Moral Relativism and Objectivism

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By Dr. James Fieser / 04.01.2011
Professor of Philosophy
University of Tennessee at Martin


In the early twentieth century, journalist Robert L. Ripley traveled around the world gathering stories of strange rituals, which he published in his popular newspaper column “Believe It or Not.” One man sat and stared at the sun for fifteen years, which ultimately blinded him and made him incapable of moving his legs from inactivity. Another was buried alive for 40 days in suspended animation and survived.  Our fascination with bizarre practices of other cultures is no less prominent today. Some foreign practices amuse us, such as that of Japanese men who tattoo their entire bodies. Others make us squeamish, such as a Latin American culinary practice of eating handfuls of live bugs in tortillas. But other foreign cultural practices spark a moral reaction, such as countries that impose harsh penalties on women who have premarital sex, even execution. In the U.S., by contrast, premarital sex is normal behavior and, according to one study, since the 1950s 95% of Americans have had premarital sex (Lawrence B. Finer, “Trends in Premarital Sex). According to another study, 60-70% of Americans under age 55 believe that such behavior is morally acceptable (Gallup “Values and Beliefs Poll”). Attitudes about many sexual behaviors are especially diverse from culture to culture with issues such as homosexuality, public nudity, polygamy, polyamory, adultery, pornography, and prostitution. Reactions can radically differ not only from country to country, but also within the same country from one subculture to another, or at differing points in time.

These culturally-conflicting standards of behavior directly challenge the idea that there is a fixed standard of morality for everyone, and they make us wonder whether morality reduces to mere social convention. For centuries, moral philosophers have reflected on the philosophical problems raised by clashing social values. The key question is whether moral standards exist independently of human social creations, and there are two competing answers to this question. The theory of moral objectivism holds that moral standards do indeed exist independently of human social creations, and moral relativism holds that they are just human inventions. This is not simply an issue of anthropological curiosity concerning how different people and cultures view morality. Instead, it is an issue of whether my and your specific moral obligations are grounded in nothing other than cultural approval. Moral objectivism says that they are, and moral relativism says that they are not.

The essential differences between moral relativism and moral objectivism hinge on their answers to these three questions:

  • Is morality objective?
  • Are moral standards unchanging?
  • Are moral standards universal?

Regarding the first question, relativists hold that moral standards are purely human inventions that are created either by individual people or human societies. Objectivists, by contrast, hold that moral standards are not created by human beings or human societies, but instead are grounded in some facts that are external to people and society. According to many objectivists, they exist in a higher spirit-realm that is completely apart from the physical world around us. Regarding the second question, relativists hold that moral standards change throughout time and from society to society. For objectivists, though, genuine moral truths are eternal and do not change throughout time or from location to location. No matter where you are in the world or at what point in history, the same principles apply. Regarding the third question, relativists hold that moral standards do not necessarily apply universally to all people or social groups, and their application depends on human preference. But for objectivists, there is a uniform set of moral standards that is the same for all people, regardless of human differences like race, gender, wealth and social standing.


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The issue of moral relativism was one of the first hotly debated topics in Western moral philosophy, and the views of early relativists remain even today largely unchanged. We will begin by looking at their theories. Then, as now, there are two distinct versions of moral relativism. One, called individual relativism, is the view that each person creates his or her own moral standards. The other, called cultural relativism, is the view that societies, not the individual person, creates moral standards which are then authoritative over everyone within that society.

Individual Relativism: Protagoras

Democritus (center) and Protagoras (right) 17th-century painting by Salvator Rosa, 1664 / Hermitage Museum, Wikimedia Commons

The most famous champion of moral relativism in the early days of Greek philosophy was Protagoras (485–420 BCE) who stated that “man is the measure of all things—of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.” Most simply, this means that people set their own standard of truth in all judgments. Only fragments of Protagoras’s original writings survive, so we are left to speculate about the precise meaning of his famous statement. Two important ancient Greek philosophers, Plato (428–348 BCE) and Sextus Empiricus (fl. 200 CE), offer us some guidance in the following passages from their writings:

Does Protagoras not say that things are to you such as they appear to you, and to me such as they appear to me. . . are we to say, with Protagoras, that the wind is cold to him who is cold, and not to him who is not? [Plato, Theaetetus 152a]

By “measure” he means the standard, and by “things” objects; so he is implicitly saying that human beings are the standard for all objects, of those that are that they are and of those that are not that they are not. For this reason he posits only what is apparent to each person, and thus introduces relativity. [Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 1.32]

There are three points to consider about Protagoras’s statement and the interpretations of it by Plato and Sextus. First, when Protagoras states that “man is the measure of all things,” “man” refers to individual humans, not to human society collectively. In this sense, then, each person’s judgment, rather than society’s judgment, constitutes the standard of truth. Protagoras, then, is a proponent of individual relativism, which is the view that moral obligations are grounded in each person’s own approval. Again, this stands in contrast to cultural relativism, which holds that moral obligations are grounded in the approval of social cultures.

Secondly, there are two possible interpretations of Protagoras’s statement:

  • Each person’s private judgment constitutes the standard of truthfor everyone.
  • Each person’s private judgment constitutes the standard of truthfor whoever makes that judgment.

Plato and Sextus both appear to go with the second interpretation, and for good reason too. The first interpretation means that my personal judgments become the standard for you and everyone else. On the first view, when I judge that honey is sweet, or the door is brown, or that stealing is wrong, I am making these judgments not just for myself, but for all of the human race. It is my judgment alone that establishes what is universally true. That seems pretty egotistical since I know that I regularly make mistakes, and there are some subjects like nuclear physics that I know nothing at all about. Further, suppose that, for you, honey is bitter, the door is gray, and stealing is OK, which completely conflict with my judgments. Each of us, then, are creating conflicting standards of truth for everyone and the whole notion of a “standard of truth” becomes pointless. However, according to the second interpretation, the authority of my private judgments does not extend any further than myself: through my personal judgments, I create my own standards of truth, and, through your judgments you create yours. For example, if I taste some honey and find it sweet, then my judgment that it is sweet makes it true for me. And if you, by contrast, do not find honey sweet when you taste it, then it is true for you that honey is not sweet. In this situation, individual relativism makes sense, since I am describing how something tastes to me based on the physiology of my taste buds, and you based on your own physiology. If we happen to agree with each other, that is fine, and if we disagree, that is also fine.

A third issue is the sweeping nature of Protagoras’ relativism as reflected in the second half of his statement: “man is the measure of all things—of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.” While the wording here is a little awkward, the central point is that individual people create their own truth, even to the extent that something exists or does not exist. If Protagoras’s relativism applied only to minor issues of perception, like how honey tastes to different people, it would not be very remarkable. But Protagoras pushes individual relativism to an extreme, holding that the truth of everything is relative to the person. This is where many of us have problems with his position, since some truths do not seem to be relative. For example, suppose I believe it is true that “2 plus 3 equals 7” or “Tokyo is in France.” According to Protagoras, these statements are true for me, even though our normal reaction is that these statements are just plain false. For Protagoras, the same individual relativism that applies to judgments about honey or addition or Tokyo also applies to judgments about morality, such as my belief that stealing is wrong. We all have our own perceptions about what things are good and evil, just and unjust. In this sense, each of our moral views is true for us respectively.

