Moral relativism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L099-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 29, 2023, from

1. Descriptive relativism

From the beginnings of the Western tradition philosophers have debated the nature and implications of moral diversity. Differences in customs and values the Greeks encountered through trade, travel and war motivated the argument attributed to the sophist Protagoras in Plato’s Theaetetus: that human custom determines what is fine and ugly, just and unjust (see Protagoras). Anthropologists in the twentieth century, such as Ruth Benedict (1934), have emphasized the fundamental differences between the moralities of small-scale traditional societies and the modern West. For example, many traditional societies are focused on community-centred values that require the promotion and sustenance of a common life of relationships, in contrast to both the deontological morality of individual rights and the morality of utilitarianism that are the most prominent within modern Western moral philosophy. Within this philosophy itself moral diversity is represented by the debates between utilitarians and deontologists, and more recently criticism of both camps by defenders of virtue theory and communitarianism (see Deontological ethics; Utilitarianism; Virtue ethics; Community and communitarianism). Such differences have motivated the doctrine of descriptive relativism: that there exists extensive diversity of moral judgment across time, societies and individuals, and that it concerns central moral values and principles.

Critics of descriptive relativism argue that it fails to account for important moral similarities across cultures such as prohibitions against killing innocents and provisions for educating and socializing the young. A relativist response given by Michael Walzer (1987) is to argue that shared norms must be described in an extremely general way and that once one examines the concrete forms they take in different societies, one sees significant variety, for example, in which persons count as ‘innocent’. The descriptive relativist might go so far as to assert that no significant similarities exist, but an alternative position is that broad similarities exist that are compatible with significant differences among the moralities human beings have held.

Critics of descriptive relativism also argue that many moral beliefs presuppose religious and metaphysical beliefs, and that these beliefs, rather than any difference in fundamental values, give rise to much moral diversity (see Religion and morality §3). Also, differences in moral belief across different societies may not arise from differences in fundamental values but from the need to implement the same values in different ways given the varying conditions obtaining in these societies. One relativist reply is that while such explanations apply to some moral disagreements, they cannot apply to many others, such as disagreements over the rightness of eating animals or the moral status of the foetus or the rightness of sacrificing an innocent person for the sake of a hundred more.

Citing this article:
Wong, David B.. Descriptive relativism. Moral relativism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L099-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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