Why Moral Relativism Doesn’t Work

One of the most common debates I find myself in with people is whether or not morality is absolute. It is remarkable to me how much the view that morality is relative has permiated our culture, it seems, from my experience to be the most popular view. What is interesting is that it seems in the philosophical world moral relativism is the laughing stock of ethical philosophy. Perhaps I am wrong about this, I only took two undergraduate level ethics classes, and when I hear about it in my current masters level classes I’ll acknowledge its bias. Either way I thought it would be good to lay out several of what I find to be the most clear reasons Moral Relativism falls short of a practical or philosophical Ethical viewpoint.

You cannot use terms of moral improvement
The fact is, if morality is relative then we cannot say morality has ever improved. It has changed, it is different, but once you say it has improved you are saying that it is not merely different, but better. And the only way that it can be better, is if it is closer to an objective standard, or a perfect morality. You may say you like the current morality more than one of the past which included slavery, but this reduces you to a preference. You may as well say you like vanilla ice cream over chocolate, but you cannot say it is better. It would only be different. Different in a way you prefer, but not in a way that one should prefer. If one should prefer it than once again you have implied an objective outside of yourself standard.


One cannot be morally right in every culture they are a part of
If morality is relative to a persons culture which changes in time, and place than how do we dictate which cultural morality one should follow when they contradict? No one is part of simply one culture. They have the culture of their family, their friends, their school, place of worship, the country they live in, the country they are from etc. If one is a part of two cultures, say an immigrant should they follow the culture they live in or the culture they are from? By choosing one over the other are they then morally wrong in one culture they are part of and morally right for the other? Doesn’t that mean it becomes impossible to really do right altogether? You will always be morally wrong for one culture you are a part of.
As per the point above you may also see that in chosing one culture over the other you have said that one culture’s morality is better than another.


One cannot make moral judgements. . . AT ALL
If morality is relative you cannot say that something is wrong, only that it is wrong for you, or for your culture. For instance, to pick something that most moral relativists will squirm at: if morality is relative then in certain cultures it would be morally right to kill a homosexual, because that is that cultures moral view of what should be done to someone who practices homosexuality. If the moral relativist steps in to say its wrong to kill homosexuals they are asserting that there is an objective moral standard that, whether a culture accepts it or not, exists, and should be followed.

To clarify, I am not saying we should kill homosexuals, nor do I believe so. This is only to make a point.

Now I anticipate that some Moral Relativists at this may say that it is their opinion that homosexuals should not be killed, and that they simply disagree with this man, but this is different than talking about my ice cream preference. I may believe that chocolate ice cream is the best, I may also believe that everyone should think that chocolate ice cream is the best, but morality goes one step further. Not only would I believe that chocolate ice cream is the best and that everyone should believe it is the best, but I would believe that someone is morally wrong to not believe that chocolate ice cream is the best. When the Moral Relitavist says that killing homosexuals is wrong they are saying “I believe you are wrong to kill homosexuals, you should believe killing homosexuals is wrong, and if you believe killing homosexuals is wrong you are morally wrong”. This is not merely an opinion anymore it is an appeal to what they believe is the absolute standard and therefore an acknowledgement that morality is not relative but objective.

This is a bit longer than many of my posts but I feel it is a quick summary of what I believe is one of the most debated issues of today. I think if you can remember these three points you will see that morality must be objective.