Cultural Relativism: The Greek Skeptics

Sextus Empiricus / Public Domain

Protagoras’s individualism is just one approach to relativism, and it probably is not the best. It assumes that each person is his or her own island, independent of other people, regarding the perspectives of the world that each of us formulates, and moral standards that we adopt. On this view, I am the principal creator of truth and morality for myself. But we are not islands, and, instead, our perspectives of the world are shaped by the larger communities in which we are raised. It is through our families, friends, schools, religious affiliations, political institutions, and vocational connections that we collectively shape our standards. My personal views on the subject of proper sexual behavior, for example, were not fashioned by me, but rather instilled into me by those around me, particularly during an especially impressionable period of my development. Far from being independent creators of truth, we are instead clones of each other within our respective cultures and sub-cultures. Thus, if the concept of moral relativism is to be a plausible theory of the origins of moral standards, it is the cultural version that shows the most promise, not so much the individual approach.

One of the earliest expressions of cultural relativism was offered by the ancient Greek historian Heroditus (484–425 BCE) who, after surveying the traditions of different regions, concluded that “everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best.” Heroditus’s point is that, not only do we all adopt the religious and ethical value systems of our respective cultures, but we typically go a step further and denounce foreign value systems as inferior to our own. This is the basic relativistic insight into morality that was systematized by ancient Greek philosophers of the skeptical tradition, the best surviving example of which is Sextus Empiricus. Drawing on anthropological data compiled by earlier Greek historians, Sextus gives example after example of moral standards that differ from one society or culture to another. These include attitudes about homosexuality, incest, cannibalism, human sacrifice, the killing of the elderly, infanticide, theft, and consumption of animal flesh.

Sextus believes that this social diversity in and of itself is a good reason to adopt cultural relativism. The differing cultural attitudes are extreme, and Sextus clearly wants to shock us into thinking seriously about this diversity. Here is his account of differing attitudes concerning sexual morality:

Among the Persians it is the custom to practice homosexuality, but among the Romans it is forbidden by law to do that. For us adultery is forbidden, but among the Massegetae adultery is customarily accepted with indifference. . . . Among us it is forbidden to have sex with our mothers, but among the Persians it is the custom to have such marriages. The Egyptians marry their sisters, which is also forbidden by law among us. . . . Most men have sex with their wives in private, but the philosopher Crates did it with his wife publicly. Diogenes went around with one shoulder bare, but we go around with our customary clothes. [Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 1.14]

Sextus’s claim is sweeping: every moral belief is grounded in the attitudes of particular cultures, which frequently clash with each other. The moral behavior of different societies conflict with each other, and the moral standards that they espouse also conflict. Sextus concludes that “the skeptic, seeing so great a diversity of usages, suspends judgment as to the natural existence of anything good or bad or, in general, fit or unfit to be done.” That is, we should doubt the existence of an independent and universal standard of morality, and instead regard moral standards as the result of cultural preferences.

Sextus and other skeptics have a particular goal in mind in advancing cultural relativism. That goal is personal tranquility. Suppose I believe that there exists a fixed and objective standard of truth; suppose further that this standard guides all my actions. Since I see myself on the side of moral truth, I become morally outraged by those who do not follow these moral standards. Ultimately, I make myself miserable through my extreme convictions. However, once I seriously reflect on the wide diversity of cultural practices that Sextus describes, I will be more inclined to see that my own cultural practices are rooted in social customs. I will then get off my moral high horse and be content to accept the moral diversity that I see in other cultures.

Later Defenders of Moral Relativism

Michel de Montaigne / Public Domain

Shortly after the time of Sextus, both skepticism and moral relativism went into hibernation for around 1,000 years. During that era, philosophy throughout Europe developed under the guidance of the Medieval church, and within that theological system there was no room skeptics or relativists. Truths were clearly established—religious, moral and even scientific ones. Theologians recognized that the moral behavior varied among the different cultures around the world, but, as Thomas Aquinas argued, that is because such people habitually let their passions overpower their reason. Aquinas writes, “In some, reason is perverted by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposition of nature. Thus, although theft is expressly contrary to the natural law, it was formerly not considered wrong among the Germans, as Julius Caesar relates” (ST,

But with the closing of the Middle Ages, Renaissance scholars took a keener interest in the writings of all of the ancient philosophers, including skeptics like Sextus Empiricus with his position on moral relativism. French philosopher Michel Montaigne (1533–1592) was among the first to do so, and in his essay titled “Of Custom” he defends cultural relativism by examining dozens of strange cultural practices from foreign countries. Focusing especially on sexually-related practices he writes that in one culture, unmarried women “may prostitute themselves to as many as they please,” and when they get pregnant, they can lawfully abort their fetuses “in the sight of everyone.” In another culture, male guests at weddings are invited to sleep with the bride even before the groom does, “and the greater number of them there is, the greater is her honor and the opinion of her ability and strength.” Montaigne describes one culture in which gender roles are strangely reversed: Houses of prostitution contain young men “for the pleasure of women,” and “wives go to war as well as the husbands.”

Montaigne concludes that custom has the power to shape every possible kind of cultural practice. Although we pretend that morality is a fixed feature of nature, morality, too, is formed through custom: “The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom.” He argues further that peer pressure is so strong that we automatically approve of our society’s customs: “As everyone has an inward veneration for the opinions and manners approved of and received among his own people, no one can, without very great reluctance, depart from them, or apply himself to them without approval.” In his essay “Of Cannibals,” Montaigne writes similarly that “each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in.”

As more appreciators of ancient skepticism appeared, so too did philosophical defenses of relativism. But the biggest boost to cultural relativism came with the development of the social sciences in the early twentieth-century. In his classic work Folkways (1906), American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840–1910) argues that the morality of a given society simply amounts to the folkways or traditions of that society. For Sumner, theories that try to ground morality in some absolute standard are misguided:

In the folkways, whatever is, is right. This is because they are traditional, and therefore con­tain in themselves the authority of the ancestral ghosts. When we come to the folkways we are at the end of our analysis. . . . Therefore rights can never be “natural” or “God-given,” or absolute in any sense. The morality of a group at a time is the sum of the taboos and prescriptions in the folkways by which right conduct is defined. [Folkways, 1.31]

Sumner argues that there are no exceptions to this: A society’s standards concerning slavery, abortion, killing of the elderly, and cannibalism only reflect that society’s traditional taboos and prescriptions. American anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) argues similarly that morality consists simply of socially approved habits, which might be praised in some cultures, yet condemned in others. Social science, she argues, no longer attempts to ground morality in some fixed feature of human nature or metaphysical first principle. She writes,

We do not any longer make the mistake of deriving the morality of our own locality and decade directly from the inevitable constitution of human nature. We do not elevate it to the dignity of a first principle. We recognize that morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits. Mankind has always preferred to say, “It is morally good,” rather than “It is habitual,” and the fact of this preference is matter enough for a critical science of ethics. But historically the two phases are synonymous. (“Anthropology of the Abnormal”, 1934)

Thus, for social scientists like Sumner and Benedict, the observable facts tell us that morality is simply a creation of human societies which often differ from one location to another.

Moral relativism continues to be defended by philosophers today, and the key points associated with the tradition of cultural relativism are these:

  • Moral standards are created by society.
  • Moral standards vary from culture to culture.
  • There is no objective moral truth outside of what society establishes.

The Argument for Cultural Relativism from Social Diversity

William Graham Sumner, 1895 / Public Domain

Let us look more closely at the underlying argument for cultural relativism that we find especially in Sextus, Montaigne and Sumner. In its simplest form the argument is this:

  1. Moral standards of behavior differ from society to society.
  2. These differing moral standards are grounded either in objective moral truths or only in social custom.
  3. It is difficult to explain how these differing moral standards are grounded in objective moral truth.
  4. Therefore, it is more reasonable to believe that these differing moral standards are grounded only in social custom.

