Ethical Relativism

Ethical Relativism History


Ariadne's Thread is designed to help you work out and defend your own views on the complicated subject of ethical relativism. Some fairly non-controversial history and commentary may serve as an introduction. Even this history, however, will show that there is no single definition of relativism, the arguments for and against relativism are quite varied, and the implications of relativism are disputed. Nevertheless, this history will provide a brief survey of several popular theories of ethics, introduce some of the terminology that is used either to state or describe ethical theories, and clarify some of the philosophical issues that must be resolved in order to develop a reasoned position on relativism.

This sketch covers only one slice of the history of ethical theory. There are many theories, such as those defended by moral theologians --Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and others-- that are not included. In part this is due to the limitations of the author. It is also true, however, that the theory called 'ethical relativism' did not develop among moral theologians. It is a secular theory developed chiefly by anthropologists and secular moral philosophers. Despite its limitations, this sketch will include the writers most often referred to by the theoreticians of relativism.


The term 'ethics' can refer to either of the following:

  • A system of normative moral judgments,  guidelines, and ideals
  • a theory about ethics in the first sense (also called meta-ethics).
A system of ethics in the first sense might tell us that murder is morally impermissible, that mercy is morally good, that marital fidelity is morally ideal, or that caring for one's children is morally obligatory. Alternatively, it might describe the moral virtues of the ideal man or woman. A theory of ethics in the second sense attempts to answer questions such as "What is the meaning of the term 'good'?", "What is the identifying characteristic of a true or binding moral principle?", "What grounds or evidence are relevant when assessing ethical judgements of the first type?", or "What is the relationship between ethical judgments and matter of fact?" This distinction is probably not entirely clear-cut, but it is still a useful way to divide up a large topic. (For several criticisms of the distinction, see the introduction to Roger N. Hancock's Twentieth Century Ethics.) This historical sketch emphasizes ethics in the second sense (i.e., theories about ethics or meta-ethics) because ethical relativism is itself a meta-ethical theory rather than a claim that this or that action is morally right or good or ideal. There are, however, many forms of ethical relativism; and there is no agreement on exactly what constitutes ethical relativism.

There were several influential ethical theories developed in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Two of these are the theory developed by Immanuel Kant and the utilitarian theory developed by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and others.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) attempted to formulate a criterion that would allow us to identify correct (i.e. binding) moral laws. The proposition "Lying is always wrong" is an example of a moral law. In his 1785 Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant proposed his criterion. As he understood it, when we acted (for example, when we told a lie) we based our action on a subjective maxim such as "It is morally permissible for me to lie when it will save me a lot of trouble." As a criterion for identifying morally correct laws, Kant proposed that

I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.

He seemed to believe that generalizations that failed this test would contain a logical contradiction or would be self-defeating in some way. This, at least, is one interpretation of Kant's complex view.

The utilitarian theory emerged in the 18th century. One of its best known proponents was the English legal philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham published his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1789. He advocated what he called the principle of utility.

An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility, or, for shortness sake, to utility, (meaning which respect to the community at large) when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.

Several differences between Kant and Bentham are obvious. 

  • Kant's theory is often described as 'non-consequentialist' because it does not determine the correctness of a judgment or a law from an assessment of its empirical consequences. Lying may be wrong because the generalization "Anyone may lie when it will save him or her a lot of trouble" yields a logical contradiction of some sort. But it is not wrong because it makes it makes people less happy, because it does not fulfill their needs or because it does not satisfy their desires. Bentham's theory, on the other hand, is called 'consequentialist' because it uses empirical consequences to decide the morality of acts. 
  • Kant's principle does not identify the supreme good, but rather provides a logical test or touchstone for assessing generalized maxims. Bentham's principle tells us what the supreme good is (namely, happiness) and thereby provides an empirical test for judging actions.

