Moral Relativism: Differentiating between Good and Evil

February 26, 2018

Morality is understood as a set of norms, beliefs, and customs that guide the behavior of people (Stanford University, 2011). Morality is what dictates right and wrong. In other words, it allows us to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate thoughts and actions.

However, what may seem simple on paper may lead to questions upon deeper inspection. One answer to these doubts and the contradictions they generate is based on moral relativism.

Morality is neither objective nor universal. In fact, even within the same culture, we find differences in morality — although they may be smaller than those found between cultures. If we compare the morality of two cultures, the differences become much larger. In addition, within the same society, the coexistence of different religions can create a lot of differences (Rachels and Rachels, 2011).

Closely related to morality is the concept of ethics. Ethics is the search for the universal principles of morality (although there are some authors who consider ethics and morals the same, such as Gustavo Bueno).

Those who study ethics analyze morality in different cultures in order to find shared traits, universal principles. Globally, ethical behaviors are officially recorded in the declaration of human rights.

Moral relativism.

Western morals

Years ago, Nietzsche (1996) condemned the Western celebration of what he called “slave morality.” He resented this morality because he believed that the highest actions could not be the work of men, but only of a God projected outside of ourselves. And the morality that Nietzsche shied away from is considered Judeo-Christian in its origins.

In spite of the philosophical criticism, this morality is still alive, although it is becoming more liberal. Given colonialism and its domination of the western world, Judeo-Christian morality is the most widespread. And this fact can sometimes cause problems.

The idea that each culture has an idea of morality is called cultural relativism. Each culture has a text that lays out their codes for good behavior, such as the Quran or the Hindu Vedas (Santos, 2002).

Cultural relativism

Evaluating another morality from the point of view of your own morality can be a totalitarian practice. Because normally in doing so you form a negative evaluation full of stereotypes. Thus why we will almost always reject morals that do not adapt to our own. We may even question the moral capacities of anyone with a different system.

To understand how various morals interact, let’s take a look at Wittgenstein’s explanation (1989). It explains morality with a simple scheme. To better understand, try this simple exercise: take a sheet of paper and draw a bunch of circles on it. Each circle will represent a different morality and there are three possibilities for how these circles interact:

  • First, two circles do not overlap.
  • Second, one circle is inside another circle.
  • Third, two circles overlap, but not all the way.
Bubbles and overlapping circles.

Two circles that overlap represent two moral codes that have something in common. They have varying degrees of commonality depending on how much they overlap. In addition, there are larger circles that represent moralities that include more norms, and smaller ones that refer to more specific ones.

Moral relativism

However, there is another paradigm that proposes that there is no morality in any culture. Instead, moral relativism proposes that each person has a unique morality (Lukes, 2011).

Now, imagine that each circle from the previous exercise is the morality of a person, rather than that of a culture. From this perspective, all morals are accepted regardless of who they come from or in what situation they are given. There are three positions within moral relativism:

  • Descriptive moral relativism (Swoyer, 2003): this position holds that there are disagreements regarding which behaviors are right, even if the consequences of each behavior are the same. However, descriptive relativists do not necessarily defend tolerating all behavior in light of such disagreement.
  • Meta-ethical moral relativism (Gowans, 2015): according to this school of thought, the truth or falsehood of a judgement is not the same universally. Therefore no judgement can be objective. Judgements are relative due to traditions, convictions, beliefs, or community practices.
  • Normative moral relativism (Swoyer, 2003): from this position, it is thought that there are no universal moral standards. Therefore, you cannot judge other people. All behavior must be tolerated, even when it’s contrary to our own beliefs.
A tree made out of colorful hands.

The fact that a moral explains a wider range of behaviors, or that more people agree with it, does not mean that it’s correct. However, it also doesn’t mean it’s incorrect.

Moral relativism assumes that different morals will lead to disagreements, which will lead to conflict if there isn’t dialogue and understanding (Santos, 2002). Thus, finding common ground is the best way to establish healthy relationships, both between people and between cultures.

Bibliography

Gowans, C. (2015). Moral relativism. Stanford University. Link: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/#ForArg

Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Link: http://www.iep.utm.edu/ethics

Lukes, S. (2011). Relativismo moral. Barcelona: Paidós.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1996). La genealogía de la moral. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.

Rachels, J. Rachels, S. (2011). The elements of moral philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Santos, B. S. (2002). Hacia una concepción multicultural de los derechos humanos. El Otro Derecho, (28), 59-83.

Stanford University (2011). “The definition of morality”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Palo Alto: Stanford University.

Swoyer, C. (2003). Relativism. Stanford University. Link: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/#1.2

Wittgenstein, L. (1989). Conferencia sobre ética. Barcelona: Paidós.