Summary of Moral Relativism

Ethics is that part of philosophy which deals with the good and bad, or right and wrong in human conduct. It asks questions like: What is morality? Is morality objective or subjective? What is the relationship between self-interest and morality? Why should I be moral?

We can divide philosophical ethics into four parts. Meta-ethics analyzes moral concepts, moral justification, and the meaning of moral language. Descriptive ethics describes the moral systems of various cultures. Normative ethics considers moral norms, standards or criteria that underlie moral theories. Applied ethics applies normative theories to moral problems in law, medicine, business, computer science, the environment and more. Over the next few weeks we will discuss normative ethics, or moral theories. We’ll begin with relativism.


1A    What is Relativism?

Is LA close to New York City? Well it’s relative. LA is closer to NYC than it is to Mars, but it’s not closer to NYC than it is to San Diego. Is rock-n-roll good music? Well it depends. Most teenagers love it; many senior citizens do not. You may like rock, but your granddad likes Bach. In both cases, the answers depend upon what close or good is being measured against. Compared to Mars, LA and NYC are almost on top of each other; compared to San Diego, LA and NYC are a continent apart. Relative to my teenager’s musical tastes, rock is better than Bach, As for me; I’d choose Bach over rock anytime. Now, what about the logical law of non-contradiction, the distributive law in arithmetic, the parallel postulate in geometry, or Newton’s laws of gravity? Are these relative to, conditioned by, dependent upon, or measured against, something else? Or are they just true?

This kind of relativism is called epistemological relativism. The basic idea is that there are no universal truths about the world, just different ways of interpreting it. The theory dates back at least to the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, who said: “man is the measure of all things.” But this basic idea is also captured by more contemporary ideas:

  • What you believe is true (for you); what I believe is true (for me).
  • Truth is subjective.
  • Truth is in the eye of the beholder.
  • Different strokes for different folks.
  • You have your beliefs; I have mine, and that’s the end of it.

To be a relativist means that a belief, idea, proposition, claim, etc. is never true or false, good or bad, or right or wrong, absolutely. According to the relativist, there is no absolute or objective truth; truth is relative and subjective. For example, a relativist can’t consistently claim that 2 + 2 = 4 because the answer 4 is neither right nor wrong. It’s just depends. Your math teacher likes 4, but you like 6; so for you, the answer is 6. And you can’t consistently claim that gravity pulls objects downward, that airplanes fly because of aeronautical engineering principles, or that the earth is round, since none of these are absolute truths—at least according to the relativist.

Consider some implications of relativism. If you are an art expert who loves Rembrandt while your eight year-old sister thinks her doodling is the best art, as a relativist you cannot consistently maintain that your opinion about art is better than your sister’s. And if you eat healthy, exercise, maintain an ideal weight, and engage in stress reduction activities; you cannot consistently argue that your lifestyle is healthier than your roommate who eats poorly, lives a sedentary lifestyle, is overweight, and smokes to relieve stress. After all, its’ all relative. Or suppose your brother has a Ph.D. in physics from Oxford and has recently found compelling evidence for superstring theory. As a relativist you have no justification to say that your brother knows more about physical reality than your mother, who believes that she lives in a universe comprised of tiny, invisible gremlins whose gyrations are responsible for the expansion of the universe. After all, physicists have their view of reality and your Mom has hers, and that’s the end of it.

1B    Critique of Relativism

Do you really believe that the palm reader knows as much about the physical universe or the future as a physicist? (If you do, it’s costing you money!) Or that farmers know as much about medicine as physicians? Or that auto mechanics know as much about the brain as neurophysiologists? Or that the principles of aeronautical engineering can fly planes, but holding hands and chanting “up, up, and away” works just as well? If you’re a relativist you have to believe all these things, because nothing is true or false. But is everything just relative? You might say this, but do you really believe it?  Would you rather drive over a bridge built by the army corps of engineers, or one made of duct tape built by psychics? Do you believe that the one bridge is as good as the other? Would you consult the next person you meet to determine if you need heart disease, or would you ask a cardiologist instead? And don’t you ask experts because you assume there really are truths about the universe?

