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Ethical Relativism:
An Introductory Exploration (2001)
Brenton Priestley



An Introduction to Ethical Relativism

It is self-evident that across that world, there is a bewildering variety of different moral codes and practices. As well as varying geographically, ideas of right and wrong have changed continuously over time. Because of this sheer diversity of moral codes and practices, it then seems therefore logical that there are no absolute moral truths. The prevailing ethical code in Sweden during the Fifteenth Century would be the ‘right’ one for a Medieval Swede, just as it would probably be the ‘wrong’ one, incompatible for an Ancient Egyptian. Subsequently, it then seems logical to assume that morality is in no sense absolute or universal, but rather defined relative to the society in which it exists. It may be thought that not only are certain acts believed to be morally right in one society but wrong in another, but actually are right in one and are wrong in another. This theory is known as Ethical Relativism.

Ethical Relativism is a meta-ethical theory in that it questions the status of ethical theories as opposed to simply human behaviour (Warburton 1995 p.57). It exists in the sense of describing both relativity in ethics between individuals as well between societies. It is this latter sense on which this essay will focus.

Relativism has existed for a long time, with an early proponent in the Ancient Greek Sophist, Protagoras. It has been in more recent times, however, that Sociologists and Anthropologists have found it useful to help explain and understand the vast catalogue of moralities amongst the human race, as well as ‘...because they have often seen at first hand the destruction wreaked on other societies by a crude importation of Western values’ (Ibid. p.60). Because of this, it is said that Relativism promotes tolerance and discourages social criticism. However, the proponents and detractors of Relativism continue to be divided.

Arguments for Ethical Relativism

The arguments for Relativism are fairly straightforward. Hospers outlines the two major reasons for which moral rules and practices are relative, accepted in one society but not in another. The first is that environmental conditions differ between societies. In this sense, from an evolutionary perspective, morality may be seen as a means in which humans try to adapt to their environment. Thus, different environments will result in different moralities. The morality that promotes the good of the group above all else will often be the successful one. In a desert community, someone who wastes water will be considered immoral. In a lakeside community, though, wasting water would not be a problem (Hospers 1996 p.28).

Secondly, moral rules differ between societies because of different beliefs. A Moslem in Palestine will not eat pork, because he or she believes that doing so would be infringing the will of Allah. A Hindu in India, conversely, will eat the pork, but won’t eat any beef, because they believe that cows are sacred. Although such practices may seem illogical to an outsider, if that outsider had these beliefs, they would no doubt be doing the same.

There is also the idea of the so-called Primacy of De Facto Values. This concept states that morality can be seen as either de facto, the morals that people actually practice, or ideal, the morals that people should practice. Stace elaborates on this idea by examining the two meanings of the word ‘standard’ in relation to ethics – a moral standard, as in what is thought right and a moral standard as in what is actually right. According to an Absolutist, people may believe in current, relative moral standards, but there is nonetheless an ultimate, absolute moral standard. Relativists, on the other hand, only acknowledge the de facto values, the moral standard by which people live (Stace 1973 p.193). Consequently, a Relativistic view of morality is perhaps more logical than an Absolutist in that it states that the morals that a particular society already lives by are the best ones. Ethical evolution, the trial and error of certain ethical rules and practices result in the most appropriate morals for a certain society, as opposed to an external, absolute set of morals of which the society may not have ever encountered.

Arguing against Ethical Relativism

The central tenet of Relativism, that morality is relative to the society in which it exists, is deeply flawed, and reveals a major argument against the theory. How do you define a society? Is it a race of people, a nation or a particular culture? The assumption that all societies are independent and homogenous is patently false.

In countering this, Relativists might say that it would be necessary to find a representative group to provide the moral standard for a society. For example, the congregation of a certain church might be seen to provide ethically sound rules and practices by which the rest of a city should live. However, individuals amongst the congregation are bound to have differing beliefs about moral issues. On the other hand, who is to say that the morals of one minority is better than another? Professional criminals often have their own code of ethics – should we live by those?

Another criticism of Relativism is that it discourages moral criticism of social codes. This will be discussed in detail further on.

A charge levelled against Relativism is that it promotes complacency and conservatism. For instance, the current morality in one’s society might state that it is acceptable to keep slaves. On the basis of Relativism, it is immoral to suggest the abolition of slavery. If all morality is relative, from where can one derive an ethical standard to judge the morality of a society?

Although these arguments effectively undermine Relativism, some criticisms can themselves be refuted. For instance, Stace argues that:

...if taken seriously and pressed to its logical conclusion, ethical relativity can only end in destroying morality altogether... in robbing human beings of any incentive to strive for a better world. (Ibid. p.195)

This is somewhat bombastic. It is conceded that ethical relativism has the potential to promote moral complacency, however to say that ‘when all the despair and defeatism of our distracted age are expressed in abstract concepts... it is then called relativism’ (Ibid. P.204) as Stace does, is excessive. Similarly, he goes on to argue that:

If men come really to believe that one moral standard is as good as another, they will conclude that their own moral standard has nothing special to recommend it. They might as well then slip down to some lower and easier standard. (Ibid. p.195)

This is clearly an incorrect interpretation of Relativism, which states that one’s moral standards are defined by those of one’s society. It is not said that one is free to select any moral code and still be seen as moral within one’s society.

