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Posted by on Feb 13, 2007 in moral relativism | 3 comments

Moral relativism

I posted four criticisms of “politically correct” moral relativism. Some of you think this sort of relativism is entirely a straw man. Not entirely. I agree it’s influence is vastly exaggerated (as I’ll be explaining shortly).I have come across only a couple of academics that signed up to it (one was an anthropologist).

It tends to be undergrads that spout it. Schools are often blamed. Marianne Talbot of Oxford University says her students

have been taught to think their opinion is no better than anyone else’s, that there is no truth, only truth-for-me. I come across this relativist view constantly – in exams, in discussion and in tutorials – and I find it frightening: to question it amounts, in the eyes of the young, to the belief that it is permissible to impose your views on others.

I must say it’s only 5-10% of my students that express the view. I think some have been taught it as a way of being “tolerant” (possibly because it gets teachers out of awkward situations when teaching several religions. “But sir, which religion is true – is Jesus God, or not?” “They are all true, lad – it’s true for Christians, false for Muslims”), while others simply recognize in it a useful rhetorical move. You patiently expose the flaws in their argument, but then they hit you with “Well, it’s true for me” or “Well, that’s my truth, anyway” etc.

The only person I have ever come across who (so I’m told) really goes for blanket hard-core if-you-believe-it-then-it’s-true relativism, is the actress Shirley MacLaine.


  1. I’m rather shocked to read that you’re accused of attacking strawmen here. No one really holds these views? Let’s see …Of my American undergraduate students, pretty much everyone thinks of moral relativism as the only acceptable position; according to the majority, only evil bigots would proclaim that morality could be in any way absolute or universal. The only students who disagree with them tend to be deeply religious. And, again in my experience, things get worse in Europe (probably due to a much weaker impact of religion): this summer I led a discussion on just war, and students from Poland, Turkey, Slovakia, Croatia, Austria etc. were *all* shocked to hear that a philosopher like myself could even entertain the possibility of “moral absolutism”. The cries of “who are we to judge” arose, and it took a lot of persuasion on my part (by employing a combination of four reasons prof. Law lists below) to at least open them to the possibility that moral relativism is perhaps not the only reasonable option.The situation is the same, if not worse, among people who’ve already graduated from college, and are not forced to ponder these problems any longer. They look at my claims that moral relativism is incoherent (and often morally problematic) with a mixture of pity and anger: “you poor deluded soul”, or, alternatively: “how dare you be such and intolerant, self-involved bigot!”given all these experiences, i think prof. Law’s posts make perfect sense.

  2. After a couple of years back in America, the belief in moral relativism as demonstrated in my everyday interactions among the intelligent, educated, liberal, socially conscious was one of my biggest shockers.For some reason, many of these people seem to equate morality with religion, as if there were no moral plumbline outside of belief in God.But if you say, well, is murder relative? or rape? or child abuse? they might accuse one of nitpicking. It seems in this context that the worst thing one can be accused of in the current climate is ‘judgementalism’. But surely, one of the things we want to cultivate as adults is good judgement. Which by definition involves choice and discernment. Good judgement weighs the moral good, chooses one thing over another even if only in that moment.I am not sure where we go from here without it.

  3. Hi Stephen,I agree that most students don’t ereally embrace moral relativism. As soon as you push them their absolutist views come to the fore (as in – of course all moral views should be tolerated). But what bothers me is the sloppy thinking that leads most to believe they embrace relativism, and that in doing so they are doing the right thing. I frequently give talks to schools (I know you do too). And the first thing I do is say what is meant by ‘moral relativism’ and ‘moral absolutism’, and then I ask them to show their hands to say whether they’re relativists or absolutists. Usually the room is full of the former (until the end of my talk anyway)!

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