It seems that the existence of moral relativism undermines the entire enterprise of ethics, as it devolves into a bunch of, albeit very smart, people abstractly formulating what is ultimately just a particular neurological sentiment.

While I hope that it can be refuted, as I would very much like to see ethics as moving us towards an objectively better life, I find it hard to envision ethics ever being truly prescriptive in the same sense that, for example, medicine is. If a doctor says you need to do something that is uncomfortable or very painful or seems counterintuitive, they can convince you to do it because they can demonstrate, or, more likely, we trust that it has been demonstrated that following their recommendation will heal us or improve our condition. At a fundamental level, this can happen because we don't have medical relativism. Either a disease is cured or it is not. A person can walk faster or not etc.

How can ethics hope to capture this type of prescriptiveness? Is that even a goal? As a non-ethicist but someone who works with the law, environment, and human health, I would hope it would be the goal, as having an ethical equivalent to "medical knowledge" would be very helpful in weighing options.

So, is moral relativism dead? Can we honestly condemn some actions as ethically wrong just as we can classify some actions as medically/biologically harmful (ignore, for the sake of this question, the confusion surrounding nutrition and other "observational-study" dependent sciences, as they are messy and may be much more political).

To the ethically minded (and other ethical optimists like myself), do you see a way out and a path towards a prescriptive ethics? One that can command action even if the recommended course is prime facie undesirable or counterintuitive?

Thanks for your thoughts.

Expansion per Michael's comment:

... 1st, we've got to define with more clarity what moral relativism is, and 2nd, we've got to understand the cause of your dislike for it and [y]earning for the ethical gurus able to shed the light on one and only true ethics."

The first point: I see moral relativism as the belief that every person's ethics is sui generis, and ethics as a whole lacks an objective basis for comparing differing ethical systems. This is in contrast to, say, medicine, where there is a clear basis for what medicine is "about", even though different doctors may hold varying philosophies about treatment approaches (sometimes passionately) and different approaches work better for different people. In other words, there is still quite a bit of subjectivity and diversity of opinion, but, they all agree on the overall point of this enterprise called "medicine". A moral relativist denies this type of "teleological coherence" for ethics, and hence all moralizing is conditional upon an unchallengeable set of moral axioms, with no basis for comparison.

Second point: I am not seeking a pre-written code of ethics nor a prescriptive set of rules, I only "yearn" (to use your terminology) to see ethics actually develop principles that allow us to improve the human condition, as opposed to merely fill books with "alternatives" lacking any way to compare them. I don't think for a moment that such a system would be a cookie-cutter set of rules as the thinkers of the Enlightenment thought. For example, based on what we see in the world today, some principles of a widely applicable ethical calculus could be something like this:

Human psychology is such that values and priorities are not homogenous between societies nor individuals. However, living in accord with ones values and priorities brings the most happiness and contentment. Unfortunately, there will be inevitable conflicts between priorities, with a high potential for a zero-sum situation. Therefore, the freedom of association should be maximized to allow for moral variability and an efficient system of inter-societal transfer should be established for those individuals or groups that find other societies in better accord with their morals. Government should aim to ensure peaceful coexistence between groups and not interfere except to protect from aggression and to arbitrate disputes.

Granted, my principles have a very American flavor, which may undermine my point, but I was trying to convey the gist of what I am thinking. I want to point out the central role psychology, sociology, and neurology will play in an ethical calculus. Its not the rules, per se, but the development of a systematic method for accommodating moral diversity. I think that, like medicine, ethics has a goal, which is to allow people to experience more happiness, less suffering, more peace, less violence...all of which are fundamentally psychological/sociological. To the extent that the human brain has a common base of drives and rewards, we can hope to formulate a flexible ethical calculus that allows for diversity and happiness.

Anyway, sorry for making this long post even longer. I still think it means something to say "ethics", and its not just "whatever I think is ethics" (which could include chess, beer drinking, or a number of other unrelated areas of activity)

  • Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue has a lot to say about this.
    – labreuer
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 1:58
  • Thanks for clarification and +1. I don't have much to add though from teleological viewpoint, except that there could be a bit of coherence with another on of yours, but I'm sure you noticed. :)
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 2:37
  • I don't know if there is much absolutism even in medicine. The medical analogy was applied early on in ethics, as even Socrates taught virtue as a sort of medicine of the soul. But doctors in the end are little more than physiological technicians. Consider euthanasia: At what point, nearing the end of life, is the pain and suffering so great that suicide becomes an agreeable option? No doctor can answer this absolutely, and doctor's often have to adopt values, their own, society's, or their patients', to guide their practice. Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 13:20
  • 1
    The crux of ethical absolutism is political. It asks, essentially, if my moral opinions should outweigh someone else's moral opinions, and how to decide when this is true. This is why this issue keeps coming up, and why people want to refute ethical relativism. The only honest answer to the problem of ethics, in my opinion, came from Nietzsche who saw not a single morality, but many different moralities, and the evolution in moral systems over time. In each morality he found a basic will to power, and historically, morality has in almost all cases been a tool for power than the reverse. Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 13:29
  • Is there a Doctor of Philosophy in the house? Ethics is very sick and needs help.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 10, 2022 at 0:57

6 Answers 6


I don't see a path all the way out, but there's a lot more to do to define which bits of what we call ethics can be put on solid objective footing and which bits are matters of style (where anything may work, or where any of a number of different schemes may work).

Studies of innate morality and evolution of morality are particularly interesting in this regard, since it is unlikely that we can reliably retune our innate moral sense. And what our innate morality is is not the least bit subjective: it is what it is, even if it is very difficult to untangle what it is (as our expression of morality is shaped very heavily by cultural and intellectual context). There is good reason to believe, though, that a good portion of our morals are not our choice in any meaningful sense. For example, there is a very strong disparity in willingness to engage in apparently morally equivalent acts: people being run over by trains is not like some people eating others to survive, even though in the end you end up with M of N people dead in order to save the (N-M) others. I think there is lots of room for non-relativism here.

Also, reality is non-relative. There is plenty to be done by philosophers and (mostly) others to understand what makes people happy and how to construct societies such that they are; and also to understand what enables the survival of humanity. There may be many strategies that are acceptable in both regards but there are also doubtless many that are not, and these are surely matters of morality and close to inarguable. (Since you will end up with statements equivalent to things like, "It is good that people go extinct.")

The pragmatic way to go--as found in many sciences--is to make objective progress in areas where objectivity is not agonizingly hard, and then see how far you can get. Maybe you'll get everywhere, and find that your original conception wasn't even coherent. (See early philosophical arguments about life vs. a modern understanding of it, for instance.)

  • 1
    + 1: Superb answer! And not just because I happen to agree ;-) This appears to be what Sam Harris was getting at in his book as well. Threre is something actually out there to discover, hence ethics and morals are not just a matter of choice. Of course, the issue of choice and free will bring up a whole slew of other arguments, most of which seem to be reacting to yet another example of the Copernican Principle: We are not the center of things -- not even our own choices, or so it would seem. You've articulated exactly what I was after..there is an objective base, but various outcomes.
    – user4634
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 14:52
  • @Eupraxis1981 - I think Sam Harris was getting at the same thing, but I don't think he makes the case very well, or at least he didn't as of a few years ago: he was taking a traditional definition of morality, and then papering over well-known difficulties with expressions of disbelief that there was even a problem. You have to give something up; philosophers are not just wrong that there is something tricky going on with is/ought relationships, for example. But the general idea of something to discover is correct, I think, as long as one remains appropriately modest about the scope.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 19:37
  • I totally agree. I don't hold any illusions of an exact calculus. Solutions will be underdetermined, but at least we will have a framework. Coming from an operations research background, I can appreciate that even in highly quantifiable, non-emotional situations, mathematics and precision only go so far, at some point, it comes to to a more or less arbitrary (or, to be kinder, organization-specific) choice among vetted alternatives. This is especially true in multi-objective problems with a complex efficient frontier...and this is just simple econ and business!
    – user4634
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 20:01

I'd like to discuss a couple of points here: 1st, we've got to define with more clarity what moral relativism is, and 2nd, we've got to understand the cause of your dislike for it and earning for the ethical gurus able to shed the light on one and only true ethics.

In order to understand what moral relativism is let's switch for a moment to poli sci and take a brief look anarchism, where there are no laws; libertarian-style democracy, with its flexible overall structure; and authoritarian rule of an oligarchy. Which societal structure would be most analogous to the ethics of moral relativism? I would guess that in your opinion moral relativism is analogous to anarchy; in my opinion it's closer to libertarian democracy: relativism is not absolute.

Talking about political systems, believe it or not, there were and still are societies that prefer authoritarian rule to democracy. I think the major psychological reason for that it the laziness of the mind, the desire for some benevolent authority that would do all the thinking for you, that would make all your neighbors trim grass to the same level, whether they want it or not, and would also relieve you from the effort of choosing the level of the grass in your front yard. "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer" they used to chant 75 years ago. "Sign condominium agreement that specifies the color of your window blinds" they say now.

