Moral Relativism

By Francis J. Beckwith

(Originally printed in the May/June 1996 Issue of the MCOI Journal)

In his important and influential work, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom observes that:

“there is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative… The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated.”

By dogmatically asserting that there is no truth, we have become closed-minded to the possibility of knowing the truth if, in fact, it does exist. Consequently, lurking behind most of the moral rhetoric in America today is moral relativism: the belief there are no mind-independent moral values that transcend culture or the individual. This is why many people begin or end their moral judgments with such phrases as, “It is only my personal opinion,” “Of course I am not judging anyone’s behavior,” or “If you think it is all right, that is okay, but I’m personally against it.” Although such assertions certainly have their place, we often use them inappropriately. Take a common ploy used by politicians who are absolutely petrified to take a stand on the abortion issue. They often resort to saying. “I’m personally against abortion, but I don’t object if a woman believes it is right for her to have one.” The problem with this assertion is that it doesn’t tell us why the politician is personally against abortion. Since most people oppose abortion because they believe that the unborn are fully human and have all the rights that go along with such a status, my guess is that the politician is personally against abortion for the same reason. Now this makes the politician’s personal opposition and public permission of abortion somewhat perplexing, since the reason he is probably personally against abortion is the reason why he should be against publicly permitting it, namely, that an entity which he believes is fully human has a right to life. After all, what would we think of the depth of the convictions of any individual who claimed that he was personally against the genocide of a particular race, but if others thought this race was not human they were certainly welcome to participate in the genocide if they so choose? The nature of some “personal” opinions warrant public actions, even if these opinions turn out to be wrong; while other opinions, such as one’s personal preference for German chocolate cake, do not.

Another example of how ethical relativism affects the way we approach a public moral issue can be seen in the arguments concerning the rights of certain groups to boycott products that are advertised on television programs that these groups find to be inconsistent with the public good. The usual argument in response to these groups is the following, “If you don’t like a particular program, you don’t have to watch it. You can always change the channel.” But is this response really compelling? After all, these groups are not only saying that they personally find these programs offensive: rather, they are arguing that the programs themselves convey messages and create a moral climate that will affect others, especially children, in a way they believe is adverse to the public good. Hence, what bothers these groups is that you and your children will not change the channel. Furthermore, it bothers these people that there is probably somewhere in America, an unsupervised ten-year-old listening to and watching MTV while Aerosmith sings about the virtues of oral sex on an elevator. Most of these people fear that their ten-year-olds may have to socially interact someday with the unsupervised MTV-watching ten-year-old. Frankly, I do not believe that such a parental concern is totally unjustified, especially in light of what we know about how certain forms of entertainment and media affect people. Therefore, the question cannot be relegated to a question of one’s personal preference. The appropriate question is what sort of social action is permissible and would best serve the public good.

As long as these groups do not advocate state censorship, but merely apply social and economic pressure to private corporations (which civil rights groups and feminist groups have been doing for nearly two decades), a balance of freedoms is achieved. Both are free to pursue their interests within the confines of constitutional protection, although both must be willing to suffer the social and economic consequences of their actions. This seems to best serve the public good. Notice that my response does not resort to ethical relativism, but takes seriously the values of freedom, the public good, and individual rights, and attempts to uphold these values in a way that is consistent and fair.


People have put forth two popular arguments to defend ethical relativism. Argument 1 states: Since cultures and individuals differ in certain moral practices, there are no objective transcultural values.

There are several problems with this argument. First, the fact that people disagree about something does not mean that there is no truth. For example, if you and I disagree as to whether or not the earth is round, this is certainly not proof that the earth has no shape. In moral discussion, the fact that a skinhead (a type of young neo-Nazi) and I may disagree as to whether we should treat people equally and with fairness is certainly not sufficient evidence to say that equality and fairness have no objective value. Even if individuals and cultures hold no values in common, it does not follow from this that nobody is right or wrong about the correct values. That is, there could be a mistaken individual or culture, such as Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Another problem with this first argument is that though cultures and individuals differ in moral practices it does not follow that they do not share common values. For example, the fact that female islanders who live in the South Seas bare their breasts and British women do not does not mean that the former do not value modesty. Due to the climate, environmental conditions, and certain religious beliefs, the people of the South Seas have developed certain practices that manifest the transcultural value of modesty. Although cultures may differ as to how they manifest such values as honesty, courage, or preservation of life, none promote dishonesty, cowardice, or arbitrary killing.

Second, sometimes apparent moral differences are not moral differences at all but factual differences. During the Salem witch trials, certain individuals were put to death who were believed to be practicing witchcraft. We don’t execute witches today, but not because our moral values have changed. We don’t execute witches today because we don’t believe that the practice of their craft has a fatal effect upon the community — contrary to what the residents of Massachusetts believed in the 17th Century. But, suppose that we had good evidence that the practice of witchcraft does affect other people in the same way that cigarette smoke affects the non-smoker. We would alter the practice of our values to take into consideration this factual change. We may set up non-witch sections in restaurants and ban the casting of spells on interstate airplane flights. The upshot of all this is that the good of the community is a value we share with the 17th Century residents of Salem, but we simply believe that they were factually wrong about the effect of witches upon that good.

