A Quick-and-Dirty Argument Against Moral Relativism


     Copyright © 2007 Bruce W. Hauptli


I believe that our descriptions are deeply contextual—they are dependent on context.  Thus to describe a room as empty is, at least in the normal contexts, not to say that there is no air in there—instead that there are no people there, or no furniture (depending upon the context).  Similarly, our evaluations are also deeply context-dependent. 


     This is important because the central concern I want to direct your attention to in this lecture would not obviously arise if all human beings learned to perceive, theorize, value and evaluate within the same social context—if we all inhabited the same “culture.”  Were this the case, our perceptions, beliefs, emotions, and evaluations would be more uniform.  This is, clearly, not the case, however, and this leads, inevitably, to the question:


can we legitimately evaluate (and “value”) others’ values (and share or accept their evaluations)? 


Now a recognition of our fallibility, of the all-too-frequent evaluational and evaluative conflicts which arise within our own system of values, and of the many very different lives and narratives all should lead us, I believe, to countenance the possibility that our system of values may need to be changed, and that others’ systems may offer us valuable clues regarding such changes. 


     Unfortunately, these factors lead some to adopt a relativistic orientation.  Some individuals claim that there is not a universal, absolute, rational evaluative perspective.  Instead, they maintain “right and wrong,” or “good and bad,” are discriminations that may be made only from within a particular cultural perspective, and they hold that there is no legitimate evaluation of these differing evaluations.[1]  Such a view is called a relativistic view, and is often summed up in the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  I want to provide a “quick and dirty argument against relativism at this ending point of our course.  It is only a first step, and you need to be aware that relativists will have reasonable philosophical responses to the arguments I offer.  The argument is “quick and dirty” because we have run out of time, and students are invited to do the readings we did not have time for to carry their understanding further. 


     First, suppose relativism is true.  This does not undercut the need for reflection and resolution when confronted with moral quandaries.  Consider the following analogy from Tom Beaucamp :


if a husband and a wife have a serious disagreement over whether to have another child because they have different views of family life and of their relationship, the problem will not vanish simply by declaring that their views about further children are relative to their different views about family life and relationships.  The problem needs resolution, and among reasonable persons resolution will come only through hard thinking and perhaps considerable negotiation and compromise. 

  Similarly with moral problems, even if extraordinarily different viewpoints do prevail, a resolution is still needed.  From this perspective, moral reflection that transcends human differences is needed even if relativism is entirely true.  When two parties argue about some serious, divisive, and contested moral issue...we tend to think that some genuinely fair and justified compromise may be reached, or perhaps we remain uncertain while anticipating the emergence of the best argument.[2] 


In short, were relativism true, we might well have to act as if it wasn’t!  Effectively, we can say, few relativists can remain relativists when they move from the calm realm of theory to that of practical realm of action where our roles as practitioners and evaluators comes into prominence. 


     But I don’t believe it is true!  In fact, like many critics, I believe that those who assert it run into problems immediately.  In his “Beyond the Fact/Value Dichotomy,” Hilary Putnam maintains that:


...if we say that it is a fact that acceptance of a given statement or theory is “justified relative to the standards of culture A,” then we are treating “being the standard of a culture” and “according with the standard of a culture” as something objective, something itself not relative to the standards of this-or-that culture.  Or we had better be: for otherwise, we fall at once into the self-refuting relativism of Protagoras.  Like Protagoras, we abandon all distinction between being right and thinking one is right.[3] 


That is, the relativist who asserts the truth of relativism seems to presuppose objectivism.  What is often behind a commitment to relativism is a misunderstood commitment to tolerance however.  Many people believe we should all be “tolerant” of other’s values, moral stances, etc.  Such individuals see no problem maintaining that the “virtue” (or “value”) of toleration should apply universally, and this leads them to relativism—it seems to them that it would be intolerant to “objectively evaluate” the values, moral stances, or orientations of others.[4] 


     Unfortunately, these individuals run into “logical” trouble when they are confronted by others who don’t value toleration.  When they are confronted with the possibility that there are such individuals or groups, the tolerant people must say that they want to tolerate them and their values.  But if they do so, they end up committed to an acceptance of intolerance!  Here they fall prey to the relativists’ mistake noted above. 


     Since we are rational creatures (that is creatures capable of acting, evaluating, and valuing on the basis of, or from, what is in conformity with what is judged rational intersubjectively), we can respond to inconsistencies in valuations and evaluations, to our fallibility, or to diversity in values and evaluations by taking up the activity of rational examination of our values and evaluations from within our own valuational perspective.  As Simon Blackburn notes,


…to have a stance is to stand somewhere, and in practical matters…that means being set to disagree with those who stand somewhere else. 

