I have observed a number of people who believe, either explicitly or implicitly, that what is popular in a person’s society is what is moral. For instance, someone might say:

  • Polls say that 90% of Americans are in favor of X. Therefore, it’s morally permissible to do that.
  • Those who say Y is immoral are behind the times; the vast majority of society doesn’t believe that any more.
  • Everybody’s doing Z, so it must be okay

To be clear, the argument being made in these cases is that because something is popular, it is therefore moral (rather than popularity being a reflection of moral beliefs for other reasons).

I see this most commonly with sexual ethics (e.g. premarital sex, homosexuality, contraception), but occasionally for other things like intellectual property issues (e.g. pirating movies). A pretty typical way I see this is a reliance on opinion polls as justification for something being moral.

Is there a term for this explicit or implicit belief that what is popular in society defines what is moral?

  • Compare: social construct / social construction in sociology for a more underlying phenomena where popular norms are viewed as inherent – Samuel Russell Nov 25 '18 at 1:45
  • Generational Normative Ethics? How a generation defines their own process of ethical behavior? So what is popular is current and what is moral is generational. Or maybe just Popular normative ethics. – Robus Nov 25 '18 at 16:40

My sense is that you are referring to a form of relativism that takes the specific form of morality by convention. Or at least that the social attitude you describe can be set out in these terms. It is capable of development beyond the banalities of prevailing forms of relativism. I develop this below, just slightly, but it may be that this is not at all your angle of interest. If it isn't, excuse the misunderstanding.

A version of this form of relativism can be found in FH Bradley's Ethical Studies, ch. V, 1876, in JN Findlay's 'Morality by Convention' (1944) and (at a stretch) in Wittgenstein's conception of 'forms of life' in Philosophical Investigations (1953, rev. 1958).

The central idea is that only in the context of a set of institutions, customs, and practices - a set of conventions - can moral obligations, duties, and rights arise. These institutions, customs, and practices are historically and socially specific; and since moral obligations, duties, and rights are indexed to them and vary with them, 'morality by convention', just described, is a form of relativism.

I am mainly trying to explain the idea of morality by convention, and not to defend it. But there is some substance to it. If you think of the morality of the English medieval manor, moral obligations, duties, and rights all stemmed from the institutions, customs, and practices of the time. The manorial rights of property-holding, for instance, were sustained by institutions, customs, and practices of the manor, and vanished when the social structure of the manor passed away.

An important point to note is that morality by convention is prescriptive, not merely descriptive. On this view of morality, moral obligations, duties, and rights are all actually binding - objectively binding. They are, if you care to put it so, emergent properties of the social structure. To outline them is not to do the sociology of morals, or merely to characterise popular morality. It is to specify real moral requirements, objectively binding on the community, but real moral requirements that are also relative to a specific social structure.

The oddity or distinctiveness of this idea - I use the terms neutrally - is not to be under-rated. We are all familiar with various forms of relativism, the burden of which is that there is no such thing as an objective morality - only moral diversity. Morality by convention takes us by surprise. It combines relativism and objectivity. On the other side, just as it interlocks relativism and objectivity, so also it breaks with the idea of a universal objective morality. Objective morality exists, all right, but in forms that are historically and socially specific and that need never converge in a single moral code.


J.N. Findlay, 'Morality by Convention', Mind, Vol. 53, No. 210 (Apr., 1944), pp. 142-169.

F.H. Bradley, Ethical Studies, 1876 and regularly reprinted.

L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953, rev. 1958), paras. 241-2 et passim. See further : https://nb.vse.cz/kfil/elogos/history/24_02_tonner.pdf.


The system of morality being referred to is popular morality, and it is a current area of research in philosophy, with the following notable mentions:

  • Popular Morality and Unpopular Philosophy

    K. J. Dover maintains that the ancient Greeks recognized no rights other than those conferred by the laws of one's city. This chapter argues that examples from philosophy, history, and drama show that in certain cases Greeks regarded themselves as possessing rights independent of, and sometimes overriding the laws of the city. These rights were seen as grounded in divine law, in special obligations which individuals owed to the gods, or in nature.

  • Popular Morality, Custom, and Convention

    Unlike the classical world, ancient Israel has left little ‘popular’ literature, so reconstructing the moral codes of ordinary people is difficult. Nevertheless it is clear that some moral teachers—notably the prophets—met with resistance to their message, and from this we can form some idea of what was believed by people more generally, at least in some periods. There is some evidence of a conventional morality in Israel that does not derive from official sources, such as the Torah. In certain areas of moral thought, such as the ethics of war, there were conventions widely shared throughout the ancient Near East, and there must have been a popular morality for daily life, which sometimes emerges in biblical narratives.