Consider a second example. Many people who live in India do not eat cows because they believe in the doctrine of reincarnation – that these cows possess the souls of deceased human beings. In the United States, we do not believe that cows have human souls. For this reason, we eat cows but we do not eat Grandma. It appears on the surface, therefore, that there is a fundamental value difference between Indians and Americans. But this is a hasty conclusion, for both cultures do believe that it is wrong to eat Grandma; the Indians, however, believe that the cow may be Grandma. Thus, it is a factual, not a value, difference that divides our culinary habits.

Philosopher James Rachels presents another example of how the knowledge of certain facts can help us understand why it seems that other people have different values. He points out that the practice of infanticide (of primarily female babies) was common among the Eskimos. On the surface, this Eskimo practice seems to indicate that they have a radically different value of human life than we do. And since one’s view of human life is fundamental, it seems to follow from this that ethical relativism is correct. Rachels does not agree. He explains that once one realizes that certain factual considerations have made the practice of infanticide a necessary evil for the Eskimos, one sees that the Eskimos’ value of human life is not all that different from ours. Writes Rachels:

But suppose we ask why the Eskimos [practice infanticide]. The explanation is not that they have less affection for their children or less respect for human life. An Eskimo family will always protect its babies if conditions permit. But they live in a harsh environment, where food is often in short supply … Infant girls are readily disposed of because, first, in this society the males are the primary food providers — they are the hunters, according to the traditional division of labor — and it is obviously important to maintain a sufficient number of food gatherers. But there is an important second reason as well. Because the hunters suffer a high casualty rate, the adult men who die prematurely far outnumber the adult women who die early. Thus, if male and female infants survived in equal numbers, the female adult population would greatly outnumber the male adult population. Examining the available statistics, one writer concluded that “were it not for female infanticide … there would be approximately one-and-a-half times as many females in the average Eskimo local group as there are food-producing males.”

So among the Eskimos, infanticide does not signal a fundamentally different attitude toward children. Instead, it is a recognition that drastic measures are sometimes needed to ensure the family’s survival. Even then, however, killing the baby is not the first option considered. Adoption is common; childless couples are especially happy to take a more fertile couple’s “surplus.” Killing is only the last resort. I emphasize this in order to show that the raw data of the anthropologists can be misleading; it can make the differences in values between cultures appear greater than they are. The Eskimos’ values are not all that different from our values. It is only that life forces upon them choices that we do not have to make.

This is not to say that the Eskimos are right or that we should not try to persuade them to believe that their practice is wrong. Rather, this example simply shows that one can better understand so-called value differences, and conclude that they are not really value differences at all, when one carefully examines why a certain practice, such as female infanticide, is performed. Other examples can be produced to show why this first argument for moral relativism is inadequate, although I believe that what we have covered thus far is sufficient for our purposes. It should be noted, however, that there are some common values among peoples and cultures[but this] does not mean that all cultures share all the same values. It is obvious that certain peoples and cultures may have developed some values that others have not developed. Hence, the discovering of a unique value in a particular society does not in any way take away from my central thesis that there are certain values to which all societies either implicitly or explicitly hold.

Third, the argument from differing practices puts an undue emphasis on differences while ignoring similarities, in addition to giving the mistaken appearance that all moral conflicts are in some sense insoluble. In discussing moral conflicts in the United States we tend to focus our attention on contemporary issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, and affirmative action, over which there is obviously wide and impassioned disagreement. However, we tend to ignore the fact that the disputants in these moral debates hold a number of values in common, that there are a great number of moral issues on which almost all Americans agree (e.g., “it is wrong to molest six-year-old girls”), and that a number of past moral conflicts have been solved (e.g, slavery, women’s suffrage). Hence, by focusing our attention on disagreements, our perception is skewed. Rachels points out how such a mistaken focus can also be applied to other disciplines:

If we think of questions like this [i.e., abortion, euthanasia, affirmative action], it is easy to believe that “proof in ethics is impossible. The same can be said of the sciences. There are many complicated matters that physicists cannot agree on; and if we focused our attention entirely on them we might conclude that there is no “proof” in physics. But, of course, many simpler matters in physics can be proven, and about those all competent physicists agree. Similarly, in ethics there are many matters far simpler than abortion, about which all reasonable people must agree.

Argument 2 states: Since ethical relativism promotes tolerance of certain cultural practices that we, as members of Western civilization, may think are strange, ethical relativism is a good thing. There are several problems with this argument. First, the value of tolerance presupposes the existence of at least one real non-relative, objective value: tolerance. Bioethicist Tom Beauchamp observes:

If we interpret normative relativism as requiring tolerance of other views, the whole theory is imperiled by inconsistency. The proposition that we ought to tolerate the view of others, or that it is right not to interfere with others, is precluded by the very strictures of the theory. Such a proposition bears all the marks of a non-relative account of moral rightness, one based on, but not reducible to, the cross-cultural findings of anthropologists … But, if this moral principle [of tolerancej is recognized as valid, it can of course be employed as an instrument for criticizing such cultural practices as the denial of human rights to minorities and such beliefs as that of racial superiority. A moral commitment to tolerance of other practices and belief thus leads inexorably to the abandonment of normative relativism.