In addition to the outrageous implications of relativism, there are other reasons why relativism is problematic. Consider the statement “I know you don’t think I’m a poached egg, but I think I’m one, so it is true for me. Now what does this mean? All it means is thatyou believe something such as: you’re a poached egg, or that the moon is made of cheese, or Elvis is alive and well in Mozambique. To say that something is true—for you—doesn’t add truth to a statement; it merely reports that you believe something. But here’s the rub. Believing something doesn’t make it true! You aren’t a poached egg; the moon isn’t made of cheese, and Elvis isn’t alive and well in Mozambique. To respond with, those statements are true for me is just silly because you’re human, the moon is a rock, and Elvis is dead. And those things are true for me, and for you! The truth is independent of your beliefs.

Moreover relativism is logically incoherent. Consider the statement: all truth is relative. If this statement is objectively true, then relativism is false because there is at least one objective truth—namely, the truth that truth is relative. Thus, it is logically incoherent to say, all truth is relative is objectively true. But if the statement is only subjectively true, then, as we have already seen, this just means that you believe in relativism. Thus, by claiming that truth is relative you either contradict yourself or make a trivial claim with nothing to recommend your belief. (The other possibilities? Relativism is objectively false, in which case you obviously shouldn’t be a relativist; or relativism is subjectively false, in which case you don’t believe in it.)

In response a relativist could claim that the proposition that the truth is relative is the one objectively true proposition, while all other propositions are relative. So the only true proposition is: all truth is relative except the claim that truth is relative. Apart from wondering why such a puzzling proposition is true, we also wonder if this modified proposition objectively or subjectively true? If objectively true, then you have again contradicted yourself, inasmuch as you have to admit that this new proposition is absolute; if subjectively true, then again you have merely made the trivial claim that you believe in relativism. And of course if this new proposition is objectively or subjectively false, you haven’t helped your case at all.

In reply, you could construct a new proposition: all truth is relative except the claim that “all truth is relative except the claim that all truth is relative.” (Hang on if you feel you need a beer!) This is known as an infinite regress argument; you continue to construct a new claim to infinity. But whatever proposition you advance, we can always show that what you’re claiming is either a contradiction or just states your belief in relativism. Now you don’t want to be contradicting yourself because that’s just silly. And you don’t want to say that you believe in relativism, because you just believe in it without any reason. Thus relativism is either self-refuting or trivial. 

1C    Relativism, the Unknown, and Belief

Relativism also seduces because you might confuse your inability to know the truth with there being no truth. I don’t know if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, but intelligent life either does or doesn’t exist elsewhere—my inability to determine the truth is irrelevant to the actual truth about the matter. You may not know whether God exists or not, or if the author of this text is married with children, but God either exists or does not, and I either do or don’t have a wife and children. The fact that you don’t know what 2 + 2 equals, doesn’t mean there is no solution to the problem; it means your bad at arithmetic. Therefore, your inability to distinguish between truth and falsity is not evidence for the truth of relativism.

This leads to a related idea. Don’t confuse the fervency of your belief with a belief being true. You may be convinced the universe is teeming with intelligent life, that God exists, or that the author of this text has six wives, but this doesn’t mean these beliefs are true. Remember that you often believe things that are mistaken. You may believe that continental drift is impossible, that biological evolution didn’t happen, or that relativity theory is bogus. But your belief has nothing to with the truth or falsity of these ideas. Therefore, the strength of your belief in something—say that all truth is relative—is not evidence for the truth of relativism.

1D    Summary and Transition

Ok, let’s see where we’ve been so far. The claim that all truth is relative is either incoherent or trivial. Moreover, relativism is neither supported by our inability to know what’s true, nor by the fervency of our belief in relativism. But does this mean that nothing is relative? No. The answers to all the following questions are relative. Is LA close to NYC? Does chocolate taste better than vanilla? Who’s the world’s greatest athlete? Am I a great philosopher? It’s not the claim that some things are relative that has been positively refuted; rather, it is the claim that all things are relative that is incoherent or illogical. And if all things aren’t relative and subjective, then some things must be absolute and objective.

