Moral relativism is the view that morality is relative to time, place, or culture. What’s right for you may not be right for me. Plenty of people self-identify as moral relativists, although it’s likely that many of these people are not being consistent or will change their minds over time (see Beebe & Sackris 2016). Still, many people just think it’s obviously correct that there could be no universal morality and that whatever morals exist are a function of time, place, and culture.
Whether this is so depends on what we mean by ‘morals’. The term is ambiguous. Once made clear, it turns out that everyone is a moral relativist in some sense but only the most radical is a relativist in all senses.
Sometimes by ‘morals’ what we mean is ‘moral beliefs’. In this sense, to say that morals are relative is to say that what one believes about morality is relative. And that is surely correct. What we believe about morality is affected by our time, place, and culture. Three-hundred years ago, most people in Europe believed that slavery was morally permissible. Now we do not. Our moral beliefs are relative. This view is not controversial.
Other times by ‘morals’ what we mean is ‘correct moral standards’ or ‘true moral principles’. In this sense, to say that morals are relative is to say that the correct moral norms are relative to one’s time, place, and culture. Take the slavery issue again. If you think that people in Europe three-hundred years ago were mistaken about the moral permissibility of slavery, then you’re not a relativist in this sense. You probably think that the correct moral standards show that slavery was always wrong but that it took humans a long time to realize this. On the other hand, if you think that there was really nothing morally wrong with slavery then, but there is now, you are a relativist in this latter sense.
Does it make sense to be a relativist about the correct moral standards? This view is controversial, but clarifying the dispute is tricky. It depends on which sorts of moral standards are under discussion. There are many “levels” of moral principles that we might discuss, and some may be relative while others are not.
Let me illustrate the dilemma with an example from science. Physicists long to construct a “theory of everything.” This theory would explain all physical phenomena by subsuming all physical events under a single set of ultimate principles. However, we aren’t there yet. The best we have are a series of principles that are true but fail to capture all physical phenomena. Examples of mid-level principles are E=MC2 and Boyle’s law which says that pressure and volume are inversely proportional. We use these mid-level principles to solve particular application problems like building a bridge or filling a scuba tank. So in physics we can demarcate three levels of abstraction: an ultimate theory, mid-level principles, and lower-level applications.
It’s the same in moral theory. Philosophers have long argued over the correct “theory of everything.” Candidates from utilitarianism to Kantianism to Aristotelianism claim to subsume all moral properties under a single set of ultimate principles. As in physics, there’s no consensus on that front. The best we have are a series of principles that most philosophers think are true but fail to capture all moral phenomena. Examples of mid-level principles are “You ought to respect your friends” and “It is wrong to enslave people against their will.” We use these mid-level principles to solve particular moral problems that we face in everyday life.
With these three levels distinguished, we can now return to the question of whether the moral standards are relative. We have three levels to choose from: one may be a relativist about the application of principles to a given situation, about mid-level principles, or about ultimate moral principles.
At the level of application, it goes without saying that the application of moral principles to concrete situations will yield different moral standards of behavior at different times, places, and cultures. What you must to respect a friend in 21st century Europe is far different from the behavior required to respect a friend in 9th century Japan. In that sense, the correct standards for what you ought to do are relative to time and place. And yet this doesn’t require us to say that the mid-level principle is relative: in both times and places there is a moral duty to respect one’s friend.
It is a far different matter to endorse a relativism about either mid-level or ultimate moral principles. To endorse the idea that in some times and places it is morally wrong to enslave people against their will but in other times and places it is morally permissible is to be a relativist about a mid-level principle. This sort of relativism provides no way of comparing the behaviors of people governed by different moral principles and no way to improve or regress by altering the moral principles at play.
In short, we should all be moral relativists of a certain sort. We should agree that what we believe about morality is at least partly explained by our environment and that the principles of moral application will vary widely with local circumstances. In some cultures it is a moral mistake to buy your in-laws a gift year and in others it is morally required to do so. But this sort of innocuous relativism is consistent with the idea that there are universal moral standards at the mid-level, the ultimate level, or both.
Moral relativism is not an all-or-nothing proposition.