Second, tolerance can be a virtue only if you think the other person, whose viewpoint you’re supposed to tolerate, is mistaken. That is to say, if you do not believe that one viewpoint is better than another, then to ask someone to be tolerant of other viewpoints makes no sense, since to tolerate another’s viewpoint implies this other person has a right to his viewpoint despite the fact that others may think that it is wrong. To be tolerant of differing viewpoints involves just that – differing viewpoints, all of which cannot be equally correct at the same time (although they certainly may all be equally wrong at the same time). If one thinks that one can be tolerant while at the same time believe that nobody is either right or wrong about any moral value, one would be not more virtuous than the man who thought his chastity was virtuous even though he was born with no sexual organs. Consequently, real tolerance presupposes that someone is right and someone is wrong (and in the latter case, especially the person who is intolerant), a viewpoint that implicitly denies moral relativism.

It must be acknowledged, however, that there is a noble motive behind the relativist’s appeal to tolerance. He believes that his view of tolerance will help us to better understand other cultures and other people without being hypercritical about their practices or forcibly imposing our own cultural practices upon them, such as putting blouses on the bare-breasted women of the South Seas or forcing polygamous families to divide and become monogamous. I do not disagree with this view of transcultural tolerance. However, a cultural practice is different from a cultural value. For it does not follow from different practices that people have different values.

The same goes for popular moral debate in the United States today. For example, both those who favor capital punishment and those who oppose it agree that human life is in some sense sacred. Where they disagree is in the application of this value. Most proponents of capital punishment argue that since human life is so sacred, an individual who takes another’s innocent life should forfeit his own life. Arguing from the same value, most opponents of capital punishment claim that it should be forbidden, since the sacredness of human life makes it never justifiable for the state to execute a human being.

The local controversies surrounding the elimination of certain books from public school curricula and libraries is another example of how people can agree on values and yet disagree on practice. Those who favor conservative guidelines, and who are often referred to as advocating censorship, usually propose that certain materials are not suitable for certain age groups. They argue that parents, not educational administrators, are best suited to know what is best for their children. On the other hand, their opponents, who are often referred to as advocating freedom of expression, usually propose that teachers and educational administrators should choose what is suitable material, although they do believe that a line should be drawn somewhere. For example, none of these defenders of freedom of expression defend the placing of hard-core pornography in the hands of fourth graders. This, of course, makes the debate all the more interesting, since it means that both sides agree on the following general principles: a line must be drawn, certain materials are suitable tor certain age groups, and education is important and valuable. Where they disagree is on who should make the decisions surrounding these issues. Both advocate some kind of censorship. They just disagree on who should be the censors and who should be censored. Therefore, they both hold to the same values, but they disagree as to the application of those values.

Although this distinction between practice and value helps us to be tolerant of unusual cultural practices, we are still able to make valuable moral judgments about others and ourselves. First, we are free to criticize those intolerable cultural practices that do conflict with basic human values, such as in the cases of genocide in Nazi Germany and Apartheid in South Africa. Second, we are able to admit to real moral progress, such as in the case of the abolition of slavery. And third, there can exist real moral reformers, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and the prophets of the Old Testament, who served as prophetic voices to reprimand their cultures for having drifted far from a true moral practice based on basic human values These three points that follow from a belief in transcultural values do not follow from a belief in ethical relativism. That is to say, in order to remain consistent the ethical relativist cannot criticize intolerable moral practices, believe in real moral progress, or acknowledge the existence of real moral reformers. For these three forms of moral judgment presuppose the existence of real, transcultural non-relative, objective values.

Although much more can be said about the justification and existence of certain values, what we have covered thus far is sufficient to show that ethical relativism is enormously problematic and that we can rationally discuss and argue with each other about right and wrong without resorting to the claim that ethical judgments are merely subjective or relative and that all such judgments have equal validity. For to claim the latter logically leads one to the judgment that Mother Teresa is no more and no less virtuous than Adolf Hitler. I believe that this example is sufficient to show ethical relativism to be bankrupt.

06-Beckwith-photo-279x300Untangling this issues’ ‘Spiders Web” is Francis J. Beckwith, 35, Lecturer of Philosophy and Ethics & Policy Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as well as Senior Research Fellow at The Nevada Policy Research Institute and Professor at Large, Simon Greenleaf University. He has authored and edited several hooks including, Do the Right Thing: A Philosophical Dialogue on the Moral and Social Issues of Our Time (Jones & Bartlett, 1994), Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Baker, 1993), Are You Politically Correct?: Debating America’s Cultural Standards (Prometheus, 1993), Matters of Life and Death (Baker, 1991). The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis (Edwin Mellen, 1991), and Baha’i (Bethany House, 1985). He and his wife, Frankie, make their home in Las Vegas, Nevada. This article was reprinted, with permission, from Francis’ book entitled Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights.

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