Moral relativism is the idea that there are no absolute rules to determine whether something is right or wrong. Unlike moral absolutists, moral relativists argue that good and bad are relative concepts – whether something is considered right or wrong can change depending on opinion, social context, culture or a number of other factors.

Moral relativists argue that there is more than one valid system of morality. A quick glance around the world or through history will reveal that no matter what we happen to believe is morally right and wrong, there is at least one person or culture that believes differently, and holds their belief with as much conviction as we do.

This existence of widespread moral diversity throughout history, between cultures and even within cultures, has led some philosophers to argue that morality is not absolute, but rather that there might be many valid moral systems: that morality is relative.

Understanding Moral Relativism

It’s worth pointing out that the philosophical notion of moral relativism is quite different from how the term is often used in everyday conversation. Many people have been known to say that others are entitled to their views and that we have no right to impose our view of morality on them.

This might look like moral relativism, but in many cases it’s really just an appeal for tolerance in a pragmatic or diplomatic sense, while the speaker quietly remains committed to their particular moral views. Should that person be confronted with what they consider a genuine moral violation, their apparent tolerance is likely to collapse back into absolutism.

Moral relativism is also often used as a term of derision to refer to the idea that morality is relative to whatever someone happens to believe is right and wrong at the time. This implies a kind of radical anything-goes moral nihilism that few, if any, major philosophers have supported. Rather, philosophers who have advocated for moral relativism of some sort or another have offered far more nuanced views. One reason to take moral relativism seriously is the idea that there might be some moral disagreements that cannot be conclusively resolved one way or the other.

If we can imagine that even idealised individuals, with perfect rationality and access to all the relevant facts, might still disagree over at least some contentious moral matters – like whether suicide is permissible, if revenge is ever justified, or whether loyalty to friends and family could ever justify lying – then this would cast doubt on the idea that there is a single morality that applies to all people at all times in favour of some kind of moral relativism.

Exploring Relativity

The key question for a moral relativist is what morality ought to be relative to. Gilbert Harman, for example, argues that morality is relative to an agreement made among a particular group of people to behave in a particular way. So “moral right and wrong (good and bad, justice and injustice, virtue and vice, etc.) are always relative to a choice of moral framework. What is morally right in relation to one moral framework can be morally wrong in relation to a different moral framework.

And no moral framework is objectively privileged as the one true morality.

It’s like different groups playing different codes of football, wherein one code a handball might be allowed but in another, it’s prohibited. So whether handball is wrong is simply relative to which code the group has agreed to play.

Another philosopher, David Wong, argues for “pluralistic relativism,” whereby different societies can abide by very different moral systems. So morality is relative to the particular system they have constructed to solve internal conflicts and respond to the social challenges their society faces.

However, there are objective facts about human nature and wellbeing that constrain what a valid moral system can look like, and these constraints “are not enough to eliminate all but one morality as meeting those needs.” They do eliminate perverse systems, like Nazi morality that would justify genocide, but allow for a wide range of other valid moral views.

Moral relativism is a much misunderstood philosophical view. But there is a range of sophisticated views that attempt to take seriously the great diversity of moral systems and attitudes that exist around the world, and attempts to put them in the context of the social and moral problems that each society faces, rather than suggesting there is a single moral code that ought to apply to everyone at all times.