Consider now the argument premise by premise. Premise 1 states that, as a sociological fact, different cultures have different moral standards. Sextus and Montaigne attempted to defend this point with the best available sociological information that they had access to in their day. Sumner, guided by more modern methods of social fact gathering, presented his own data for the same point. He argues, for example, that our observations will clearly reveal that even taboos against incest are “by no means universal or uniform, or attended by the same intensity of repugnance.” Social scientists since Sumner continue to present data supporting cultural variation in moral matters, presumably with even more scientific rigor. If the observations by these social scientists are accurate, then premise 1 also seems plausible.

Premise 2 states that there are only two viable and competing options for understanding where moral standards come from. They are grounded in either (1) an objective source of moral truth that is independent of human society or (2) social custom. Over the centuries, moral objectivists have proposed a variety of objective sources of moral truth in some more stable level of reality beyond mere human social custom, such as eternal truths, laws of nature, or commands of God. Premise 2 then, is at least a plausible way of seeing the possible foundations of moral standards: Either they are grounded in a more stable level of reality beyond social custom, or they are grounded in social custom.

Premise 3 states that it is hard to see how moral standards are grounded in an objective truth if those standards change from culture to culture. If moral objectivism has anything practical to say about our moral standards it is that objective moral truths should shape our cultural practices and the moral standards that we adopt. For example, we condemn stealing in our culture because some objective moral truth tells us that stealing is wrong. However, when we consider the wide variety of conflicting moral standards in societies around the world, it does not seem reasonable that they all are grounded in a universal and objective truth. On face value, then, premise 3 also seems credible.

From these three premises the conclusion in statement 4 immediately follows: moral standards are grounded in social custom, which, compared to moral objectivism, more reasonably explains the moral diversity that we see. Suppose, for example, that I believe that polygamy is immoral while my friend from Saudi Arabia believes that polygamy is morally permissible. The more reasonable explanation is that our respective cultures influence our individual beliefs, rather than the objectivist alternative that objectively grounded beliefs influence our cultures. Cultural relativism, then, is the most reasonable explanation for why our moral standards mimic our culture.


Although the argument from cultural relativism seems plausible at face value, critics have pointed out some flaws with it. We will consider three.

Plato’s Criticism: Relativism is Self-Refuting

Sculpture of Plato, Athens Academy / Wikimedia Commons

Plato gives us one of the first criticisms of relativism, and, while he does not specifically target moral relativism, what he has to say certainly applies to relativist claims about moral standards. He argues that Protagoras’s relativist position that “Man is the Measure of All Things” is self-refuting. That is, if I am the judge of what is true and false for me, then I can simply judge that Protagoras’s theory of individual relativism is itself false, and it thereby becomes false. His precise words are here:

If neither Protagoras nor the multitude thought, as indeed they do not think, that man is the measure of all things, must it not follow that the truth of which Protagoras wrote would be true to no one? But if you suppose that he himself thought this, and that the multitude does not agree with him, you must begin by allowing that in whatever proportion the many are more than one, in that proportion his truth is more untrue than true. [Theaetetus]

There are different ways of interpreting Plato’s criticism, but one way goes like this:

  1. According to Protagoras, if I judge something to be false, then it is false for me.
  2. Suppose that I judge it false that individual people are the measure of all truth.
  3. Therefore, it is false for me that individual people are the measure of all truth.

Indeed, Plato hit the nail on the head with regard to Protagoras’s theory of individual relativism. The central problem is with the sweeping claim that the truth of all things, which includes the theory of individual relativism itself, is relative to me. Although the truth of many things certainly is relative to me, such as how something tastes, it is simply false that the truth of all things is relative to me. The most that Protagoras can justifiably say, then, is that “man is the measure of some things,” which is such a weak claim that it no longer even counts as individual relativism.

How might the moral relativist respond to Plato’s criticism? The charge of self-refutation is a common one in philosophy, especially when a philosopher makes a sweeping claim, such as Protagoras did. A typical way out of the problem is to say that the claim is not so much a sweeping rule as it is a sweeping recommendation for understanding the boundaries of knowledge. When pushed to its limits, this recommendation will indeed undermine itself, but that does not make the recommendation any less valuable; it could remain an important guideline or rule of thumb for how we understand our world. This is certainly a response that the moral relativist might give to Plato.

But let us try a different way of defending relativism. While Plato targeted his argument specifically at Protagoras’s individual relativism, we can also construct a cultural relativist version of the argument, and this is where things get interesting:

  1. According to Protagoras, if my society judges something to be false, then it is false for my society.
  2. Suppose that my society judges it false that human societies are the measure of all truth.
  3. Therefore, it is false for my society that human societies are the measure of all truth.

In this form Plato’s argument is not really a criticism of cultural relativism but, rather, a confession by the objectivist of the delusional world of objective truths that he has created for himself. Suppose that Protagoras is right that there is no objective truth or falsehood, but only that which my society creates (premise 1). Well, in my society, we don’t like the idea of cultural relativism and we say that it is false (premise 2). Cultural relativism thereby is false for my society (conclusion). From the cultural relativist’s standpoint, this is precisely what the objectivist is doing: he is using the power of his culture to forge a conception of objective truth which in turn denies that very power of his culture. Thus, Protagoras’s relativism does not undermine itself; rather, it is Plato’s argument that undermines objectivism. This twist is also embedded in the original individual relativist version of Plato’s argument, but it is more transparent in the cultural relativist version.

Balfour’s Criticism: Many Customs Are Simply Depraved

The grave of James Balfour, South Leith Churchyard, Edinburgh / Photo by Stephen C. Dickson, Wikimedia Commons

Over the centuries, critics of cultural relativism have attacked the argument from social diversity on several grounds. One response is to challenge premise 3 in the above version of that argument, which states that “It is difficult to explain how these differing moral standards are grounded in objective moral truth.” The entire argument from social diversity will topple if we can offer a cogent explanation as to how differing moral standards might be grounded in an objective reality.

Scottish philosopher James Balfour (1705–1795) attempted to do just that. He argued that, even if moral customs do vary over time and from place to place, there is still an underlying ideal moral standard that these cultures simply ignore. The whole batch of these cultures are simply corrupt, and these corrupt values only highlight true morality all the more. He writes,

[Cultural relativism] leads to this unavoidable consequence, that whatever any set of men, or even any individual person, may think fit to do, however criminal in itself, must yet be deemed a virtue; because it is immediately agreeable to those who practice it.

But let us suppose that a whole nation should universally countenance a bad practice, this never would alter the nature of things, nor give sanction to vice. . . .

But so far are the depraved customs of the multitude, or even the practices of the great from being the just standard of morality, that virtue shines forth with the greater luster from amidst bad practices; and even an universal corruption renders it the more conspicuous. [Delineation, 1753, 5]

Here are Balfour’s main points in the above quote:

  •  The theory of cultural relativism wrongly implies that any action, however bad in itself, will be morally permissible if society as a whole approves of it.
  • Even if an entire country approved of an inherently bad action, this would not alter genuine moral truth.
  • The existence of true morality becomes apparent when we are confronted with immoral customs.

Thus, Balfour is arguing that social customs are not the same thing as true morality: societies may at times adopt depraved customs, but this has no bearing on the existence of true morality. Such social customs, regardless of how many people approve of them, are in reality immoral. From Balfour’s perspective, there exists an objective set of moral truths, and our particular moral beliefs become distorted as we try to perceive them through our particular cultures. For example, if I believe polygamy is immoral and my friend from Saudi Arabia believes it is moral, then at least one of us, and perhaps both of us, might have a distorted understanding of objective moral truth. For Balfour, then, premise 3 in the argument from social diversity fails: we can indeed explain the relationship between our differing moral standards and objective moral truth.

