14: Is Morality Relative?


Outside of a Housing Project in Detroit
February 1942

  • Define and appropriately use important terms such as universal, objective, belief, value, relativism, absolutism, emotivism, and subjectivism
  • Demonstrate knowledge of major arguments for and problems with cultural relativism and ethical subjectivism
  • Apply ethical concepts and principles to address moral concerns.
  • Reflect upon ways of living responsibly in a world where people have diverse ethical beliefs

Part 1 - Is Morality Relative to One’s Culture?

I. Illustrating Cultural Relativism

Key Terms

Cultural Relativism
Ethical Subjectivism
Simple Subjectivism

  • An Historical Glance
    • King Darius and the Funeral Practices Test
    • Customs of the Eskimos
  • Contemporary Examples

II. The Position of Cultural Relativism

  • There is no universal truth
  • To call a custom correct or incorrect would be impossible
  • Challenges objectivity and universality in moral truths
  • 5 claims made by cultural relativists
    1. Different societies have different moral codes
    2. A society’s moral code determines what is right and wrong
    3. There are no objective standards to judge moral codes
    4. The moral code of our society has no special status
    5. It is arrogant to judge other cultures; we should be tolerant
  • These claims are independent of each other
  • #2 and #5 contradict each other
  • Cultural Relativism’s response to the contradiction is that the norms of a culture apply within the bounds of the culture itself.
  • When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Ruth Benedict

Morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.

III. Cultural Differences Argument

  • Premise: Different cultures have different moral codes
  • Conclusion: Therefore there is no objective truth in morality. Right and wrong are matters of opinion
  • Is this sound?
    • No, because the conclusion does not follow from the premise.
    • It is possible that something is objectively wrong and the culture is simply mistaken in their belief that it is right.

IV. What Follows from Cultural Relativism?

  • 1) We cannot say the customs of other societies are morally inferior
    • This applies in matters of opinion and human rights
    • What about governments that suppress free speech?
  • 2) We could no longer criticize the code of our own society
    • Each society can do no wrong
    • But few people think our society is perfect. We see room for improvement
  • 3) The idea of moral progress is called into doubt
    • Cultural changes cannot be seen as progress
    • Revolutions and social changes for women and minorities contradict this conclusion

V. The Difference between Belief and Value

  • Often the cultural difference lies in belief
    • Culture 1 believes cows may hold the souls of humans and do not eat them
    • Culture 2 does not believe this and eats cow
    • Both cultures hold the same value that it is wrong to eat people
  • Consider why there is a cultural difference first
    • Case study: Eskimos
    • Nomadic lifestyle
    • High mortality rate for males
    • Drastic measures to ensure the group’s survival

VI. Revisiting the Five Claims

Crash Course Philosophy

  1. Different societies have different moral codes
    • True, but we share some values and cultural differences often have to do with belief, not value.
  2. A society’s moral code determines what is right and wrong
    • Not always. Sometimes a society is just wrong.
  3. There are no objective standards to judge moral codes
    • Unless the moral principle is not tied to a culture, but instead an ethical precept such as it matters whether a practice hurts or helps the people it affects
  4. The moral code of our society has no special status
    • It is one among many, but it could still be judged better or worse
  5. It is arrogant to judge other cultures; we should be tolerant
    • Yes, but we can’t take this idea to extremes; some things shouldn’t be tolerated.

VII. Reflections: What Did We Learn?

  • Warns us about the danger of assuming all our practices are based on an absolute rational standard
  • Reminds us we should keep an open mind

Part 2 - Is Morality Based on Individual Feelings?

I. Subjectivism: Ethics are my personal opinion

  • Moral judgments are based on one’s opinions
  • Simple Subjectivism was revised into Emotivism in the 1900s
  • Criticized for failure to include reason

The Assassination of President Lincoln
April 1865

  • People have different opinions
  • There are no “facts” in morality
  • No “right” or “wrong”
  • Moral opinions are based on feelings and opinions
  • Similarities to Cultural Relativism
    • Right and wrong dependent on culture
    • Right and wrong dependent on individual opinion

II. Evolution of Ethical Subjectivism


Take any [vicious] action...willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice... You can never find it, till you turn your reflexion in your own breast, and find a sentiment of [disapproval], which arises in you, toward this action. Here is a matter of fact: but ‘tis the object of feeling, not reason


Any statement about any matter of fact which any speaker considers likely to alter attitudes may be adduced as a reason for or against an ethical judgment

  • Philosophical theories go through stages
  • Theory is presented, objections are raised, the theory is revised,
    objections are raised, and so on
  • A. Simple Subjectivism
    • David Hume quote, advocate of subjectivism
    • When a person says something is morally good, this simply means he or she approves of the thing. Nothing more
    • X is morally acceptable/right/good/ought to be done = I approve of X.
    • X is morally unacceptable/wrong/bad/ought not be done = I disapprove of X
    • Problems with Simple Subjectivism
      • Cannot account for disagreement
        • Ethical statements are statements of personal attitude.
        • If you disagree with someone’s view, you are disagreeing with the truth of their attitude, not the issue
      • Subjectivism implies we’re always right.
        • As long as you’re being truthful, your moral judgment is correct
        • Does not take human fallibility into account
  • B. Emotivism
    • Charles L Stevenson, approached Subjectivism through language
    • Purposes of language: statements of fact, express commands,
      make exclamatory statements about personal attitude
    • Only statements of fact can be judged as true or false
    • Commands and statements of attitude cannot
    • Moral statements are statements of command and attitude
    • Addressing the Problems with Simple Subjectivism
      • Cannot account for disagreement
        • With Emotivism, disagreements can occur, they just occur in different forms
        • Disagreement in belief vs. Disagreement in attitude
        • Moral disagreements are disagreements in attitude
      • Subjectivism implies we’re always right.
        • Statements of command and attitude cannot be true or false
    • Continuing flaws
      • Implication that our moral judgments are beyond reproach
      • Does not explain the role reason plays in Ethics

III. The Role of Reason in Ethics

  • Statements of personal taste do not need reasons
  • Moral judgments need reasons
  • Reason in Subjectivism
    • Moral judgments express one’s attitude and attempt to influence
      other people’s attitude
    • Express attitude = personal taste, no reason required
    • Attempt to influence, any statement could be factually untrue
    • Reasons should be relevant and true
  • What does it mean “matters of fact” in morality?
    • There are moral facts, in the same way that there are chairs and computers
    • Our values are the expressions of subjective feelings
    • OR
    • Moral truths are the truths of reason

IV. Are There Proofs in Ethics?

  • Differences between scientific proofs (experiments) and ethical proofs (reason, analysis)
  • Why scientific proofs aren’t a valid objection to ethics
    • Ethical proofs are formed through different methods than scientific proofs, but this doesn’t make them better or words
    • Complex ethical questions, like complex scientific questions, are debatable
    • Having a good argument is not the same thing as convincing others of your argument. Many other factors may interfere with your argument’s effectiveness on others.

VI. Concluding Thoughts on Subjectivism

  • Similar concerns as Cultural Relativism
  • Being guided by reason is very different from following one’s feelings