Now you might agree that this assault on relativism has been successful, but still claim that while some truths are objective—logical, mathematical, and natural scientific ones for example—other so-called truths are relative—ethical truths for instance. Such considerations lead us to moral relativism, the theory that there are no absolute, objective, and universally binding moral truths. According to the moral relativist, there exist conflicting moral claims that are both true. (X is right, and x is wrong.) In short, the ethical relativist denies that there is any objective truth about right and wrong. Ethical judgments are not true or false because there is no objective moral truth—x is right—for a moral judgment to correspond with. In brief, morality is relative, subjective, and non-universally binding, and disagreements about ethics are like disagreements about what flavor of ice cream is best.

And what specifically might morality be relative to? Usually morality is thought to be relative to a group’s or individual’s: beliefs, emotions, opinions, wants, desires, interests, preferences, feelings, etc. Thus, we distinguish between two kinds of moral relativism: cultural moral relativism and personal moral relativism.


2A    What is Cultural Moral Relativism? 

Cultural moral relativism is the theory that moral judgments or truths are relative to cultures. Consequently, what is right in one society may be wrong in another and vice versa. (For culture, you may substitute: nation; society; group, sub-culture, etc.) This is another theory with ancient roots. Herodotus, the father of history, describes the Greeks encounter with the Callatians who ate their dead relatives. Naturally, the Greeks found this practice revolting. But the Callatians were equally repelled by the Greek practice of cremation causing Herodotus to conclude that ethics is culturally relative. World literature sounds a recurring theme: different cultures have different moral codes, an insight confirmed by the evidence of cultural differences. The Incas practiced human sacrifice, Eskimos shared their wives with strangers and killed newborns, Japanese samurai tried out his new sword on an innocent passer-by, Europeans enslaved masses of Africans, and female circumcision is performed today in parts of North Africa.

Cultural moral relativism contains two theses: 1) the diversity thesis—moral beliefs, practices, and values are diverse or vary from one culture to another; and 2) the dependency thesis—moral obligations depends upon cultures, since they are the final arbiters of moral truth. In short, cultural relativism implies that no cultural values have any objective, universal validity, and it would be arrogant for one culture to make moral judgments about other cultures.

The thesis of diversity is descriptive; it describes the way things are. Moral beliefs, rules, and practices, in fact, depend upon facets of culture like social, political, religious, and economic institutions. By contrast the thesis of dependency is prescriptive; it describes how things ought to be. Morality should depend on culture because there is nothing elseupon which it is based. Now we might argue for cultural relativism as follows:

Argument 1 – (from the diversity thesis)

  • Different cultures have different moral codes;
  • Thus, there is no morality independent of culture.

The weakness of this argument is that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise. The fact that cultures disagree about morality doesn’t show that morality is relative. After all, cultures disagree about whether abortion is moral or immoral, but their disagreementdoesn’t mean there is no truth about the matter. It might be that one culture is just mistaken. Consider how cultures might disagree as to whether the earth or sun is at the center of our solar system. Their disagreement doesn’t mean there is no truth about the matter. Similarly, societies might disagree about whether they should put their young to death, but that disagreement proves nothing, other than societies disagree. So cultural disagreements are not enough to prove cultural relativism. Consider another argument:

Argument 2 – (from the dependency thesis)

  • What is often regarded as the moral truths depends on cultural beliefs;
  • Thus, there is no moral truth independent of culture.

The argument commits the fallacy that logicians call “begging the question.” This occurs when you assume the truth of what you are trying to prove. (For example, if you ask me why I think abortion is wrong and I say, because it’s bad, I’ve begged the question.) In argument 2, one is trying to show that right and wrong depend on culture. It begs the question to say that right and wrong depend on culture because they depend on culture.

Now might we make a stronger case for the relativist if we put the two theses together?

Premise 1 – Right and wrong vary between cultures (diversity).
Premise 2 – Right and wrong depend upon a cultural context (dependency).
Conclusion – Thus, right and wrong are relative to culture. 

