Moral relativism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L099-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 09, 2023, from

2. Meta-ethical relativism

The most heated debate about relativism revolves around the question of whether descriptive relativism supports meta-ethical relativism: that there is no single true or most justified morality. There is no direct path from descriptive to meta-ethical relativism; the most plausible argument for meta-ethical relativism is that it is part of a larger theory of morality that best explains actual moral diversity (see Metaethics §6).

Critics of meta-ethical relativism point out that moral disagreement is consistent with the possibility that some moral judgments are truer or more justified than others, just as disagreement among scientists does not imply that truth is relative in science. Some relativists are unimpressed by the analogy with science, holding that disagreements about the structure of the world can be sufficiently radical to undermine the assumption that there is an absolute truth to be found. This defence of meta-ethical relativism amounts to founding it upon a comprehensive epistemological relativism that expresses scepticism about the meaningfulness of talking about truth defined independently of the theories and justificatory practices of particular communities of discourse (see Epistemic relativism).

An alternative relativist response is to take a nonrelativist stance towards science and to drive a wedge between scientific and moral discourse. Defenders of such a morality-specific meta-ethical relativism argue that scientific disagreements can be explained in ways that are consistent with there being a nonrelative truth about the structure of the physical world while moral disagreements cannot be treated analogously. For example, much scientific disagreement may be traced to insufficient or ambiguous evidence or distortions of judgment stemming from personal interests. Relativists have argued that such explanations will not work for moral disagreements such as the ones mentioned above concerning the eating of animals, abortion, and the sacrifice of an innocent to save more lives.

In offering alternative explanations of moral disagreement, morality-specific relativists tend to adopt a ‘naturalistic’ approach to morality in the sense that they privilege a scientific view of the world and fit their conceptions of morality and moral disagreement within that view. They deny that moral values and principles constitute an irreducible part of the fabric of the world and argue that morality is best explained on the theory that it arises at least in part from custom and convention. On Wong’s view (1984), for example, a good part of morality arises out of the need to structure and regulate social cooperation and to resolve conflicts of interest. Meta-ethical relativism is true because there is no single valid way to structure social cooperation.

Morality-specific relativism divides into cognitive and non-cognitive versions (see Moral judgment §1). On C.L. Stevenson’s emotivist view (1944), for example, moral discourse merely expresses emotion and influences the attitudes and conduct of others (see Emotivism). Cognitive relativists, such as Mackie, Harman, Foot and Wong, interpret moral judgments as expressing belief, on the grounds that moral judgments are often argued or judged true or false on the basis of reasons. Within cognitive relativism, there are those who believe that there is no single true morality because more than one morality is true, and those who believe that there is no single true morality because all are false. J.L. Mackie (1977) represents the latter camp, on the ground that while morality actually arises out of custom and convention, the meanings of moral terms presuppose a mistaken reference to sui generis properties that provide everyone with a reason for acting according to morality (see Value, ontological status of). Other cognitive relativists see no need to construe moral terms as containing a reference to nonexistent properties and instead tie their cognitive content to certain standards and rules.

According to such a standards relativism, moral language is used to judge and to prescribe in accordance with a set of standards and rules. Different sets of standards and rules get encoded into the meaning of ethical terms such as ‘good’, ‘right’ and ‘ought’ over time, and into individuals, groups, or societies in such a way that two apparently conflicting moral beliefs can both be true. Though under a relativist analysis the beliefs express no conflicting claims about what is true, they do conflict as prescriptions as to what is to be done or as to what kinds of things are to be pursued. The disagreement is purely pragmatic in nature, though parties to the disagreement may not be aware of this if they erroneously assume they share the relevant standards.

Another crucial question for the standards relativist concerns whose standards and rules apply when someone makes a moral judgment. Suppose that Jones makes a moral judgment about what Smith ought to do, but that the standards Jones applies to guide his own conduct are not the same as the standards Smith uses to guide hers. One possibility is that Jones uses Smith’s standards to judge what she ought to do. Another possibility offered by Harman in some of his writing about relativism is that one must judge others by standards one shares with them. His theory is that morality consists of implicit agreements for the structuring of social cooperation. Moral judgments implying that the subjects have a reason to do what is prescribed make sense only as prescriptions based on what the speakers and subjects (and the intended audience of the judgments) have agreed to do. Other standards relativists observe that people use their own standards in judging the conduct of others, whether or not they believe these others to share their standards.

There are radical and moderate versions of meta-ethical relativism. Radical relativists hold that any morality is as true or as justified as any other. Moderate relativists, such as Foot (1978), Walzer and Wong (1984), deny that there is any single true morality but also hold that some moralities are truer or more justified than others. On Wong’s view, for instance, certain determinate features of human nature and similarities in the circumstances and requirements of social cooperation combine to produce universal constraints on what an adequate morality must be like. It may be argued, for example, that a common feature of adequate moralities is the specification of duties to care and educate the young, a necessity given the prolonged state of dependency of human offspring and the fact that they require a good deal of teaching to play their roles in social cooperation. It may also be a common feature of adequate moralities to require of the young reciprocal duties to honour and respect those who bring them up, and this may arise partly from role that such reciprocity plays in ensuring that those who are charged with caring for the young have sufficient motivation to do so. Such common features are compatible with the recognition that adequate moralities could vary significantly in their conceptions of what values that cooperation should most realize. Some moralities could place the most emphasis on community-centred values that require the promotion and sustenance of a common life of relationships, others could emphasize individual rights, and still others could emphasize the promotion of utility.

Citing this article:
Wong, David B.. Meta-ethical 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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