Posts Tagged ‘Personal Relativism’


Relativism by David Oderberg

January 26, 2011


Truth does not limit genuine freedom, but it does limit license. For instance, one does not have the “freedom” to murder or steal. Why? Because, principally, doing so is against the truth of the dignity of the human person. No sensible person would argue that genuine freedom has been limited by this truth. Find this and more at


Skepticism about ethics is widespread. There is a pervasive belief that there is simply no objective good and bad, or right and wrong. By `objective’ I mean the feature a statement has when it is true (or false) independently of whether anyone believes it to be true (or false). By far the most common form that moral skepticism takes is the espousal of one or another version of relativism.

There are numerous varieties of relativism, but what they all share is the central dogma that moral propositions, instead of having objective truth — truth for all people in all places at all times — are true relative to one standard but not another. While it is impossible to examine all the species of relativism, the doctrine is so common that some of its general features and problems should briefly he stated, problems that affect every specific version.

David Hume, Again
Perhaps the most widespread form of relativism, again deriving from the philosophy of David Hume, is what I shall call personal relativism, more usually called subjectivism. The central claim of personal relativism is that the truth or falsity( truth value) of moral statements varies from person to person, since morality is merely a matter of opinion. Now there are various ways in which subjectivists have elaborated this basic thought, developing more or less sophisticated semantic theories linking moral judgments with statements of opinion.

It is impossible to look at them all, but since the sorts of objection I will raise can be applied in modified form to different versions, let us take just one kind of subjectivist theory. It is one of the more simple varieties, and while many philosophers would say it was too simple, it also happens to be the sort of subjectivism that the vast majority of students of moral philosophy believe; and it is an approach that many will continue to believe even after they have finished studying philosophy!

According to this version of subjectivism, there is no objective truth to the statement, for instance, `Child abuse is wrong’: all that a person is entitled to claim is something equivalent to ‘I disapprove of child abuse.’ Instead of saying ‘I disapprove of child abuse’, Alan may say ‘Child abuse is wrong for me’, or ‘Child abuse is wrong from my subjective viewpoint’, but he is not then allowed to say ‘Child abuse is wrong, pure and simple’, since it might be right from Brian’s subjective viewpoint — he will say `Child abuse is right for me, though it is wrong for Alan, who personally disapproves of it.’

Generally speaking, moral judgments can never be considered apart from the question of who makes them. A moral judgment, `X is wrong’, made by a person P, can only be assessed for truth or falsity by relativising it to P: The subjectivist says that `X is wrong’, uttered by P, is equivalent in meaning to `I disapprove of X’ uttered by P. If an observer were to report on P’s opinion, the subjectivist would say, `X is wrong for P, or as far as P is concerned; in other words, P disapproves of it.’ But the observer can still say, `However, I personally approve of it, so “X is wrong” is not true for me.’

For the subjectivist, to claim that there is a fact about the morality of child abuse, which transcends mere personal opinion, is a philosophical mistake. Certainly, there are facts about what is wrong for Alan, right for Brian, and so on. These facts are genuine — they are reports of the opinions (or `sentiments’, to use Hume’s term) of individual moral judges – but since each judge makes law only for himself, he cannot impose his view of things on others. For the subjectivist, once the facts are in concerning the moral opinions of those engaged in a disagreement, there is no room for further argument.

More accurately, there might be room for argument over other facts: Alan might claim `I approve of child abuse’ because he does not know the psychological damage it does to children. Had he known, he would have claimed `I disapprove of child abuse’; and another person might change Alan’s mind by pointing out the relevant facts. But what the personal relativist holds is that as long as there is no dispute over the facts, two people can make opposing claims about the morality of a certain action or type of behavior with no room left for rational dispute. They have, as it were, reached bedrock.

As was said, the version of subjectivism just outlined is a simple one and all sorts of refinements can be added. Still, it is the view held by very many philosophy students, not to say quite a few philosophers (and certainly vast numbers of the general population), and should be assessed in that light. Further, as was also noted, the general kinds of objection that can be raised against it apply to the more sophisticated versions. We can only consider a few devastating objections here, but it should be noted that the validity of any one on its own is enough to refute subjectivism, whatever the strength of the others. Given the weight of all the objections, however, it is surprising that personal relativism should be so widely held.

Arguments Against Personal Relativism
First, there is a semantic problem. A proposition of the form `Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than `P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But `P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to `P believes that doing X is wrong’, since `Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular. On the other hand, the relativist might again analyse the embedded sentence `Doing X is wrong’ in `P believes that doing X is wrong’ as `P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of `Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: `P believes that P believes that P believes … that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would be no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form `Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze `Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that `P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgments that can be true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however.. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.

