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What Is Moral Relativism?

  • Michael Wreen


The main aim of this paper is to advance, clarify, and defend a definition of relativism. On the definition, relativism does not contrast with absolutism, is not the same as pluralism, contrasts with universalism and nihilism, and is compatible with both moral objectivity and moral subjectivity. Advantages of the definition are noted, but the bulk of the paper is devoted to detailed discussions of the concepts that figure in the definition or are entailed by it. Such concepts include those of a moral code, of conflict between moral codes, and of a convention.



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1 Rachels, James, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2nd edition (McGraw-Hill, New York: 1993), 20.

2 Pojman, Louis, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong (Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA: 1995), 26.

3 Harris, C.E., Applying Moral Theories, 3rd edition (Wadsworth Publishing, 1997), 21.

4 Rosen, Bernard, Ethical Theory: Strategies and Concepts (Mayfield Publishing, 1993), 94.

5 Barcalow, Emmett, Moral Philosophy: Theory and Issues (Wadsworth Publishing, 1994), 39.

6 Mackie first advanced his ‘Error theory’ in ‘A Refutation of Morals’, Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy 24 (1946): 7790, and later updated and forcefully argued substantially the same thesis in chapter one of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Penguin Books, 1977). Drawing upon Mackie, Robinson, Richard advanced a similar theory in ‘The Emotive Theory of Ethics’, Aristotelian Society Supplement vol. XXII (1948): 79140; see especially 83–84. There are difficulties in even interpreting Mackie's theory, however. For example, if ‘This is right’ is false, ‘This is not right’ would seem to be true. But if so, ‘This is not right’ would, presumably, not be a moral judgment, for all are false. Cf. Harrison, Jonathan, , ‘Mackie'sMoral Skepticism”’, Philosophy 57 (1982): 173191.

7 Critics of the Error Theory include Edwards, Paul, in chapter III of his The Logic of Moral Discourse (The Free Press, 1955), and, among a number of others who take aim at Mackie's later statement of the theory, Jonathan Harrison, op. cit.

8 See, for instance, Brandt, Richard, Ethical Theory (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959) chap. 11. Brandt's discussion of relativism is informed with his own Qualified Attitude Method for justifying moral judgments, and his terminology is slightly different from mine, but the point is essentially the same.

9 See, for instance, McKinnon, Barbara, Ethics, 2nd edition (Wadsworth Publishing, 1998), 1415: and DeMarco, Joseph P., Moral Theory (Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1996), 80 (DeMarco, however, basically favors relativism); Rachels, op. cit, 23–25; Harris, op. cit., 19–20.

10 Brandt, op. cit., 283–284.

11 Lewis, David, Convention (Harvard University Press, 1969).

12 That said, a game-theoretic conception of a convention, even if not specifically Lewis's, has proven very attractive to moral relativists. Harman, Gilbert, for example, embraces it in Chapter 9 of his The Nature of Morality (Oxford University Press, 1977).

13 Millikan, Ruth, Language: A Biological Model (Clarendon Press, 2005).

14 Gilbert, Margaret, On Social Facts (Princeton University Press, 1989).

15 Gilbert, op. cit., 377.

16 On my view, conventions needn't be social. ‘Desert island’ conventions, imposed only by oneself and only on oneself, are a real possibility. See also two paragraphs hence on the metaphysics of conventions.

17 That said, however, a behavioral regularity or a repeated pattern of behavior counts as a convention in a derivative sense, on my view, if it is in accordance with and the result of the establishment of a convention in the basic sense.

18 I focus only on paradigmatically positive conventions, commands, and fiats in what follows, for simplicity's sake.

19 The only discussion of the ‘… to be done…’ locution that I know of is Chapter XIV of Harrison, Jonathan's Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1971). On the basis of what, not too long ago, would be called its logical grammar, Harrison seems to locate the construction half-between value judgments and imperatives, just as I do. (The chapter also contains interesting discussions of the ‘must be/may be done’ and the ‘is enjoined by a rule’ locutions.)

20 And once again my view is closer to Gilbert's than to the others’, though it differs from hers in that, and because, I don't take conventions to be inherently social.

21 If this is correct, the contrast between the natural and the conventional isn't as sharp as it may at first appear, for the conventional would then itself be natural. As far as morality is concerned, it would also seem to imply that in some sense, morality is natural – even if it is conventional.

22 For the sake of full disclosure, I should add that, the possible evidence of this paper notwithstanding, I'm not a moral relativist. I labor here to serve clarity, fairness, and progress on the issue.

23 My thanks to Teddy Shim and the editor of this journal for a number of useful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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