I think the desire for universal ethics of Kantian breadth that applies to us all is caused by the same psychological reasons: laziness of the mind that wants to defer one's moral choices to an external authority and the desire for comforting uniformity of all your neighbors thinking the same way you think (really, delegating thinking to the same authority). If the Bible says "sodomite must be stoned to death", and you choose Bible as your moral authority, then there is no reason for you to exert your brain in thinking about gay rights, and you are confident that your neighbors would join you.

And here we come to one of the causes of moral relativism: in the above example biblical code of ethics was your own only because you chose to subscribe to it. Every moral code that you follow is your choice, even if you believe that it's universal.

  • +1: Thanks for the challenging response. I've expanded my post to accommodate your questions.
    – user4634
    Commented Nov 17, 2013 at 1:22
  • There is more than one mountain, but that doesn't mean that their heights are relative. We can figure out which is the tallest, by comparing them.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 10, 2022 at 3:31

Even if it were conclusively shown that morality isn't objective, it wouldn't follow that moral relativism is true. After all, there are many different metaethical theories that deny moral objectivity, and moral relativism is only one of them (see e.g. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-anti-realism/). Indeed, I would wager that the profession regards moral relativism as the least plausible of these theories.

And so even if moral relativism is dead, this itself would provide little if any support for moral objectivity, as long as the other theories are alive and kicking.

  • 1
    I'm not completely sure you'd win that wager. There have been two substantial and plausible defenses of views calling themselves moral relativism in recent years: David Wong and Gilbert Harman. Of course, these versions are more subtle than the boogeyman version villified elsewhere.
    – virmaior
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 5:47
  • I didn't say that moral relativism is regarded as completely hopeless. What I'm saying that it's not nearly as highly regarded as error-theory, (non-objective forms of) expressivism, fictionalism, etc.
    – 76987
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 17:39

There is a school of philosophy (considered by many to be folk philosophy) that claims to have discerned a non-relative objectively defined ethical calculus - namely Ayn Rand's Objectivism, which, she claims flows directly from Aristotle's axiomatic logical propositions. There are now a few scholarly critiques of her claims. Be aware that her works are extremely controversial and her writings are almost impenetrably hostile to any logical questioning.

  • Then maybe you could provide some references for that claim?
    – user2953
    Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 17:08
  • 1
    @Keelan Does he need to provide more than what is already mentioned? He gives the author's name and the name of the school of thought in question, what more should be provided? Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 18:28
  • @AlexanderSKing there's no reference for "Rand's claims are controversial" etc. There is no reference at all in this whole post. What do you mean, "more than what is already mentioned"?
    – user2953
    Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 19:25
  • If someone asks a question, and my response is "Per Wittgenstein's logical atomism,...." isn't that enough reference, or do I need to provide more precise information? Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 20:32
  • What claim are you referring to? Her entire body of work and school of philosophy (Objectivism) is based upon this idea. Therefore any book of hers (including her novels) provides a entry point to this school of thought. See in particular her "Objectivist Epistemology". Any casual internet search will unearth plenty of evidence of persons regarding her as being controversial.
    – M Willey
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 21:03

Meta-ethics is not my area of expertise, but I'll make the broader point that the problem of ethical relativism might not be very substantial, and is partly based on dubious assumptions. (I don't deny that it is substantial in the sense that relativism is itself a moral position, ask anyone who accepts Christian ethics.)

Commonly in these popular discussions about morality, people take for granted an overly simplistic picture of the contrast between ethics and science. This same simplification also affects popular discussions about mathematical knowledge vs. empirical knowledge.

The problem is that even in the case of empirical knowledge it is not philosophically clear how knowledge could be understood as access to reality independent of our (normative) practices (of proving, verifying, talking etc.).

So let's not simply assume that the difference between ethical disagreements and disagreements about mathematical proofs or empirical results, is that only in these latter two cases we have access to the truth out there (whatever that means). Rather the difference might be that, in the case of mathematics and science, disagreements among humans don't arise so easily, period.

So only in this deflated sense there might not be "ethical truths" like there are "mathematical truths". I say deflated because in this picture of mathematical/empirical knowledge, agreement makes truth possible, not the other way around. We can only have truth with a small "t".

In mathematics and science this background of agreement includes things like similar judgments about validity, agreement about observations, and perhaps most fundamentally common judgments about the correct use of language.