(2) Second, the concept of disapproval is inherently incapable of capturing the various kinds of moral statement that one can make. In particular, there are three broad types of proposition concerning moral obligation: one of the form `Doing X is wrong’ (or bad, impermissible, and the like); another of the form`Doing X is right’ (or good, obligatory, and so on); and another of the form `Doing X is permissible’ (neither obligatory nor it perhaps neither good nor bad). (Note that this is highly simplified)

The personal relativist might analyze ‘Doing X is right’ uttered by P as ‘P approves of doing X’ add thing X.’ He might also analyze P’s utterance of `Doing X is wrong as ‘P disapproves of doing X.’ But what about P’s utterance of Doing X is permissible’? One obvious possibility is `P neither approves nor disapproves of doing X.’ But this is also compatible with P’s not knowing whether doing X is right, wrong, or permissible, which is different from the settled opinion that it is permissible. P might neither approve nor disapprove because he is confused about the issue, or feels he has not gone into it far enough, or simply does not have an opinion.

The relativist might reply that we can indeed analyze `Doing X is permissible’ uttered by P as `P neither approves nor disapproves of doing X’, but also analyze P’s state of uncertainty, confusion or lack of opinion as `P both approves and disapproves of doing X.’ But this will not do, since one cannot both approve and disapprove of something at the same time: it is logically impossible. What about the possibility of mixed feelings? But mixed feelings do not involve simultaneous approval and disapproval; rather, they involve first approving, later (perhaps almost immediately after) disapproving, then perhaps approving again, and so on. But a series of statements of approval followed by disapproval will not do as an analysis of P’s lack of certainty, lack of an opinion, or whatever: for on the relativist view each statement corresponds to a distinct and unequivocal opinion by P: first P disapproves of doing X, then he approves, then he disapproves, and so on.

These are not states of uncertainty, nor do they collectively add up to a state of uncertainty, any more than variations of opinion between people. For the relativist, the varying states of approval and disapproval, both between people and within one person’s mind, correspond to distinct facts about the wrongness of doing X: it is wrong for Alan, but right for Brian, but wrong for Charles; and it is wrong for Alan on Tuesday, but right for Alan on Wednesday, and so on. In short, then, the personal relativist cannot distinguish between an opinion that something is definitely permissible and a lack of opinion or state of uncertainty as to whether it is permissible.

(3) Third, the personal relativist wants to give a complete analysis of all moral statements into statements of approval and disapproval; and he must, or else he will not have given an analysis at all. What, then, does the relativist say about the principle of tolerance, or the freedom of each person to express whatever moral opinion he likes? Relativism is traditionally motivated by this very idea: if morality is simply a matter of personal opinion, then no one can be allowed to impose his sincerely held belief on someone who believes differently. But is the principle of tolerance itself simply a matter of opinion? Alan might disapprove of tolerance: is he then allowed to impose his moral beliefs on others, even by physical coercion? Either the relativist says that he can, or that he cannot: but it is hard to see which view the relativist is logically bound to take, in which case relativism is compatible both with tolerance and with oppression, which is not a conclusion the vast majority of relativists would countenance. Suppose, however, that the relativist bites the logical bullet and says that, logically speaking, tolerance or oppression is open to each individual in respect of others. Then relativism collapses into moral nihilism, the view that there are no objectively valid moral rules whatsoever governing interpersonal behavior. I do not propose to give a critical analysis of nihilism here, merely to note that relativism could not then be seen to be a stable alternative to the view that `anything goes’ in morality, which, again, is not how relativists see their theory. Further, the view that anything goes is quite simply morally repugnant, which should be sufficient to deter rational people from giving it, or any form or relativism that leads to it, further consideration.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the relativist is able logically to resolve the problem of tolerance versus oppression, and opts — one would hope — in favor of the view that you may not coerce others to believe what you believe; and that this is an objective moral truth. Then the relativist will have countenanced at least one objective moral truth, contrary to his own theory that all morality is a matter of opinion. Now he might say, `But tolerance is the only objective moral truth I recognize.’ Why, however, should we believe him? If tolerance is objectively right, this is a big principle to concede — why are there no others? Why should there be only one moral truth? To reply, `But that’s what my theory implies’ is no answer. Rather, it is the theory itself which then comes into doubt. One would need a convincing explanation indeed as to why there is only one moral truth, as much as if a physicist were to say there is only one truth of physics (which would not be the same as saying there is only one `supertruth’, say a grand equation, from which all the other distinct truths can be derived); or the historian that there is only one historical fact. In the words of the philosopher W.V. Quine (himself a relativist of sorts both in ethics and other areas of philosophy, and here speaking about cultural relativism, though his remark apples to all forms of relativism: ‘He (the cultural relativist) cannot proclaim cultural relativism without rising above it, and he cannot rise above it without giving it up.’

