I am able to understand that there is a irreconcilable difference between considering morality as an absolute and considering it being relative to individuals and groups.

However, if I take the point of view of a moral relativist, considering that groups and individual hold different valid moral point of views, I can only consider this morality difference to originate from their essential difference, should that be genes or education or experience. So, our morality is essentially tied with our existence and only entirely valid for ourselves.

Unless I'm mistaken, this contradicts the idea that morality can be debated to reach consensus, unless we share the same essence.

Doesn't this mean that ethics are vain, a belief among other beliefs, and morality is non-existent?

  • 2
    Here is you line of argument: X is relative to Y, ...therefore X is non-existent. Do you see the problem? In relativity, time is relative to a frame of reference, should we conclude that time is also non-existent? And consensus is reached not based on "moral essence" but on how people in a group agree to act to advance their ends, which may differ. It involves give and take and is shaped historically, not derived from something pre-existent.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 20:31

5 Answers 5


Suppose every individual has it's own moral code which is used to differentiate right from wrong. Debating the moral codes would still make sense if no one is fully aware of their own moral code.

Let's say someone provides you with 10 scenarios and asks you to make the "moral choice" on each scenario. Now let's suppose you are certain that you got 7 scenarios right according to your own moral code. You answered 2 of the remaining scenarios and are somewhat certain that you got it "right". You don't pick an option for the last scenario because you have no idea what is right and what is wrong.

In theory there could be a (relative) moral code that is capable of providing right choices for all the scenarios, but since you are not fully aware of it, you struggle to find your answers. Debating the last scenario makes perfect sense as you don't have a solution right now and need new insights. Debating the 2 you were not completely certain about makes sense as you might change your mind and come up with a solution which might fit your inner moral code better. If you are not going to change your mind about the other 7 scenarios, debating can still make sense as you might change someone elses mind and help them to better understand their own moral code.

So I'd say that ethics are not in vain and while a consensus of a full moral code can never be reached (per definition as it wouldn't be relative otherwise), the debates can still help someone understand their own morality better.


It doesn't mean that morality is non-existent, but it does mean that there are no absolute moral truths. The closest we come to absolute morals are the social rules which tend to emanate from realities about our human nature and societies - don't murder, don't steal, don't commit adultery etc.

So when asking 'is [x] moral', the question should really be 'am I willing to face the consequences of doing [x]' Some moralistic social norms arise which can affect the consequences of our behavior, but ultimately we're free to do whatever we want.


Yes. Moral relativism means there are no absolute moral truths when it comes to individuals and society, but it assumes that people have some kind of moral code to begin with that simply varies from culture to culture:

Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to the moral standard of some person or group of persons. -Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

People seem to forget this and don't realize that amorality (having no morality and indifference to right & wrong) is different. After all, this is the absence of any kind of moral code, so moral relativism doesn't really count here. There a world of difference between having different moral judgments/beliefs and having no sense of right or wrong whatsoever. Some try to claim that amorality counts as a moral code, but that is like saying that atheism is a form of theism or not believing in something is a belief system. The absence of any sense of right and wrong can't, by definition, be a moral code.


Moral relativism means there is no absolute but it does not mean moral points of view cannot be debated. When they are debated it generally turns out that one view is better than the other and progress can be made, just as in this discussion here.

  • Progress... towards what ?
    – Diane M
    Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 11:54
  • Better points of view. Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 11:56
  • The notion of better in a world with relative ethics is to be defined either, better to who or to what notion ? If we mean common ground or more universal, I should ask if the more universal ethics is the universal goal in moral relativism?
    – Diane M
    Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 12:00
  • Yes, for sure, better ethical points of view tend to the universal, but the 'relative' qualification enables escape from the imposition of an absolute best. There are problems like holism vs. anthropocentrism of course: what may be best for humans considered in isolation may differ from the holistic best. Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 12:33

Here's the difference.

Roughly, a world which is absent of morality is a world in which there are no moral facts—this is called moral anti-realism.

Moral relativists are not moral anti-realists, because they do believe in moral facts. However, for the relativist, moral facts exist relative to various moral communities. So, for example, it could be a real, substantive fact that torture is wrong in one community (and perhaps right in another). These facts exist. They are real. Again, they just obtain relative to the cultures to which they apply.

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