Moral relativism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L099-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 03, 2023, from

3. Normative relativism

Does meta-ethical relativism have substantive implications for action? Normative relativism – the doctrine that it is morally wrong to pass judgment on or to interfere with the moral practices of others who have adopted moralities different from one’s own – is often defended by anthropologists, perhaps in reaction to those Western conceptions of the inferiority of other cultures that played a role in colonialism. It also has application to disagreements within a society such as that concerning the morality of abortion, where the positions of the disputing parties seem ultimately to be based on fundamentally different conceptions of personhood.

As in the case of descriptive and meta-ethical relativism, however, there is no direct path from metaphysical to normative relativism. One could hold consistently that there is no single true morality while judging and interfering with others on the basis of one’s own morality. Wong has proposed a version of normative relativism consistent with the point that nothing normative follows straightforwardly from meta-ethical relativism. Meta-ethical relativism needs to be supplemented with a liberal contractualist ethic to imply an ethic of nonintervention. A liberal contractualist ethic requires that moral principles be justifiable to the individuals governed by these principles. If no single morality is most justified for everyone, liberal normative relativism may require one not to interfere with those who have a different morality, though the requirement of noninterference may not be absolute when it comes into conflict with other moral requirements such as prohibitions against torture or the killing of innocents (see Liberalism).

Citing this article:
Wong, David B.. Normative 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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