  If relativism, then, is just a distraction, is it a valuable one or a dangerous one?  I think it all depends.  Sometimes we need reminding of alternative ways of thinking, alternative practices and ways of life, from which we can learn and which we can have no reason to condemn.  We need to appreciate differences….But sometimes we need reminding that there is time to draw a line and take a stand, and that alternative ways of looking at things can be corrupt, ignorant, superstitious, wishful, out of touch, or plain evil.  It is a moral issue, whether we tolerate and learn or regret and oppose.[5] 


     On my web-site I have two lectures which were originally given in a Sophomore Honors course I team-taught with a number of colleagues for several years (“Relativism, Objectivism, and Judging,” and “Some Things Are Just Plain Wrong”).  The lectures are based on a set of readings designed to facilitate students “inhabiting other lives” (the title of the two-semester course), and the utilized these readings to both set the stage for, and challenge, the relativistic position in morals.  Even though the readings are not available on the site, I think that these lectures do elaborate the argument I have offered here by providing some examples that can facilitate the discussion and help defend the conclusion I have offered.  Here I will utilize one of these discussions to root Blackburn’s claim and show its relevance to the critique of moral relativism. 


     In Germany Armin Meiwes advertised on the internet for individuals who would be willing to be eaten by him.  Meiwes wanted to be a cannibal, and he wanted a willing subject to be his lunch, so to speak.  Bernd Brandes replied to the inquiry, and after meeting and discussing the situation fully, they agreed to participate in a joint activity.  Meiwes killed Brandes consumed at least 44 pounds of his flesh.  Now this case certainly seems to call for William Gass’ line “something has been done wrong.”[6]  Or something wrong has been done”—at a minimum it allows for a new rendition of Shakespeare: “To Be, Or To Be Lunch?” 


     How should we approach such cases?  Well, let's follow Gass' suggestions.  First seek further facts.  So, we go to the internet.  We learn that over 200 people responded to Meiwes' inquiries; that he interviewed two others besides Brandes and rejected them as "candidates;" that Brandes came to Meiwes' farmhouse, consumed 20 sleeping pills and a bottle of schnapps, and that Brands then, as they had agreed, removed a body part from Brandes and fried it for them both to eat.  After discussing their meal, and bleeding badly, Brandes retired to a shower and bleed and after he died Meiwes butchered the body, and froze future meals.  We know all of this because of the lengthy video-tape which captures much of what occurred including Brandes willing participation in the activity. 


     These facts do not help to lessen my moral disapproval.  While my fallibilism makes me cautious in my assertions, valuations, and evaluations; the more I learn about this case, the more I think that something wrong (in fact “just plain wrong”) was done here!  While I accept the possibility that today’s science and medicine might not be the ultimate truth, to appeal to an analogy, I think those who don’t accept the chemists’ accounts of the nonpotability of hydrochloric acid or the accounts of their illness offered by surgeons are fools.  It would take some really extraordinary events before I could even begin to consider giving up these sorts of beliefs and theories.  I recognize, however, that practicing scientists actively subject their beliefs and theories to serious tests—they actively try to falsify, and are comfortable with theories and beliefs only if they survive repeated critical scrutiny


     Unlike what we can do in the case of our scientific beliefs and theories, however, in the case of moral valuations and beliefs it is clearly inappropriate to engage in empirical investigation.  You, for example, would certainly not want me to conduct an experiment on you regarding the effects of unjust grading!  I am far more willing to continence the possibility that I am wrong in my moral values and evaluations than I am in my scientific believings and theorizing, and so here too I want to actively look for possible errors.  Given the inappropriateness of empirical investigation, however, I employ the technique of reflective equilibrium.  I think cases like that of Meiwes and Brandes, or the fictional one described by William Gass (which I first confronted as an undergraduate much like yourselves) allow us to critically and creatively examine our valuations and evaluations. 


