PBA221H: Moral Relativism

What is (moral) relativism?


“…truth itself is relative to the standpoint of the judging subject…”1)

Thus, moral relativism holds that the truth of a statement of morality i.e., it is wrong to murder an innocent person, is relative to the person.

“…Moral relativism is a type of subjectivism. It holds that moral truths are preferences much like our taste in ice cream. The validity of these truths depends entirely on the one who says, “It's true for me [the subject] – if I believe it.” Moral relativism teaches that when it comes to morals, that which is ethically right or wrong, people do their own thing. Ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups who hold them…Relativism does not require a particular behaviour for everyone in similar moral situations. When faced with exactly the same ethical situation, I might choose one thing, but you may choose the opposite. No universal rules apply to everyone. – Beckwith and Koukl2)

Example statements

“You ought not judge other people’s values”


Philosophical: That statement is a contradiction. The word “ought” implies that you are making a value-judgement.

Conversational: CG/A/Q with Obvious counter-examples e.g. Child abuse, racist actions, etc.

“Morals are just what you are brought up with from your parents and society”


Philosophical: To say someone’s view is wrong by showing how that person came to hold their view commits the genetic fallacy.

The genetic fallacy is a mistake in reasoning which tries to invalidate a person’s belief by showing how they came to hold that belief.

Ex. “You only believe that because…x,y,z. And therefore you are wrong.”

The point? Truth has nothing to do with how we came to hold it.

Conversational: Reply: I am not worried about how we come to know where we derive morality, all I am arguing is that if all human beings have human rights, it is a human rights violation to deny the pre-born child her right to life.

“What is right or wrong for me might not be right or wrong for you”


Philosophical: My belief ≠reality; I might believe pedophilia is moral, but my belief that that is true does not make it right.

Conversational: Counter-examples. Ask, do you think there's anything that is always wrong?

Student: There's no such thing as right and wrong.

Caleb VDW: Is that right…?

Student: visibly confused

“We have to be tolerant, and that means respecting other opinions in morality”


Philosophical: Tolerance means tolerance of people, not opinions. Ex. “It is morally acceptable to sexually assault another human being” does not deserve to be tolerated.

Conversational: Ask a question: Should we be tolerant of those who hold the belief that [insert awful example here]? Also, make distinction between the right to think a certain way (we agree – we're not out to be the thought police) vs. the right to act a certain way (e.g. we should interfere if someone is going to abuse their child).

Distinction between: People who deserve respect/tolerance (everyone!) = Common Ground!


Opinions that deserve respect/tolerance (not all of them!)

Student: there's no such thing as truth, so you need to respect everyone's opinion.

Maria: if there's no such thing as truth, why should I respect your opinion?

Student: visibly confused

“Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one.”


Philosophical: confuses a preference claim (subjective e.g. ice cream flavours) with a moral claim (objective e.g. sexual assault). Pro-lifers are making the latter kind of claim.

Conversational: Counter-examples (child abuse, slavery, etc.) Do you believe in HRs? Etc.

“Imagine I have two bowls of candy in front of me. I like m&ms and everyone else in this room likes smarties. Can you all tell me NOT to eat the m&ms because you all prefer smarties? No, you can’t. Now let’s imagine some of the m&ms are poisoned. You all know this but I don’t. I decide I’m going to go offer the neighbours some. Now can you tell me not to eat the m&ms? Yes–in fact, you would have an obligation to stop me from eating them and sharing them with others because the choice I’d be making is lethal to myself and someone else.”

“Who are you to impose your beliefs about right and wrong on me? Don’t force your opinion on me!”


Philosophical: If something is bad, we have an obligation to tell others about it to prevent that bad thing from happening (negative responsibilities). Also, self-contradicting sentence–the person is imposing their beliefs by trying to silence you.

Conversational: Do you ever think there is a time when you would tell someone to refrain from an action? For example, if your friend goes to the bar, gets drunk and then says he is driving. Would you tell him not to do it? Of course you would tell him to not to it—so, it is okay sometimes to tell others what to do when someone else is involved (bring it back to the pre-born).

