What, if Anything, is Moral Relativism?

‘Surely it’s always wrong to make moral judgments.’ As one of the guest speakers at our 2005 conference, Mary Midgley explored this contradiction in a fresh look at relativism and subjectivism.

When Pope Benedict XVI was making his inaugural speech he said that one of the more fearful dangers of the present day is the march of relativism. I thought, let’s have a look at that. Are all forms of it a bad idea, perhaps not? Perhaps we could cheer Pope Benedict up a bit by picking out the parts that he should like and the parts that he should not.

So, what is relativism? Now, we start with a simple thing which I think is properly called relativism – is the most obvious form of it – and I have given a splendid old example, which many of you are probably familiar with. It’s Herodotus’ story:

When Darius was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter... he asked some Indians, of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can see by this what custom can do.[1]

Now, it’s rather unlikely, I guess, that Darius actually did this, but it shows the Greeks were already thinking about it. Traders, as the Greeks were, were always running into things that startled them and by Herodotus’ time they had got as far as this very satisfactory thought, that you should respect the customs of others even when they differ from your own. This was a valuable insight. If that is what somebody means by relativism, then they should know that it is not only harmless but good.

But all these valuable insights only suit a particular range of cases. If they are extended into universal principles they go badly wrong and anyway, they can’t be combined because the different insights we will be looking at contradict each other. This trouble has been confounded by the methods of Nietzsche, who didn’t believe in trying to reconcile contrary views but preferred to state both of them strongly in extreme forms and leave his readers to work out what was to be done about it.

The sort of muddle that arises was delightfully instanced to me when a student in a class said with obvious fervour and conviction: ‘But, surely, it’s always wrong to make moral judgments.’ You see, some moral judgments are more equal than others!

So, then, there is this thing which one might call relativism proper: ‘In Rome do as the Romans do’, ‘Live and let live’ and so on. This is good advice when you are dealing with other people’s problems. It’s especially suitable advice for an imperial power like Darius who has to deal with a lot of different cultures. He doesn’t necessarily take them very seriously anyway, but he has to avoid conflicts. Or, indeed, he might take them seriously, and this is more interesting; he might say to himself: ‘How come these people are acting so differently, is it that these are different ways of expressing a single purpose?’ That is, showing respect to the dead. And then he might go on to work out how those different things were felt to be respectful and, of course, he had better go on to say: ‘Well why do we Persians put our dead on high towers and let the vultures eat them?’ That is another way of showing respect.

But what does the ruler do when he comes across a tribe who are selling their grandparents at a suitable age for somebody else to eat? Might that be different? Imperial powers have indeed run into this sort of trouble repeatedly, about ritual murders, suttee, child abuse, slavery – all kinds of things – where they find suddenly, to their distress, they have got to make a moral judgment. And it shows that we haven’t not made a moral judgment the first time, when we said it doesn’t matter what they do with their dead. We have made the moral judgment: ‘This is not wrong’. It doesn’t become my business because it’s not bad enough.

So, the relativist solution only works for a certain range of cases, And the limitation of cultural relativism can be put in this way: societies are not monolithic blocks. It isn’t true, as some anthropologists have suggested, that you get a whole group of people who are all perfectly happy to go one way and another group who all perfectly happy to go the other. There is dissent within any society. I think it is clear now that when anthropology got going, it deliberately dealt in very small rather isolated ‘tribes’ and, coming in from the outside, the anthropologist was not likely to spot all the dissent that was happening. If, for instance, all the informants are male then you don’t question whether the women are happy about it.

So, for that sort of reason, people begin to move on from this ancient form of relativism to something more like subjectivism, which really is very different. It is now not just that the culture makes up its own morality but that the individual does so. Each individual creates his own morality – notably his, not hers: the theorists of this kind of thing from Rousseau through Nietzsche on have tended to overlook the gender issue until quite lately. There is an awful lot of what you might call misogyny in those theorists. It’s an expression of the Enlightenment’s notion of the totally independent male householder. As Hobbes put it, ‘A family is a little monarchy, whether that family consists of a man and his children, or of a man and his children and his servants.’

I am not being irrelevant here. The simplification became possible because they had that model in mind. It was one man, one vote, household suffrage; it was political in origin but it was developed into a general view of individuality. Here is Nietzsche:

‘My judgment is my judgment, to which hardly anyone else has a right’, is what the philosopher of the future will say. One must get rid of the bad taste of wishing to agree with many others. ‘Good’ is no longer good in the mouth of my neighbour. And how could there be a ‘common good’?[2]

That protest isn’t just Nietzsche being a bit extreme. It’s a protest that belongs to Enlightenment thought in general; the individualism, the attempt to split people off from the mass, which in many ways has been a very good thing; we are profiting from it. But when you make it so extreme you do have to ask a number of difficult questions. Nietzsche sometimes comes out as a pure subjectivist, just saying that each individual is split off from the rest. But often he claims much more than that, exalting the individual as a prophet for the whole community:

