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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The term “ethical relativism” may refer to any one
of a number of related views. Distinguishing these will
not solve the very difficult questions involved but will
at least make clearer what the problems are. Most
commonly, a relativist is taken to assert that there are
incompatible ultimate moral beliefs in different cul-
tures, and that there is no sense in which one set of
beliefs can be said to be correct and another mistaken.
Moral beliefs, that is to say, are relative to a particular
culture, much as the rules of etiquette are. We can
say that it is “correct” to wear black at a funeral in
some communities but not in others; there is no point
in asking which is “really” correct, apart from the
customs of this or that community. In the same way,
it is contended, in some communities it is right to have
several wives, or to kill someone who has insulted your
family; in others it is wrong. Different communities
have different moral codes; and there are no objective
criteria by which we can judge these codes themselves
as right or wrong.

It will be seen that two distinct claims are being
made here: a factual claim and a philosophical claim.
The factual claim is that different cultures do in fact
have different ultimate moral beliefs. The philosophical
claim is that, this being so, there are no criteria by
which to decide between them. These need to be
considered separately.

Let us take the factual claim first. Do different cul-
tures have different ultimate moral beliefs? At first sight
it might seem obvious that they do. The crimes or sins
of one community (e.g., suicide, infanticide, abortion,
homosexuality, wife-lending, dueling) may be blame-
less, or even laudable, in another. Even within a single
culture moral judgments may differ radically. As
Bertrand Russell has pointed out (1935), “Conscience
leads some to condemn the spoliation of the rich by
the poor, as advocated by communists; and others to
condemn exploitation of the poor by the rich, as
practised by capitalists. It tells one man that he ought
to defend his country in case of invasion, while it tells
another that all participation in warfare is wicked”
(Religion and Science [1935], p. 225). One of the char-
acters in David Hume's Dialogue, appended to Enquiry
concerning the Principles of Morals
(1751) gives an
amusing account of an imaginary country whose most
esteemed public figure kills both his infant child and
his best friend, marries his own sister, who indulges
him in his homosexual amours, and finally hangs him-
self. “So virtuous and noble a life” say his countrymen,
“could not be better crowned than by so noble an end.”
When another character says indignantly that there
could be no such country it is pointed out that all the
incidents described have been taken from the lives of
some of the most admired Athenians, except for the
assassination, which is based on the killing of Caesar
by Brutus.

Examples of this kind do not, however, settle the
matter. Hume's purpose, indeed, is to defend the thesis
that at bottom all men have the same moral attitudes.
The most extreme differences in actual codes of con-
duct do not necessarily establish that ultimate moral
beliefs differ; for the same general principle may dic-
tate very different behavior in differing circumstances.
“Had you asked a parent at Athens,” Hume says, “why
he bereaved his child of that life which he had so lately
given it, it is because I love it, he would reply; and re-
gard the poverty which it must inherit from me as a
greater evil than death, which it is not capable of dread-
ing, feeling or resenting.” Again, homosexual attach-
ments “were recommended, though absurdly, as the
source of friendship, sympathy, mutual attachment, and
fidelity; qualities esteemed in all nations and all ages.”

A similar point was made by Francis Hutcheson, who
pointed out that apparent moral diversity often sprang
from difference of opinion about the facts involved.
He instances differing estimates of what makes for
happiness; differing opinions about the motives of other
men, particularly members of other races, and so about
how they deserve to be treated; and differing religious
beliefs, especially about what God commands. It is not
clear, however, that these are altogether disagreements
about fact rather than about value: our opinions about
what makes men happy, or what God commands, may
well depend on—or at least be influenced by—our
beliefs about what is good or right.

