Monday, 29 May 2017

Why Absolute Moral Relativism Should Be Off The Table

Posted by Christian Sötemann
In the case of moral statements there can be many degrees between absolute certainty and absolute uncertainty. 
Even empirical truths, which are thoroughly supported by conclusive evidence, cannot, by their empirical nature, have the same degree of certainty as self-evident truths. There may always be an empirical case which escapes us. And so it may be questioned whether a viable moral principle really has to be either one or the other: absolutely certain or absolutely uncertain, valuable or valueless – or whether it is good enough for it to serve as an orientation, a rule of thumb, or something useful in certain types of cases.

With this in mind, given any moral principle in front of us, it could be helpful for us to differentiate between whether:
• it is only universally applicable in an orthodox way


• there is an overt denial of any generalisability (even for a limited type of cases) of moral values and principles.
In the first case, we may try to reconcile a concrete situation with an abstract moral rule, without rejecting the possibility of some degree of generalisation – yet in the second case, we have what we previously discussed: generalising that we would not be able to make any kind of general statement. In the second case, we have an undifferentiated position that renders all attempts at gauging arguments about ethics futile, thus condoning an equivalence of moral stances that is hardly tenable.

This liberates the moral philosopher at least in one way: absolute moral relativism can be taken off the table, while all moral standpoints may still be subjected to critical scrutiny. If I have not found any moral philosophy that I can wholeheartedly embrace, I do not automatically have to resort to absolute moral relativism. If I have not found it yet, it does not mean that it does not exist at all. The enquiring mind need not lose all of its beacons.

To put moral relativism in its most pointed form, the doctrine insists that there are moral standpoints, yet that none of them may be considered any more valid than others. This does not oblige the moral relativist to say that everything is relative, or that there are no facts at all, such as scientific findings, or logical statements. It confines the relativism to the sphere of morality.

We need to make a further distinction. The English moral philosopher Bernard Williams pointed out that there may be a 'logically unhappy attachment' between a morality of toleration, which need not be relative, and moral relativism. Yet here we find a contradiction. If toleration is the result of moral relativism – if I should not contest anyone’s moral stance, because I judge that all such stances are similarly legitimate – I am making a general moral statement, namely: 'Accept everybody’s moral preferences.' However, such generalisation is something the moral relativist claims to avoid.

A potential argument that, superficially, seems to speak for moral relativism is that it can be one of many philosophical devices that helps us to come up with counterarguments to moral positions. Frequently, this will reveal that moral principles which were thought to be universal fail to be fully applicable – or applicable at all – in the particular case. However, this can lead to a false dilemma, suggesting only polar alternatives (either this or that, with no further options in between) when others can be found. The fact that there is a moral counterargument does not have to mean that we are only left with the conclusion that all moral viewpoints are now invalid.

Moral propositions may not have the same degree of certainty as self-evident statements, which cannot be doubted successfully – such as these:
• 'Something is.'

• 'I am currently having a conscious experience.'
These propositions present themselves as immediately true to me, since a) is something in itself, as would be any contestation of the statement, and b) even doubting or denying my conscious experience happens to be just that: a conscious experience.

Rarely do we really find a philosopher who endorses complete moral relativism, maintaining that any moral position is as valid as any other. However, occasionally such relativism slips in by default – when one shrugs off the search for a moral orientation, or deems moral judgements to be mere personal or cultural preferences.

Now and again, then, we might encounter variants of absolute moral relativism, and what we could do is this: acknowledge their value for critical discussion, then take them off the table.


  1. I had a professor once. In a discussion with a student about moral relativism (which the student espoused), he picked up a steaming teapot and held it over the student’s head, saying it was all the same whether he poured it or not.

    But now, supposing that there is no absolute moral relativism, how does this help us further? We have rejected an extreme position, but now what? What would you think to this? As the ‘critical discussion’ unfolds, it broadens and balances one’s perceptions. It lifts one above short-sighted, self-interested, or parochial thinking. That in itself becomes the driver of a new morality?

    1. I think your professor was not actually keeping up with the issue... I'm always rminded of the Great Chuang Tzu who argues that all moral knowledge depends in this way on context and situations - it is relative. Chuang goes on to prove that in fact all knowledge - not just moral or aesthetic judgements - is equally rooted in context, and equally ‘relative’.

      ‘ I do not know whether it was Chuang dreaming he was a butterfly, or the butterfly dreaming it was Chuang.’ The lesson is that we should strive to transcend the world of distinctions.

      ‘Looking at it from the Tao, there is no noble and no mean. From the point of view of things, each take itself for noble and all others for mean. ... They are mere products of opinion. From the point of view of difference, if we take something for big because it is big in some way, then there’s not one among the ten thousand things that is not big. If we take something for small, then there is not one among the ten thousand things that is not small. When you know heaven and earth as seeds of grain and grass, when you know that the tip of a hair is a mound or a mountain, then you know something about difference and measurement...’

      Another of the themes of the writings of Chuang Tzu, is the desirability of non-action even to the extent of eschewing government. Another of my favorite stories concerns the man who crossed the river in an outrigger, when a boat smashes into him.

      ‘If the boat is empty, even if you are a hot-tempered person, you wont be angry. But if someone else is on the boat ‘you’ll yell at him to get out your way’. If he doesn’t hear you, you’ll yell again. And if he still pays no heed you’ll yell a third time and follow that with really ugly sounds.’

      The point is, You weren’t angry the first time, with the empty boat, but you are the second time.

    2. I’m more familiar with Lao Tzu, who is compared with Zhuang Zhou. The way that I read Lao Tzu is that all possibilities are contained in the subject. Opposites cannot exist on their own. There has to be something which unites them in one. They have to be true of a subject.

      For instance, we may use the word ‘good’ to describe a man, a book, a play, and so on. Similarly, we may use the word ‘evil’ — but we cannot speak about good or evil in isolation. Imagine then that such opposites are not extras which we deliberately insert into descriptions: ‘That man is good,’ or ‘That man is bad.’ Imagine rather that these opposites exist inside of things, and belong to the essence of things. We would look upon the world, I think, in a different way — on people, systems, events, and so on. This may be along the lines of what you are saying, in that opposites exist on the inside of things where you might consider that they exist on the outside of things, as it were?

      I do agree with you, given that I have (hopefully) understood you, that morality is an art of sorts. Moral prescriptions which define morality are crudities which do not sit well with the largeness of our world and what it requires of us in response. They are surely, though, an unfortunate necessity.

    3. I understand, Thomas, that this posting, in its relative brevity, does not bring about a complete foundation as to what morality should be based on. However, I think it is actually two extremes that can be discarded: The absolute relativism as well as the demand for an absolute certainty of moral principles. That might have a connection with what Martin wrote - context and situation always have to be considered, in any application of any moral principle.

      Absolute relativism renders all approaches to morality equally valid or invalid; the reconciliation between abstract principles and the demands of the concrete situation can initiate a process which may lead to a viable moral approach in this very situation.

    4. Thank you Christian. The post was thought-provoking, still has me pondering its implications.

  2. I wholly agree, Christian, that ‘absolute moral relativism’ — which, in its unremitting uncertainty, would be socially destablising — should be taken off the table. Likewise, I’d suggest that ‘absolute moral certainty’, too often the playground and conceit of dangerous ideologues, should also be taken off the table. Better, I think, is what I’d call ‘relative moral relativism’ — or moral relativism in moderation. This notion might offer a way to avoid the sharply binary either-or polar outer edges of moral judgement to which you rightly alert the reader.

    Relative moral relativism allows for society to indulge in the full spectrum of ethical judgement: from (theoretical and decidedly limited!) moral objectivity, to unlimited degrees of moral relativism (ethics’ analogy to dividing up a constant unit of space into unceasingly smaller units). Might the topic, then, be as much an issue of epistemology — what we can and do know about morality, how we know it, and with what degree of confirmation — as it is an issue purely of ethics?

    I’m reminded of the (Carl) Sagan standard: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. To Sagan’s point — and to your point about empirical science as a comparison with ethics — might science’s ‘sigma’ measure of significance and certainty be somehow enviable? By way of example, five sigma (5σ) translates to only 1 chance in 3.5 million that the result might have been a random fluke. (For example, confirmation of the subatomic Higgs boson — the tongue-in-cheek ‘god particle’ — was at the level of 5σ.) Not absolute certainty, of course, but not a too-shabby second best! My guess is that absolute moral certainty — what metric might one use? — as a counterbalance to hazarded absolute moral relativism is equally illusive.

    Thank you, Christian, for your stimulating essay!

    1. The history of science is full of claims that have been considred uncontroversial (like that the Earth doe snot mvoe) - but still turn out to need to be subjected to more rigorous exmaination later!

    2. Thanks for your comment, Keith. I completely agree that "absolute moral certainty" should indeed be taken off the table as well. Personally, I only regard self-evident statements as absolutely certain - from then on, we have to make do with degrees of probability. A moral stance that refuses being questioned and scrutinised is something highly dubious. So I think you are right in suggesting avoiding the polar outer edges when it comes to moral judgement.