None yet knoweth what is good or evil – unless it be that he is a creator! But a creator is he that createth man’s goal and giveth earth its meaning and its future; he it is that first maketh good and evil to be.[3]

How can a subjectivist theorist take this prophetic tone?. If he’s speaking just for himself he wouldn’t shout like that. He wouldn’t devote his time to telling everyone else, to writing. Nietzsche lived alone just writing and writing, desperately hoping it would get out one day to the other people who were supposed to take it in.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that wish for other people to do what’s right for them and be better, but you cannot combine it with the thought that each person is a split off, separate item. These are clashing images and Nietzsche is always bringing clashing images together, out of which you’re supposed to get something that has the advantages of both. Whether it works, I’m not sure.

In the end comes the sovereign individual, that resembles only himself, that has got loose from the morality of custom, the autonomous, super-moral individual (for autonomous and moral are mutually exclusive terms).[4]

There it is starting to look as though we really are trying to get rid of a notion of morality as something public altogether.

Sartre, I think, is in the same box. Sartre, answering the objection ‘your values are not serious since you choose them for yourself’, says:

To that I can only say that I am very sorry that it should be so, but if I have excluded God the Father, there must be somebody to invent values.[5]

That seems to me an absolutely extraordinary remark. You don’t need to invent the wheel, it’s there already and has been for a long time. You can improve the wheel, use it in different situations, but the values which are stressed by people like Nietzsche and Sartre are ancient values: freedom, courage, honesty. They are suggesting that you conceive them differently. They are shifting the balance between these different values which are there, and a very small shift in that balance is extremely noticeable. ‘Invent’ seems to me a particularly odd metaphor, because when you invent a new cogwheel or whatnot you already know what the end is, the aim. You invent a new means to it, but if you’re inventing what the aim is I don’t think that makes a lot of sense. Philippa Foot put the case: what if you were to suggest that something is a value which nobody has thought of yet, like clapping your hands once an hour or peeling your orange in a spiral? It doesn’t kind of bite, does it?

When a thing is recognised as a value it’s because of an immense context of human experience within which people have found this helpful or useful or admirable and when you want to change it, you draw attention to that context. I am suggesting that when you’ve been trying to be consistently subjectivist for a time you find you’re involved in something larger and you haven’t solved the problem of disagreement. There are still a lot of people who disagree and nobody’s able to do much about it. So the other solution: immoralism, in the sense that nothing can be right or wrong at all, does get mooted at this point. And Nietzsche sometimes talked as though that was what he meant. But an awful lot of the time he didn’t:

Fundamentally, my term immoralist involves two negations. First, I negate a type of man that has so far been considered supreme, the good, the benevolent, the beneficent. And then I negate a type of morality that has become prevalent and predominant as morality itself – the morality of decadence, or more concretely, Christian morality ...morality as vampirism.[6]

Here he is plainly attacking a particular kind of morality, not the practice of thinking morally in general. Now I think it is fair to point out that Nietzsche was operating in the mid 19th century in a Germany that had become extremely stagnant after Metternich, which was contentedly, complacently Lutheran and that he was not only the son of a parson but the grandson of two other parsons and was brought up in a household of women. His father having died, his mother and two aunts and a sister were all piously Lutheran. It was not that he was oppressed with violence and a fear of hell but that it was a suffocating atmosphere of sentimentality, which said the Good Lord will see to everything and we don’t really need to think. So this is how he explains what’s wrong with Christianity:

There is master morality and slave morality.... When it is the rulers who determine the concept ‘good’, it is the exalted, proud states of the soul which are considered distinguishing and determine the order of rank...Good and bad mean the same thing as ‘noble’ and ‘despicable’...[by contrast] The slave is suspicious of the virtues of the powerful... [for him] those qualities which make easier the existence of the suffering will be brought into prominence...Slave morality is essentially a matter of utility.[7]

As I’m sure you all know, ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ for Nietzsche did not mean we’ve got rid of morality, it meant you must choose the right morality – the noble one. He had this romantic idea of the heroic past, in which people were tough and brutal and never hesitated to do what they felt like doing. We have lost this nobility of spirit by becoming Christian and decadent. It really is interesting how much he regards the need to resist Christian morality as itself a moral imperative:

There is no help for it; we must mercilessly call to account and bring to trial the feelings of surrender, of self-sacrifice for one’s fellow-men, all the morality of self- alienation...There is too much charm and sugar in those feelings of ‘for others, not myself’.[8]

Now we move on to contemporary expressions of the immoralist project. In 1983 a survey reported in The Observer declared that:

British still believe in sin, hell and the devil

Most Britons still believe in the concept of sin and nearly a third believe in hell and the devil, according to the biggest survey of public opinion ever carried out in the West ... Belief in sin is highest in Northern Ireland (91 per cent) and lowest in Denmark (29 per cent) ... Even 15 per cent of atheists believe in sin and 4 per cent in the devil. Most Europeans admit that they sometimes regret having done something wrong. The Italians and Danes suffer most from such regrets, the French and Belgians least. The rich regret more than the poor ...The rich are less likely to believe in sin than the poor.[9]