In the next century very much the same line was
taken by W. E. H. Lecky in his History of European
Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne
(2 vols., 1869).
Moral diversity, he argued, could be accounted for by
differing beliefs about matters of fact (such as the
existence of a life after death in which heretics are
punished, or the precise stage at which an embryo
becomes a separate individual) or by the misapplication
of moral principles universally held. Since then, it has
become possible to assess the available evidence more
thoroughly, but it is not clear that the question has
been settled. Some of the earlier anthropologists, like
L. Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939), were impressed by the
extent of moral diversity and were inclined to conclude
that “theoretical ethics” had been exploded by “sci-
ence”: “What scientific ethical speculation can there
henceforth be except the comparative study of ethical
systems that exist or have existed?” (Ethics and Moral
p. 169). Lévy-Bruhl's main point, however, is
that moral beliefs are wholly the result of social condi-
tioning, and he does not rule out the possibility that


different cultures may share the same basic moral
beliefs. “It may be that the characteristics of duty, and
of the conscience in general, are the result of a whole
mass of conditions, nearly similar, which are found in
all fairly civilized human societies” (ibid., p. 121).
Westermarck agrees with earlier writers that much
moral disagreement depends on “knowledge or
ignorance of facts, on specific religious or superstitious
beliefs, on different degrees of reflection, or on different
conditions of life or other external circumstances”
(Ethical Relativity, p. 196). He thinks, however, that
there is one striking difference that cannot be explained
away: “Savage rules of morality” have “broadly speak-
ing, only reference to members of the same community
or tribe” (ibid., p. 197). Murder, theft, lying, and the
infliction of other injuries will be disapproved of when
the victim is a member of the tribe, but condoned or
even applauded if he is an alien. This fact was, how-
ever, regarded by Hobhouse as evidence not of
irreconcilable moral diversity, but of moral evolution:
progress in morals consisted in the gradual widening
of the sphere of application of moral rules. More re-
cently, Raymond Firth has suggested that the
anthropological evidence points to the existence of
standards of right and wrong in all human societies.
While these vary, behind the variation there is “a real
measure of uniformity.” No society can exist without
some regulation or restraint in sexual affairs, and with-
out some curbs on violence. There must, then, be “some
general principles about the relative value of non-
violence and overt harmony in social actions.” He adds
that the anthropologist “does not abjure moral univer-
sals. He seeks them in the very nature of his social
material” (Elements of Social Organization, p. 214).

The factual question, then (whether cultures differ
in fundamental moral beliefs) has not been decisively
answered, mainly because of the difficulty of deciding
which moral beliefs are fundamental. Those who argue
for uniformity have usually been content to show that
eccentric moral beliefs can be derived from some more
normal belief. Approval of human sacrifice, for exam-
ple, becomes at least understandable in a man who
believes that he is at the mercy of evil spirits who will
afflict the whole community unless they are appeased
in some way. If this kind of explanation is accepted
it will follow that moral beliefs do not differ as much
as might seem at first sight: the basic moral premiss
becomes, not the utterly incomprehensible one that
human sacrifice is good, but the understandable (if still
controversial) one that it is permissible to sacrifice one
innocent person for the good of the whole community.
There may still, however, be a large area of disagree-
ment, particularly about which of two conflicting con-
siderations should take precedence. For example,
Lecky, in commenting on the gladiatorial shows of
Imperial Rome, remarks: “The Roman sought to make
men brave and fearless, rather than gentle and humane,
and in his eyes that spectacle was to be applauded
which steeled the heart against the fear of death, even
at the sacrifice of the affections” (History of European
1, 287). Granted that in most cultures both
bravery and compassion are applauded, difference of
opinion about which should take precedence may still
represent a quite fundamental difference in moral atti-
tude. It is a difference, incidentally, which may well
divide men even within the same culture. And there
are other differences of the same kind.

But it is clear that the philosophical question
(whether moral beliefs are objective or relative in the
way that rules of etiquette are relative) is an inde-
pendent one. For if fundamental beliefs do vary, it is
still possible that some of them are mistaken. Moreover,
even if they don't vary, it might still be the case that
they are not objective.