In the early 19th century, there were many critics of Bentham's theory. It was reformulated and defended by another Englishman, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), in a series of articles collectively called Utilitarianism (1863). Mill added at least two new features to the theory. First, he allowed that people had higher and lower faculties and that the pleasures associated with the higher faculties were more valuable than others. Second, according to some interpreters, he gave a key role to secondary principles such as "Do not lie" or "Do not commit murder." Individual actions were normally to be judged with reference to these principles. The secondary principles were themselves judged to be more or less acceptable by their tendency to produce "an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality...." Because of his use of secondary principles, Mill is sometimes described as a 'rule' utilitarian rather than an 'act' utilitarian.

The Kantian and utilitarian theories are part of what some writers have called the 'Enlightenment project,' which is itself often placed under the rubric of 'modernism.' The essential point is that both theories, in different ways, attempt to provide us with moral knowledge. In the one case that knowledge is identified by a logical test. In the other case it is provided by scientific methods used to predict consequences. In both cases, however, a firm foundation for moral judgments and generalizations is sought and found. Both ethical relativists and the later postmodernists challenge the claims made by these modernists to provide ethical knowledge.


Among secular, academic philosophers in the English speaking world, the most influential ethical theorist of the early 20th century was the Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore (1873-1958). Moore published Principia Ethica in 1903 and Ethics in 1912. His views are difficult to summarize. He believed that the term 'good' could not be defined by analyzing it into parts. Instead, it should be regarded as a simple or primitive notion. In addition, 'good' could not be defined as happiness or pleasure or in terms of the "natural" properties of things. This always involved a mistake, because we could always meaningfully ask whether something with any given natural property was good. Good could not be equated with "having a tendency to produce pleasure," for example, because we could meaningfully ask whether something that had a tendency to produce pleasure was good. This would not be possible if 'good' meant the same as 'having a tendency to produce pleasure.' Moore believed that such definitions involved what he called the "naturalistic fallacy." He concluded that 'good' referred to a "non-natural" property of things. Personal affection and aesthetic enjoyment were examples of goods. Our actions are good and right to the extent that they produce the greatest possible amount of good. Thus, Moore was a consequentialist like the 19th-century utilitarians; but he did not accept pleasure or happiness as either the definition or the test of goodness.

Moore's criticism of the naturalistic fallacy was accepted by many philosophers, but his concept of goodness as a non-natural property was not. Despite his intentions, his ideas tended to make the defense of ethical knowledge more difficult.

According to the Oxford philosopher J. O. Urmson, Moore left many English and American philosophers with a dilemma.  They could not accept naturalism but neither could they accept Moore's idea of a non-natural property. Partly as a solution to this dilemma, some philosophers developed what is called the emotive theory of ethics. The best known statements of this view can be found in A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) and C. L. Stevenson's Ethics and Language (1944). The core of the emotivist theory was the claim that ethical judgments such as "Murder is morally wrong" were neither true nor false in the same sense that we apply to descriptive statements like "John is dead." Instead, ethical judgements expressed the attitudes or emotions of the speaker or evoked attitudes in the hearer. There were many criticisms of emotivism, including those in Urmson's 1968 book The Emotive Theory of Ethics. Emotivism was popular for a time with professional philosophers; but, more importantly, passed beyond professional circles to become popular with a segment of the larger public. In doing so, it helped to make plausible another theory developed at about the same time by anthropologists -- the theory of cultural relativism. 

(Most philosophers distinguish emotivism from the theory sometimes called subjectivism. According to subjectivism, ethical judgments describe the attitudes or emotions of the speaker. Statements of this sort could be true or false, since they might correctly or incorrectly describe those attitudes or emotions. The emotivists rejected subjectivism. One argument against subjectivism is that it fails to account for the fact that there are serious ethical disputes. If subjectivism is correct, everyone's ethical judgments describe their own emotions and do not actually contradict each other.)