  1. Why Moral Relativism Doesn’t Work
    Issue 1: Whether morality is absolute. (morality and absolute are not defined)
    Author: MR fails (MR is not defined)
    If MR then you cannot use terms of moral improvement (you can’t say X is better than Y)
    (True and false: ultimate you cannot, but internally you can)
    (Examples: if you like chocolate and I like vanilla, I can’t say in any deep sense my preference is better, I can only say that it is better for me: hence relativism! But if we both like chocolate and hate vanilla, one can say that the chocolate store would be a “better” place to visit than the vanilla store. So terms of moral improvement can only be used if there is a shared standard.)
    “the only way that it can be better, is if it is closer to an objective standard, or a perfect morality.” (false)
    (as shown above, to say something is better is to appeal to a standard: it need not be “perfect” or “objective”). (Objective is also here undefined and problematic)
    People prefer different things. (True). Hence one can say that something is better than another, in that they prefer it more (True).
    If one treats morality this way, morality is a matter of preferences (True)
    If morality is a matter of preferences, and A prefers X , and B prefers Y, there is no ultimate/objective sense in which either is Better than the other (True!)
    Here you can only say that they have different preferences (True!)
    To say that “B should prefer X (rather than Y) is to appeal to a deeper standard (true)
    That standard has to be outside of yourself, objective, transcendent, godly (false)
    If morality is relative ( a matter of preferences) then there will likely be conflicts. (T)
    This could be difficult to resolve (T). One such way is democracy (T) (let people vote)
    Our values and preferences are complicated: we may value honesty, but also our family (T)
    You can’t value 2 different things absolutely. If you value 2 different things, then one will sometimes win out over the other (True), and the other will lose out (True)
    If deciding that one thing is more valuable to you, you are saying that one is better (yes, they are the same thing)
    If MR is true, one cannot make moral judgments at all (False) (See the both like chocolate example)
    If MR is true, one cannot make a moral judgment at the deepest level (True, that would be to appeal to a deeper level!)
    If MR you cannot say something is wrong for everyone (true, others prefer different things)
    If MR, then some might enjoy killing gays (true), and you couldn’t say that it was wrong beyond your own preferences (true?)
    MR can’t say that killing gays is wrong (false. They can, if the person they are addressing shares that value)
    Under MR: A says Killing gays is right/preferred by me, but B says killing gays is not right/not preferred by me. Under MR there is no “final answer”, deeper sense of right and wrong. (True)
    Some will squirm here, and claim that MR does allow a deeper appeal to right and wrong (T)
    This shows that MR is false (False, it only shows that that person is inconsistent)
    (The author should here show that there is an objective standard (that we know to exist) to which the squirm-er is appealing , but the author doesn’t, apparently because there is no such known objective standard.)
    We should not kill gays (T, most of us don’t prefer that).
    It is an opinion that “gays should not be killed”. (Yes, but mostly no: It is a fact (in contrast to just an opinion) that many people value the lives of gays, and don’t prefer the killing of gays).
    I may think that chocolate is the best/I prefer it (True)
    I may think everyone prefers it/it is the best for everyone (True, and you would be wrong in thinking that)
    If I prefer chocolate I could think that everyone else does (True)
    If I prefer chocolate everyone else does (False)
    If I prefer chocolate everyone else Should (this makes no sense and assumed objective morality)
    (this makes no sense because to say “should” you have to be appealing to some standard that is here unmentioned)
    When the MR says that killing gays is wrong, they are saying you should believe that/share that preference too. (false, for many)
    (No, again you have only shown that SOME MRs are inconsistent. But there are consistent MRs who say that killing gays is wrong/they don’t prefer it, but acknowledge that others prefer it, and don’t then try to appeal to a deeper (objective/metaphysical) standard to say “but the other guy is wrong/does prefer what I prefer”)
    If a MR does claim that others should prefer what they prefer, they are implying that there is a deeper, objective moral standard (True)
    This shows that there is a deeper, moral standard (false)

    Again, it’s very easy: if you (the author) think there is a deeper, objective, ultimate, god-given, moral standard, just show it. That has not been done here, nor does it seem that it can be done.

    Summary: some Moral Relativists are inconsistent. (True). This shows that moral relativism is false (false)

    Feel free to email me directly at jcraigbradley@gmail.com if you have any questions.

    1. Wow, I appreciate the rather thorough reply. A few things. First off part of what I am trying to do is write very short blogs and as such sometimes I don’t get to definitions or thoroughly expound on every aspect such as proving that God exists. If you want that sort of thing I suggest checking out William Lane Craig or perhaps Ravi Zacharius, and probably looking at a book rather than a blog.

      If Ultimately you cannot say something is objectively wrong that is exactly what I, and most others mean when they say objective. So it’s tempting to stop here simply because you’ve already admitted that MR cannot prove objective moral truths, which was my whole point. If MR cannot say in any deep sense killing homosexuals is wrong then that seems like a pretty good reason to reject it.

      Perhaps if you’re asking for a more thorough definition of objective morality I would say that it’s the belief that there are things that are right and wrong in every place, much like math. 2+2=5 is wrong no matter your time or place. Killing homosexuals is wrong no matter your time and place.

      Your analogy with the chocolate doesn’t work because you would basically be saying that a lynching of a black man is a better place for two KK members since they both prefer lynching black people.

      I point out the moral squirming because it is an indication to us all that there are things that if people disagree with our moral view we think of them as being objectively wrong. The MR either has to admit that he cannot say killing homosexuals is objectively wrong (something I have yet to see someone agree with) or admit MR is false by agreeing killing homosexuals is objectively wrong.

      You wrote “If I prefer chocolate I could think that everyone else does (True)
      If I prefer chocolate everyone else does (False)
      If I prefer chocolate everyone else Should (this makes no sense and assumed objective morality)”. You’re right it does assume objective morality. The whole point there is that anytime someone who claims MR says everyone should ____ they have assumed Objective morality and therefore lost their case.

