Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Logic of Moral Relativism

The doctrine of subjectivism is a curious thing.  It claims that for each person, truth is different.  There is no absolute truth.  If this is indeed the claim, it is easily refuted as this claim itself is an absolute statement.

I suspect that subjectivists take a more soft line in this respect (in order to avoid this embarrassing conundrum) and might say "there may be an absolute truth, but we may or may not know what it is."

Applied to morality, subjectivism becomes moral relativism.  As far as moral judgments are concerned, an act's moral goodness or badness depends upon the perspective of the people involved.  

One argument in favor of moral relativism is that one culture may consider an act to be good and another culture may consider it to be bad.  Here is the argument:

  1. If an act is good for one culture
  2. And the same act is bad for another culture
  3. Therefore the act's moral value is relative to the culture

The premises of this argument can be shown empirically by looking at two cultures that have different values about a particular act.  For example, cannibalism or killing the elderly are variously considered good and bad among different cultures.

  • Let's look more closely at those premises.  Premise 1 is "If an act is good for one culture."  What makes an act good?  In this case, the culture must consider it to be good.  That is, the culture's opinion of this act is what makes it good or bad.  Isn't this hidden premise begging the question?  That is, if the culture's opinion of what makes an act good or bad actually makes it good or bad, that is a restatement of moral relativism.  The argument assumes what it is trying to prove.

    Here is a restatement of the argument for clarity

    1. If an act is considered good for one culture
    2. And the same act is considered bad for another culture
    3. And an act's moral value is determined by the culture (hidden premise)
    4. Therefore the act's moral value is relative to the culture

    You can now see that the new, third premise is equivalent to the conclusion.

    This new premise is very interesting in that it means that one should never disobey one's cultural morality.  Whatever the culture considers right is, in actuality, right.  In essence, relativists can never object to the law.  They can only be status quo conservatives and therefore moral absolutists are the only ones that can be progressive and radical!   Only a moral absolutist has a trans-cultural standard by which to judge actions and can say to Hitler or Saddam Hussein, "what you are doing is wrong and must be stopped."  Relativists can only say, "different strokes for different folks, I happen to disagree but that's all."

    It’s amazing how the public perception of these roles are the exact opposite of what I have just outlined.  Moral relativists are typically depicted as the liberal agents of change, while moral absolutists are supposed to be conservative dogmatists.  We can now see that moral relativists are secretly dogmatic and moral absolutists are radical and agents of change for good in the culture!

    Those of us who understand that there is an absolute standard of right and wrong are agents of change. To settle into a comfortable conservatism is a surrender of the moral leadership that is required and expected of us. The reversal of the relativist and absolutist roles in the culture today will be addressed in Part Two.

    Thanks to Peter Kreeft for much of the material for this post 


    1. Love that role reversal concept. What is progressive? What is conservative? Even these terms can be relative.

    2. Excellent way of putting it!

      The way I put it is this, and it's something every schoolchild knows:

      The majority of answers on a multiple choice test are wrong.

      1. Thanks Pair O'Dimes!

        The only way for every path to be right is if you don't care where you are going.

    3. "The only way for every path..."

      Ha! Joe! I have to pack that in my bag for future use! That statement sums up moral relativism!! Thank you

    4. @Joe: Cheshire Cat logic. Which way you ought to go depends on where you want to get to--if it really doesn't matter, then it really doesn't matter which way you go. You're bound to get somewhere if you walk enough, the question is where will you end up?

    5. I truly don't know of any ethicist who is a moral relativist. I understand the need for religious people to contrast religious claims to moral absolutes given from God to non believers who seek to develop their ethics through reason, empathy, discussion and science but to attack moral relativism as characteristic of modern secular society is, in my opinion, a strawman.

      Rather it would be beneficial to look into what moral absolutes there are and if they should be normative to society. Personally the only moral absolutes that religious people have proposed have to do with sexual issues (contraception and gay sex in particular). To me if anything could reach a level of moral absolute it would be racism, sexism or genocide. For the latter I don't know of any ethicist making claims that these actions are morally permissible in some societies.

      1. Hi Rationalist1,

        Your question is interestingly phrased.

        "... it would be beneficial to look into what moral absolutes there are and if they should be normative to society."

