Ethical Theory Spring 2019

Williams on Relativism


We’re back at the question about relativism and tolerance. Williams is harshly critical of the attempt to move from moral relativism to conclusions about tolerance.

He identifies this view as “vulgar relativism” which he calls “the anthropologist’s heresy … the most absurd view to have been advanced even in moral philosophy” (Williams 1972, 20).

Vulgar relativism has three points:

  1. ‘Right’ means ‘right for a given society.’
  2. ‘Right for a given society’ is to be understood in functionalist terms.
  3. Therefore, it is wrong for the members of one society to condemn or interfere with the values of another society.

Williams criticizes the logical consistency of moral relativism in the first premise and the universal moral conclusion. He also raises questions about the usefulness of the functionalist assumption in the second premise.


If we’re going to say that moral standards are relative to a culture, we’re going to have to identify which standards a culture has. This is a point that we made in our discussion last time.

Williams’s “vulgar” relativist has an answer: a culture’s standards are the ones that play a functional role in maintaining the society over generations.

Williams’s central point about this is that it isn’t very helpful in some of the cases where we very much need standards. These would be cases where there is no society to maintain or where the identity of the society is what is at issue.

In wars, for example, the contending sides do not make up a single society. So there can’t be any standards that would maintain their common society. Does it follow that there are no moral standards in war?

Furthermore, many postcolonial states faced significant questions about whether they governed unified societies or not. The political boundaries were typically drawn by the colonial powers and rarely reflected existing cultural or political alignments. So if one group does not think it belongs to the same society as another and that other group disagrees, the question “what rules function to maintain the society?” can’t be answered until we settle the question that is actually at issue, namely, “what is the society here?” Again, the functionalist assumption seems to lead to the unhappy conclusion that there are no standards at all.

Cortez’s Men

When Cortez’s men discovered that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice, they were horrified. Williams takes that to show just how hard it is to cease judging others by your moral standards (Williams 1972, 24). These were not nice people and they were there to pillage. But they couldn’t help seeing the Aztecs as humans and judging them by their standards for human beings.

I think it’s obvious that sometimes you should change your moral beliefs when you’re confronted with people who disagree with you. I also think it’s obvious that sometimes you should not.

But when should you do the one and when should you do the other? That’s not easy to say. In fact, there aren’t just two options. I put a spectrum of ten different ways of reacting to being confronted with different moral practices on the board.

  1. It’s abominable and must be stopped.
  2. It’s wrong but we can’t stop it.
  3. It’s wrong, but stopping it would be worse than letting it continue.
  4. It’s wrong, but it’s not my business to tell them what to do.
  5. I think it’s wrong, but who am I to judge?
  6. I don’t know what to make of it.
  7. It’s OK for them, but definitely not for us.
  8. It’s OK for them but maybe not for us.
  9. It’s OK for them and so OK for us too.
  10. It’s great! We should copy them.

This is far too crude, of course. But I hope to give a sense of the variety of possible reactions.

Anthropologists surely believe that there is a lot to be learned from other societies. What’s the point of being an anthropologist if you don’t believe that? If their relativism is phrased incautiously, however, they could inadvertently wind up saying the opposite. If each culture is completely separate from the others, such that all judgment across cultural lines is inappropriate, then it’s hard to see how learning across cultural lines could be possible.

Key Points

These are the points you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. Vulgar relativism.
  2. The lesson of Cortez’s men and the Aztecs.


Williams, Bernard. 1972. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.