most claimants to this are trying to express is the proposition that which beliefs one has about matters of morality is determined by ones personal biography, that is, by which moral beliefs are endorsed by ones family, friends, and society.

But this is all about beliefs about what is right and wrong, and not about what is right and wrong. And failing some additional justification, it is not clear why morality equals “beliefs about morality” any more than physics equals “beliefs about physics.”

When we say,

(1)        “Moral beliefs are relative to ones culture,”

which of the following do we intend:

(2)        “Which beliefs one has about morality depend on which culture one is raised in,”


(3)        “The truth or falsity of ones beliefs about morality depends on which culture one is raised in”?

Claim (2) is a claim of biography, involving history, sociology, and anthropology. It is claim (3) which is a philosophical claim about the nature of morality. It is (3) which distills the essence of the philosophical position that is moral relativism. Yet I suggest (blatantly on the basis of no empirical evidence) that many who utter (1) really mean (2), but due to the fact that (2) and (3) sound so similar, end up convincing themselves (or being convinced by others) of (3). What I am claiming here is that (2) and (3) differ more importantly than they may seem to, and that to overlook the difference imperils our discourse on these matters.


F.         A final objection I will describe uses the notion of historical moral progress. This is not a version of progress so fine-grained that it claims that, say, people’s behavior in culture C in the 1990’s was better than was the behavior in C in the 1980’s. Moral progress in ideas (and the behavior that comes from them) of inclusion and equality of opportunity, for example, occurs slowly is not without occasional backward movement. Rather, the most plausible scale for thinking that moral progress exists is rather longer—say, over centuries. American Transcendentalist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, an ardent proponent of the abolition of slavery, thought his cause would win out in the long run, and history proved him correct. In a sermon published in 1853, it was he who wrote that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, even if only slowly:

“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.”

In the 1918 book Readings from Great Authors, this version appears, and is attributed to Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It is this version that Martin Luther King, Jr. used in a 1958 article in a sermon at the 1964 commencement exercises at Wesleyan University, and is the most commonly cited version ever since.

The problem for relativism is that it seems incompatible with the notion of moral progress. Or of moral decline, for that matter. For in order to make sense of moral progress or moral decline, there would have to be a trans-temporal moral standard. Yet since cultures are embedded in history, cultural relativism does not seem a welcoming place for trans-temporal standards. So does the move from a majority of U.S. citizens believing that slavery is morally justifiable to a majority believing that it is unjustifiable represent progress, or is it merely change—of no more moral import than a change from, say, the majority preferring butter pecan in their cones to preferring mint chocolate chip?

Another way of putting this objection is that in order for the arc of the moral universe to be long (or quick, or straight, or even negatively curved), there must BE a moral universe—not in the sense of a universe in which all behavior is morally perfect, but rather in the sense of it being coherent to talk of comparing the morality of behaviors from very different times without it being as non-sensical as comparing 5 inches with 2 pounds with 37 degrees.


Moral Subjectivism

  Some have thought that moral cultural relativism is close to being true, but not sufficiently radical. After all, each of us has times when one’s own beliefs about moral issues are not shared by society, or even by one’s family or peers. So perhaps morality is more a matter of individual endorsement of certain beliefs than it is of society’s endorsement. This suggests that what makes a given action right or wrong is the individuals own beliefs about the action. This view can be called moral individual relativism, in order to illustrate its similarity to and difference from moral cultural relativism. It is also called moral subjectivism, indicating its emphasis upon the subject of the moral appraisal (that is, upon the one doing the appraising, in contrast to the issue which is the object of the appraising). For simplicity’s sake, this is the term I will use.


III.       Reasons for Moral Subjectivism

 Some of the motivations for moral subjectivism are strikingly similar to those for moral relativism. Consider the three reasons given above for relativism. Some find subjectivism plausible because: first, there are different moral beliefs across individuals (even within a culture; and even within a subculture); second, moral subjectivism would seem to encourage tolerating individuals different opinions, something which would seem to be especially useful with regard to entrenched differences, like on the issue of abortion; and third, subjectivism does provide a straightforward answer to the question “What makes the right actions right, and wrong actions wrong?”

A fourth reason for moral subjectivism lies in its increased sensitivity (increased over the sensitivity found in moral relativism, that is) to individual differences within a culture, as just referred to. Many feel that one’s culture does not determine one’s beliefs, and that the ineliminable aspect of each individual’s endorsement or rejection of even the most common moral beliefs in one’s culture indicates the need for something like moral subjectivism.


IV.       Subjectivisms Turn: Troubles with Moral Subjectivism


G.        The similarity between relativism and subjectivism means not only that the two share some of the reasons for accepting them, but that at least some of the objections to the one are shared by the other. For example, item (C) above can be made to apply to moral subjectivism. If morality exists only within an individual’s world-view, then what if one person’s world-view involves the exploitation, or even extermination, of others? There would be nothing morally wrong with such a world-view; the most I could say is that I do not share those beliefs. So apparently if subjectivism is true, then we must tolerate intolerance even in individuals.


H.        Item (D) above also has a correlate for moral subjectivism. The subjectivist wants to translate the claim (made by some subject S about some moral proposition P)

(4)        P is true”


(5)        P is true for S.”

Now it is only fair to ask the subjectivist what the phrase “for S means. It must add something to (4), or else there would be no need for insisting on it, and the heart of subjectivism would stop beating.

Here is a plausible candidate for what (5) means:

(6)        S believes that P is true.”