The last point comes out clearly in the eighteenth-
century controversy between the moral sense school
(notably Hutcheson and Hume) and their opponents.
As we have seen, Hutcheson and Hume believed that
all men have, at bottom, the same moral sense. An
analogy may be drawn with secondary qualities like
color. To say that a buttercup is yellow is to say that
it will cause an impression of yellow when light-rays
from it stimulate a certain kind of sense organ. An
animal with different eyes might well see it as a differ-
ent color. In the same way, to say that something is
good is, according to the moral sense school, to say
that it rouses a particular emotion (approval) in beings
with certain predispositions.

On this account moral judgments are relative, but
at the same time they are in a sense objective. It is
objectively true that buttercups are yellow, in the sense
that they appear yellow to all men with normal eye-
sight. This does not, however, prevent color from being
relative to the sense of sight, nor does it mean that
the color is a quality of the buttercup. What the
buttercup has is the different quality of reflecting
light-waves of a particular wavelength. It is in this way
that moral judgments are, according to Hutcheson,
relative to the moral sense; and it was this view that
led Hume to say that moral judgments, rightly under-
stood, do not ascribe a quality or relation to the thing
judged, but express a sentiment in the breast of the
person judging.

It would seem from this that to say that morality
is relative is not, after all, to say that moral statements
are not objective. This is the case, however, only in
one sense of “objective.” It is objectively true that
buttercups are yellow only if we are prepared to take


as our standard the judgments of men with normal
sight. The buttercup is yellow, seen through human
eyes; to a creature with different eyes it might not be.
Similarly an action is, according to the moral sense
school, wrong, seen (metaphorically speaking) through
human eyes; but to a creature with a different kind
of moral sense it might not be wrong. And to a neutral
observer—someone who was able to transcend the
limits of his own physical or mental constitution—it
would be neither right nor wrong: it would simply have
certain characteristics capable of arousing approval in
one kind of creature and disapproval in another.

Once this is realized, the fact (if it is a fact) that
men have the same basic moral beliefs becomes irrele-
vant. It is at least logically possible that men might
(perhaps on another planet) have different basic moral
beliefs. And it would seem to follow that if they did,
there would be no reason for preferring one set to
another. Consequently John Balguy (1686-1748), au-
thor of The Foundation of Moral Goodness, asks
Hutcheson, very shrewdly, whether God had any rea-
son for endowing men with the moral sense they have
instead of one which, let us say, made them approve
of cruelty and disapprove of kindness. If he had a
reason, then there is a reason, quite apart from human
dispositions, for preferring kindness to cruelty. Kind-
ness really is better than cruelty in the eyes of God,
that is, to a being who sees things as they are, and
not as colored by the peculiarities of the human consti-
tution. If God had no reason, then it would seem to
follow that moral beliefs have no objective validity.

As against this, however, it may be argued that
Hutcheson and Hume are in this position only because
they regard morality as relative to a particular human
emotion, or sentiment—the sentiment of approval.
Suppose it is said instead that morality is relative to
human purposes and the conditions of their realization.
This would seem to give moral principles at least the
objectivity of sociological laws. Hobbes, for example,
regarded moral rules as stating the conditions which
made harmonious cooperation in society possible. Since
the conditions were the same whatever the ends
cooperation was intended to achieve, this made moral-
ity “eternal and immutable” even though human de-
sires themselves were highly mutable. This position is
not, however, essentially different from that of
Hutcheson and Hume. Although they said that “X is
right” amounts to “I have an approving attitude to
X” they did not mean that such attitudes were
arbitrary, or could be adopted at will. For Hutcheson
our feelings of approval are as fixed a part of human
nature as our sense of smell, or of taste. This is also
true of Hume, though he is more inclined than
Hutcheson to concede that custom and conditioning
play a part in the development of the moral sense.
Both of them would agree with Hobbes that moral
beliefs are relative to human nature. If men were
different, they would be different. It was just this that
their opponents would not concede.

