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Moral relativism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L099-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2015
Retrieved July 25, 2024, from

Article Summary

In philosophical discussions, the term 'moral relativism' is primarily used to denote the metaethical thesis that the correctness of moral judgments is relative to some interesting factor, for example, relative to an individual’s or group’s moral norms.

Outside philosophy, for example in anthropology, sociology or ethnology, 'moral relativism' can also denote the thesis that there is significant cross-cultural or inter-personal diversity as to the moral values that are accepted or adhered to – following Brandt (1967), this is often called 'descriptive moral relativism'. Also following Brandt, a further sense of 'moral relativism' is often distinguished and labelled 'normative moral relativism'. Unlike metaethical moral relativism, normative moral relativism is supposed to involve ethical and not just metaethical claims, such as, for example, that what an individual (or a group) considers morally right or wrong to do, is in fact right or wrong for them to do. Given the general implausibility of such claims, this sense of the term seems to be linked to the frequent polemical or derogatory use of the term, in which it is taken for granted that moral relativism is a position that ought to be avoided.

Serious philosophical discussion of moral relativism has no need for the derogatory notion, and it is only indirectly concerned with empirical descriptive theses of cross-cultural or interpersonal divergence of moral views, namely in so far as they are sometimes adduced as evidence for metaethical moral relativism. Hence this article focuses on the metaethical thesis that the correctness of moral judgments is relative to, for example, individuals or groups, or their systems of value.

Citing this article:
Kölbel, Max. Moral relativism, 2015, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L099-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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