This translation of (5) sounds innocuous. But therein lies the trouble: it is too innocuous. You see, everyone, even non-subjectivists, would accept that (4) is said (sincerely) by someone only if (6) is true. And if even non-subjectivists can accept (6), and if (5) is supposed to distill the essence of subjectivism, then (5) and (6) cannot be equivalent. We are left with no explanation of the “for S relativization which retains the distinctiveness of moral subjectivism.

So, yes, subjects can have dramatically different beliefs about a particular moral issue. But does it follow that therefore morality is nothing more than ones beliefs? If I believe (as some still do—there is even a Flat Earth Society!) that the earth is flat, then what does it mean to say “The earth is flat for Taber” other than “Taber believes the earth is flat”? And are we to accept that there is no such thing as whether or not the belief is true, simply whether or not Taber accepts it? Surely something is amiss.


I.          As for a similarity to item (E) above, often when people say,

(7)        “Moral beliefs are subjective to the individual,”

what is intended is the non-controversial (even bland) claim

(8)        “Which beliefs one has about morality depend on which moral beliefs one has about morality (and these differ across individuals),”

and not the much more interesting (but to my mind, less plausible) claim

(9)        “The truth or falsity of ones beliefs about morality depends on what the believer believes the truth or falsity to be.”

(And believers, of course, believe that their beliefs are true; this is what it is to be a believer in something.)

So (8) is fine to say, but does not mark out any distinct position on morality. It takes (9) to do that. And (9) is a tough one to defend. Even if we grant that we choose which beliefs to have, it is puzzling how to maintain the claim that we choose the truth or falsity of those beliefs. This seems something that it is up to the world to “decide.”


J.          So for the moral subjectivist to say that of any given action A,

(10)      A is right” simply means AI think that A is right”

creates at least three problems. First, no one could be wrong about anything. Every sincere claim about morality would be true, no matter how heinous the A.

Second, there is the problem of logical circularity. If (10) is true, then any occurrence of the proposition (a) “A is right” can be replaced by (b) “I think that A is right,” for they are claimed by (10) to be equivalent to each other. Notice, however, that there is an occurrence of (a) within (b). So this replacement would give us the claim

(10*)    A is right” simply means “I think that I think that A is right.”

The possibilities for iteration are literally endless, so one wonders where we are supposed to get our logical traction.

Third, and most seriously, an implication of (10) is that there are no disagreements about moral matters. If Pat says,

(11)      Abortion is morally permissible,

and Lee says,

(12)      Abortion is morally impermissible,

then by (10) all Pat is saying is really

(11*)    Pat thinks that abortion is morally permissible,

and Lee is saying nothing more than

(12*) Lee thinks that abortion is morally impermissible.

And clearly there is no debate about (11*) and (12*), for Pat accepts both claims and Lee does too. So if subjectivism is true, then what seemed like a sincere disagreement is really just a confusion, a self-report of one’s feeling masquerading as something else. But this third objection to moral subjectivism holds that genuine moral disagreements are not nonsensical, and hence that moral subjectivism must be rejected.


K.        By now it may be becoming clear that subjectivism can be seen as an amped-up version of relativism—that subjectivism is something of a cultural relativism applied at the more fine-grained level of individuals. One result of this parallel between the two is that the objection (F) above to relativism (the objection from moral progress across cultures) has a correlate for subjectivism concerning moral progress over a given individual’s life.

If over the course of, say, a few months, Pat changes moral beliefs from (11) to (12), then presumably at least Pat (even if not Lee, or others), thinks of this change as an improvement. Pat likely thinks that there are now new facts, or new appreciation for old facts, that Pat is taking into account post-change.

But if subjectivism were true, then how could we make sense of any change over time as constituting progress (or, for that matter, as regress), as opposed to seeing it as merely a change, full-stop? The subjectivist would seem committed to the view that Pat’s change from pro-choice to pro-life could no more constitute an progress or regress than if Pat had changed from having butter pecan as a favorite flavor of ice cream to having mint chocolate chip.  


L.         Let me suggest as a concluding point that there is a fault common to moral relativism and moral subjectivism. Subjectivism first. Moral beliefs are not about one’s opinions or feelings. Ones moral beliefs are one’s opinions or feelings. And opinions and feelings can be well thought out or poorly thought out. They can be plausible in light of various bits of evidence, or implausible. But in any case, they can be about things outside of me. They can be about the shape of the earth, the color of the sunset, or the harmfulness of child abuse. Many of my beliefs are representations inside of me of something outside of me. (I say “many” because some of my beliefs are about myself.) This is similar to the way a map can exist inside my car and yet represent (whether accurately or not) something outside my car, like representing downtown Cincinnati. Moral subjectivism has wonderful things to say about what is inside me, but does so at the expense of leaving me unhitched from the larger world, including how my inner state is to be reconciled with the inner states of others, who will sometimes be believing and wanting things incompatible with what I believe or want.

Similarly, moral relativism can do fine as far as cataloging which moral beliefs exist inside which societies, but comes up empty with the external job of understanding what it would be for a moral belief to be true or be false.

So if morality is something all people, in different times and cultures, have approached via beliefs, it does not follow that morality is identical with beliefs, whether a cultures or an individual’s. I conclude that we should hold off on moral relativism and moral subjectivism until we have exhausted every other alternative. They must be maintained as the very last of resorts.

*My thinking here has been much improved by my discussions with Dr. Chrysoula Gitsoulis of SUNY and CUNY.

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