(If you know about the later Wittgenstein, you know where this kind of thinking is coming from.)

Notice also that precisely when deep disagreements about validity in mathematics arise (e.g. between intuitionistic and classical mathematics), these differences can be as hard to reconcile as ethical differences. And the tactics of argumentation can in both types of cases seem similar (appeals to intuition, or apparently circular argumentation etc.). So ethics and mathematics are not so different after all.

Notice also that even in ethics we actually do have some of these similar background agreements: For instance we seem to have agreements about language, most people agree that if you hold that X is a just act, you ought to be disposed to do X. So perhaps there is common ground, I think philosophers have made some progress by starting from common minimal assumptions in ethics.

Is this whole picture too anti-realistic? I don't know, but in my view certainly not obviously so, I think it has a lot going for it.

(I was just reading an article Truth and Proof: The Platonism of Mathematics, by W. W. Tait, that prompted this answer.)

  • Few holy wars are fought over arithmetic. We just need to define ethical terms as directly.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 10, 2022 at 3:24

Two things to think about from the question:

  1. Moral relativism is the idea that no set of rules for living can be regarded as objectively correct.
  2. If moral relativism is correct, the entire enterprise of ethics is "undermined."

About 1. Moral relativism is almost certainly correct. Morality, in any situation, seeks to answer "What is the right thing to do in this situation?" "Right" there is the problem word; none of these arguments are defining it. As it stands, everyone is assuming that they know what "right" means there, but the very presence of the word "right" turns the answer to this question into "The right answer to this question is the correct one."

To answer it, you have to define a community. If you were the only thing in existence, there would be no moral aspect to your decisions -- if you were the last living thing on Earth, and guranteed to remain so, it wouldn't matter if you littered.

So, first, morality requires choosing a community. Possible communities: 1. Myself only 2. My immediate family 3. My extended family 4. The citizens of my town 5. Members of my race 6. Citizens of my country 7. Members of my species 8. Members of my order 9. Members of my kingdom 10. Earth-based life forms 11. Consciousnesses 12. All things made up of matter

For each community, "right" would then mean, "the action that I can take that would produce the greatest total benefit to all of the members of that community." Here, in this sentence, is the second problem -- how shall we determine benefit?

Now, you're beat, honestly -- there's no way you're going to be able to solve this. We can "thou shall not kill," but killing other humans might very well create the best outcome if our community is #10 on the above list (depending on your beliefs about global warming or whatever, though we many of us almost certainly cause cows and chickens more pain that we contribute happiness to others). Plus, dead matter on the ground is a boon for scavengers.

Because any concept of morality either presupposes or requires choosing a community (which makes it relative, by definition), morality is relative. Any other claim is wishful thinking, borne out of a desire for certainty that simply is not available to us.

However, and probably most importantly, the fact that moral relativism is correct does not require that one adopt the attitude that all positions are morally equivalent. In fact, one must choose both a community and a definition of benefit. Within that community, moral reasoning is on much better ground.

In addition, one can be a partial member of communities or a full member. I strive to regard my community as number 7, though at my worst, I fall to number #2. As a member, I am committed to at the minimum, not injuring other humans in the pursuit of their values (which is not being evil) and trying to help other humans further their values (which is being good). This means that I should not jeopardize or use the time, money, health, safety, self-esteem, or personal relationships of others without their consent. I should also take improving those outcomes for others as a positive good.

Membership in #7. means, to me, that you don't feel that the killing of people in the Middle East is less wrong than the victims of September 11.

If someone chooses a different community from me, they are not wrong, and their choice does not mean that I should expel them from my imagined community. If I choose human and someone else chooses "Christians," it does not follow that I can treat them without considering my morals. They are still human.

The arguments that there exists a objective morality because all humans share certain biological predispositions is clearly flawed, I think. If a person has hardwired into their head rules that cause it to help or favor those things that are genetically closer to them, how can it be argued that this is anything other than a particularly clever evolutionary result?

Since one must choose an imagined community to be a member of, it's also foolish to disregard the choices of others. If a person elects to consider themselves fundamentally Christian, a mammal, an Objectivist, or whatever, those are all valid choices.

However, I would argue that, all other things being equal, the person who chooses the imagined community with the most members has the strongest moral position. This means that vegetarains are morally superior to people (like me) who eat meat. I don't think they are helping more, but they are definitely striving to include more people in their moral calculus.

  • "The majority is always sane." I think you have defined it pretty well. What's the problem?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 10, 2022 at 3:10

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