Moral relativism Notes for September 20–29

Main Points

Plato gave us an argument for moral realism, the view that the moral rules exist independent of what anyone thinks. That’s the conclusion he draws from asking why the gods love the pious.

The Anthropological Association gives us a different picture of morality. Moral rules are the products of culture. They seem natural because we grow up learning them as if they were. But really, they’re just a product of human society.

We aren’t exactly challenging the truth of either position. Rather, we’re looking at what would follow if the anthropologists were correct about morality. The moral rules come from societies and what is right for me is determined solely by what my society’s code says.

Many of us think that if something like this were true, it would undermine our reasons for interfering with the members of other cultures because they offend our moral code. We’re looking at whether that really follows, that is, if there really is an argument from the truth of moral relativism to conclusions about tolerance.

The American Anthropological Association’s statement

This is a statement intended to influence the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). There are several different kinds of arguments in it. Some contradict others. For example, the point about how individual freedom depends on freedom for cultural groups makes sense only if freedom is universally valuable. But the argument from moral relativism denies that there are any universal values. There are also the questions Williams raised about the various functionalist assumptions.

We also considered whether there was a consistent way of standing up for your values by interfering with another society while respecting that society’s culture. That is the strategy that John pointed out at the end of the AAA’s article and criticized by Stewart.


But we put all of that aside in order to concentrate on different strategies for using the truth of moral relativism to undermine a particular reason for interfering with another society, namely, that its practices violate our moral code. In other words, we granted the truth of moral relativism for the sake of argument, meaning we agreed to suppose it is true in order to see what would follow if it were true.

The point behind doing that is that if nothing interesting follows, it doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not.

I said that two arguments that seemed to lead to that conclusion either had more conservative or more revisionist implications than the Anthropologists intended.

It might be helpful to distinguish between positive and negative theses of moral relativism.

  1. Negative: one society’s moral code is not correct for another.
  2. Positive: each society’s moral code is correct for its members.
Moral relativism swings between:
  1. Conservatism: each society is right to hold the moral beliefs that it does. This comes from the positive thesis. Those who emphasize it seek to retain the content of each society’s moral code, that is, their beliefs about what is right and wrong.
  2. Revisionism: almost all societies are radically mistaken about the scope of their moral codes. They think they apple to everyone, but they’re wrong, actually they apply only within the society’s borders. This is the negative thesis.

When we’re on the conservative side of moral relativism, it’s hard to see how to argue that a society should be more tolerant than it otherwise would be. Each society is correct to believe what it does believe, after all. Nothing is supposed to change.

The argument for tolerance comes from the revisionist side. There, we’re told to restrict the scope of our moral ideas, such that we apply them only to ourselves and not to others. When moral relativism is revisionist, though, it’s hard to see how it can retain its conservatism. How can each society retain its moral code when all of them are deeply mistaken? As Ragib asked after class, how can we both think that human sacrifice is wrong and also that it is only wrong in our own society?


Waldron’s article is admirable for a number of reasons. First, he picks up on a fact that Yavor and Martin had noted, namely, we interact with different societies all the time. Trade, exploration, communication … it really is one world and there is probably no hope of avoiding interference. Second, he articulates a different way of thinking about tolerance. Specifically, he makes the point that different cultures can learn from one another only if morality is an objective matter, independent of any one of their points of view. So which is more tolerant, leaving others alone or engaging with what they have to say?

That said, I have my doubts that the most interesting conflicts are really amenable to the kind of discussion and proof that Waldron seems to have in mind. Speaking only for myself, I don’t think I am capable of proving to those who think like Ayatollah Khomenei that freedom is desirable and that clerics have no special access to the truth. Our assumptions about what is valuable and how we can know the truth are too different. When I say society is better off with freedom, they will point out that freedom is simply the road to hell for the weak. If I say I don’t believe in hell, well, now where are we?

Nonetheless, I don’t find that my inability to prove my position shakes my commitment to my values. Interesting fact, no? I think it tells me something about my values, namely, that I don’t presume they are thoroughly objective. But that’s a story for another day.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2006.
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