Understanding Moral Relativism, Subjectivism & Objectivism

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  • 0:00 Morals
  • 1:00 Moral Relativism
  • 2:13 Moral Subjectivism
  • 3:09 Moral Objectivism
  • 4:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson defines the concept of morals. Using global examples, it also contrasts the moral relativism, moral subjectivism, and moral objectivism schools of thought.


Wading into a conversation on morality is a touchy thing, but diving into a lesson on moral relativism, subjectivism, and objectivism is downright daunting. As society's views on these terms ebb and flow, opinions on them can get pretty heated. For this reason, we're going to keep the emphasis of our lesson on these often argued terms' definitions and meanings.

For starters, let's define what we mean by 'moral.' Keeping things very general, many would define the word moral as concerning the standards of right and wrong or good and bad. For example, if a person is described as moral, most of us would picture someone who doesn't lie, cheat, or steal. If we are told a person is immoral, we'd think the opposite. Although this definition sounds cut and dry on paper, the same cannot be said of how it works out in the real world. To prove my point, let's start our discussion on moral relativism, subjectivism, and objectivism.

Moral Relativism

We'll kick things off with moral relativism. Moral relativism is the idea that morals are not absolute but are shaped by social customs and beliefs. In other words, morals aren't set in stone. Instead, they are defined by culture. Helping to link the term to its definition, moral relativism holds that morals are related to culture.

Here's an example. In the United States, men and women are expected to wear shirts and pants. This is especially true for women. A woman walking around topless while shopping or dining out would definitely violate most Americans' moral code.

In striking contrast, the moral code of many parts of tribal Africa is quite the opposite. Having had the privilege of living in Kenya as a teenager, I grew very accustomed to seeing women topless and men pantless while they farmed, ate, or even attended church! Within the cultural context of the tribe I lived, nudity had nothing to do with immorality.

So, when it comes to the clothing conundrum, who is right, and who is wrong? Moral relativism would answer, 'It's all relative!!' In the moral context of the U.S., public nudity is often linked to immorality. In tribal Africa, it is usually not.

Moral Subjectivism

Stepping away from moral relativism, we turn to moral subjectivism. Unlike moral relativism, moral subjectivism holds that morality is decided by the individual. Culture doesn't define right and wrong, nor do accepted beliefs. Instead, the individual decides.

Keeping things simple, moral subjectivism maintains that morals are subjective. They are based on personal tastes, feelings, and opinions. If Joe thinks fudging his taxes is acceptable, then it is. If Sarah sees no problem taking supplies from work, then so be it.

Moral subjectivism denies absolute standards of right and wrong. You as the individual are the measuring stick for what is moral for you, and your neighbor is the measuring stick for what is right for them. Helping to cement this term, we can say that moral subjectivism makes the individual the subject that determines morality.

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