The other primary form of relativism is not personal but social (usually called cultural relativism). The social relativist holds that morality is not a matter of personal opinion, but the opinion of society. More precisely, ‘Child Abuse is wrong’, for example, uttered by person P in society S, means `S disapproves of child abuse.’ Often the social relativist will say, `Child abuse is disapproved of in such-and-such a culture’, or such-andsuch a group, or such-and-such a country, and so on. This gives rise to a problem that will be mentioned shortly, but what must be noted at once is that whatever the social relativist’s favorite word, the theories are all variations of one another and of the general theory that morality is relative to a social standard.

Social Relativism The Case of Margaret Mead
Fortunately, we can be brief in our discussion of social relativism, because all the above problems — each one on its own being fatal to personal relativism — apply equally to social relativism. Some further remarks, however, are in order. First, there is a purely factual point worth making because of its historical and continuing importance. The rise of social relativism to its prominent place today was motivated in large part by the huge influx of information this century concerning the behavior, customs and habits of cultures around the world. A prime example of this is the work of the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, whose book Coming of Age in Samoa had a remarkable influence both on social science and on philosophical thinking. It was (and still is) widely thought that she had proven that there was nothing sacrosanct about Western moral standards by adducing evidence of wide divergence from them in the case of the Samoans. She concentrated, among other things, on sexual behavior, family arrangements, warfare and rituals, and she seemed to show that the Samoans were an example for the West of an almost idyllic form of social arrangement – peaceful, trouble-free and unrepressed, lacking the taboos and strict moral code that hindered the personal development of Western man.

Influential though her work was, it has now been effectively demolished. Most notably, the anthropologist Derek Freeman has demonstrated that Mead’s research was shoddy, ill-informed and painted a far from accurate picture of Samoan life, one that was almost patronizing in its depiction of the Samoan as a `noble savage’ (to use Rousseau’s expression ). Contrary to Mead’s alleged findings, for instance, the Samoans condemned adultery and premarital promiscuity, and practiced warfare on a far wider scale than she claimed. Freeman concludes, `We are thus confronted in the case of Margaret Mead’s Samoan researches with an instructive example of how, as evidence is sought to substantiate a cherished doctrine, the deeply held beliefs of those involved may lead them unwittingly into error.’ Indeed, Freeman even goes so far as to claim that Mead was hoaxed by the Samoans, having been fed spurious tales of their sexual .and other behavior!

Problem For The Social Relativist
A grave conceptual problem for the social relativist is the determination of the standard he is using. Is morality relative to the beliefs of a culture, a society, a nation, a country, an ethnic group, a religious group, a tribe? None of these necessarily coincide, though sometimes they do. Certainly, in the world as it is today, with greatly increased migration and multiculturalism, it is even harder to find a well-defined `unit of measurement’ that the social relativist should use. Is the morality of adultery, for instance, to be identified by reference to the common opinion of each member of the UN? Does `the West’ count as a standard, and if so, which countries are included? If Alan is in the United States, does he speak truly or falsely when he says `Abortion is wrong where there is no threat to the mother’s life or health’? This statement might be denied by the majority of US citizens, but it is also affirmed by significant and well-defined subgroups, both religious (for example, Christians of various denominations, Moslems, orthodox Jews) and geographical (large parts of the Southern states).

Does Alan speak falsely when he is in California, but truly in Georgia? Or is his standard the group he belongs to? In which case, if he is an orthodox Jew, does he speak truly even in California because he has the common opinion of the majority of orthodox Jews around the world on his side? What if he is in Africa, where the multiplicity of tribes and systems of belief makes it almost impossible to speak of a single moral standard? Make the relevant unit of measurement small and one result is obtained; larger, and another is obtained. The social relativist cannot dismiss this problem by saying that it shows how moral standards vary greatly: the problem is of identifying a moral standard in the first place, especially in an age of enormous diversity of opinion; and also of avoiding contradiction or hopeless vagueness when someone utters a moral statement. The identification of standards seems, then, to be an arbitrary matter that can yield whatever result the relativist wants. And this is a good reason why the personal relativist insists that all measurement should come down to the beliefs of the individual.

Further, even if a particular standard is identified, what is the quantum of measurement to be? Is abortion wrong in society S if 50 per cent of the population has that opinion? Or 50.1 per cent? Perhaps in grave moral matters a larger threshold is required — say 75 per cent? Do we look at the laws of that society and say that abortion is wrong if it is illegal, because legality best reflects S’s belief system? But it is a common fact that what the law says and what a society thinks often diverge. Do we look at S’s practices as well as stated beliefs (perhaps as expressed in opinion polls)?

There is no sociological reason why practice as opposed to stated beliefs should be excluded — but again, what the members of a society do is often different from what they say they believe (obvious cases being adultery or promise-keeping). Social relativism, then, is arbitrary both with respect to the determination of a standard and the degree of measurement within that standard.


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