How might the cultural relativist respond to Balfour’s criticism? The weak link in Balfour’s argument is his test for determining which of our customs are depraved and which reflect true morality. His solution is that true morality “shines forth with the greater luster from amid bad practices.” That is, the contrast between depraved customs and true morality is so pronounced that we all can intuitively see the difference. But Balfour’s solution does not work. Balfour may have genuinely believed that some moral standards “shine forth” as more legitimate than others. But it probably never occurred to Balfour that the strength of his moral convictions might have been shaped by his own eighteenth-century Scottish moral tradition, which was heavily influenced by Calvinistic religious beliefs. For example, in the Scotland of his day, it was immoral to hold or attend theatrical performances. In a different culture, other moral standards might “shine forth” to those people as more legitimate than those that Balfour held to be true. In short, since our internal intuitions themselves may be products of our respective cultures, we cannot safely appeal to these same intuitions to determine which of our practices are depraved and which reflect true morality.

Other objectivist moral philosophers have offered a variety of more stringent litmus tests to help distinguish between true morality and depraved customs; these proposed tests include rationality, natural law, religious scripture, and human nature. Although these appear to be more rigorous than Balfour’s test, they nevertheless all fall prey to the same problem that Balfour’s did. That is, they all may be products of their respective cultures. A chemical test to determine the pH level of swimming pools will work the same around the world. A mathematical test to determine the structural integrity of bridge designs will also work the same around the world. But notions of rationality, natural law, scripture, and human nature are matters of debate and do not represent uniform standards. Ultimately, if we cannot offer a uniform test to distinguish true morality from depraved customs, then we should accept premise 3 in the argument from social diversity.

Rachels’s Criticism: Some Key Standards Do Not Vary

Dr. James Rachels / Creative Commons

Another reaction to the above argument for cultural relativism from social diversity is to challenge premise one that “moral standards of behavior differ from society to society.” Maybe if we look hard enough, we will actually find basic moral standards that are the same in all cultures. Contemporary American philosopher James Rachels (1941-2003) has argued this point. According to him, there are three core moral standards that societies hold in common: (1) caring for children, (2) truth telling, and (3) prohibitions against murder. For Rachels, these are all necessary conditions for the survival of a society since, if a society consistently violated any one of these, it would disintegrate. He writes,

There is a general theoretical point here, namely, that there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist. The rules against lying and murder are two examples. And in fact, we do find these rules in force in all viable cultures. Cultures may differ in what they regard as legitimate exceptions to the rules, but this disagreement exists against a background of agreement on the larger issues. Therefore, it is a mistake to overestimate the amount of difference between cultures. Not every moral rule can vary from society to society. [Elements of Moral Philosophy, 1986]

As to caring for children, all societies need to replenish their supply of educated and productive citizens, otherwise in only a few generations that society would die out. As to truth telling, the successful operation of industries, businesses, schools, and governments rests on the individuals involved trusting each other’s word. I would not buy groceries at my local store if I could not trust that the grocer would let me take home what I paid for. As to prohibitions against murder, if society allowed us to randomly kill other humans for sport or at whim, then everyone would head for the hills and stay as far from society as possible.

The list of common standards does not need to stop with the three that Rachels mentions. Society would fall apart if there were no prohibition against stealing either privately held or publicly held property. Imagine what would happen, for example, if, to expand my garden, I simply annexed my neighbor’s backyard or the street in front of my house. Also, society must punish people for violating core moral standards, otherwise, the standards themselves would be empty words. So, by identifying common social standards as Rachels does, the critic of relativism raises serious questions about the truth of premise 1. What at first seems to be an obvious truth for relativists—that moral standards differ from culture to culture—now seems more like a hasty generalization.

The relativist has two responses to Rachels. First, as to the specific core standards that Rachels cites, yes at first they appear to be common to all modern societies, but not in any uniform way. Take the core prohibition against murder, for example. There are many types of killing that are morally acceptable in some modern cultures, but not in others, such as those involving vigilante justice, honor killings, tribal feuds, political assassinations, suicide missions, extremely hazardous occupations, types of self-defense. To that list we can add ones from past civilizations, such as human sacrifice, religious inquisitions, deadly negligence of slaves, and public executions for trivial reasons. When people intentionally kill each other, they do it for some reason. The key question is whether there is a uniform moral standard that distinguishes justifiable reasons from unjustifiable reasons. There is not.  Societies have nevertheless survived amidst a diversity of inconsistent views about what counts as a justifiable killing. The same goes for the core standards of caring for children and truth telling. There is a diversity of inconsistent rules about what counts as proper care or being truthful with no uniform moral standard that distinguishes the justifiable from the unjustifiable.

Second, there is at least one major area of morality that is indisputably variable from culture to culture, and that is with sexual morality. As described at the outset of this chapter, cultural attitudes vary dramatically—today and in the past—on the issues of premarital sex, homosexuality, public nudity, polygamy, polyamory, adultery, pornography, and prostitution. These are moral issues that we typically feel very strongly about, and in fact may involve the most important moral convictions that we have in our lives.

The bottom line: the view is alive and well that moral standards of behavior differ from society to society, and if there are any truly uniform standards of morality we cannot clearly articulate them. Thus, the argument for cultural relativism appears to withstand the criticisms of it that we have so far looked at.


We turn now to examine moral objectivism, the rival theory to moral relativism. Again, moral objectivism holds that standards are “objective” in that they are not created by human beings or human societies, but instead are grounded in some facts that are external to human society. Further, genuine moral truths are unchanging throughout time or location, and these truths are universal in the sense that they are same for all people.

Over the centuries, philosophers have proposed a variety of theories of moral objectivism, arguing that morality is grounded in the creative will of God, or the laws of nature, or in eternal truths. Some of these theories we will look at in later chapters, but our focus here will be on Plato’s moral objectivism. His was the first detailed philosophical account of the subject and is consequently the grandfather of succeeding theories.

Plato’s Theory of the Moral Forms

Platonic Triad / Creative Commons

Plato’s basic position is that moral standards are grounded in a higher and more perfect realm of moral truth that exists outside of human society and the physical world around us. The heart of his account is his theory of the Forms. According to Plato, the universe consists of two distinct realms. First, there is a visible world of appearances, which contains physical objects such as rocks, chairs, cars, and people. Second, there is an intelligible world of the Forms, which contains universal abstractions such as mathematical principles and the moral principle of justice. “Form”, for Plato, is like a perfect pattern, model, or blueprint.

To better explain, imagine that we could take a tour of the higher spirit-realm, assuming that such a place exists. We might first encounter spirits of the gods, of deceased people, and even of unborn. These are all conscious entities and are typically what people think of as inhabiting that realm. But as we move further along, we will encounter other things which are not conscious spirits. These would include the Forms (or perfect blueprints) of physical things of rocks and chairs and also mathematical Forms such as 2+3=5.

Moving beyond physical and mathematical Forms on our tour, we come across the Forms of moral concepts such as justice, charity, honesty, and beauty. For Plato, these are the pure Forms of moral traits that people have. For example, every person on earth who exhibits the moral attribute of true justice must be modeled after or shaped by the perfect Form of justice. Finally, on our tour, we encounter the grandest Form of all—namely, the Form of the Good. Higher than justice and the other moral Forms, the Good is the source of ultimate moral perfection in the other moral Forms. Plato himself struggles to explain the nature of the Good. He argues that we cannot simply reduce the Good to qualities we commonly value, such as pleasure or wisdom. However, he argues, we all seek the Good and, like the sun, the Good illuminates everything that we know.