     It is important that we note that this technique is not scientific—there is no way to reduce this process to a set of mechanical steps or a simple rational algorithmic process.  Moreover, there is an inherent subjectivity in this process which is not found in the process of testing our scientific beliefs.  We employ stories (narratives) because we shouldn’t experiment on real people, and in these narratives we speak not only of the factual situations, but also of the values, valuations, and feelings of the individuals involved.  Indeed, it is a process which heavily relies upon both the appeal to emotions and to “narrative understanding.”  Those who present such cases do much to portray, as far as possible what it is like to be the individuals they are discussing.  They try to place us, as far as possible, within their setting


     I contend that it is by doing so that we become able to look anew and critically at our own beliefs, evaluations, passions, and values.  In effect these writers and I are promoting a form of narrative understanding.  The goal of such narratives is not simply to present “alternative” lives to us.  In discussing such cases we are not simply describing other’s lives and concluding, say, “Oh, that’s different.”  Instead, we are endeavoring to engender a critical self-understanding—the cases are to be used to get us to critically consider our valuations and evaluations of both our own and of other’s lives, values, and beliefs. 


     The central question such a narrative understanding is concerned with is: “What sort of person will I be?”  To answer this question one must, of course, have an understanding of what sort of person one is, and one must have some idea of what the available alternatives are, and here the activity of “inhabiting other lives” is important (both in terms of being an “insider looking in from the outside,” and in terms of being an “insider looking outside”). 


     These activities, however, are not pursued simply for their intrinsic value or intellectual interest.  Instead, they are pursued here so that one may critically inhabit one’s evolving life in a manner which allows one to take responsibility for the narrative one is writing. 


     In effect, each of you is writing a biography.  While you may at times feel as if you are “many characters” who are “in search of an author,” and while your life story is partly conditioned by your past, your family, your culture, and your biology, you must ultimately take responsibility for the story you are writing with your actions.  There are many factors which make “normal writing” difficult for all of us.  We have to decide whether to employ the active or passive voice; whether to write in the present, past, or future tense; whether our sentences are garbled and awkward; and what style works best for us.  Moreover, at least for the writing we do here at the University, we have to decide whether to plagiarize, obfuscate, employ sexist language, etc. 


     The narrative responsibility I am highlighting, however, is far more serious.  If your biography is plagiarized, the life you live is really not yours.  If your biography is garbled, unclear, contradictory, or without a coherent thesis, then the “fault” is wholly your own—you had the opportunity to edit, revise, and critically consider before you hit the “send” button


     Thus my response to moral relativism is this:


it is unhelpful (if it is attractive in theory, it is impracticable),


it is contradictory, and


it does not take our role as moral evaluators seriously. 


The moral relativists wrongly respond to our fallibilism, the possibility of alternative valuations and evaluations, and the possibility of changes in our valuational structures.  Instead of taking seriously the necessity of our “taking a stand,” their orientation leaves us with nowhere to stand—it makes evaluation (and valuation) impossible.  The proper response to alternatives, diversity, and change is to take seriously our responsibility to engage in the endeavor of reflective equilibrium as we develop our capacity for narrative understanding responsibly as we continue to write our moral autobiographies. 


 Appendix I: More on the “Inconsistency” of Relativism:


In greater detail, we might ask the relativist: do you wish to contend that


(a) according to you (in your belief [or moral] system), there are no objective moral truths, and everyone’s [moral] values and beliefs are as “valid” as anyone else’s,




(b) there are no objective [moral] truths, and that is an absolute fact. 


Of course, as any fool can plainly see, (b) is self-contradictory.  Just as one can not meaningfully say “My morals are wrong,” so one can not consistently say (b).  On the other hand, saying (a) leads the relativist into trouble.  If, in say that everyone’s values and beliefs are equally good, then you are committed to claiming that my belief that there are objective truths is right (and my belief that you are wrong is right), and this means that you have to deny your own view. 


     At best, it seems, relativists who wish to offer a general theory must say something like this:


(c) The only absolute [moral] truth is that there are no others but this one. 

 Of course, the relativist will need to defend this claim, and its alleged uniqueness certainly seems to speak against it. 

 Appendix II: More on William Gass’ “The Case of the Obliging Stranger

 In his “The Case of the Obliging Stranger,” William Gass (a contemporary novelist, essayist, and philosopher) draws a “moral” from an imagined case wherein he asks the reader to

 imagine I approach a stranger on the street and say to him. “If you please sir, I desire to perform an experiment with your aid.”  The stranger is obliging, and I lead him away.  In a dark place conveniently by, I strike his head with the broad of an axe and cart him home.  I place him, buttered and trussed, in an ample electric oven.  The thermostat reads 4500 F.  Thereupon I go off forget all about the obliging stranger in the stove.  When I return, I realize that I have overbaked my specimen, and the experiment, alas, is ruined. 

  Something has been done wrong.  Or something wrong has been done. 