I think this is extraordinary and I’d like to quote what I wrote about it in my book Wickedness:

What were these people supposed to be believing? ‘Belief in sin’ is not a factual belief, as beliefs in God, hell or the devil certainly are, whatever else they involve. ‘Sin’ seems not to be defined in a restrictive way as an offence against God, or the minority of atheists couldn’t have signed up for it. Belief in it can scarcely be identified with the sense of regret for having done wrong, since there might surely be people who thought that others sinned, though they did not think they did so themselves. Besides, the rich apparently do one but not the other... But this makes it no easier to see what the belief is actually meant to be, unless it is the simple and obvious one that some actions are wrong. Is the reporter’s idea that up-to-date people– including most Danes and even more atheists– have now withdrawn their objections to all courses of action, including boiling our friends alive just for the hell of it? This is not very plausible... At a popular level, all that is meant is often that sexual activity has been shown not to be sinful. That does not diminish the number of sins, because, where a sexual activity is considered justified, interference with it begins to be blamed. Recognised sins against liberty therefore multiply in exact proportion as recognised sins against chastity grow scarcer.[10]

Here’s another more subtle and interesting example: Barbara Wootton, eminent sociologist, protesting against Lord Devlin. There are probably a few people here as old as me who can remember Lord Devlin; he was a distinguished judge who had written a clear, popular book saying that law and morality were not quite distinct; that it was the business of law to reflect in some degree the moral judgments of the people under it. And here is Barbara Wootton saying, ‘That’s wrong’:

Can we then in the modern world identify a class of inherently wicked actions [as Lord Devlin suggests]? ... This attempt to revive the lawyer’s distinction between... things which are bad in themselves and things which are merely prohibited ... cannot, I think, succeed ...

She seems to be saying there are only things that are merely prohibited.

The statement that a real crime is one about which a good citizen would feel guilty is surely circular. For how is the good citizen to be defined in this context unless as one who feels guilt about committing the crimes that Lord Devlin would classify as ‘real’?[11]

Now it’s all a matter of the examples that you have in mind. What was in mind at the time was homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment and she suspected, quite possibly rightly, that Lord Devlin had strong moral views on these things and wanted them made into law, but if you ask about child abuse, rape, ritual murder, murder – all these things where the law does not seem so questionable – the thought that these are forbidden because they are wrong is not at all a fishy thought.

My last example comes from a detective story by PD James. It’s a good detective story but I was struck in reading it by noticing that this particular social move comes up in it repeatedly.

[Alice has just admitted that she has done a murder. She explains]: ‘I’m not arguing that she deserved to die. It doesn’t matter whether she was happy, or childless, or even much use to anybody but herself. What I’m saying is that I wanted her dead.’ [Meg]: ‘That sounds to me so evil that it’s beyond my understanding. Alice, what you did was a dreadful sin.’ Alice laughed ... [and replied]: ‘Meg you continue to astonish me. You use words which are no longer in the general vocabulary, not even in the Church’s, so I’m told. The implications of that simple little word are beyond my comprehension.’[12]

You see the move. Somebody makes what’s clearly a moral judgment – an accusation. Instead of dealing with it you shrug haughtily and reply: ‘Oh, do you still talk like that?’ I guess that actually nobody today is likely to respond exactly as Meg does in this passage. They are more likely to say: ‘God, that’s mean!’ or: ‘You can’t treat people like that!’, which specifies more what’s wrong with it. The word ‘sin’ is a little bit out of date; it’s not used in quite that way today and neither is ‘evil’. Thus the thought that this is an affected way of talking is not so surprising. But talking affectedly is not the same thing as talking nonsense.

I think PD James is impressed with that style of talk. It’s not just that she’s showing her characters as doing it, but that she thinks that there is something profound and enlightened about the assumption that nobody makes moral judgments any longer. I’ll end by coming back to that remark my student made: ‘It’s always wrong to make moral judgments.’ Something funny there!


[1]. Herodotus, Histories Book III, Chapter 58.

[2]. Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil, 2nd Article, Section 43.

[3]. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part 3, ‘Of Old And New Tables’.

[4]. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Chapter 2 (opening).

[5]. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, Methuen 1948, p. 54.

[6]. Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, (Vintage Books), pp. 328 and 334.

[7]. Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil, Section 260.

[8]. Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil, Section 33.

[9]. The Observer, Sunday 28th February 1983.

[10]. Mary Midgley, Wickedness – A Philosophical Essay (Routledge 1984).

[11]. Baroness Wootton, Crime and the Criminal Law (Stevens 1981) pp. 42, 63.

[12]. P.D. James, Devices and Desires (Faber & Faber 1989) p. 388.

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