Returning to the physical world, we see particular things around us, such as a bridge spanning a river or a man donating to charity. For Plato, these physical things are imperfectly molded from various mathematical and moral Forms. For example, when building a bridge across a river, we rely on calculations about stress points and other mathematical components. In Plato’s terminology, the particular physical things that we see participate (methexis) in different abstract Forms. Thus, the structure of the bridge participates in abstract mathematical Forms. The bridge, though, will never be perfect given the faulty material from which it is made. Similarly, when a person donates to charity, he participates in the moral Form of charity.

Perhaps the strangest part of Plato’s theory is his explanation of how we obtain knowledge of the Forms. He describes this as a recollecting process (anamnesis): In a previous existence in the spirit-realm, we were directly acquainted with all of the Forms, but over the years we’ve suppressed our knowledge of them. To know the Forms, then, we must try to recollect them. His most graphic description of it is this:

Thus the soul, since it is immortal and has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has the knowledge of virtue or anything else which, as we see, it once possessed. All nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, so that when a man has recalled a single piece of knowledge— learned it, in ordinary language—there is no reason why he should not find out all the rest, if he keeps a stout heart and does not grow weary of the search, for seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection. (Meno, 81d)

He states here that the soul “has seen all things both here and in the other world”; it is in the “other world” that we encountered the Forms, and is a world in which our souls were not restrained either by our bodies or by physical things. He writes elsewhere that the body flusters, maddens, and imprisons the soul. The body is diseased, it destroys the value of life, and the true philosopher despises it. Thus, our bodies suppress the knowledge of the Forms that we had prior to birth, and we must struggle to recollect the Forms through the power of our rational minds.

To summarize, these are the key points of Plato’s moral objectivism:

  • Moral standards are eternal, unchanging, and nonphysical Forms.
  • The highest moral value is the Form of the Good, which is ultimate moral perfection.
  • People become moral by participating in the moral Forms.
  • We gain moral knowledge by recollecting the moral Forms from a past-life encounter.

Later Defenders of Objective Moral Forms

The Saint Augustine Taken to School by Saint Monica. by Niccolò di Pietro 1413–15 / Pinacoteca Vatican, Wikimedia Commons

Plato ranks as one of the most important and influential philosophers who ever lived, and his loyal followers have defended his objectivist view of the moral Forms from his own day until the present. An important case in point is the early Christian philosopher Augustine who held that, of all Greek philosophers, Plato came the closest to Christianity. While Augustine agreed with Plato that the Forms exist, he believed that they reside within the mind of God, and not, as Plato held, in some remote part of the cosmos independently of God. Augustine writes,

Where are we to believe that these reasons [by which God created things] exist, if not in the very mind of the Creator? Indeed he saw nothing outside of him that could serve him as a type for what he wanted. To make such a supposition would be sacrilegious. [83 Questions, 46]

Augustine also rejected Plato’s view that we gain knowledge of the Forms by recollecting them from a past-life encounter, for, the concept of soul’s preexistence goes against Christian theology. Rather, Augustine held that humans receive knowledge of the Forms through divine illumination, that is, by God directly revealing eternal truths to our minds in the way that light reveals the physical world to our eyes.

Some Platonists in succeeding centuries held to Plato’s original notion of the moral Forms, but many followed Augustine’s Christian version. Just one example of the latter is British idealist philosopher Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924) who argued that the “moral ideal” can only exist in the mind of God, which God then reveals to us:

A moral ideal can exist nowhere and no how but in a mind; an absolute moral ideal can exist only in a Mind from which all Reality is derived. Our moral ideal can only claim objective validity in so far as it can rationally be regarded as the revelation of a moral ideal eternally existing in the mind of God [The Theory of Good and Evil, 1907,]

Whether it is Plato’s original version or Augustine’s modified one, the theory of the moral Forms stands in opposition to every component of moral relativism. For, the moral Forms are not created by individual people or society, they do not vary from culture to culture, and they constitute objective truths outside of what society establishes.


Just as there have been defenders of Plato since ancient times, there also have been two millennia of criticisms of virtually every aspect of Plato’s theories. We will look at three that target his theory of the moral Forms, one from his own time and two more recent criticisms.

Aristotle’s Criticism: The Forms Do Not Add to Our Knowledge

Aristotle / Wikimedia Commons

Plato’s greatness as a philosopher is rivaled perhaps only by that of his pupil Aristotle (384–322 BCE). The two disagree on many issues, but particularly so concerning Plato’s theory of the Forms. This dispute between teacher and student is vividly depicted in a painting by Renaissance artist Raphael (1483–1520) entitled The School of Athens. In this painting, an elderly Plato and a young Aristotle are walking side by side down a staircase. Plato is pointing up at the sky to express his view that ultimate reality exists above and beyond the physical world. Aristotle, though, is pointing down at the ground to express his view that ultimate reality is embedded right here in the physical and tangible world. For Aristotle, there simply is no higher objective realm of the Forms. Among his various criticisms of Plato, Aristotle charges that the idea of the Forms in no way helps us understand the nature of particular objects around us:

Principally, one might discuss the question what at all the Forms contribute to sensible things, either to those that are eternal or to those that come into being and cease to be. For they cause neither movement nor any change in them. Again they help in no way towards the knowledge of the other things, for they are not even the substance of these otherwise they would have been in them. Nor do they help towards knowledge of their being, if they are not in the particulars which share in them. [Metaphysics, 1.9]

Aristotle argues here that the Forms, as Plato describes them, do not explain anything about the nature or behavior of things in this world. They are not responsible for causing things to move or change, they are not embedded in the substance of objects, and they have no real connection with anything.

In essence, according to Aristotle, the Forms are useless in explaining the nature of things, and they only confuse things by introducing unneeded concepts. Suppose that I want to better understand the notion of charity, and I read in Plato that the true nature of charity rests in the Form of charity. Not only does this fail to advance my understanding of charity, but it also clutters my head with unneeded metaphysical entities. Insofar as we understand a “Form” of charity, we do so by studying specific instances of it. The medieval philosopher William of Ockham (c. 1285–1349) recommended that we avoid multiplying entities beyond what we actually need. According to this principle, known more popularly as “Ockham’s Razor,” we should stick with our most metaphysically simple explanation. Aristotle anticipates Ockham’s recommendation by pointing out that Plato’s account of the Forms merely adds useless metaphysical baggage.

How might we defend Plato against this criticism? Aristotle and Ockham are correct that, as a rule, our theories should contribute to our knowledge and that we should rid our theories of pointless complications. However, this criticism loses sight of an important motivation behind Plato’s theory. The physical world around us is highly imperfect. If we try to understand the concept of charity by surveying this world, we will arrive at an inadequate concept. Most people are not as charitable as they should be. And even when we are charitable, we often act from ulterior motives, such as to enhance our reputation. There may be very few truly representative examples of charity upon which we can draw. Nevertheless, in spite of the inadequacy of our real-life experiences of charity, we have in fact formed a more perfect conception of charity. For Plato, we need standards before we can evaluate specific instances. We need to know what charity ideally is before we can evaluate alleged instances of it. This requires more reflection than observation, and perhaps even requires that we cast our vision away from this imperfect world toward a more perfect one. By proposing the theory of the Forms, Plato offers us a perfect world upon which we can contemplate. So, Plato’s hypothesis of the realm of the Forms is not as pointless as Aristotle charges.

