Moral Relativism: Limitations and Failings

I was once sitting in a graduate level seminar when the topic of morality and ethics came up.  One of the doctoral students stated that they believed that societies and cultures struggle through various issue of morality and through that cultural conversation and debate emerges the ethical norms for the community: thus morality is relative to culture.  I remember leaning in and asking, “So, you must think Martin Luther King, Jr. was a wicked individual that deserved what he got?”  Obviously, he expressed surprise and disgust.  “But King went against the culture and societal standard for morality.  He was wrong, because society determined that segregation was ethical, if it is the case that culture determines what is right and wrong.”

It is clear from this example that there is something wrong with moral relativism.  While the majority of philosophers in a recent poll have affirmed moral realism (it seems that the poll results are not available online, but many have referenced: here and here), broader mass culture and society is still steeped in moral relativism.  Dr. Al Mohler recently wrote an article stating that “Moral relativism and the rejection of absolute truth now shape the modern post-Christian mind. Indeed, relativism is virtually taken for granted, at least as an excuse for overthrowing theistic truth claims and any restrictive morality.” Moral realism (the dominant position of philosophers) is the position that there are moral facts that are objective independent of what people might think of them.

Moral relativism is an untenable position that is usually affirmed by sophomores in college, but most reflective individuals can understand that moral relativism is not supportable.

Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason list seven things you can’t do as a moral relativist:

  1. Relativists Can’t Accuse Others of Wrong-Doing
  2. Relativists Can’t Complain About the Problem of Evil
  3. Relativists Can’t Place Blame or Accept Praise
  4. Relativists Can’t Claim Anything Is Unfair or Unjust
  5. Relativists Can’t Improve Their Morality
  6. Relativists Can’t Hold Meaningful Moral Discussions
  7. Relativists Can’t Promote the Obligation of Tolerance

The website states that Stephen Meyer adds a bonus with:

  • Relativists can’t complain about the problem of evil

My brother, Sloan Lee (Ph.D. Wayne State University) lists several internal difficulties with moral relativism:

[Moral] relativism faces many internal conceptual difficulties which lead us to think that this position is mistaken or confused.

Objection A: If ethical relativism is true, then it follows that we can no longer legitimately criticize other groups or cultures. Moreover, it follows that we can no longer criticize our own group’s ethical standards. As a result, the notion of moral reform and moral progress become incoherent. Rather than moral reform or progress, the only result that can be achieved is successive moral change or replacement. However, the ideas of moral reform and progress seem to be perfectly coherent and legitimate. Thus, the results of ethical relativism seem intuitively incorrect. Most think that a society that practices slavery is morally inferior to a society that doesn’t practice slavery. Yet, if ethical relativism is true, then people are wrong to think this. The idea of moral progress only makes sense in relation to some objective moral standard. If there is no universal moral standard then it is not possible to measure (or evaluate) the moral development of any culture. The concept of moral progress only makes sense in relation to a moral standard that can be used to evaluate the progress. Without an objective moral standard, all one can achieve is moral change – not moral progress. This give us reason to reject ethical relativism.

Objection B: If the idea of moral reform is incoherent, then the idea of a moral reformer is incoherent. If cultural relativism is true (which is a version of ethical relativism), then Gandhi and Martin Luther King are not moral reformers. They could not be moral reformers. Cultural relativism considers all of the great moral reformers to be wicked people. In order to be a moral reformer (like MLK) one must go against the prevailing moral currents of the day. On cultural relativism, these are wicked and evil people who are flaunting the moral standards of their respective cultures. Yet, any position that could lead to such an absurd conclusion could not be very plausible. Thus, we have excellent reason to reject ethical relativism.

Objection C: If ethical relativism is true, then genuine moral disagreements seem to be impossible, because different groups (or individuals) all possess correct moral standards. It would make no more sense to criticize a group for possessing their moral standard than to criticize someone for having a favorite color or favorite flavor of ice cream. There would be no moral fact of the matter. However, this runs against our intuitions. It certainly seems that people in different cultures have real disagreements on many issues. If not, then ethical relativists owe us an explanation. Why are they not disagreeing when it seems so clear that they are disagreeing!? Until the relativist can give us an explanation, we have good reason to disbelieve ethical relativism. When the German officers said that it was morally right to exterminate the Jewish population, most people do not think that the officers are just expressing a personal preference (for example, “I like to take long naps.”). Rather, people think that they are saying something false. They disagree with the German officers. However, if ethical relativism is true, then it makes no sense to say that their assertions are false, because there is no real disagreement. This counts as another reason to think that ethical relativism is false.

Objection D: Cultural relativism makes praising another culture impossible. If there is no objective ground upon which to judge the moral judgments of another culture, then there are no grounds for praising the moral judgments of another culture. If we can praise another culture’s morality, then we should think that ethical relativism is wrong.

Objection E: Cultural relativism makes cultures morally infallible. Yet, this clearly runs counter to our moral intuitions. We don’t want to say that the practice of genocide is an infallible moral decision on the part of any culture. If ethical relativism entails this (and it does), then we have excellent reason for rejecting ethical relativism.

Objection F: Cultural relativism gives us no adequate concept of a culture — at least not adequate enough to resolve the moral difficulties it raises. Suppose you were a Black Jewish Communist living in Bavaria during Hitler’s reign. What would be your true culture? The Jews? The Communists? The Nazis? Who? We all belong to many different cultures and it is often the case that there seems to be no way of establishing which culture is primary. So, if we cannot identify our true culture, we can’t use cultural relativism (as a form of ethical relativism) to answer our questions about moral theory.

I hope the student is beginning to see that moral relativism has next to nothing to be said for it. Thus, the surest way to progress in one’s thinking about issues of ethics is to give up the illusions of ethical relativism – to come out of the cave of appearances and to begin looking for the truth.

Books, Articles, and Videos:

Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Midair by Grek Koukl and Francis Beckwith (Baker Books, 1998)

A Refutation of Moral Relativism by Peter Kreeft (Ignatius, 1999)

Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide by C. Ben Mitchell (Crossway, 2013)

“Rejecting Moral Relativism: There is Such a Thing as Moral Truth” by Michael W. Austin in Psychology Today (Jan 23, 2012)

“Philosophical Problems with Moral Relativism” by Francis Beckwith, Christian Research Journal

Roger Scruton, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and visiting professor in the philosophy department at Oxford University, provides a talk on the problems of moral relativism at the Common Sense Society at Café Gerbeaud in Budapest, Hungary:


William Lane Craig on the livability of moral relativism:




By J. Steve Lee

J. Steve Lee has taught Apologetics for over a decade at Prestonwood Christian Academy. He also has taught World Religions and Philosophy at Mountain View College in Dallas. With a degree in history and education from the UNT, Steve continued his formal studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary w/ an M.A. in philosophy of religion and has pursued doctoral studies at the UT-Dallas. He is finishing his dissertation at South African Theological Seminary. He has published several articles for the Apologetics Study Bible for Students (B&H Publishing, 2010) as well as articles & reviews in various periodicals including Philosophia Christi, Hope’s Reason: A Journal of Apologetics, and the Areopagus Journal.

%d bloggers like this: