Moral relativism (also: ethical relativism) is a metaethics positions of practical philosophy about moral principles, judgments and beliefs on social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances. According to this position, values and judgments, especially moral judgments, are not objective and in principle not universally valid. Rather, values are dependent of cultural, historical, especially material conditions and individual preferences. A philosophical historicism goes hand in hand with a corresponding relativism. Transferring today’s values to historical events would constitute an impermissible presentationalism.
Moral relativism is in contrast to all forms of moral universalism (including all forms of moral realism and moral naturalism), which advocates a general validity and objectivity of moral principles that are in principle understandable for every person.
Moral relativism thus rejects an objective or universal morality. Its proponents, however, represent different theories on the nature of morality and on the motives and grounds for justifying moral behavior. Some moral relativists see this as explainable only through subjective moral perception (emotivism). This notion is also compatible with universalistic ethics. Also conventionalist , materialistic or präskriptivistische theories are consistent with a moral relativism. Combined with a pragmatic theory of truth, even descriptivistic variants are conceivable.
Already around 450 BC in ancient Greece, the sophist Protagoras and the historian Herodotus represented moral relativistic views. Protagoras’ statement “Man is the measure of all things” could already be an early forerunner of moral relativism, but it is not entirely clear whether Protagoras had this in mind. Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484–420 BC) observed that different cultures view their own belief systems and the way they do something better than others’. Specifically, Herodotus spoke here of the Persian King Darius, who called Greeks to his court and asked how much they would be willing to eat their dead instead of burying them. They replied that no money in the world could make them do it. Then Darius sent for Kallatiern, members of an Indian tribe, who devour their dead, and asked them how much money they would be willing to burn their fathers in death – whereupon they cried out loudly about this terrible act. Furthermore, some ancient philosophers doubted the existence of an objective morality that is free from subjective influences.
Plato defended the idea of an objective moral code, while Aristotle argued that humans should strive to have an outstanding being in order to be happy and comfortable, and that there are logical and natural reasons for humans to act righteously. A few centuries later, Sextus Empiricus (2nd century AD) stated in his work “Fundamentals of Pyrrhonic Skepticism” that huge differences in clothing, food, death cult etc. can be found between individual cultures that “a skeptic himself with the statement whether natural properties are good or bad”.
With the rise of Christianity, moral relativism only played a subordinate role, since God’s will was thought of as objectively valid morality. The ten commandments were seen as absolute and universal moral truths. In particular in scholasticism, arguments were made for natural law. Accordingly, binding, supra-cultural ethical standards for all people can be derived from the essence or the nature of things. Relativistic approaches therefore only reappeared at the beginning of modern times.
Relativistic approaches can be found in the 16th century in Montaigne’s work Essais (II) , in which he is skeptical of ethical universalism. In his view, moral laws and rules are the result of chance alone.
In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes propagated that moral rules can be seen as a social contract that people agree on in order to be able to live with one another at all. One implication of this suggestion is that good or bad arises from pragmatic considerations, not from universal rules.
David Hume (1711–1776) is called the father of moral relativism and modern emotivism, although he himself did not support relativism. In his works, Hume differentiated between facts and values and suggested that moral judgments should be understood as dependent on the values represented, since they do not depend on verifiable facts, but on our feelings and passions. He denied the existence of an objective standard of morality, claiming that the universe was indifferent to our preferences and problems.
Although controversial, it can be said that Karl Marx (1818–1883) implied in his criticism of political economy that there was no objective moral code, but only interests that make use of morality.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), in contrast to Marx, wrote something about morality. His famous statement “God is dead”, for example, implies that objective morality is no longer tenable. In his work Beyond Good and Evil , he argued that there are no moral appearances, only moral interpretations of them.
These philosophical views paved the way for moral relativism mainly by raising doubts as to whether the existence of objective, moral truths could be proven.