Although emotivism had many critics, some of its major ideas were accepted by many moral philosophers. These included the claim that ethical statements were neither true nor false in the same sense that factual statements were true or false. In addition, the claim that there is no ethical knowledge in the same sense in which there is scientific knowledge was widely accepted. Ethical theories that include these claims are sometimes referred to as 'non-cognitive' theories. Emotivism is one such theory. Another non-cognitive theory that became popular after the heyday of emotivism was the work of R. M. Hare. Hare published The Language of Morals in 1952 and Freedom and Reason in 1963. Hare emphasized that ethical judgments are prescriptive judgments. He also argued that ethical judgments are "universalizable" in certain ways. We could not, for example, say that two actions are the same in all relevant respects and also claim that one action was good while the other was bad. His theory is called prescriptivism.


The theories of Moore, Stevenson, Hare, and most other academic moral philosophers in England and America in the first half of the 20th century tended to stress meta-ethical questions. The last half of the century has seen at least two shifts: (1) a shift toward substantive ethical and social issues; and (2) a shift away from non-cognitivism.

The shift toward substantive issues was clearly marked by several articles by John Rawls beginning in the late 1950s. Rawls elaborated his views in his 1971 Theory of Justice. He called his view "justice as fairness" and argued by using a device called the "original position" and a thinking process called "reflective equilibrium." Rawls leaned to the political left and made use of a form of social contract theory as well as a theory of individual rights. His views were widely discussed and drew criticism from those further left and further right. Perhaps the most famous critique was Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, published in 1974. Nozick defended the theory already called libertarianism. He stressed strong individual rights or entitlements (including property rights) and minimal government.


The theory of ethical relativism developed alongside the ideas of Moore, Stevenson, Hare, Rawls, and Nozick. Initially, it was the work of anthropologists and social scientists. Edward Westermarck, a Finnish sociologist and philosopher, wrote The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas in 1906-08 and Ethical Relativity in 1932. Westermarck showed that there was at some level a great diversity among the ethical judgments made by different groups of people around the world. Further, he denied what he referred to as the "objectivity" of moral values:

The supposed objectivity of moral values, as understood in this treatise, implies that they have a real existence apart from any reference to a human mind, that what is said to be good or bad, right or wrong, cannot be reduced merely to what people think to be good or bad, right or wrong. It makes morality a matter of truth and falsity, and to say that a judgment is true obviously means something different from the statement that it is thought to be true.

In the 1930s and 1940s a view called "cultural relativism" was made popular by students of the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas. Again, the diversity of moral views found throughout the world impressed these writers. Ruth Benedict, for example, wrote that:

We recognize that morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.

Melville Herskovits in particular wrote frequently and with passion on the subject. A posthumous collection of his writings was edited by his wife Frances Herskovits and published as Cultural Relativism in 1972. Herskovits believed that "Evaluations are relative to the cultural background out of which they arise." Ethical norms were binding only within a culture and scientific methods could not prove the truth or superiority of the ethics or values of any one culture. This is one definition of ethical relativism. He held open the possibility that there might be some ethical "universals" that were the same across cultures. Anthropological field work might eventually discover such universals. But the existence of universals did not affect his main point.

The debate about the foundations of morals  -- absolute or relative -- became more than an academic exercise in the 1930s and 1940s with the rise of fascist governments and fascist philosophy in Europe. Because fascists rejected the values built into democratic political theory, it became necessary for American intellectuals to examine and defend those values. For a fascinating history of the debate over ethical relativism in the 1930s and 1940s, see Edward A. Purcell, Jr. The Crisis of Democratic Theory.

For many years, professional moral philosophers tended to ignore or dismiss the arguments of the anthropologists. More recently, however, philosophers such as Gilbert Harman and David Wong have created more sophisticated versions of ethical relativism.


These questions continue to be debated with no sign of agreement. Ariadne's Thread may help you to develop your own views.


References: For historical background on recent ethical theory, see Twentieth Century Ethics by Roger N. Hancock and Rationalism, Realism, and Relativism by Robert L. Arrington.