Mackie’s First Criticism: The Concept of the Forms Is Queer

John L. Mackie / Public Domain

An especially articulate contemporary defender of moral relativism is Australian philosopher John L. Mackie (1917–1981), who argued that morality is something that we invent: “Morality is not to be discovered but to be made: we have to decide what moral views to adopt, what moral stands to take.” According to Mackie, a major problem with Plato’s account of moral objectivism is that there is something “queer,” or counterintuitive, about any description that we might give of the realm of the moral Forms:

This [argument from queerness] has two parts, one metaphysical, the other epistemological. If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else. [Ethics, 1977]

For Mackie, the metaphysical problem with Plato’s theory of the Forms concerns its strange, spirit-like realm. Where is this realm? How many dimensions does it have? Mackie argues that the strangeness of this realm alone is a compelling argument against its existence. The epistemological problem with Plato’s theory concerns how we gain knowledge of these spirit-like things. We gain knowledge of the physical world through our five senses. But by what faculty do we gain knowledge of this spirit-like realm? Plato says that it involves a faculty of recollection—similar to our memory faculty—that dredges up knowledge from past-life experiences. However, few of us would claim to have this type of recollective faculty. Even if we say that it is a type of rational faculty, this presumes that it is like a mental eyeball that peers into another realm. But we do not seem to have this kind of mental faculty either. The heart of the problem, for Mackie, is that it is not clear how the peculiar, non-natural realm of the Forms has any connection with natural objects and human actions; the two realms are too distinct.

How might Plato respond to this charge? There is in fact a story about Plato where he addresses this type of criticism. Plato was once teaching his students about the Forms and using words like “tableness” and “cupness” to refer to them. A critic interrupted him and said, “I see a table and a cup, but I see no tableness or cupness.” Plato responded, “That is understandable since you have eyes by which you can contemplate a cup and a table, but you do not have intellect by which you can see tableness and cupness” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives). Plato’s point was that this particular critic stubbornly shut off his mental faculty that would have enabled him to see the Forms. In a sense, queerness is in the eye of the beholder, and if you blind yourself to the perception of something, the very mention of that thing will seem odd to you. People with artistic eyes perceive a beauty in the world that people without such eyes are incapable of grasping. Religious mystics around the world report direct experiences of a higher divine realm that non-mystics cannot understand. Trained scientists see a logic in the world around them in entirely different ways than non-scientists do. In Plato’s case, grasping the reality of the Forms is a matter of using the right faculty of mental perception.

The problem of queerness that Mackie points out does pose a genuine challenge: just because Plato claims that we have eyes to perceive the Forms does not mean that we actually do have such eyes. The burden rests with Plato to convincingly show us what those eyes are and what they perceive. Mackie is not convinced, and maybe most people who consider the issue also will not be. But, there are many people even today who are convinced that there are eternal truths external to human society that can be grasped with the right kind of mental vision. Maybe these people are deluding themselves, and maybe we can justly be suspicious about their claims. But, to the extent that such claims parallel those of artists, mystics or trained scientists, it may be premature to outright dismiss them.

Mackie’s Second Criticism: Tendencies to Objectify Can Be Psychologically Explained

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In a second criticism of Plato, Mackie offers a psychological explanation for why people erroneously believe that there are objective standards of any kind. According to Mackie, people naturally tend to objectify standards that are actually subjective in origin. For example, if I smell a rotten orange and it disgusts me, then I automatically think that the rotten orange itself is disgusting in nature. Clearly, though, the element of disgust is a subjective quality pertaining to my reaction; it is not really a feature of the orange itself. I erroneously project the quality of disgust onto the orange. One reason that we make this mistake is because something is, in fact, external—namely, the orange itself. We then mistakenly think that everything pertaining to the orange is also external.

Mackie suggests that the same psychological projection takes place with moral standards. Society places external constraints on me to behave morally, such as society’s demand that I not run around naked. This societal demand itself is external to me; that is, I did not invent it myself. Since this societal demand is external, I then erroneously think that everything about the demand is external, including the moral standard in question, such as that it is wrong to run around naked in public. For Mackie the question comes to this: is it more reasonable to adopt Plato’s theory of external moral Forms, or, instead, this psychological projection theory. Mackie believes that the psychological projection theory wins out.

Mackie’s argument strategy here is appropriate. That is, it is relevant to consider a psychological explanation for why we might hold to any erroneous view. For example, suppose that my neighbor wrongly believes that a hideous monster is stalking him. One way of exposing his error is to hire a surveillance team to continually watch him; presumably, they would not detect a monster. However, another way to expose his error is to offer a cogent explanation of why he is having these delusions. I might, for example, show that there is a history of schizophrenia in his family and that he is another unlucky victim. My neighbor himself may not be convinced by this; instead, he may think that I am plotting with the monster against him. However, to an impartial observer, this would be compelling evidence that my neighbor was in error about the monster. Similarly, a follower of Plato might not be persuaded by Mackie’s theory of psychological projection. But, to the extent that we can consider the issue impartially, Mackie’s theory of psychological projection is reasonable enough to make us think long and hard about why we might hold to a conception of objective moral Forms.

Plato’s best response to Mackie would be to have us focus on the external character of mathematics. We could develop a psychological projection theory of this too. Society demands that we learn mathematics and use it in every day applications—from engineering to accounting. This societal demand is external to me, and I then think everything about this demand is external, including the nature of mathematics itself. But here the psychological projection theory seems wrong. I have good reason to believe that there really is something external about the nature of mathematics. People often refer to mathematics as the universal language since, regardless of where we are from, we rely on and understand the same basic mathematical notions. Not only do mathematical concepts cut across human cultures, but fans of science fiction believe that mathematics is the universal language of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. In fact, a research organization called the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempts to eavesdrop on mathematically-based messages broadcast from outer space.

Thus, Mackie’s psychological projection theory does not offer a compelling alternative to Plato’s theory of mathematical Forms. That is, in the absence of a better third alternative, it is more reasonable to adopt Plato’s theory than the projection theory. But that is with mathematical Forms; what about moral Forms? It all comes down to whether morality is universal in a manner similar to mathematics, and that brings us back to the earlier question of whether there are core standards to all societies. We’ve seen that societies hold a diversity of inconsistent views of killing, proper care of children, and being truthful. However, if amidst that diversity we can locate any common moral theme, no matter how general—such as “avoid harming others when possible”—then Plato’s theory might be more compelling than Mackie’s psychological projection theory.


So, where does this leave us regarding the contest between moral relativism and moral objectivism? The evidence seems to be weighted more in favor of moral relativism for the simple reason that moral diversity is what we see, and unchanging moral Forms is what we do not see. Still, we cannot declare moral relativism the clear victor. In a sense, we are trapped between the two views: experience of the world around us suggests that moral standards are created by human societies, yet we hope that there are some uniform moral standards that are fixed outside of ever-changing societies. Is there a way of bringing these two sides together? It would require concessions from both sides, and we will briefly consider some possible ones.

Possible Concessions from Relativists

Conchita Wurst, Drag Queen / Photo by Albin Olisson, Creative Commons

One possible concession for relativists would be to acknowledge that, although many standards do vary from culture to culture, a large number might not be truly moral in nature and would be better classified as rules of etiquette. That is, they involve personal lifestyle choices that, in spite of their strangeness, do not warrant moral condemnation by anyone. Many of the culturally relative practices noted by Sextus Empiricus seem to fall into the etiquette category, including men wearing dresses:

No man here would dress himself in a flowered robe reaching to the feet, although this dress, which with us is thought shameful, is held to be highly respectable by the Persians. And when, at the court of Dionysis the tyrant of Sicily, a dress of this description was offered to the philosophers Plato and Aristippus, Plato sent it away with the words “I am a man and I could never put on a woman’s outfit.”.. . [Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 3.24]

The same goes for social customs that Montaigne and Sumner discuss, such as death rites, body art, dietary practices, religious rituals, gender roles, political institutions, and property ownership. While in each of these cases there are clear protocols that societies expect, society might not morally condemn people to stray from them.  Once we sift through all of the clashing standards worldwide and remove those that are mere etiquette, there may be only a minimal number of genuine moral standards that conflict with each other. This, then, might bring the relativists and objectivists a little closer together.