        By what absolute standard will you judge the claims of moral absolutism? If it is not an absolute standard, what value will that judgement have?

        Thank you for your comment.

      2. But the first part of the question is what moral absolutes, if any, exist. I've seen much talk of moral absolutes and the need for them but, outside of sexual issues, never had any stated. Once we see if they truly exist, then we can talk about judging them.

        The other aspect of morality is so we practice temporal moral relativism. Are the actions of a society one hundred or a thousand years ago justified then but not now. As a concrete example, the widespread bombing of civilian targets by allied forces in the Second World War would have been reprehensible now if conducted in Iraq or Afghanistan. Were the Allied and Axis forces in the Second World War right or wrong in engaging in those actions? Would it be acceptable to do that today?

        Ethics is a fascinating and important question but should be addressed in a realistic fashion. Moral relativism, outside of a few cranks, is not seriously promoted by the majority of ethicists, religious or not.

      3. R1,

        A simple moral absolute is "Do not murder" That is a standard against which particular actions can be judged. Was this killing good or bad based upon whether it is a murder or not. Without the absolute, the action is judged against what? Standards are required. I wonder how you can ask IF there are any. Of course there are. We use them all the time.

        Secondly, you bring up how actions of today and yesterday are reprehensible now but not then. Again, that is a question of cultural value-opinions, and not moral values. You are illustrating my point from the post that, just because a culture believes that an action is moral it does not BECOME moral. The use of the word "acceptable" implies relativism.

        Again, if a person is limited to the morality of its culture, then how can we condemn Hitler, Mao or Hussein? We have no absolute morals against which to compare. Without them, we can only stand by and say "we don't agree because my culture doesn't like it."

        This deteriorates either to impotent fist-shaking or to Might-makes-right violence.

      4. "Do not murder" is a good example. By murder I assume you mean an innocent life. And by an absolute it means a moral precept that can never be justified. This is unlike say a prohibition against hurting someone. In general one shouldn't inflict bodily pain on a person but dentists and doctors do it all the time and it can be justified. Moral absolutes cannot be countervailed.

        The traditional presentation of the "Do not murder (or take an innocent life" is often presented in terms of abortion. As a nun in Phoenix (?) and a women in Ireland found out the Catholic prohibition against taking of an innocent unborn life can be quite rigid. (Although Santorum and his wife could invoke indirect cause to justify their difficult abortion choice)

        So are nuclear deterents immoral. Use of nuclear weapons in even a "surgical strike" against a military target would undoubtedly kill many innocent non combatants. Yet the west maintains those weapons and threatens their use either as a first strike or as a retaliatory strike. How can this be justified in the case of a "Do not Murder" absolute prohibition.

        I do not approve of cultural or temporal moral relativism. The holding of slaves has always been wrong, the killing of people for homosexual acts has always been wrong, and the execution of people for blasphemy is wrong now (as practiced by Muslim countries) and was wrong in the past (as practiced by Christian countries)

      5. Edited for careless proofreading mistakes


        Ah, I see where the problem is. You are confusing an absolute standard (a moral absolute) with the application of a moral absolute in a particular situation. The moral absolute MUST exist so that you have something against which to judge an action in a particular situation. Do you see the difference?

        Moral relativism asserts NO absolute standard and is self-contradictory in that regard.

        I am glad to hear that you acknowledge (in your last paragraph) an absolute standard in some cases. Earlier you had challenged me to give you one.

        Disagreement with me on the application of a moral absolute (if we do) is perfectly fine and I respect your right to make your case. But on the EXISTENCE of moral absolutes, it may be that we agree.

      6. A moral absolute is the assertion that some actions are absolutely wrong or right independent of their circumstances (assuming rational, sane moral agent). If you allow the absolute to be tempered with the situation then it's situation ethics or consequentialism.

      7. As an example. Given a rational moral agent, is rape ever justified? Is that a moral absolute or is it tempered by the circumstance. Is apartheid a moral absolute or can it be tempered by circumstances? Is genocide ever "something against which to judge an action in a particular situation"?

      8. R1,

        Even the moral absolutes are, to some degree, conditional. Note that you are "assuming rational, sane moral agent" for example.