Is the Diversity of Particular Moral Rules and Practices Compatible with Less Diversity at a Fundamental Level?

Another assumption of Relativism is, as Stace puts it ‘...that there is nothing... which has always and everywhere been regarded as morally good by all men’ (Ibid. P.191). On the contrary, some current anthropological thought suggests that the moralities of many societies do not in fact differ fundamentally. It may seem that there is a diversity of particular moral rules and practices between different societies. On a fundamental level, though, societies may share more than they differ. Anthropologist Ralph Linton has termed the outward appearance of moral and rules and practices as being superficial values and the fundamental principles behind them as basic values (Linton 1954 p.152). He writes:

A comparative study of a large number of cultures indicates that the basic values of all societies include many of the same elements. Differences increase as one moves toward the superficial end of the scale... If universal values exist, they must be sought for at the level of the deepest and most generalised conceptual values (Ibid. p.152)

Brandt indicates basic, universal moral codes; prohibitions of incest, rape, untruth, a demand for loyalty to one’s own family and social group, the ideal of life-long marriage, the value of knowledge and of human life, among many others (Brandt 1974 p.434). The fact of a commonality of morality undermines Relativism’s thesis that all societies have vastly different ethical codes.

Implications of Ethical Relativism for Moral Criticism of Social Codes

Another critique of Relativism is that is prevents the criticism of social codes. Clearly, if a society behaves flagrantly immorally towards a certain minority, it is the place of other societies to criticise this. A current example: ‘With white law impotent and tribal law convenient, too many Aboriginal men rape with impunity’ (Toohey 2001 p.21). Often Aboriginal men who rape women are judged by tribal councils and are acquitted or punished lightly, without the criminal or justice systems ever becoming aware of their crime. Relativists would say that this is acceptable. For white society to step in and try to alter such behaviour would in fact be immoral. This is obviously an inadequate way of thinking morally, and reveals a major fault in Relativism. On the other hand, criticising the morals of another society and trying to impose one’s own morals smacks of imperialism, and leads on to the next point.

Implications of Ethical Relativism for Tolerance

Tolerance is encouraged to a certain extent by Relativism. There is, of course, the logical argument that since tolerance is a ethical value, tolerance is regarded as morally correct in a tolerant society, and immoral in an intolerant society (Ethical Relativism Lecture). Tolerance isn’t necessarily always virtuous, however. It can be just as ignorant to say a society is always right as it is to say it is always wrong. Relativism demands that the relativist tolerates every society’s moral customs, for better or worse. Stace writes:

If we believe that any one moral standard is as good as any other, we are likely to be more tolerant. We shall tolerate widow-burning, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, the infliction of physical torture... (Stace 1973 p.203)

Again, Stace’s comments seem extreme and somewhat hysterical. Importantly, they preclude the tolerance of more ‘tolerable’ ethics. The point is still clear, though.


Ultimately, at a basic, fundamental level, morality is universal. While the detailed application of ethics may differ between societies, the fundamental basis for moral behaviour seems to be common for all. The concept of Universal Human Rights seems to address this fundamental level of morality.

Having a Relativist attitude towards the detailed application of morality that different societies possess will, generally, promote tolerance. Societies must be aware of aberrations, though, when these fundamental morals are disregarded. When it is clear that a prevailing moral code is dangerous, should other societies step in? This leads back to the original criticisms of Absolutism and arguments for Relativism – where can one draw the line between tolerance and undue criticism?

Perhaps one can perhaps apply one’s own morality in criticising that of others, but still accept that they have the right to practice it. This kind of diluted Relativism, used in conjunction with a set of Universal Human Rights is a meta-ethical view that many people share. It is probably the most feasible answer to the Absolutism/Relativism debate. 


Brandt, R.B. (1974). Disagreement and Relativism in Ethics. In W. Frankena, ed., Introductory Readings in Ethics, pp. 423-36. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Hospers, J. (1996). Human Conduct: Problems of Ethics. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers

Linton. R. (1954). The Problem of Universal Values. In R. Spencer, ed., Method and Perspective in Anthropology, pp. 145-157. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Stace, W.T. (1973). Cultural Relativism Versus Ethical Absolutism. In P. Davis, ed., Introduction to Moral Philosophy, pp. 190-204. Columbus: C. E. Merrill Publishing Company

Toohey, P. (2001). Sticks and Stones. In The Weekend Australian, April 14-15, 2001, pp. 21, 24

Warbuton, N. (1995). Philosophy: The Basics. New York: Routledge.

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