I have always believed that ethics belongs to the realm of reason and it is absolute. A rational human being should be able to arrive to a natural code of conduct. However, nowadays I see many people flirt with relativistic ethics.

If a code of ethics is relative, then there is no absolute right and wrong and everything can be justifiable inside the appropriate frame of reference.

But how can a non-universal ethics (not based on life/death/pleasure/pain) be justified? Could you give some examples or references?

  • Hi Peter, welcome to Philosophy.SE - interesting question! On this site, we discourage subjective questions and answers, because they often don't work very well with the format of this Q&A site. We like questions that are no research topic itself, and have one right answer, which doesn't depend on any philosophical doctrine. I edited your question to make it fit with these standards better - I hope I didn't change the original meaning too much.
    – user2953
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 7:48
  • I’m sorry to say, Keelan, isn't such a thing possible that here on "philosophy" site, we can give "one and only decisive" answer to the questioner not depending any philosophical doctrine?? I saw many answers here but it seems to me any answer was and is to some extend depending on philosophical doctrine of which I am not so sure about your criteria or some sort of standard ( I don't know hot to say, sorry. )
    – user13955
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 9:10
  • @KentaroTomono this has been discussed on meta intensively, see for example meta.philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/474/2953, so I won't echo the arguments here. Also please @ me when you write me so that I get a notification.
    – user2953
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 11:22
  • It seems a fair question to me. I'd say that a relative ethical scheme can only be defended relatively, which is to say not very effectively. An absolute scheme would be defensible in metaphysics. My apologies, but I'm unable to think of a good book on ethics by a Western writer, the reason being that in our neck of the woods metaphysics is a shambles. .
    – user20253
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 11:17
  • i think 'harm' is a better term than what you describe (pleasure pain life death), but the question is good if it has not yet come up
    – user28117
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 13:03

4 Answers 4


While this is a broad question, I think the answer to your question is hidden in the question itself.

People who are fine with relativistic ethics either on a personal or cultural level think it is impossible, unnecessary, or undesirable to justify an ethical system.

In other words, such views take your seemingly rhetorical question:

If a code of ethics is relative, then there is no absolute right and wrong and everything is only justifiable inside the appropriate point of reference.

And then they go for the other horn of the dilemma -- they accept that this means everything is only justifiable inside the appropriate point of reference. Generally, they then assert that this what has always been going on in ethics. Often this is done by taking either a sociological or biological explanation as the correct understanding of ethics.

As such, they accept that the only justifications you can usually get are internal (rather than external).

A philosopher (or maybe by the end of his career he would have preferred not to be called one) who accepted this view was Richard Rorty. At one point, he was president of the APA. He believes that when we imagine we're hitting bedrock with our thinking that we are just fooling ourselves.

More recently, Gil Harman and David Wong have both defended species of moral relativism.

Several other prominent philosophers disagree. A classic attempt to rebut this in the modern era is offered by James Rachel in his chapter entitled "Moral Relativism."

A rather generic argument follows the same course as your question but potentially amends it with questions about what moral relativism cannot condemn. Rachels for instance points out that the moral relativism cannot condemn slavery in either the past of his own culture or the present of any culture -- nor is it clear that he can condemn murders or holocausts in any of these.

Parts of your answer hint at a natural law approach to ethics. On such views, moral relativism fails because there is a natural moral order in the universe, and we are the sort of creatures endowed with the reason to see it.


We do not respond to ethical dilemmas with binary switches and levers, but with complex and nuanced human behavior. Our ethical obligations in a scenario may or may not be relative to a lot of things, real or imagined, but it is undeniable that it will be relative to the capacity of the agent in the moment to make the ethical judgment.

That agent may seek to act according to objective, universal norms, but we can guarantee that another agent will see those norms differently.

Ethical relativism can be slammed as a means of avoiding ethical decision making altogether, and there is some credit to that criticism. However, ethical absolutism can fail to take into account the varied make up and judgment of the agents who must carry out ethically sound behavior.

Or the position of an ethical absolutist may be that all agents should surrender their independent agency to some supposedly objective judge. To my mind, such an idea is itself unethical, and would obviate the whole scheme of objective enforcement.

So I believe there is a position between the two extremes: If we posit a moral and social obligation for all persons to strive to act according to ethical norms, we must acknowledge the agency of those persons, which is to say the necessarily flawed humanity of those persons. We should understand they may disappoint and even anger us when they appear to fail in this obligation. They may disappoint and anger us even as they strive with undeniable integrity to act according to objective ethical norms that we may profess to share.