2B    Critique of Cultural Moral Relativism – Premise 1

This seems better; at least the conclusion follows from the premises. But are these premises true? Let’s consider the first premise (diversity). Nothing seems more obvious than the fact of cultural differences. Eskimos believed in infanticide; most Americans do not. Most Americans believe executing criminals is morally justifiable; most French find the practice barbaric. Clearly there are different cultural mores. But maybe the differences between cultural values are not as great as they seem.

Consider that Eskimos live in harsh climates where food is in short supply and mothers nurse their babies for years. There simply isn’t enough food for all their children, nor enough backs upon which nomadic people can carry their children. So Eskimos want their children to live just like we do, and it is the harsh and unusual condition that force them to make difficult choices. Sometimes they kill a weaker child so that both the stronger and weaker children won’t die. We may disagree with the practice, but we can imagine doing the same in similar circumstances. Thus, the underlying principle—life is valuable—has been applied differently in different contexts. Maybe cultures aren’t so different after all.

Consider that there is more crime in America than in France. Most Americans seem to believe that criminals deserve to be punished for their crimes, that severe punishment brings peace to the victim’s family, that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime, etc. The French are more likely to renounce retribution or doubt that capital punishment brings victim’s families peace or deters crime. But notice again. Both cultures are steered by a principle—act justly—even though they apply the principle differently. So upon closer inspection, there doesn’t seem to be as much disagreement as it first appeared. So the differences in cultural values might be more apparent than real.

Now suppose we could show that there are moral principles that all cultures share? Wouldn’t that show that morality was not relative to culture? Many scientists claim that there are moral principles common to all cultures.1 For instance, all cultures share: regulations on sexual behavior; prohibitions against unjust killing; requirements of familial obligations and child care; emphasis on truth-telling; and reward for reciprocity and cooperation. If we take these two ideas together—cultural moral differences aren’t as great as they appear, and all cultures share some moral values—then the diversity thesis is false. And if the first premise is false, then the conclusion of the cultural relativist’s argument doesn’t follow.

However notice that even if the first premise is false, that doesn’t prove that moral objectivism is true. Cultures that share the same moral values could all be wrong! So the empirical evidence concerning similarities and differences between moral codes isn’t relevant to the question of whether morality is absolute or relative. And that means that while we haven’t proven the truth of cultural absolutism, we have undermined the cultural relativist. For the evidence about diversity of culture is irrelevant, then we have undermined the relativist’s first premise, and with it the conclusion of his/her argument.

2C    Critique of Cultural Moral Relativism – Premise 2

While undermining the first premise sufficiently undermines cultural relativism, let’s turn to the second premise (dependency) to see if it fares any better. Now it does appear true that some moral “truths” depend on culture—for example, regulations on sexual behaviors or funeral practices. But it is not self-evident that all moral truth depends on culture. Moral truth may be independent of culture in the same way that other truths are independent of culture. Ethics may be objectively grounded in reason, the god’s commands, the most happiness for the most people, human nature, or something else.

But rather than trying to contradict all the relativist’s arguments for the second premise, consider the implications of taking cultural relativism seriously. If cultural relativism is true then all of the following (counter-intuitive) are true. 1) We cannot make cross-cultural judgments. We could not consistently criticize a culture for killing all those over forty, exterminating ethnic groups, or banishing children to the Antarctic. 2) We cannot make intra-cultural judgments. We cannot say, even within our culture, whether we should send children to their death or to school, whether we should torture our criminals or reward them. 3) The idea of moral progress is incoherent. All you can say is that cultures change, not that one is better than another. The old culture practiced slavery; we do not, and that’s the end of it. The appearance of moral progress is illusory.

But all of this is counter-intuitive. We might think that cultures can do what they want regarding funeral practices, but what about human sacrifice? Aren’t there some things that are just plain wrong, in both other cultures and our own? Don’t you believe that society is better now because it has outlawed slavery? Cultural relativism answers no to both questions. But can  such a strongly counterintuitive theory be correct?