  • Popular Morality in Herodotus

    This chapter states that the most debated area of 'popular morality' in Herodotus concerns its role in his analysis of the major decisions of the leading states and his complex categories of historical explanation. In his opening sentences Herodotus makes it clear that he sees it as his business to explain why major conflicts start, and to record how cities as well as individuals rise and fall, fall and rise, in changing patterns of human mutability. Herodotus is approving a moralizing judgment which explains the victory of the Greeks in terms of the imperialist aggression and blasphemy of their enemies. He offers the reader the hint that such moral and political contrasts are as subject to constant, yet unpredictable, change as are the prosperity or sufferings of individuals and the rise and fall of states.

  • Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle

    In ancient Greece, as today, popular moral attitudes differed importantly from the theories of moral philosophers. While for the latter we have Plato and Aristotle, this insightful work explores the everyday moral conceptions to which orators appealed in court and political assemblies, and which were reflected in non-philosophical literature. Oratory and comedy provide the primary testimony, and reference is also made to Sophocles, Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and other sources. The selection of topics, the contrasts and comparisons with modern religious, social and legal principles, and accessibility to the non-specialist ensure the work's appeal to all readers with an interest in ancient Greek culture and social life.

  • Popular Morality in the Early Roman Empire

    Morality is one of the fundamental structures of any society, enabling complex groups to form, negotiate their internal differences and persist through time. In the first book-length study of Roman popular morality, Dr Morgan argues that we can recover much of the moral thinking of people across the Empire. Her study draws on proverbs, fables, exemplary stories and gnomic quotations, to explore how morality worked as a system for Roman society as a whole and in individual lives. She examines the range of ideas and practices and their relative importance, as well as questions of authority and the relationship with high philosophy and the ethical vocabulary of documents and inscriptions. The Roman Empire incorporated numerous overlapping groups, whose ideas varied according to social status, geography, gender and many other factors. Nevertheless it could and did hold together as an ethical community, which was a significant factor in its socio-political success.

  • Magazine Humor and Popular Morality

    An example of popular morality in the modern era.

We note that the term is mostly used in reference to moralities in ancient cultures, and appears less often in studies about modern culture. Studies like the latter prefer to use more specific terms such as "modern morality" or "modern moral philosophy" with the following examples:

  • Modern Moral Philosophy

    Although this collection of articles is not formally a commentary on Elizabeth Anscombe's famous article of the same title, in which she criticised the moral philosophy prevalent in 1958, a number of the contributors do take Anscombe's work as a starting point. Taken together the collection could be seen as a demonstration of the extent to which moral philosophers have since attempted to answer Anscombe's challenge, and to develop an approach to their subject which, while psychologically plausible, is neither based on divine law nor permissive of the impermissible.

  • Ancient Ethics and Modern Morality (a journal article)

  • Modern morality is just exhibitionism (a newspaper column)

More popular and less academic articles tend to use the term "modern morality" in favour of "popular morality".

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    I don't think this really answers the OP's question. "Popular morality" refers to the moral views of the public (analogously to "popular culture"); the OP is asking about the belief that popular morality is dispositive. – ruakh Nov 25 '18 at 5:03
  • @ruakh There are no terms to succintly describe beliefs in any doctrine without using the word "belief". – Carl Masens Nov 27 '18 at 12:23
  • You are, of course, allowed to use the word "belief". :-) – ruakh Nov 27 '18 at 16:00

There must first be a distinction between moral, moral authority, popularity and ethics..

Ethics and moral are pillar which hold a roof of truth where the popular view and perception should and ought to take shelter.. Ethics define what is moraly acceptable per each population.. But that doesn't negate the fact that moral law is constant.. Eg) legalising abortion could be a popular vote in community X and unpopular in community Y.. But the fact remains,unethical to kill thus it it against moral law of life.. So just because something passes the first law of popularity.. Is has to be passed though law 2 and 3 which more often than note are always constant.. Referee Examples are neo-Aristotelians such as Hursthouse on abortion (1991) and on nature (2007), as well as neo-Kantians such as Regan on animals (1985), Korsgaard in general and in particular on animals and nature (1996), and Altman’s edited volume on the use and limits of Kant’s practical philosophy in applied ethics (2011).

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    I’m guessing you mean “moral” instead of “molar”? I don’t thnk you intended to talk about the ethics of teeth! – Thunderforge Nov 24 '18 at 18:46
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    I agree with @Thunderforge that an edit should be made to fix the spelling. Welcome to this SE! – Frank Hubeny Nov 24 '18 at 18:48
  • Tooth is the highest molar! – christo183 Nov 26 '18 at 12:55

Are you possibly looking for a phrase like: Argumentum ad populum

Loosely, this describes a rhetorical device (or fallacy, if considering debate in those terms) which seeks to use the popularity of an idea as implicit justification of the validity of the idea.

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