Ethical Theory Spring 2021

Moral Relativism


Last time, we ran through a series of arguments and replies that ended with the subjectivist position under discussion holding that while moral agreement (and disagreement) exists, it is only within societies. The idea was that a society could only exist if its members shared a substantial number of moral beliefs. With that kind of agreement in hand, there can be discussion and argument about what, exactly, follows from the points on which everyone agrees.

That brings us to moral relativism. This is the view that moral codes are relative to societies or cultures. The society is the subject in this version of subjectivism, if you will.

Williams spends the first half of his chapter on relativism pointing out some of the errors that are often made in attempts to articulate a relativist position.

The second half of the chapter, from page 23 to the end, begins with the observation that one of the things that societies disagree about is “their attitudes to other moral outlooks” (Williams 1972, 23). To put it roughly, what happens if we apply relativism to ourselves?

Vulgar Relativism

Williams begins with relativism in what he describes as its “vulgar and unregenerate form” (Williams 1972, 20).

This, he says, consists in three principles:

  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 people in one society to condemn, interfere with, etc. the values of another society.

The American Anthropological Association’s “Statement on Human Rights” deploys a range of arguments against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their chief concern was that a declaration of human rights would be used by the strong societies as grounds for interfering with the weak ones.

Sometimes, the Statement seems to be making an instrumental point, namely, that there are some universal values and that the best way of realizing them is to leave others alone. This is how I understand the remarks about the individuals being free only if their societies are free.

Sometimes, the authors seem to want to make a political point, namely, that the Europeans have been so bad that we should throw up as many barriers against their interfering with other societies as possible.

The main thrust, however, trades on moral relativism. Here, the Statement pretty closely matches Williams’s caricature.

The Statement maintains that “values are relative to the culture from which they derive” (American Anthropological Association 1947, 542). The argument for this proposition is that everyone’s values come from their culture and that everyone sees their own culture’s values as self-evidently true: “the eternal verities only seem so because we have been taught to regard them as such” and “every people … lives in devotion to verities whose eternal nature is as real to them as are those of Euroamerican culture to Euroamericans” (American Anthropological Association 1947, 542).

It asserts that it is a “scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered” (American Anthropological Association 1947, 542). The idea is that there is no biological basis for preferring one culture to another. If a culture has survived, it is because its “existing ways of life meet the test of survival” (American Anthropological Association 1947, 542). This is the functionalist thesis: a society’s values play a functional role in maintaining the society from one generation to the next.

Finally, the Statement concludes that “World-wide standards of freedom and justice, based on the principle that man is free only when he lives as his society defines freedom, that his rights are those he recognizes as a member of his society, must be basic” (American Anthropological Association 1947, 543). This, obviously, means that there cannot be a universal standard of human rights, since different societies have different values.


The big problem with the relativist position described in the previous section is that it is incoherent. It seeks to derive a universal requirement of tolerance from a denial that there are any universal requirements. That’s not going to work.

Another difficulty is that many of our most pressing moral questions concern cases in which those confronting one another either do not belong to the same society or they disagree about whether they belong to the same society (Williams 1972, 22).

Wars, for example, are fought between different societies. Does that mean there are no moral rules regarding war?

Post-colonial governments often faced the latter problem. For example, the central government of Ghana may disagree with those who have positions of authority in traditional Ashanti society about whether Ghana makes up one society of which the Ashanti are a part or whether the Ashanti are a separate society.

What would relativism mean for us?

I think the most interesting question Williams poses about relativism comes in the second half of the chapter. How should we regard our own moral convictions if we believe that moral relativism is true?

It may be helpful to distinguish between three positions.

  1. Moral Realism: there is one true moral code

  2. Moral Relativism: there are many equally true moral codes

  3. Moral Nihilism: there are no true moral codes

Also, remember how we came to this point at the beginning. We had gone through a series of arguments that led to the conclusion that a society can exist only if its members largely share a significant range of moral values. If this is true, could our moral beliefs evaporate when we are confronted with a society that does not share them?

Or, to ask a slightly different question, should they evaporate? How would we articulate the reason why they should, unless we do so by appealing to the beliefs and values in question?

Suppose moral relativism tells us that there are many equally valid moral codes, that ours is one of them, and that the members of every society ought to follow their society’s code. It appears to follow that we should follow our own society’s code when we evaluate other societies and that moral relativism leaves everything as it was.

I think that the Anthropological Association’s Statement hits this problem in the third to last paragraph. They are clearly thinking of Nazi Germany. But instead of saying “well, standards are relative to a culture, so who is to say?” they put forward the optimistic view that the different cultures really agree. More importantly, they clearly think it is right and appropriate for people outside of Nazi Germany to call on the “underlying cultural values” that will “bring the peoples of such states to … enforce a brake upon discrimination and conquest” (American Anthropological Association 1947, 543).1 But if outsiders are allowed to use their own values in deciding whether to call on the people of Germany to reject Nazism, why can’t they use their own values in deciding whether to do something more direct?

Key Points

  1. Vulgar relativism and its problems.

  2. Should we have less confidence in our moral beliefs if relativism were true? What would it mean to apply relativism to ourselves?


American Anthropological Association. 1947. “Statement on Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 49 (4): 539–43.
Steward, Julian H. 1948. “Comments on the Statement on Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 50 (2): 351–52.
Williams, Bernard. 1972. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  1. For a clear criticism of the Statement on this point, see the letter from Julian Steward (Steward 1948). It is on the Sakai site.↩︎