of Moral Relativism
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.
The purpose of this brief essay is to show that
moral (or ethical) relativism is a philosophical
myth that is accepted by no one who has critically
examined its tenets and that those who claim to be
moral relativists are really not. We are dealing
here with two aspects of a specific condition:
- First, with a "belief" that states there are
no fixed values, there are only fluctuating
human valuations, or that ethical truths are
relative, that is, the rightness of an action
depends on or consists in the attitude taken
towards it by some individual or group, and
hence may vary from individual to individual or
from group to group.
- Second, with "actions" based on this belief
which clearly show that the agent is, more or
less, acting or behaving in a way that is
consistent with the belief that moral relativism
is, in fact, the true and only philosophical
As is usually the case in this type of
reflective situation, the belief comes first, the
action follows, but the action taken tells us
something about the commitment to the belief
undergirding the action taken.
It is easy in our contemporary society to find
statements which apparently show a commitment to
moral relativism. Consider just a sampling:
- What's true for you may not be true for
- Nothing is really right or wrong, but
thinking makes it so.
- Ethical judgments are just a matter of
- Anything goes.
- One man's meat is another man's poison (in
regard, of course, to morals).
- We should not judge another's personal
- No society is better or worse than another
(in regard to social ethics).
The above statements, and ones similar to them,
are now bandied about in ordinary conversation as
if they were truths about which no one should
disagree. Moreover, those who claim to be moral or
ethical relativists and are bold enough to declare
it would simply say: "All morals are relative and
that's the end of it," or some such "philosophical"
Opinion surveys recently taken in America have
shown the pervasiveness of the position promoted by
moral relativism. For instance, in one survey where
adults were asked if they agreed with the statement
"there are no absolute standards for morals and
ethics," seventy-one percent said that they agreed
with it. Other surveys have shown even higher
numbers who think that morality and ethics is a
matter of personal opinion and that there are no
universal standards by which one can determine the
rightness or wrongness of a human act.
Now, I never question what a person tells me
regarding his or her personal beliefs, unless I
have a valid reason to think otherwise. If someone
tells me that truth is a relative matter, then I
accept that that is what that person believes. I
then consider that person's actions to see if they
are consistent with the beliefs stated. And that is
where the "rubber meets the road," so to speak. I
find that those who claim "all truth is relative"
may spout that belief, but they never act as if its
true. Similarly, I find that those who say they
believe in moral relativism never act as if they
really do. In fact, I find them to be moral
absolutists, not moral relativists. Belief is one
thing; actions are another. And it is in the realm
of action that moral relativism takes the fatal
The old adage "actions speak louder than words"
has a special significance here. If the "words"
(beliefs) are really committed to by the moral
relativist, then his or her "actions" should be
consistent with those words or beliefs. And it is
precisely here that moral or ethical relativism
becomes a "myth." While many may claim to be moral
relativists, their actions show they are not. In
fact, their behavior shows them to be moral
absolutists of a type, the very opposite of what
they claim to be. And it is this point that I want
to address in the remainder of this essay.
The self-proclaimed moral relativist does not
and cannot maintain his or her commitment to the
"philosophy" of moral relativism. In fact, the
record clearly shows that these "moral relativists"
are not relativists at all, but moral absolutists.
This assertion is based on their behavior, not on
their alleged support of a philosophical position.
- Modern "liberal" political groups who
promote "political correctness." These groups
want to suppress what they consider to be
offensive language and views. Most of these
people claim to be moral relativists, yet they
promote a doctrine that includes an "absolutist"
program, that is, "statements that are
politically incorrect must be eliminated or even
made illegal." No relativism here.
- Groups promoting "Multiculturalism." All the
beliefs and practices of non-Western cultures
must be considered as "good" regardless of the
belief and practice, but Western civilization
and the "white European" are evil and to be
eliminated as soon as possible. No relativism
- Pro-abortion groups. Claiming that morality
is a matter of personal opinion, these groups
are now attempting to legally quash any
opposition to their position. They want "special
protection" and do not want to confront any
philosophical opposition. No relativism
The above are simply examples of "absolutist"
behavior parading as moral relativism. But there is
more. One of the most vocal and active groups to
promote moral relativism in America is the
so-called "Feminist Movement." Yet, even here, we
find, not moral relativism as claimed, but moral
absolutism. To wit:
- The "Feminist Movement" says that the
Taliban government in Afghanistan was "wrong" in
its treatment of women. But, to be consistent,
the feminists should say, it is after all just a
"cultural" thing and we have no business judging
the rightness or wrongness of Taliban
- The "Feminist Movement" labels child-adult
sexual activity as "wrong," but, to remain
consistent, it should say, it's merely a
"personal" opinion. No one should be punished
for engaging in such behavior.