        The word "rape" and "murder" are words both loaded with assumptions. Murder is not just killing, it is first of all, killing of a human by a human. It is applicable under specific situations and conditions, etc. We need to be aware of those assumptions and conditions. Murder can be justified or non-justified because the word does not carry ALL the necessary assumptions to make it one way or another. For example, murder can be justified in self-defense. If we change it to non-self-defense murder, maybe you might say THAT thing is never justifiable. Maybe you need more qualifiers.

        Apartheid and rape both have enough built-in assumptions and conditions that we can pretty confidently say they are non-justifiable.

        Do you see?

        My point is that there do exist the absolutes by which we measure the particular events with all the spoken and unspoken assumptions, conditions, situations to see if it is good or not.

        The problem I see is that people talk about EITHER the absolute (the law), OR they talk about a particular situation, each ignoring the other. If the former, then they apply too-rigid standards and ignore the situational and particular aspects of an event. If the latter, everything "depends" and you end up with situation ethics.

        We have to talk about both together for it to make sense.

        (As an aside, consequentialism is not relativistic. It is an absolute standard. Good consequences == Good action. Note that is it backwards in time. You don't know a good action until it yields good consequences. So, unfortunately that is not a practical policy, since we cannot see all outcomes (or conditions) ahead of time and it cannot therefore be used as a guide for potential actions.)

    6. The caveat to sane moral agents is ethics 101 and in the premise for all ethical discussions.

      Moral absolutes are actions, not legal definitions. Murder is a legal definition, with degrees (first and second degree), motive, etc. built in. As soon as you apply all those caveats the deliberate taking of a innocent human life becomes not a moral absolute, but a situation ethics).

      This discussion started because I took issue with you decrying moral relativism as the secular ethics the world around us is moving towards. My contention is that it is a strawman and that moral relativists do not exist (or at least the few that do are not taken seriously by ethicists).

      I still have not had an example from you of a moral absolute. That is, an action that is always good or bad independent of the circumstances for rational moral agents. I'll give you the classic modern Catholic example, contraception. For a heterosexual couple use of contraception is never licit. Consequentialism would say that the use of a condom by a married couple where one partner is HIV positive that prevents transmission of the virus and eventual death from HIV to be a positive outcome. Because use of condoms by heterosexuals is, in Catholic teaching, never justified, the good consequences are immaterial.

      1. R1,

        So now I am thoroughly confused by your statement of position.

        On one hand, you say there are no moral relativists. On the other you say you cannot identify any moral absolutes. (Despite talking about rape and apartheid as never being justifiable.) Can you tell me what you think there is? Absolutism or Relativism or ???

        Thanks for being patient with my misunderstanding.

      2. Sorry I don't want to talk past each other. My contention is that there are no moral relativists, those who say right and wrong is dependent upon society. I personally have not encountered any in my reading save for a few fringe people who are not taken seriously. I know the Pope blames moral relativism on all society's evils but I believe (no pun intended) that he's addressing changing moral norms.

        Moral absolutes are not the opposite of moral relativism as least as far as I've seen it defined as actions that are inherently good or bad independent of the circumstances. The classic moral absolute that is always suggested, the taking of an innocent, is life, is if examined, unfortunately, not an absolute for most people.

        My point in belaubouring this topic is two fold 1) to stop discussion of moral relativism as a red herring and to 2) seriously address the question of moral absolutes and have people from all backgrounds discuss and come to some agreement as to what absolutes we as a society can all agree on.

      3. Hi R1,
        In reference to your condom example above, I’d like to point out something for you or anyone reading. In Catholic moral theology there is something called The Principle of Double Effect. It is a set of ethical criteria that states an action having a harmful effect that is inseparable from the good effect is justifiable IF the act itself good (or at least morally neutral), we intend the good effect and not the bad, and the good effect outweighs the bad effect sufficiently.

        I know that the use of birth control pills is allowed if the intent is only to regulate a medical problem with a woman's cycle. I’m not a moral theologian, but I believe this falls under the idea of “double effect”. I think the same is true for the husband with HIV using a condom.

