Moral Relativism

This article briefly but comprehensively describes the theory of moral relativism, its origin, importance, and critique on it. 

What is Moral Relativism

The theory of Moral relativism says the moral judgments as being right or wrong is contextual. They stand true or false only relative to some particular standpoint, e.g. culture, religion, a historical period, etc. No standpoint enjoys completely sacred or any unique privilege over all others. In nutshell, there may be more than one correct moral position on any topic.  

The following table illustrates how one thing is morally good in one society and immoral in others. 

Moral  Immoral 
  • Eating snakes, rats, and donkey are moral in China 
  • It’s immoral in the Middle Eastern and Arab world. 
  • Eating beef is moral in the USA 
  • It is immoral in India 
  • Eating animals is immoral for vegetarians 
  • It is moral for those who are not vegetarians 
  • A major part of the urban population in Pakistan does not consider women working outside the home bad. 
  • It’s considered not good in the traditional life of rural areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

Culture is one of the standpoints acting as a stimulating force for making different moral judgments. This suggests morality is not something absolute, it’s rather relative to one’s culture. We may also say the moral norms of society determine whether an action is right or wrong. An action considered to be morally right in one culture may be taken as morally wrong in another culture.  

Thus, a moral relativist assumes that moral standards cannot be universally applied to all people at all times. The only moral principles against which a society’s practices can be judged are its own. What does this suggest? It suggests there is no common framework for the resolution of moral disputes. In other words, it’s not possible to reach an agreement on ethical matters among members of different societies.

Claims made under moral relativism 

  • Different cultures often exhibit radically different moral values; 
  • There are no universal moral values common to all human societies; 
  • We should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices which are characteristic of cultures other than our own. 

The origin of relativist views 

Scholars trace the origin of relativistic views of morality back to the 5th century B.C. Greece. With the passage of time, discussion, debate, or discourse on relativism came to a halt. The views once again came under academic discussion in the 19th and 20th centuries with the start of the enlightenment era. 

Factors responsible behind the modern discourse

The following are considered to be the reasons for the modern discourse on moral relativism:

1. With the onset of the enlightened era in Europe, new anthropological discoveries e.g, the existence of cultural diversity, were made. An appreciation of this cultural diversity among scholars stimulated by anthropological discoveries brought moral relativism back into the discussion. 

2. Another factor behind the revival of debate on moral relativism in the modern age is the declining importance of religion. The debate was revived in Europe where religion lost its influence as the core element in shaping the policies of the state. With a declining religious role in the state, rational thought started to penetrate into the society at the cost of an absolutist approach.

3. During colonial times, the people of colonized areas were made to believe that the colonizers were superior human beings. With the onset of the twentieth century, scholars increasingly questioned this assumption of superiority over the indigenous people. The study of historical accounts and rational thinking challenged the concocted perception of white superiority over blacks, etc.  Thus an increasingly critical attitude toward colonialism was one of the which reasons that led to the revival of debate on moral relativism.

Why is moral relativism important? 

The importance of moral relativism is as follows:

  1. Moral relativism informs about the existence of variance in moral beliefs pertaining to different societies. Our cultural contexts deeply influence and shape our moral beliefs. 
  2. It encourages us to explore the factors underlying the beliefs of those not belonging that differ from our own.
  3. It also encourages us to examine our reasons for the beliefs and values we hold.

Critique on Moral Relativism

The theory of moral relativism is not without criticism from a number of scholars who advocate keeping a balance between moral relativism and absolutism. 

1. They argue that universal moral standards can also exist along with uniform moral practices and beliefs across cultures.

2. There is the possibility of the existence of moral beliefs that are culturally relative whereas others are not. 

3. They argue the existence of some relative practices does not that all practices are relative. There are many practices that are common in all societies at all times. 

For example, customs related to dress, diet, and decency, etc. may depend on local customs but the practice related to slavery,  torture, or political oppression may be judged wrong by people across societies. 

4. Moral relativism does not help in recognition of the fact that some societies may have better reasons for holding their views than others. 

5. According to the critics, the theory of Moral relativism promotes social conformity thereby leaving no room for moral reform in society. 

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