A technical distinction: We previously said, “If your friend went to the bar, got drunk and then wanted to drive would you tell him not to do that? Someone could say “Well, I am not sure what I would do in that situation…” A ‘would’ statement involves the person in a hypothetical situation. BUT we are not asking ‘would you’ but ‘should you.’

So, if you get this response: “If your friend went to the bar, got drunk and then wanted to drive, should you tell him not to do that, despite what you would do?”

“That is just your opinion, all opinions are equal.”


Philosophical: Self-Contradiction (Reply: “Then that is just your opinion!”)

Conversational: Not all opinions are equal. This is true factually (some opinions are false) and morally (there are better and worse opinions)

“Society/laws create(s) morality.”


Philosophical: We can imagine two societies (or two societies’ laws) who disagree on an moral issue and know one (or both) is false. Ex. Homosexuals should be burnt alive for their sexual orientation. We know that is wrong whether or not our society says so, or another society says so.

Conversational: We can take it back a step: Regardless of what society says…

Maria: do you believe in human rights?

Student: no, human rights are just a social construct.

Maria: Well, do you think there's anything that's always wrong? For instance, I think sexual assault is never okay. Would you agree?

Student: Yes!

Maria: why is sexual assault wrong?

Student: … well… I guess because… It violently assaults someone's body, and that's wrong.

Maria: I completely agree. So if it's wrong to violently assault the body of another human being, what about this violent assault? [Points down at sign.]

Student: Well, that's different, they're not persons… [Conversation continues]

“Morals are just products of our evolutionary history. It explains why we find things to be right and wrong”


Philosophical: Genetic fallacy. (Also, confuses description / “this is how humans have acted” with prescription “this is how humans should act”, confuses an 'is' with an 'ought' –> insert Beckwith and Koukl quote on this)

Conversational: Again, regardless of where morality comes from, the point is [go through the human rights argument].

Moral Nihilism?

No morality? =Moral Nihilism

Definition: The person who believes there are no right and wrong in ANY case. e.g., lynching blacks historically, anti-Semitism, persecution of homosexuals, child pornography, et cetera, are not really bad.

Fun fact: People aren’t really moral nihilists (under normal conditions i.e., not being a psychopath). E.g. try cutting them off in line in the grocery store–they will suddenly react as if morality exists…

However…This does not mean that you will be able to persuade everyone. This is the “ultimate difficulty” in dealing with relativists and/or nihilists. → Just as you can deny your sense experience, so you can deny your moral experience.

There is a right and wrong, and therefore moral relativism is false

“…the problem is that objective values do exist, and deep down we all know it. There's no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world…if moral values are gradually discovered, not invented, then our gradual and fallible apprehension of the moral realm no more undermines the objective reality of that realm than our gradual, fallible perception of the physical world undermines the objectivity of that realm. Most of us think that we do apprehend objective values.”

-William Lane Craig, Does God Exist?

I am worried: If I can’t prove morals exist, should I believe in them?

“…God can be invisibly and inaudibly present, and the fact that the world cannot see him does not prove very much.” -Kierkegaard, Works of Love

Maybe this can help us as pro-lifers: Moral experience can be real, and the fact that the world does not experience it does not prove very much.

(Think about great literature here, Jonas seeing colour, Winston seeing life beyond Big Brother, Ivan Ilyich realizing death, Faust realizing the deadliness of submitting to evil, et cetera; and think about history here, Mother Teresa saw the intrinsic value among the lowest and poorest human beings, Martin Luther King saw equality when no one else did, Maximillian Kolbe gave his life out of love when no one else would step in to save the Death Camp prisoner; think about Jesus here)

But remember: In conversation, we do not want to get into (unless you have to) a philosophical discussion about morality; you want to establish that the wrongness of abortion consists of the violation of a pre-born human being’s right to life.
Simon Blackburn, Dictionary of Philosophy, 313.
Relativism: Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air, 28