December 4, 2023

Moral relativism: is it a good relativism?

You will not be surprised to learn that this argument is open to attack at various points. That there are significant and irreconcilable moral differences is certainly questionable. Often this can simply be due to differences in the evaluation of facts, while the actual moral evaluations that flow into judgments do not differ at all. This can be demonstrated using the example of gratuities: Probably everyone in Italy and the USA would agree that it would be unethical to refuse gratuities to service employees who cannot live on their salaries alone. Only shared beliefs about how well or poorly service workers live on their salaries differ between the two companies – and that may be true.

One radical, but undeniable, objection to relativism, which was presented to me at the beginning of my study, is that there are strong intuitions about which actions must be wrong in any given context. The example given by my teacher at the time was that it was simply impossible to imagine that in any society cooking for children would be morally good. If relativism can only apply, so to speak, to issues of the “second level” of pressing moral questions, then perhaps it is not very relativistic.

I am not an ethicist, and certainly not an expert on relativism. I am simply highlighting a discussion so wide-ranging that extensive encyclopedic articles on the subject run to dozens of pages. To the best of my limited knowledge, I strongly reject moral relativism, both today and 20 years ago. However, the question of whether moral judgments about actions necessarily depend on a particular cultural context deserves extensive consideration – if only to gain a clearer understanding of what moral judgment, action, and cultural context actually are.

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