- The "Feminist Movement" should say, to be
consistent, "rape" is really in the eye of the
beholder. What is rape to one person is making
love to another. It's a matter of one's point of
Now, the "Feminist Movement" is not going to
take the moral relativist position; they will take
the position of the moral absolutist, the very
position they condemn in those who are not in
agreement with their particular views. They will
- The treatment of women by the Taliban is
wrong and should be changed.
- Child-adult sexual activity is wrong and
should be criminally punished.
- Rape is wrong, regardless of the
perpetrator's opinion, and should be criminally
None of the above judgments regarding a human
act can be judged as right or wrong without
appealing to some standard used as a criterion for
judging the behavior. This standard, by its very
nature, is "absolutist." Moral relativism cannot
appeal to a standard, simply because "relativism"
itself means there are no standards.
I could continue with many other examples of the
"moral absolutist" masquerading as a "moral
relativist." But brevity forbids it. And, besides,
I want to make another important point. The
pseudo-moral relativist (because that's what they
really are!) do not really want to convince you
that his or her philosophical position is correct
or true by engaging in an intellectual discourse.
Rather, in American society, the pseudo-moral
relativist wants to appeal to the legislative
bodies (Congress, et al) or the judiciary bodies
(the Supreme Court, etc.) to have their "beliefs"
encased in law. This means that what is "legal" is
the same as what is "moral," and nothing else. And
this is the final nail in the coffin of the moral
We are not talking about morality at all! We are
talking about positive law. Morality or ethics has
nothing to do with the situation. Positive law is
now all that matters. Making some "human act" legal
is to be distinguished from the "morality" of any
human act. All we need to do, according to this
philosophical position, is declare something to be
"legal" and it is, ipso facto, "moral." This, by
the way, is, in my opinion, the current state of
affairs in American society today.
Okay, let us accept that for the sake of the
current argument: What is "legal" is equivalent to
what is "moral," as a defining example of moral
relativism. The so-called moral relativist is dead
in the water. Because if "legality" is to define
"morality" then any outrage against such phenomena
as the Nazi "Holocaust" or the attack on America by
terrorists on September 11, 2001 or the
"circumcision" of little girls in many
black-African countries or the "abuse" of women in
Taliban Afghanistan or the practice of owning black
slaves in 19th-century America is misplaced and
unfair. These are or were "legal." Therefore,
according to the logic of this type of moral
relativists, all these practices are or were
No moral relativist I am familiar with will
accept the above. They will insist these are "evil"
acts. But by what standards, or on what grounds, or
by what criteria, if judging human acts is relative
matter and there are no absolute standards that can
be used to make a judgment? Either all moral
principles are relative or there is at least one
moral principle which is absolute, or, in the case
of the logical positivists and some others,
morality is simply a semantic game which has no
real content (which is not at issue here since no
one really believes that anyway, including the
logical positivists who promoted it).
Now, let's get real. If moral relativists were
really sincere in their beliefs, they could not
condemn the following practices and would have to
- Cannibalism is permitted if you think it is
- Raping two-year olds is acceptable if that
is part of your cultural tradition.
- Brutalizing your wife is understandable if
that is part of your ethical system.
- Castrating young boys is permitted for the
sake of your cultural heritage.
- Torture is a morally accepted part of your
criminal justice system.
- Human sacrifice is allowed as part of your
- Certain groups defined as unwanted by your
society can be destroyed.
- There is no such thing as a war crime; it's
in the eye of the beholder.
- Adolf Hitler should not be judged as morally
reprehensible since he was acting lawfully.
- Josef Stalin was not acting immorally when
he killed millions of innocent people.
- The suicide bombers of September 11, 2001
were acting properly in their own
- Anything goes. Anything goes. Anything goes.
We cannot judge.
There is no way the declared moral relativist
can get around this issue. If there is not at least
ONE absolute, objective standard or principle or
proposition of moral philosophy or ethics, one that
can be used to further develop a system of
objectively-based moral philosophy, then "anything
Finally, I get back to the initial position I
was trying to argue. Moral or ethical relativism is
a "myth." That is, no one really believes in moral
relativism, in spite of what one might say. All one
has to do is look at the "actions" of the moral
relativist instead of concentrating on the beliefs
espoused. Self-proclaimed moral relativists appear
to be guilty of hypocrisy, saying one thing but
practicing the opposite. And, finally, moral
relativism is just another example of "intellectual
insanity," the attempt to remake and reshape
reality into what one wants it to be, rather than
accepting reality as it is and dealing with it
There has to be at least ONE rational, objective
standard by which human beings can judge the
rightness, the correctness, or the appropriateness
of human actions. There may be more, but there has
to be at least one. It is the discovery of this
rational, objective standard that is the object of
what we call moral philosophy or ethics.
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