Some philosophers, however, have argued that in
Hobbes or Hume relativism is attenuated to the
vanishing point. Hume says, in a striking phrase, that
men “invented the laws of nature” (Treatise of Human
III, II, viii), but he also says that they could
hardly have invented any other laws than those they
did invent. It may be argued that this is not really a
contingent matter. Any moral rule presupposes the
possibility of breaking it; but it is another matter to
suppose that everyone could break it all the time, and
still another to suppose that the rule might not exist.
It would, in a sense, be logically impossible for every-
one always to tell lies. If I say “no” whenever I mean
“yes” my “no” will be taken to mean “yes” and I will
in effect only be using words eccentrically. If everyone
said “no” when he meant “yes,” the words would
merely change their meaning. The rule about truth-
telling, in short, is one of the conditions of communi-
cation. But the same may be said of the laws of logic;
and it is not really conceivable that they could be
different. To say that moral rules are the conditions
of successful cooperation in society, then, may lead to
the conclusion, not that they are contingent or “rela-
tive,” but that they are somehow rooted in the nature
of things. Something like this seems to be the position
of P. Winch (1959-60).

The more usual view, however, has been that the
view of Hobbes, or the moral sense view, avoids the
absurdities of complete relativism only by, as it were,
a lucky accident. Men happen to have the same moral
sense; but they might not have had. Human nature
might have been different. It is at least conceivable
that we might be confronted with a tribe in which,
let us say, torturing slaves for sport was approved of.
It would seem to follow that we could not rationally
condemn such a tribe. We would, of course, think their
behavior wrong, since our own attitude to torture is
one of disapproval, but we would have to admit, on
reflection, that they would have the same reason for
thinking our reaction wrong. We would call them cruel
and they would call us squeamish. To an impartial
observer it would not even make sense to ask which
of us was mistaken. “We should no more call the moral
sense morally good or evil,” Hutcheson admitted, “than
we call the sense of tasting, savoury or unsavoury,
sweet or bitter” (Essay..., 3rd ed. [1742], p. 239).
Moral judgments arise only within a particular moral
system, in which certain moral rules or axioms are
presupposed. We cannot apply moral epithets to those
systems, or those axioms, themselves. The consequences
are, of course, even more serious for those relativists


who say that men's basic moral beliefs do actually
differ. They must conclude that, objectively considered,
a Hitler or a Genghis Khan is no worse than a Saint
Francis or a Gandhi.

This supposed consequence has always been the chief
objection to relativism. It may be argued, however,
that the objection rests on a confusion. The contention
is that, according to the relativist, nothing is really
right or wrong. But why should the relativist say this?
He is forced to say it only if he concedes an objectivist
premiss which he expressly repudiates: that nothing
is “really” right or wrong unless it is objectively right
or wrong.

A cultural relativist, for example, believes that moral
attitudes arise out of the whole complex of institutions
and beliefs that constitute a culture. It is argued that,
when confronted with the members of a different com-
munity whose moral attitudes differ from his own, he
is logically committed to discounting his own moral
revulsion from their behavior. What this implies, how-
ever, is that a moral belief or attitude that is merely
a function of a culture ought to be disregarded. In other
words, the relativist who draws this conclusion is not
really assuming that all moral beliefs are the function
of a culture, but only that mistaken ones are. A consist-
ent relativist, on the other hand, would presumably
say that “X is wrong” amounts to saying “X is not in
accordance with my own fundamental moral attitudes”
and that there is no other sense of “wrong” which
would entitle us to add: “In that case, X cannot be
'really' wrong.”