      4. I understand the principle of double effect. While it has been allowed for the pill to regulate difficult menstrual cycles in women the use of a condom among married couples even if one is HIV positive is still not permitted. My only point in bring this one up is not to bash the Catholic Church's position on contraception but to indicate this as a moral absolute that the Church maintains.

        A better, less controversial (?), one is gay sex. For the Catholic Church this is viewed as a moral absolute, not permitted under any circumstances (i.e. no principle of double effect.).

    7. When man sets himself as the arbiter of what is good through reason, empathy, discussion and science his findings will be influenced by temporality, culture and politics. The "good" isn't determined by the participant or by the observer. The "good" is an absolute by which we can only compare our human actions; everything we do, or fail to do is relative to The Good.

      1. Hi Mike,
        That’s a good way to put it. Influence by temporality, culture and politics can become hidden premises or subconscious assumptions. They create moral “blind spots”.

    8. Hi Ben,
      R1's stated point is to bring people to agreement on moral absolutes that society can agree on. That seems to beg the question about what becomes of those "absolutes" when the society of good intentioned people change their mind.

      History has shown that society, (man) constantly fails in making such determinations when attempted in the vacuum of reason alone. The atmosphere supporting such heavy calculation must contain equal parts of Faith and Reason. Those who breathe both realize the elements do not repel one another but form a life giving molecule.

      1. But then it brings us back to the real question of what are those moral absolutes, either from a secular or religious perspective?

    9. Is an absolute viewed from a different perspective changed? If so, is it absolute?
      I don't see a possibillty for a secular moral absolute; man does not have the capacity. So from my perspective or yours there is no moral absolute.
      If we turn to God then I believe we have a moral absolute that applies to me from my perspective and to you from your perspective.
      I think from this premise a certain wager is to be considered.

      1. All very well, but what are the absolutes. I agree there probably are moral absolutes, actions that are inherently right or wrong and cannot be justified by countervailing circumstances. But for you, what are they?

    10. Let me answer in two parts because I don't want to talk past each other and the second part of my answer will probably seem to do that although it is not my intention.

      Part A: Moral absolutes as they relate to human interaction:
      1.Respect for proper authority
      2.Respect for life
      4.Respect for the property of others
      6.Love of neighbor
      Try as I might, in every area mentioned above I will fail in my actions to some degree because of the times, the culture, my politics, because I am human. But the areas mentioned above are not really The Absolute; they mark the way. As I said above, everything we do is only relative to The Good.

      Part B: So what is The Absolute Good?
      It is not a thing but a Person: Jesus Christ. There is a portrait of him in Matthew chapter 5:3-11

      In my opinion R1, it is not possible for man to live up to this standard but we must keep it as The Standard and keep on trying to make every action conform to the standard to the best of our abilities.

      I thank you for this exercise and look forward to your response.

    11. Part A are moral principles that one seeks in general to uphold, not moral absolutes that can never be transgressed. From Wikipedia "Moral absolutism is an ethical view that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of other circumstances such as their consequences or the intentions behind them."

      The Absolute Good for you may be Jesus, but I was asking was a moral absolute was in your ethics, an action that is always right or wrong if performed by a moral agent (a being who is capable of acting with reference to right and wrong)?

    12. I tried to answer your seemingly sincere question with a sincere answer. If you will allow only a narrowly focused answer to your narrow Wikipedia definition and offer no further possibility of discussion then we are done.

    13. Do you understand that for an action to count as a moral absolute, then no circumstances would suffice to justify it. I used the Wikipedia definition because that is the first one that came up.

      Take the first item on your list. There are times when respect for proper authority is not justified and citizens need to protest the actions of a duly elected government.

      I believe it's a false dichotomy, moral absolutism vs moral relativism. For the first part is that no person really follows either. Rather they have a series of moral principles (like the ones you stated) obtained through various means, secular or religious, some principles being held in higher regard than others. While their might be moral absolutes that
      some maintain are never justified (I offered the Catholic view of homosexual acts), no one seriously takes the view that all actions are dependent upon their particular society?

      Does my distinction between moral absolutes and moral principles make sense? Do you agree that a moral absolute is a statement of an action that can never be justified, or conversely, is always justified?