The problem with this concession, though, is that it misses a critical point about cultural relativism: just because our culture thinks that it is a mere question of etiquette if a man wears women’s clothes, we cannot presume that it is mere etiquette in other cultures as well. For all we know, it was a grave moral offence in Plato’s culture for him to wear a dress, and not just a question of decorum. So too with burial practices and other social conventions. Thus, the best thing to do would be to assume that shocking social customs from a foreign society are moral standards for that societies, at least until we have evidence that the foreign society itself deems it as a mere standard of etiquette.

Here’s a second possible concession that the relativists might make, which was suggested by Aquinas who was on the objectivist side of this debate. Maybe there are very general moral standards that are held world-wide, while the specific application of those principles might vary from culture to culture. Aquinas’s example is the general principle that “bad people should be punished,” where it is left to individual societies to determine how punishment should be carried out. As Aquinas states, “the general principles of the natural law cannot be applied to all men in the same way on account of the great variety of human affairs. Hence arises the diversity of positive laws among various people” (Summa Theologica, 1a2ae.95.2). So, by conceding the objectivist’s point that general moral principles are the same in all cultures, the relativist could still retain the position that the specific application of those principles is the prerogative of individual cultures, which may vary.

This seems like a reasonable concession, but the devil is in the details about what counts as a general principle. Take, for example, the principle “don’t kill”, which Aquinas himself considers to be one such general principle. There are built in assumptions here, such as whether we are talking about killing humans as opposed to animals, which is a relevant concern for animal rights activists. There are also built-in exceptions, such as cases of war and self-defense, which is a relevant concern for pacifists. There are also the exceptions that we looked at earlier, such as cases of vigilante justice, honor killings, tribal feuds, and others. Cooperation between relativists and objectivists on these details would be challenging, and the proposal might not ever get out of the negotiating committee.

Possible Concessions of Objectivists

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Consider next two concessions that objectivists might make to help bridge the gap with relativism. First, maybe objectivists can set aside notions of moral Forms or eternal moral truths, and instead accept that the idea that societies are capable of creating major moral principles in a consistent and uniform way. In this manner, the idea of uniform moral standards will make objectivists happy, while the idea of creation-by-society will make relativists happy. This would be a comparatively easy compromise for the relativist. The concept of cultural variation is important to relativism, but what is more important to them is the idea that societies create moral values. Even if all cultures throughout time consistently endorsed the moral standard that murder is wrong, relativists could still argue that this standard is grounded in social traditions, not in objective Forms. There may be common factors that prompt all societies to create and endorse similar standards, such as a prohibition against murder. But this does not make these standards any less social creations; moral standards would still be grounded in social approval.

But this compromise would be much harder for objectivists to make. The idea of downplaying cultural variation is indeed appealing to objectivists, but what is more important to them is locating a source of morality outside of society. Societies are all unstable, and morality is too important to rest on such shaky foundations. Even if today’s societies have more or less developed a uniform set of moral standards, they might not all be the right standards. Some standards may be too lax, such as with sexual permissiveness, and others may be missing altogether, such as with religious virtues.

A second possible compromise for objectivists is this. Maybe objectivists can move away from moral Forms or eternal moral truths, and instead accept that key standards of morality may be grounded in human biology. Moral relativists do not necessarily hold that moral standards are completely arbitrary creations of society. Some aspects of human nature might influence the kinds of customs that we approve of. Humans and animals alike are biologically programmed to find some things pleasing and other things painful. There are other possible factors embedded in human nature that might influence how we develop moral standards, such as are our natural inclinations of self-preservation, fear of death, living in peace, or improving our well-being as active social creatures. If there are any common core moral values, it is because humans share the same biological drives. This gives a foundation to morality that is outside mere human culture, and is an external force that shapes how societies develop their moral standards in a more or less uniform way.

The idea of grounding morality in biology is not new, and objectivists like Aquinas took this approach. The problem for objectivists, though, is that standards grounded in mere biology would not be eternal and unchanging. They are the product of blind evolution and, in time, our social impulses may evolve in another direction. Biology is certainly more stable than social custom, but it is not as stable as moral Forms or eternal moral truths. For that reason, objectivists would insist that the social instincts of biology need to be grounded in a non-physical and unchanging realm, such as Plato’s Forms or God’s will. That is, there is first an eternal moral standard, then that standard is embedded by God or nature in human instinct, then humans articulate that standard in a moral code.

All in all, it is unlikely that relativists and objectivists will compromise on the key points of their theories, and if there is any compromise it may only be that of acquiring an attitude of tolerance for the other side. Relativists will need to respect the hope held by objectivists that morality has a secure foundation that is not subject to change. Objectivists in turn will need to respect the relativist’s conviction that our experience confirms the variety of moral standards that society creates.


Protagoras articulated the view that “man is the measure of all things,” which is best interpreted as a statement of individual relativism—namely, that whatever a person may judge to be true is true for that person. Philosophers of the skeptical tradition, beginning with Pyrrho, developed the notion of cultural relativism and defended it by noting the broad diversity of moral standards. As such, they denied an objective foundation of morality. The principal argument for cultural relativism is based on cultural variation. That is, cultural relativism is a better explanation of differing moral standards than is moral objectivism. Against moral relativism, Plato argued that relativism is self-refuting. Balfour criticized moral relativism on the grounds that many accepted social practices are corrupt while true objective morality is intuitively clear. Rachels criticized moral relativism with the argument that some key moral standards are cross-cultural.

Plato’s theory of moral objectivism is that moral truth is located in the spirit realm of the Forms. We gain moral knowledge through past-life recollection of the moral Forms, especially the Form of the Good. Aristotle criticized Plato for offering a theory that was unnecessarily complex. Mackie criticized Plato’s theory as “queer” with regard to the nature of the Forms and how we gain knowledge of the Forms. Mackie also offered a psychological projection theory that explains why philosophers such as Plato wrongly believe that moral standards are objective. We concluded by looking at possible compromises between moral relativism and moral objectivism. On the relativist’s side, maybe the relativist will concede that much of the variation within societies is with standards of etiquette, not standards of morality. Secondly, maybe relativists will concede that general moral principles are uniform while only their particular applications vary from culture to culture. On the objectivist’s side, maybe the objectivist will concede to the idea that societies are capable of creating key moral principles in a consistent and uniform manner. Secondly, maybe objectivists will concede that major standards of morality may be grounded in human biology.