      A few times you say something to the effect of me needing to provide an objective moral standard in order to prove there must be one. If we go with that logic we would have to say that there was no law of gravity till newton defined it or there is no law or mathematical problem that governs all of physics because we haven’t found one. Knowing that there must be an objective law does not mean you must know what that objective law is.

      1. I have read WLC, and others. I am simply trying to discuss your post, and the ideas therein.
        One cannot say that something is wrong according to god. One can say that something is wrong according to a certain standard (like appealing to Webster’s dictionary regarding a spelling question). One can say that something is wrong according to the Bible. It seems that you are using “objective” to refer to god. If so, then no, we can’t say that something is “objectively” wrong.
        Moral relativism, the idea that what one values and prefers differs, doesn’t seem to say anything about godly, objective values. We know that people exist, and they often value different things. We don’t know that god exists, nor that there are any godly, objective values.
        I’ve had this conversation many times before. Part of the problem is that people don’t define what they mean by “wrong” or “objective”. (I have defined objective in the way that theists seem to be using it: god-given) (I define wrong (loosely) as that which someone doesn’t prefer). People exist, they value certain things, they say “it is wrong for you to give me cheese when I hate cheese”. The person means, you shouldn’t give me cheese if you are trying to make me happy, because that will not make me happy. And then, interestingly, if the other person says, “but my goal IS to make you unhappy”, then it would make no sense for me to say to them, “it is still wrong for you to do it”.
        Perhaps moral relativism cannot prove objective truths (probably because nothing can). But is that your ending point? It seems that you are trying to use that point to show that moral relativism is false, but it doesn’t look like you have done that.
        “If MR cannot say in any deep sense (and here we are talking about a godly, eternal, ultimate sense), that killing gays is wrong (or that cats exist), then we should reject it”. This is false. We should say cats exist, even if we don’t know that god exists. We should say that killing gays is wrong/undesirable if we care about others, even if there is no godly value aligned with ours.
        Yes, that’s the standard definition objective by theists: “true in all places at all times for all people”. But what theists usually fail to show is how this works. “A = A” is objective: it is true always, a tautology. “cats exist” is not. It is a contingent statement. Math can roughly said to be claiming tautologies like “2+2 =4”. But almost every other (empirical) statement is a contingent statement, and thus not Objective under your definition. Our truths about the empirical world are contingent. Harm is Harm, and punching is punching, but “punching X does X harm” is contingent.
        So, there are objective, tautological truths. But they have nothing to do with god, nor do they do anything to disprove atheism.
        If 2 KKK members prefer to lynch black people, then, for them, it is better to do that than not. How does this show that my chocolate analogy doesn’t work?
        Yes, many people think that moral claims like “one should/should not kill gays” is objective, but, given your definition, they are wrong. It is contingent. That people think certain things are true always for all people doesn’t show that they are.
        Yes, moral relativists usually don’t, and can’t say that killing gays is wrong is true for everyone. Like I said, you are right that some moral relativists are inconsistent. But you haven’t thereby shown that all are, nor that moral relativism is false/flawed/to be rejected.
        So I am here as a moral relativist (of a sort) saying that killing gays is wrong (not preferred by me, and many others, not to be done if you are kind, etc) but that the assertion is not objective, but rather contingent. There seems to be no intellectual problem with this assertion: moral relativism still seems true, while “objective” morality does not. That is: people have various values, and there is no supernatural judge by which to say some values are “better” than others.
        When I say “killing gays is wrong”, I mean “killing gays (usually) does (unwanted, undeserved) harm, and I don’t like harm, and thus I wouldn’t do it, and people who also don’t like harm have a reason not to do it.” What do You mean that phrase, and in particular, by “wrong”?
        Again, yes, there are inconsistent moral relativists. That doesn’t mean that moral relativism is inconsistent or false. Yes moral relativists shouldn’t claim to not be moral relativists by claiming absolutes (the “everyone” you speak of).
        Yes, I did say that if you claim there is an objective moral standard, you should say what it is, and how you/we know it. The gravity analogy fails. We shouldn’t say X exists until we know it exists. Just because there might be an objective (godly) moral standard doesn’t mean it is reasonable now, here, to say that there is.
        Yes! “knowing that there is an objective law does not mean” that you need to know all the details about it. Knowing that you exist doesn’t mean that you need to know the middle names of your great grandparents. However, the issue here is whether or not we know that there is an objective (godly, eternal) moral law. We know of no such thing.

      2. The Title of your post is “why Moral Relativism doesn’t work”. I have shown (it seems) that it does work, even though you have shown 1. that some Moral Relativists are inconsistent, 2. If two people fundamentally value different things, one cannot say to the other that one is “better” (in some transcendent, absolute, eternal way that judges one of the two to be “right”). 3. Moral Relativism is not moral Absolutism. None of this shows that moral relativism doesn’t work/is false.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s