Criticisms of Ethical Relativism
Despite its initial plausibility, ethical relativism must face several serious criticisms.
1. Consider the general form of the relativist's argument. It might be reconstructed as follows.
2. What is believed to be morally right varies from society to society.
3. Therefore, what is morally right varies from society to society.
- But the above argument is clearly invalid.
- Furthermore, unless one already accepts ethical relativism, the premise of this argument provides no
reason for accepting its conclusion.
- In general, believing a statement to be true does not make it true.
- In general, a statement is not made true even by everyone's believing it.
- Perhaps morality is the exception here, but even if it is, the burden of proof lies squarely on the
shoulders of the ethical relativist to demonstrate to us that it is.
2. If ethical relativism is true then no one is ever in a position to criticize the moral beliefs and practices of any
- There is no objective standard by which it can be argued that the moral beliefs and practices of any
society are any better or worse than those of any other society (including our own).
- No progress is ever made in these matters. In fact, moral progress is impossible if ethical relativism is
- The majority in any society is necessarily right if ethical relativism is correct.
3. The problem of the moral reformer...
- The moral reformer is always wrong if ethical relativism is correct.
4. Ethical relativism allows for certain bizarre consequences.
-Consider a small society that is contemplating the rightness/wrongness of 乬murder.乭
5. Suppose it is true that accepting ethical relativism would foster tolerance of other people's moral beliefs and
-So what? What' so special about tolerance?
- It might be that here in our society tolerance is generally believed to be a good ting. But even if that is
true, that's just what we happen to think.
- In other societies, tolerance is not valued.
- If ethical relativism is correct there are no objective or trans-cultural virtues, including tolerance.
- If ethical relativism is correct, we cannot legitimately criticize those of some other society for being
intolerant (or bigoted, or racist, or sexist, or whatever).