  • You said: "surrender their independent agency to some supposedly objective judge". This judge is nature through the freedom/slavery/life/death/pleasure/pain objective sensors. Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 19:37
  • Mr. Connell, you are engaging in a figure of speech, a metaphor. I know of no agents who are not independent beings, so I respectfully disagree. Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 20:03

Ethics are inherently subjective, because there is no universal "end goal" to which all humans subscribe.

Where we able to all decide upon a specific optimal state for humanity, then it would be possible to logically determine an action to be objectively "right." Actions which bring humanity closer to this desired state would be ethically correct, and those actions could be rated based on efficiency, cost, and risk to determine the most objectively correct action.

Unfortunately, since we can't all agree that slavery is bad or that rising income inequity negatively impacts the poor, we are stuck in the land of subjectivity ethics.

  • Slaving is anti-ethical because it involves a coercing force, as simple as dad. As far as I know, slavery was enforced on slaves. Slavery was a ETHICAL failure of past generations and has been now corrected by the civilized society. Rising income inequity is not a choice but a consequence of nature. Nature is not equal or egalitarian, very far from that. I wish I was 6'4''. Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 19:33
  • 1
    That's funny, because I believe the idea of slavery is ethical. If left to their own devices, some people just cause trouble and make choices that are not suitable for a proper society. Our busting prison population is evidence of that. I don't think it's their fault, that's just the world they were born into. Maybe it's been done poorly in the past, but slavery is far superior to the prison industrial complex we've got currently. Instead of these people being a drag on the economy, let them help power it! #notreallyproslavery Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 22:26

You just have a fine example in the comments here. Slavery used to be considered an indispensable part of human civilization. We now see it as an abominable evil. Now, either you claim that ALL pre-modern people were inherently evil, or you admit that something happened to Morality itself.

Note that we have here a refutation to a convenient confusion: it is easy to conflate moral relativism with criticism of the idea of "progress". But the very idea of progress is a form of moral relativism. You cannot judge middle-age men by modern standards. It's anachronistic.

If Morals were absolute, then, in all probability, by some future high standard, we are all evil. Morality collapses in a reduction-ad-absurdum.

Or take this example: In ancient societies, Women were considered inferior in every way. The Hebrew word for whore, for example is translated as "she who brings food". Just being in a position where you need to provide for your children without the support of a Man means that as a woman you're on your own, outcast and denigrated. This seems evil in our eyes. But the modern permissive view that women are individuals worthy of respect is an affront to many even today. Yes, I think we're more "right" than the chauvinists of yore. But they are certain that I'm a complete and utter fool. This is a fact of life: we have very different views on what is "good" and what is "evil". So, what now?

Moral relativism is (sometimes) an attempt at solving the conflict by going up a level. Instead of asking "who's right", ask "what are the conditions in which is type of moral rises"?

  • 1
    Not quite, mousomer, I would say. For instance, living ones life whilst doing as little harm to others as possible is not an approach that will ever become dated. The point about an absolute morality is that it would never become obsolete or ever need to change. The expression of that morality in practical terms would evolve with society etc., but the core ethical ideas would be relevant in every age and in every possible universe, since it would be metaphysically sound, a reflection of the truth about sentient beings and their world.
    – user20253
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 14:36
  • @PeterJ - your assumption that "living ones life whilst doing as little harm to others as possible" is a good thing is not shared by all people. I agree with it. But I don't think middle-ages philosophers would concur.
    – mousomer
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 16:24
  • Okay. But it wouldn't matter who agrees. The point is only that it is principle that can survive all situations.
    – user20253
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 18:06
  • Well, the point is that this principle is shared by you and I, but is highly questionable by others, Not to mention that "do not do harm unto others" is highly ambiguous. E.g. is vaccinating a child harmful to others (no) or is refraining from vaccinating her harmful (yes)? That's contestable, not only on the factual ground that vaccines save life, but it touches on questionable ethical questions (you have a responsibility towards others v.s. the child should be autonomous). The fact is that those are all contestable positions.
    – mousomer
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 7:42
  • Perhaps you could examine Schopenhauer explanation of altruism, which is grounded in metaphysics. When it comes to morality It is always the intention that matters, so the details of complicated decisions about vaccinations etc are not important. What's important is our intentions. .
    – user20253
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 9:07

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