This reply may seem to commit the relativist to an
even less acceptable position. For, it may be said, he
is now claiming the right to condemn others simply
because they happen to disagree with him, or perhaps
because they happen to belong to a different culture.
There are, however, two separate questions which need
to be disentangled here. The principal one is what we
are actually saying when we say that a given course
of conduct is wrong. It would be common ground that
we mean that the behavior is not in accordance with
certain fundamental principles. The question at issue
is how these fundamental principles are arrived at.
According to the objectivist, they are statements of
objective moral facts. According to the subjectivist,
they express fundamental attitudes or preferences. That
is to say, they are not absolute, but relative to the
attitudes or preferences of the person making the judg-
ment. If it is argued that we are not entitled to con-
demn a man simply for having certain fundamental
attitudes, it may be asked whether we are entitled to
condemn him for an intellectual error about a matter
of fact. The objectivist may perhaps reply that he does
not condemn a wrongdoer for believing something to
be right that is in fact wrong, but for doing what he
knows to be wrong. Perhaps, however, this merely
means that the wrongdoer does not realize the truth
of a different proposition, namely, that it is wrong to
act against one's beliefs about what is right? If so, he
is still being condemned for an intellectual error. If
not, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he is being
condemned for being a certain kind of man: the kind
of man who deliberately chooses to do what he believes
to be wrong. But the subjectivist, too, would say that
in the last analysis he condemns the wrongdoer for
being a certain kind of man. To say that a man has
certain fundamental preferences or attitudes is to say
that he is a certain kind of man. If he prefers toughness
to compassion (to resort to an earlier example) he will
arouse disapproval, and perhaps active opposition, in
someone whose fundamental preferences are different.
The objectivist will say that we are only justified in
disapproving if it is an objective fact that compassion
is better than toughness; but (apart from the difficulty
of seeing what kind of fact this could be) the relativist
will ask: What added justification does this give?

The other question is whether it is fair to blame a
man for having certain fundamental attitudes if those
attitudes are the inevitable result of his being reared
in a particular culture. But this is a separate, and not
really relevant, question; for it arises equally on an
objectivist theory of ethics. If “X is wrong” states a
special kind of fact, it may still be the case that men
will believe it or disbelieve it as a result of conditioning
of one kind or another. On any ethical theory, it is
necessary to distinguish the question whether a given
action is wrong from the question whether a man is
to be blamed for doing it.

Whether or not moral relativism is true, it is at least
not as clearly false, nor as destructive of morality, as
has often been maintained. In considering it, however,
we have found it necessary to distinguish between the
following questions: 1) Are fundamental moral beliefs
sometimes different in different cultures, or between
different individuals within a culture? 2) Would it
follow, if they are, that morality is not objective? 3)
Are moral beliefs relative to human purposes (the
purposes of mankind in general) and to the conditions
of their realization? 4) Are moral beliefs relative to
the particular desires or attitudes of individual men?
5) Are moral beliefs arbitrary? As we have seen, there
has been no quick and easy answer to any of these


On the nature and implications of variations in moral
beliefs: E. Westermarck, Origin and Development of the
Moral Ideas,
2 vols. (London, 1906); idem, Ethical Relativity
(London, 1932); L. T. Hobhouse, Morals in Evolution
(London, 1906); L. Lévy-Bruhl, Ethics and Moral Science


(London, 1905); W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals
from Augustus to Charlemagne,
5th ed., 2 vols. (London,
1882); A. MacBeath, Experiments in Living (London, 1952);
R. B. Brandt, Hopi Ethics (Chicago, 1954); J. Ladd, The
Structure of a Moral Code
(Cambridge, Mass., 1957).

The main texts for the seventeenth- and eighteenth-
century controversy are: T. Hobbes, Leviathan (London,
1651); F. Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of our
Ideas of Beauty and Virtue
(London, 1725); idem, Essay
on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections
with Illustrations upon the Moral Sense
(London, 1728;
3rd. ed., London, 1745); D. Hume, Treatise of Human Na-
(London, 1739-40); idem, Enquiry concerning the
Principles of Morals
(London, 1751); J. Balguy, Foundation
of Moral Goodness
(London, 1728-29); R. Price, Review of
the Principal Questions in Morals
(1758; 3rd ed., London,

Some recent discussions of the philosophical problems are
contained in: P. Edwards, Logic of Moral Discourse
(Glencoe, Ill., 1955); R. B. Brandt, Ethical Theory
(Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1959); R. M. Hare, The Language
of Morals
(Oxford and New York, 1952); D. H. Monro,
Empiricism and Ethics (Cambridge, 1967); Charles Steven-
son, Ethics and Language (New Haven, 1960); P. Winch,
“Nature and Convention,” Aristotelian Society Proceedings,
60 (London, 1961), 231-52.


[See also Evil; Mathematical Rigor; Right and Good;