2 Kinds of Relativism: ethical relativism and social / cultural relativism
Social / cultural relativism
Descriptive, anthropological thesis:
Begins with a recognition that different societies have different moral beliefs, different
beliefs about what is good and bad, just and unjust, right and wrong, virtuous and vicious,
and about what ought to be done and ought not to be done. They subscribe to and live
under different moral codes. There is moral disagreement in the world, between societies.
William Graham Sumner defends cultural or social relativism (a.k.a. conventionalism).
He traced how, in every society, their “folkways” become over time their ‘mores’. Their
‘mores’become their ‘morality’. Their morality is shaped by their ‘ethos’and life
conditions, and ‘ethos’become their ‘ethics’. There is no independent standard of good
and bad, right and wrong, to apply to a society’s mores themselves.
Right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, virtuous and vicious are relative to, and
determined by, social beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad, just and
unjust, virtuous and vicious
Moral judgments are a matter of social preference.
X is right = df X is approved of in our society.
Moral statements are at most true for a particular society.
Sumner: “The tradition is its own warrant” and “whatever is, is right”.
Social Relativism / Conventionalism:
1. Diversity thesis
2. Dependency thesis
C. There are no objective moral standards that apply to all people everywhere.
Supposed attractions of conventionalism:
1) fit with observed fact of variability
2) fit with social nature of morality
3) supports toleration
Allows us to criticize our own or other societies’moral codes on grounds (a) of internal
consistency, and (b) lack of integrity and failure to live up to professed principles. But
that is all.
1. it does not square with our practice of how we use morality (moral argument,
inquiry, doubt, discourse, education)
2. would make it conceptually confused to praise or criticize other societies on moral
3. we cannot coherently dissent, on moral grounds, from the conventional morality
of our society; minority moral positions would always be wrong
4. the ideas of moral ‘progress’and moral ‘reform’would make no sense
5. the authority of morality ungrounded
6. practical difficulty of discovering what a society’s moral position is
Ethical relativism in a normative thesis: it says that either (a) whatever each individual
thinks is right, or (b) whatever a society accepts is right. It is normative rather than
descriptive in the sense that it is a theory about how we ought to behave. We all ought to
do either (a) whatever each of us thinks is right, or (b) whatever our society thinks is
right. I have a moral obligation to do something just in case (a) I accept that I have such
an obligation, or (b) my society thinks I have that obligation.
There are thus two kinds of ethical relativism: individual and social. Between social and
individual ethical relativism, one must make a choice, because they are contradictory
Moral principles are true or valid only relative to some culture or group
(conventionalism) or individual (subjectivism).
Individual Ethical Relativism:Action X is right for person P iff P thinks that X is what
she should do.
Social Ethical Relativism: Action X is right for person P iff P’s society thinks X is what
she should do.
Does the fact of moral disagreement support either individual or social ethical relativism?
If we had complete moral agreement, would that refute either individual or social ethical
Ethical Relativism pairs with SUBJECTIVE meta-ethical theories.
The most common forms of subjectivism are emotivism and prescriptivism
When we make a moral judgment, we are really just apprehending a feeling we have, a
positive or negative feeling about the object of our judgment, a positive or adverse
reaction we are experiencing. When we say X is wrong, we are really reporting
something about ourselves, not something objective about X itself.
2 This view gives rise to an expressive or prescriptive theory of moral language. Moral
judgments are just
• statements of personal preference or emotional reaction
• expressions of pro and con attitudes towards some behaviour
• expressions of imperatives
Moral statements are neither true nor false, or they are only true of false for me. Moral
language is practical and action guiding, rather than descriptive and truth valued.
Our moral feelings will, of course, be heavily influenced by how we are raised and by
what our societies think is morally good and right.
Individual Ethical Relativism or Subjectivism has all of the same problems as cultural or
And it seems to get the explanation backward. It says X is right because I approve of X or
want X to be done. But surely I approve of X and want it to be done because X is right
and ought to be done. My feelings are responses to the moral qualities that X has, rather
than the other way around.
Social Ethical Relativism
What is right is whatever my society thinks is right. I ought to do what my society says I
ought to do.
The subjectivism of social or cultural ethical relativism is just what you would expect.
Its expressive or prescriptive theory of moral language says that moral judgments are just
• statements of social preferences or emotional reactions
• expressions of pro and con attitudes towards some behaviour found in one’s
• expressions of the imperatives one’s social groups want to be followed
Moral statements are neither true nor false, or they are only true of false for my social
group. Moral language is practical and action guiding, rather than descriptive and truth
Has all the same problems as social or cultural relativism.
No relativist normative theory fits the facts of our moral practices, or provides the kind of
authoritative action guide we take morality to be.
3 Meta-ethical Relativism
William Shaw distinguishes between met-ethical relativism and normative relativism. We
have so far been talking about normative ethical relativism.
Meta-ethical relativism: there is no rational way of justifying competing ethical
judgments, no standard of objective validity or certification for ethical beliefs and
Meta-ethical relativism does not entail normative ethical relativism. But ethical relativism
does entail meta-ethical relativism.
Shaw considers two competing meta-ethical theories, theories that compete with meta-
ethical relativism as the right meta-ethical theory. (I don’t think it’s right to treat
Emotivism as a meta-ethical theory on par with Naturalism and Intuitionism, so I have
changed the presentation a bit).
Relativism contrasts with Universalism, which is related to Objectivism. Ethical
Objectivism: At least one universally valid or true moral principle exists.
Shaw considers two meta-ethical theories that could support the claim that there are
objective moral facts which we can know, facts that provide a standard of objective
validity or certification for moral beliefs and opinions. The meta-ethical theories he
considers are Naturalism and Intuitionism.
Moral terms like ‘right’and ‘good’can be defined in terms of natural, non-ethical
properties. Some influential suggestions have included ‘right’is ‘what promotes the
greatest happiness of the greatest number’, and ‘justice’is ‘whatever promotes equality
between the genders or races’.
What looks like moral disagreement is really just disagreement about natural facts, like
what does serve the greatest happiness (a welfare state or a minimalist state) or what will
promote gender or racial equality (e.g., affirmativ