Arguments For & Against Moral Relativism

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  • 0:01 Moral Relativism
  • 1:20 Arguments for Moral Relativism
  • 3:30 Arguments against…
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Moral relativism is just one of many philosophical arguments about right or wrong, and so it has many supporters and many opponents. Explore each point of view and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Moral Relativism

Do you ever do that thing where you close one eye and look at something, then switch eyes and see how that thing changes? It's amazing how much something can change from even a slightly different viewpoint. The more dramatically you change your viewpoint, the more the scene changes. You've probably guessed this by now, but we're not just talking about scenery. We're talking about the philosophy of morality.

Moral relativism is the belief that moral judgments are only true or false from a specific viewpoint. Say you think an action is right or wrong. That's your viewpoint. But if we step into someone else's viewpoint, well, right and wrong may not mean quite the same thing. And if we jump into a completely different culture or time in history, you may not recognize that viewpoint at all. But, that doesn't make them bad points of view. One of the fundamental beliefs in moral relativism is that no one viewpoint is naturally better than others. Let's take a look at this idea, but for now just sit back, relax, and enjoy the view.

Arguments for Moral Relativism

Moral relativism has been around, in some form or another, for a pretty long time. Philosophers in ancient India and ancient Greece were both known to write about the idea that everybody interpreted morals differently. The Greeks especially, who were pretty worldly travelers for their time, noted that every culture had different ideas about right and wrong, and that everyone believed their morals were best. Despite these observations, moral relativism didn't really take off until the 19th century.

For most of human history, people assumed their ways of life were right, while others were wrong. This was especially true during the industrial era, when the world became obsessed with modernity and technology. But then, someone asked that ever important question: is this really better than anything else? And once you admit that no one society is naturally better than others, you have to ask whether your morals are naturally better. And voilà - moral relativism.

While dozens of philosophers have explained the merits of moral relativism in very eloquent and esoteric prose, the basic argument comes down to this: no two cultures have the exact same moral code. Everyone judges right and wrong differently, and those differences are related to innumerous cultural and personal factors. So, moral relativists argue that there is no way to prove that one moral code is better than another without being biased.

Also, supporters of moral relativism point out that this makes for a very nice worldview, since it encourages people to respect the traditions and values of different societies, rather than looking down on them. Tolerance is therefore the fundamental virtue, the ultimate moral action. So, it doesn't matter where you stand, as long as you can learn to appreciate the view.

Arguments Against Moral Relativism

Now, if you know anything about philosophy, it really shouldn't surprise you to learn that not everyone agrees with moral relativism. There are many people who oppose it. For starters, there are those who do believe in a universal set of morals, a basic code of right and wrong that guides all of existence.

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