  Any ethic that does not roundly condemn my action is vicious.  It is interesting that none is vicious for this reason.  It is also interesting that no more convincing refutation of any ethic could be given than by showing that it approved of my baking the obliging stranger.[8] 


Gass speaks to us in a way that undercuts moral relativism and moral skepticism.  He recommends that when we are in doubt about what it is which is “right” (or “moral”), it is important that we first hunt for facts.  Here is his example:


“She left her husband with a broken hand and took the children.” 

“She did?” 

“He broke his hand on her head.” 

“Dear me; but even so!” 

“He beat her every Thursday after tea and she finally couldn’t stand it any longer.” 

“Ah, of course, but the poor children.” 

“He beat them, too.” 

“My, my, and was there no other way?” 

“The court would grant her no injunction.” 

“Why not?” 

“Judge Bridlegoose is a fool.” 

“Ah, of course, she did right, no doubt about it.”[9] 

 He goes on to note that where more facts don’t lead us into agreement, we should work to redescribe the case:

 if more facts do not clear the case, we redescribe it, emphasizing first this fact and then that until it is clear, or until we have several clear versions of the original muddle.  Many ethical disputes are due to the possession, by the contending parties, of different accounts of the same occasion, all satisfactorily clear, and this circumstance gives the disputants a deep feeling for the undoubted rightness of each of their versions.[10] 

      In effect, Gass is appealing to the technique of reflective equilibrium.  He is recommending that we critically examine the specifics of the situation that are engendering our moral disagreement in a manner which ensures that we are agreeing to a common characterization of the central aspects of the case.  Hopefully we can get all the disputants to accept a single common description of the situation and the facts involved. 

      Sometimes, as he notes, we find ourselves agreeing on the facts and overall description of the situation, but differing over the moral principles that we take to be involved.  Here he says that

 principles really obscure matters as often as they clear them.  They are generally flags and slogans to which the individual is greatly attached.[11] 


Ethics, I wish to say, is about something, and in the rush to establish principles, to elicit distinctions from a recalcitrant language, and to discover “laws,” those lovely things and honored people, those vile seducers and ruddy villains our principles and laws are supposed to be based upon and our ethical theories to be about are overlooked and forgotten.[12] 

 In effect, he again appeals to reflective equilibrium to help us deal with conflicts within or between different moral theories and principles.  He is concerned that we recognize that we need to focus upon the individuals and actions which our moral theories “are supposed to be based upon” [and concerned with] rather than with the principles and theories.  That is all the help Gass gives us however: remember that ethics is about people, be careful as to how you describe the facts, be flexible and willing to redescribe cases, and watch out for principles. 


     This might well seem to leave us with either skepticism or relativism—but given his initial claim about ethics and the case of the “obliging stranger,” this would be the wrong “moral” to draw from his essay.  Remember: we are to rebuke and reject any theory that (and any individual who) does not condemn the treatment of the baking of the stranger. 


1] There are many forms of relativism (individual, social, cultural), but I will use only the formulation appropriate for “cultural relativism” here, as it is the one that will be most appropriate here. 


[2] Tom Beaucamp, “Ethical Theory and Its Application to Business,” in Ethical Theory and Business, eds. Tom Beaucamp and Norman Bowie (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1988), pp. 1-1-55, p. 13. 


[3] Hilary Putnam, “Beyond the Fact/Value Dichotomy,’ in his Realism With A Human Face (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1990), pp. 135-141, p. 139.  


4] See Appendix I below for more on this argument. 


[5] Simon Blackburn, “Relatively Speaking,” Simon Blackburn “Relatively Speaking” which may be accessed from

 http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=12 , p. 2.  The essay is my core departure-point here (though the argument he offers is one which has been frequently offered by anti-relativists throughout the history of Western thought).  This essay originally appeared in Think (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1999.  Emphasis added to the passage three times. 


[6] Cf., William Gass, “The Case of the Obliging Stranger,” The Philosophical Review v. 66 (1957).  Reprinted in Gass’ Fiction and the Figures of Life (N.Y.: Vintage, 1958), pp. 225-241.  For more information on this see Appendix I to this lecture supplement. 


[7] You are encouraged to follow Gass’ remaining recommendations by thing about the case along the lines recommended in Appendix II. 


[8] William H. Gass, “The Case of the Obliging Stranger,” op. cit


[9] Ibid., p. 202. 


[10] Ibid


11] Ibid., p. 203. 


[12] Ibid., p. 204. 


Last revised on 04/16/2007

Return to Hauptli's Home Page

Send me comments on this