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Moral Relativism: Its Limit

Asserting that something is right doesn't make it right.

Broadly speaking, ethical relativism contends that ethical rules are drawn from human experience and that what is right or wrong is dependent upon particular times and places. There are cultural relativists or the individual relativist.

The cultural relativist believes that whether something is right or wrong depends upon what our culture, religion or government tells us. There are rules regarding morality, and the rules are firm, but those rules differ from place to place. Relativism assumes that no culture’s ethical values are inherently superior to any other.

The essential claim of the cultural relativist is that moral norms are determined by the society in which you live. There is no claim to moral values independent of or external to society. Morality is a cultural artifact, much like the language that you speak. You may think Spanish is better than Urdu, but that’s because you were brought up speaking Spanish. Ethics is as arbitrary as the language you speak or whether you use a knife or chopsticks.

The cultural relativist doesn’t deny the importance of morality. Society can no more do without moral standards than it can do without language. The relativists’ point, however, is that each society creates values and norms that define what is right and wrong. Morality is an internal regulation and cannot be compared to the morality of any other society. Just as there is no way to settle which of two languages is better, no moral system is better than another, they claim. But, also, just as one language is as good as any other, within any given language there are grammatical and spelling rules. Morality is the social, grammatical, and spelling rules that allow a group of people to get along with others in the group.

The individual relativist sets aside all cultural claims and contends that it isn’t society, religion, or government that determines right or wrong. It is the individual. Society may claim to be the source of morality, but this is far from the case. Moral rules are often nothing more than a reflection of the self-interest of those who make the rules. The only true guide to morality is personal conscience. Moral norms, therefore, are personal. There is nothing objective about them. This is often expressed as “It is right if I feel it is right.” This position also leads to unwillingness to impose your own values on another. It is right for me, but who am I to say it is right for you? So you may evaluate your own behavior by moral standards that you have derived for yourself, but you are reluctant to impose those standards on anyone else.

The individual relativist maintains that while society may in fact create norms and values, that doesn’t make them right. Different societies have different values and what is right in one place may be wrong in another. Since where you are born is a matter of chance, you are no more bound by one set of rules than by another. Therefore, the only way to know which of the two ways is correct is to decide for yourself, using a standard that you yourself have created.

While relativism has its strengths (it is tolerant of different points of view), its primary weakness is that it reduces ethics either to social conventions or to personal preferences. Social conventions aren’t identical to ethics. Sometimes the two may be at odds. If there were no distinction between convention and morality, anything done by a group would be ethical if that's how the group defined morality for itself.

If social convention and morality were the same, long-standing discrimination against a group of people by the dominant group would be defined as ethical. Genocide would be moral because it was an expression of the values of those ordering the murders. But certainly those who risk their lives to save victims of oppression are moral heroes while the executioners are rightly condemned for having committed crimes against humanity.

Asserting something is right doesn’t make it right. Ethics is about how people get along with each other fairly. Without a standard that is beyond your own self or that of society, if things are fair then it is only a matter of luck.