Relativism- denial of moral truth

HideShow resource information
  • Created by: josie
  • Created on: 24-02-14 16:55

What is relativism?

Descriptive relativism- what is immoral in some civilisations is oracticed/ accepted in others e.g cannablism in tribes in Papau New Guinea/Slavery with the Romans.

Normative Relativism-

  • Not only do these cultures have different moral codes at different times, these moral codes are appropiate and acceptable at this time and place.
  • Moral values are cultural preferences and should only be judged relative to the culture from which it arose.
  • Because ethical beliefs of people from different cultures conflict, the conclusion we shoudl draw is there are no universal values/ moral facts independent of any culture.
  • Any value judgement (good/bad) is justified exclusivley by appeal to certain social norms.
  • Should allow people to develop their own values and be tolerant/ respect thier culture.
  • Cogntivisit and anti-realist are moral truths but not mind-independent( relative to cultural values). Denies existence of moral truth.
1 of 7

Problem 1- The is-ought Gap

  • The conclusions they draw after considering decriptive relativism are not the only ones.
  • Cannot conclude that it is right we accept different moral practices and codes just because different cultures have them.
  • Based on the truth of descriptive relativsm, we could conclude:

-some of these codes are wrong and should be stopped/ cannot prove them wrong but should be intolerent and stop them/ values are primitive and we should help them morally progress.

  • Shows any conclusions about what we should do derived from facts is disputable.
  • Move from descriptive relativism does not allow us to conclude normative relativism.
  • The fact of cultural diversity cannot establish any rules about how we ought to behave.
2 of 7

The paradox of normal relativism

  • By drawing a normative conclusion from a set of descriptive facts it contradicts itself.
  • They claim we ought to respect/tolerate different moral values because they are culturally relative but this violates the first law of relativism by advocating one unique, absolute, universal rule- respect other cultures.
  • If you are from a culture that thinks its moral codes are absolutley right, you will not tolerate a culture that thinks differently. But if i am form a culture where normative relativism rules, i either tolerate the intolerant culture and give up the idea we must tolerate other cultures or don't tolerate it and end up being intolerant myself and thus give up the idea we must tolerate each other.
3 of 7

Problem 3- cultural non-conformists

  • Assumes cultures are homogenous and the codes are accepted by everyone in it.
  • Any culture-people feel alienated, uncomfortable and that moral mistakes have been made.
  • If you disagree with the moral norms, how can you express and resolve the disagreement.
  • You will always be wrong- whatever is right is determined by the majority.
  • Not plausible- Rosa Parks wrong/ society. Vegetarians- wrong as they are a minority.

2 distinct problems:

  • Cannot philosophically justify the idea that because an idea is supported by the majority, it is right/good/moral. There is more at stake with morality than just the majority consensus& we can imagine with the above examples that a whole society is mistaken.
  • It rules out any possibility of meaningful moral progress.
4 of 7

Problem 4- Moral progress

  • Often judge one code to be better than others across cultures. We often talk of moral progress e.g. contemproray society is bettter than society 50 years ago- less racist+homophobic. Judge some cultures to be better than others-often our own. Intuitivley- want to say societies progress and improve morally


  • Moral relativists cnanot talk meaningfully of moral progress. If your values are relative to culture, they can develop and change but not improve. To say a culture morally progressess requires an absolute standard- universal yardstick against which past/future values can be compared. 
  • The moral relativist denies this standard and so we cannot have moral progress.
5 of 7

Problem 5- Judging the abhorrent practices of othe

  • No independent rational basis/ standard for preferering one moral code to another- have no right/moral justification to condemn the practices of others. Our moral standards apply only within our own cultures and cannot be applied to different cultures/practices.
  • True- can criticise other son the basis of some other standard e.g not beneficial to society but this is entirely inadequate and counter-intuitive.
  • Example- The Holocaust was ok for the Nazi's morally speaking/ slavery was ok. If our only justfiied criticsm is that it was harmful to society, we can question whether we can hold onto any notion of morality as moral relativists.
  • Example 2- Hindu custom of Suttee- burn the widow with the dead husband. Can such a practice be acceptable? Relativist reply- if she consents, we should respect her wishes regardless of women rights. Was it wrong of britain to suppress suttee? relativist reply- shouldn;t have been there in the first place- they are appealing to another moral code e.g. do not invade others. But if your culture thinks its ok (19th century britain did) they cannot argue.
  • Very difficult to be a moral relativit in practice.
6 of 7



  • Encourages humility
  • Goes against the idea that our values are the right ones/better than others.
  • Teaches us to be tolerant of other cultures.

Bad:conclusions too exaggerated- are different codes across times and cultures but there are basic human values that can be discerned over a great range of cultures/communities/groups. 

Share a common humanity- source of shared values e.g:

  • Moral condemnation of the leader who uses his power to exploit and oppress people.
  • The agreement amongst radically different groups about the need for impartial determination of disputes by an authorized individual/body.

Basic forms of good: knowledge, life, sociabilit, practical reasonableness that underlie and give rationale to moral rule making and provide common ground between moral codes. This gives acess to reasonable dialogue and makes criticism of moral outlooks possible.

7 of 7


No comments have yet been made

Similar Philosophy resources:

See all Philosophy resources »See all Morality resources »