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The folkways are a Societal Force

The operation by which folkways [i.e., social traditions] are produced consists in the frequent repetition of petty acts, often by great numbers acting in concert or, at least, acting in the same way when face to face with the same need. The immediate motive is interest. It produces habit in the individual and custom in the group. It is, therefore, in the highest degree original and primitive. By habit and custom it exerts a strain on every individual within its range; therefore it rises to a societal force to which great classes of societal phenomena are due. …

The Folkways are “Right”

The folk­ways are the” right” ways to satisfy all interests, because they are traditional, and exist in fact. They extend over the whole of life. There is a right way to catch game, to win a wife, to make oneself appear, to cure disease, to honor ghosts, to treat com­rades or strangers, to behave when a child is born, on the war­path, in council, and so on in all cases which can arise. The ways are defined on the negative side, that is, by taboos. The “right” way is the way which the ancestors used and which has been handed down. The tradition is its own warrant. It is not held subject to verification by experience. The notion of right is in the folkways. It is not outside of them, of independent origin, and brought to them to test them. In the folkways, whatever is, is right. This is because they are traditional, and therefore con­tain in themselves the authority of the ancestral ghosts. When we come to the folkways we are at the end of our analysis. The notion of right and ought is the same in regard to all the folk­ways, but the degree of it varies with the importance of the interest at stake. The obligation of conformable and cooperative action is far greater under ghost fear and war than in other mat­ters, and the social sanctions are severer, because group interests are supposed to be at stake. Some usages contain only a slight element of right and ought. It may well be believed that notions of right and duty, and of social welfare, were first developed in con­nection with ghost fear and other-worldliness, and therefore that, in that field also, folkways were first raised to mores. “Right” are the rules of mutual give and take in the competition of life which are imposed on comrades in the in-group, in order that the peace may prevail there which is essential to the group strength. Therefore rights can never be “natural” or “God-given,” or absolute in any sense. The morality of a group at a time is the sum of the taboos and prescriptions in the folkways by which right conduct is defined. Therefore morals can never be intuitive. They are historical, institutional, and empirical.

World philosophy, life policy, right, rights, and morality are all products of the folkways. They are reflections on, and general­izations from, the experience of pleasure aid pain which is won in efforts to carry on the struggle for existence under actual life conditions. The generalizations are very crude and vague in their germinal forms. They are all embodied in folklore, and all our philosophy and science have been developed out of them.

Definition of the Mores

When the elements of truth and right are developed into doctrines of welfare, the folkways are raised to another plane. They then become capable of producing inferences, developing into new forms, and extending their constructive influence over men and society. Then we call them the mores [i.e., values]. The mores are the folkways, including the philosoph­ical and ethical generalizations as to societal welfare which are suggested by them, and inherent in them, as they grow.

What is Goodness or Badness of the Mores

It is most important to notice that, for the people of a time and place, their own mores are always good, or rather that for them there can be no question of the goodness or badness of their mores. The reason is because the standards of good and right are in the mores. If the life conditions change, the traditional folkways may produce pain and loss, or fail to produce the same good as formerly. Then the loss of comfort and ease brings doubt into the judgment of welfare (causing doubt of the pleasure of the gods, or of war power, or of health), and thus disturbs the unconscious philosophy of the mores. Then a later time will pass judgment on the mores. Another society may also pass judgment on the mores. In our literary and historical study of the mores we want to get from them their educational value, which consists in the stimulus or warning as to what is, in its effects, societally good or bad. This may lead us to reject or neglect a phenomenon like infanticide, slavery, or witchcraft, as an old “abuse” and” evil,” or to pass by the crusades as a folly which cannot recur. Such a course would be a great error. Everything in the mores of a time and place must be regarded as justified with regard to that time and place. “Good” mores are those which are well adapted to the situation. “Bad” mores are those which are not so adapted.

The Relation of the Social Codes to Philosophy and Religion

Amongst the widest differences of opinion would be that on the question whether the social codes issue out of and are enthused by philosophy or religion. We are told [by Schultze-Gavernitz] that “for most men, actions stand in no necessary connection with any theoretical convictions of theirs, but are, on the contrary, independent of the same, and are dominated by inherited and acquired motives.” Why is this not true? Also, [we are told by Schallmeyer that] “the antagonism between the principles of our religion and our actual behavior, even of the faithful, as well as the great difference in the ethical views of different peoples who profess the same religion, sufficiently proves that the motives of our acts, and our judgments on the acts of others, proceed primarily from practical life [i.e. from the cur­rent mores], and that what we believe has comparatively little influence on our acts and judgments.” Religion and philosophy are components of the mores, but not by any means sources or regulators of them.

Source: William Graham Sumner, Folkways, Boston: Ginn, 1906.


Hastings Rashdall, Wikimedia Commons

Objective Morality Exists Outside the Human Mind and the Material Realm

We say that the Moral Law has a real existence, that there is such a thing as an absolute Morality, that there is something absolutely true or false in ethical judgements, whether we or any number of human beings at any given time actually think so or not. Such a belief is distinctly implied in what we mean by Morality. The idea of such an unconditional, objectively valid, Moral Law or ideal undoubtedly exists as a psychological fact. The question before us is whether it is capable of theoretical justification. We must then face the question wheresuch an ideal exists, and what manner of existence we are to attribute to it. Certainly it is to be found, wholly and completely, in no individual human consciousness. Men actually think differently about moral questions, and there is no empirical reason for supposing that they will ever do otherwise. Where then and how does the moral ideal really exist? As regards matters of fact or physical law, we have no difficulty in satisfying ourselves that there is an objective reality which is what it is irrespectively of our beliefs or disbeliefs about it. For the man who supposes that objective reality resides in the things themselves, our ideas about them are objectively true or false so far as they correspond or fail to correspond with this real and independent archetype, though he might be puzzled to give a metaphysical account of the nature of this “correspondence” between experience and a Reality whose esse [i.e. being] is something other than to be experienced. In the physical region the existence of divergent ideas does not throw doubt upon the existence of a reality independent of our ideas. But in the case of moral ideals it is otherwise. On materialistic or naturalistic assumptions the moral ideal can hardly be regarded as a real thing. Nor could it well be regarded as a property of any real thing: it can be no more than an aspiration, a product of the imagination, which may be useful to stimulate effort in directions in which we happen to want to move, but which cannot compel respect when we feel no desire to act in conformity with it.

Objective Morality Exists in the Mind of God

An absolute Moral Law or moral ideal cannot exist in material things. And it does not (we have seen) exist in the mind of this or that individual. Only if we believe in the existence of a Mind for which the true moral ideal is already in some sense real, a Mind which is the source of whatever is true in our own moral judgements, can we rationally think of the moral ideal as no less real than the world itself. Only so can we believe in an absolute standard of right and wrong, which is as independent of this or that man’s actual ideas and actual desires as the facts of material nature. The belief in God, though not (like the belief in a real and an active self) a postulate of there being any such thing as Morality at all, is the logical presupposition of an “objective” or absolute Morality. A moral ideal can exist nowhere and no how but in a mind; an absolute moral ideal can exist only in a Mind from which all Reality is derived. Our moral ideal can only claim objective validity in so far as it can rationally be regarded as the revelation of a moral ideal eternally existing in the mind of God.

We may be able, perhaps, to give some meaning to Morality without the postulate of God, but not its true or full meaning. If the existence of God is not a postulate of all Morality, it is a postulate of a sound Morality; for it is essential to that belief which vaguely and implicitly underlies all moral beliefs, and which forms the very heart of Morality in its highest, more developed, more explicit forms. The truth that the moral ideal is what it is whether we like it or not is the most essential element in what the popular consciousness understands by “moral obligation”. Moral obligation means moral objectivity. That at least seems to be implied in any legitimate use of the term: at least it implies the existence of an absolute, objective moral ideal. And such a belief we have seen imperatively to demand an explanation of the Universe which shall be idealistic or at least spiritualistic, which shall recognize the existence of a Mind whose thoughts are the standard of truth and falsehood alike in Morality and in respect of all other existence. In other words, objective Morality implies the belief in God. The belief in God, if not so obviously and primarily a postulate of Morality as the belief in a permanent spiritual and active self, is still a postulate of a Morality which shall be able fully to satisfy the demands of the moral consciousness. It may conveniently be called the secondary postulate of Morality.

Source: Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil, 1907,

Originally published by Dr. James Fieser from Great Issues in Philosophy, University of Tennessee at Martin.



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