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On Moral Relativism

Cultural Relativism is the view that “Normality…is culturally defined” (Ruth Benedict). More precisely, cultural relativists hold to MR:

(MR) There is no moral principle which necessarily applies to everyone, everywhere, and at every time

For the cultural relativist, the source of moral principles is the conventions given by a group of people who make up a culture. The argument for such a view is:

(1) What is normative is culturally determined
(2) What is moral is normative
(3) Therefore, what is moral is culturally defined

Why might one hold to such a view? First, one might think the following is true: "Beliefs about what is right and wrong vary from culture to culture." Since we have no way to tell which culture is correct (ours or theirs), the following is also true: "What is really right and wrong varies from culture to culture." Second, one might think that if someone says that morals are not relative, then they must be intolerant, ethnocentric or a bigot. Third, one might think that the alternative—absolutism, the view that moral principles necessarily apply to everyone, everywhere, and at every time—is false. And since the only alternative to absolutism is relativism, relativism must be true. This strategy involves showing that breaking these absolutes is morally justifiable on occasion and so they cannot be absolutes.


It is not the case that beliefs about what is right and wrong vary from culture to culture entails that what is really right and wrong varies from culture to culture. They are not equivalent. And there are ways to tell which culture is correct. Supposing otherwise is merely to assume the truth of ethical relativism. For example, when we shake off one set of moral rules and adopt another, we do so because we think what we were doing was wrong. But, if MR is true, then we don't cease from the action because it is wrong. As Howard-Snyder comments, 

“If the majority of our society approves of slavery at one time and disapproves of it at another time, ethical relativism cannot say that we have shaken off an incorrect moral view and acquired a correct one. It must say, instead, that we have simply gone from having one correct view…to having a different correct view.” 

Second, if you think it is intolerant to deny ethical relativism, then being intolerant toward ethical relativism is either only wrong relative to one culture or it is objectively wrong. If the former, then it is not wrong to reject ethical relativism. If the latter, then ethical relativism is false. Thus, MR is self-refuting. There is at least one moral principle that necessarily applies to everyone, everywhere, and at every time, namely, the principle that moral principles are culturally determined. But this is a moral principle not determined by any culture

Ruth Benedict, “Anthropology and the Abnormal” in Moral Philosophy ed. Louis Pojman, 33-37
Howard-Snyder, “Christianity and Ethics” in Reason for the Hope Within, 377.