      1. The fact that an act must be seen in the context of the circumstances in which it occurs does not make the moral absolute situational. For example, killing another human person may be wrong or right. If you are trying to define a moral absolute as a particular act totally divorced from its setting, you are probably right, you won't find one. But that is due to your unnecessarily narrow definition of "moral absolute" as merely the act itself, without any reference to intent.

        Moral culpability or mortal sin requires 3 criteria to be met:
        1) The act must involve grave matter; viz., a violation of the Decalogue. In this context "grave" is more than merely a cultural standard, it is also a violation of the natural law. "Natural law" is like porn, it's hard to define but you know it when you see it.
        2) The individual must know that the act is wrong. In other words, the act requires a violation of conscience. If a person's conscience is so badly formed that he does not believe the act is "wrong", the act is not mortal sin, even though society may nevertheless impose penalties on the perpetrator for its own protection.
        3) The act must have been performed freely & deliberately; that is, in possession of one's faculties & not under external duress.

        Note that only the first standard is objective, the second two are subjective conditions existing in the mind & soul of the person performing the illicit act.

        An example is direct abortion, the deliberate taking of innocent unborn human life (without a mitigating circumstance such as ectopic pregnancy) which the Church holds is "intrinsically evil"; wrong always & everywhere. A Catholic, who aborts her child, & those who perform or facilitate this act, is automatically excommunicated.
        Yet her culpability morally may be mitigated if she sincerely bought into the lie that it is "only a mass of tissue" or if she was placed under extreme duress so that she felt she had no other choice, a word pregnant with meaning in this context.

        As an aside, I have attended a post-abortion retreat, and even if the mitigating conditions above were present at the time, the devastating guilt & remorse these women experience is awful. They have come to realize that "it" really was a child, a separate & distinct human being, temporarily dependent on them physically but not "part of their body". They also discover that they were betrayed by those whose influence they bitterly regret.

        Another example of grave matter would be lying, the deliberate deception of another person by a falsehood. Suppose however during WWII the porter of a convent giving refuge to a family of Jews tells the Gestapo there are none present; obviously the Gestapo officer did not deserve the truth given his evil intent. You can see the principle of double effect at work in these two examples.

        One other principle to keep in mind is that evil is not a thing; that is, it can be better understood as a lack or privation. Volumes have been written to elucidate this.

        I'm a practical guy, not a moral theologian, so others can speak to this problem more authoritatively. My point to you is that resisting concupiscence, our tendency to choose evil rather than good, is a full-time job for the best of us. The attempt to call evil good and good evil, is perennial, & is gaining alarming traction in our increasingly decadent culture.

      2. I've asked a priest I know online ( if my interpretation of the term "moral absolute" is correct. Our difference may be semantic. I'll let you know what he says.

      3. R1, I agree that yours is a definition and I understand that it is the one you want to use but it doesn't really allow for a well rounded discussion of the topic.R1, I heard the best articulation of the idea I was groping to share by the philosopher, Peter Kreeft in the podcast of a talk entitled, "Identity". Basically it goes like this: We cannot possess these things whether we call them moral absolutes or principles or truths; we must allow them to possess us. If you are a fan of "Lord of the Rings" you might enjoy listening to Peter Kreeft relate the two.

      4. I checked with a priest I talk with online ( and he agrees the the notion of moral absolutes that I use is one that he agrees with.

        I just noticed I gave the incorrect reference in my previous post to a completely article I was reading. Please ignore it.

      5. R1, I guess the simple answer is no I do not agree that a moral absolute is as you define it because of the part that says it is a statement or action. A statement or action comes from an imperfect creature: man. Since he is imperfect, nothing he does or says can be right in every instance. If we said it was a standard that we should always endeavor to meet then I would agree, would or could you?

    14. I'm not saying humans need to be perfect or certainly that every action they do will be right. In Catholic theology homosexual sex is a moral absolute. It is always wrong. There are no circumstances that can justify it. Racism is a moral absolute. It is always wrong (I agree with this one). There are no circumstances where racism can be justified.

      Stealing is a high moral principle. It is almost always wrong but there are circumstances where theft (stealing food to save a starving child) allows theft of another person's property.

      Anyways we can agree to disagree as without agreement on terminology I think this discussion is hopeless.