What is Moral Relativism?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Moral relativism is the philosophical position that morality is relative and that people should try to be good, but only by following their own consciences. Moral relativism can be contrasted with moral objectivism, the common position of many philosophers and religions that there is an objective morality, sometimes set down by God, an objective right and wrong. These two positions have tangled for thousands of years and are a contributing cause to many wars. However, it is arguable that wars and conflicts between conflicting notions of objective morality are more common than wars between objective and subjective moralists.

Herodotus was a Greek historian who observed that each society had its own moral code, which they all regarded as being the best.
Herodotus was a Greek historian who observed that each society had its own moral code, which they all regarded as being the best.

One phrase that partially sums up the philosophy of moral relativism is "live and let live." Sometimes the phrase "moral relativism" is used as a pejorative by moral objectivists and theists. This is often accompanied with the assertion that this relativism implies the complete absence of morality, but moral relativists do commonly believe in a moral code, just not that it is universally applicable. Among theists, moral relativism has a bad reputation, mostly because most religions teach moral objectivism. A prominent exception would be Buddhism.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a well-known moral relativist philosopher who pioneered the idea that mankind has no morality to turn to except that which is created by ourselves.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a well-known moral relativist philosopher who pioneered the idea that mankind has no morality to turn to except that which is created by ourselves.

Moral relativism has been around for a long time, with early writings by the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 – 420 BC) pointing out that each society has its own moral code and they all regard their own as the best. It should be noted that partial relativism is possible -- someone might believe in a core of objective moral truth, for instance, "killing is wrong," but believe that more nuanced issues, such as how much of one's income to give to charity, are more subjective. Most people, even self-labeled moral objectivists, usually have some area of moral reasoning on which they are not completely certain, and so concede some degree of moral relativism. Others would argue that this is not relinquishing moral objectivism, only admitting imperfect knowledge on what objective morality is.

One of the most famous and well-known moral relativist philosophers of the 20th century was Jean-Paul Sartre, who pioneered the philosophy of existentialism, which essentially asserts that mankind is alone in the universe and we have no morality to turn to except that which we create for ourselves. However, not all moral relativists agree with Sartre. Many moral relativists are simply motivated by the avoidance of ethnocentrism -- avoiding assuming that one's own culture is superior to others. They argue that this is essential for world peace, pointing to numerous historical examples when cultures served atrocities on others due to perceived moral inferiority.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


Moral relativism is bad. The "live and let live" attitude is also bad. These two things are the reasons why there is so much evil and suffering in our world today. It's because righteous men, men with good moral character are persuaded to tolerate those with obviously inferior moral views/stances.

There is nothing wrong with regarding the morality of one's society as the best. I will give you an example. A Western colonialist went to India. At that time, India had the custom of burning widows. Said colonialist tried to stop it. The Indians protested, saying that such an act was morally justified. I don't remember what the colonialist said in response to this, but he did stop them. And in so doing, he was imposing his brand of morality on another culture. However, I am sure most of you would agree with me that he did the right thing, and that he prevented an untold amount of suffering.

Therefore, I just showed two things: 1. Moral absolutism is good; 2. We embrace moral absolutism already.


To quote C.S. Lewis, there is an unsaid code of morality and guideline that calls all humans no matter what their cultural, or ethnic background. "Thou shall not murder (not 'kill' as commonly mistranslated)".


Moral relativity is critical to the debate between those living in the West and those in the Islamic world. Why? Because those in the Islamic world regularly vaunt themselves as superior morally to those in the West, yet when the flaws of Islam are exposed like the Armenian Genocide or Mohammed’s pedophilia with Aisha at age 9 they quickly work to point fingers at episodes in the West that somehow 'balance' or 'justify' the apparent weakness or flaws in or of Islam as a personal, cultural or political philosophy by which to organize affairs.

The Islamic model is above criticism, it seems, and cannot be changed. That is the weakness of Islam and the practice of moral relativity by them to conceal their own failings.


@Armas1313: This is a moral theory called moral absolutism. You are stating that certain actions and ways of living are universally right or wrong. In a diversifying world, it will be interesting to see what happens to moral absolutism and what effect it has on the world.


@Proxy414: This is an interesting point, because the fact is, a government system and everything about a society relates to its fundamental ways of viewing the world and morality. Ethics are completely fluid, whereas morals were originally meant to be kept solid.


@ShadowGenius: Ethical relativism would seem to be redundant, but points to the fact that a code of living is completely different for different people groups, and different ideals can have a greater prominence in various different cultures. This is why democracy doesn't work as well in Eastern cultures as it does in Western ones.


Moral relativism is essentially the basis of the modern confusion about the difference between morals and ethics. Morals are meant to be set in stone, literally, in that they are based upon the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments in the Judeo-Christian moral system. Ethics are completely relative and relate to the thoughts of a culture and people's personal feelings about things.

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