D    Summary and Transition

Thus cultural relativism is as incoherent and unsubstantiated as epistemological relativism. The logical arguments for cultural relativism fail, and we have good reasons to doubt the truth of the premises of cultural relativism. Finally, cultural relativism contradicts our moral intuition. Still, we can’t prove that cultural relativism is mistaken. But we have shown that there are many reasons to doubt the theory, and few reasons to accept it.


3A    What is Personal Ethical Relativism? 

If morality is not relative to culture, might it be relative to a person’s beliefs, attitudes, emotions, opinions, desires, wants, etc.? Personal relativism is a theory that holds that moral judgments are relative to, conditioned by, or dependent upon, individuals. This theory has ancient roots, but it’s also popular today.2 These remarks capture the basic idea:

  • You have your opinion, and I have mine.
  • Truth is relative to my beliefs.
  • Truth is subjective, truth depends on me.
  • My belief is true for me, while your is true for you.
  • You do your thing, and I’ll do mine.

Analogous to the cultural relativist, the personal relativist claims that there is no objective moral truth. Relativists say that while you may hate homosexuality whereas they don’t, there is no objective truth about whether homosexuality is right or wrong. Instead moral statements merely report opinions, feelings, and attitudes; they just tell  what people prefer. Thus, to say that x is right/good/moral, just means you like, favor, or approve of x. And to say that x is wrong/bad/immoral, simply means that you dislike, disfavor, or disapprove of x. In other words, moral truth is relative, it is subjective. (Personal moral relativism is also called ethical subjectivism.)

But notice that, according to personal relativism, there is a way that a moral judgment can be true or false. If we say homosexuality is moral and we’re telling the truth, then it’s true that we think homosexuality is moral. But if we’re lying, then it’s false that we think homosexuality is moral. Of course moral judgments aren’t objectively true or false according to personal relativism, since there is no standard independent of a person’s feelings, but they are subjectively true or false, if we report our beliefs truthfully.

3B    Critique of Personal Relativism 

Personal relativism is open to the same objections as was epistemological and cultural relativism, as the following questions suggest. What does it mean to say something is truefor me? Is the claim that truth is relative to me, relatively or absolutely true? If the former, relativism is inconsistent, if the latter, it’s trivial. Is there as much individual disagreement as it appears, or is most moral disagreements on the surface only? Don’t most people share common moral beliefs? And don’t the consequences of taking this theory seriously conflict with our moral intuition? Aren’t some actions just plain wrong?

Given our previous critique, we should reject personal relativism at first glance. Why then is the theory so appealing?  Maybe personal relativism attracts because it reminds us that not everything we believe is true. Perhaps it helps us be open to new ideas. Or possibly we tend to accept it because others do. Whatever the reason we find relativism compelling, let’s consider it in more detail.

Consider the following. If I enjoy torturing small children in the most painful way possible, do you think that’s ok? Do you believe that whether this is right or wrong depends on me? Or do you think it’s just plain wrong? Remember, if personal relativism is true then there is nothing wrong with torturing small children. But you don’t believe that. And you don’t believe that Gandhi and Hitler were moral equivalents because you think that good and bad are in some sense objective. That’s why you think there is something wrong with torturing children, and any moral theory that suggests otherwise must be flawed.

This critique of relativism relies on our intuition. To believe that torturing children is morally acceptable is counter-intuitive. Of course it is true that our intuition is not always a good guide. For example, it seems intuitive that the earth is flat. But if a moral theory leads to consequences that contradict a strongly held moral intuition, then we are probably justified in questioning that moral theory. If a moral theory advocates torture, and nearly everyone thinks torture is immoral, we should probably reject such a theory unless there is other compelling reasons not to. So the claim that a theory is strongly counter-intuitive doesn’t prove it’s wrong, but it counts as a reason to reject that theory.

Consider another intuitive argument against moral relativism. Suppose I gave you an F on your ethics test, even though I admit that your answers were perfect. Puzzled, you ask why you received an F, and I tell you that I don’t like you. Furthermore, I tell you that your friend received an A because I really like her. What would you think about this? Wouldn’t you feel that this was unfair? If so, you’re assuming there is some objective standard of fairness. However, if you’re a relativist, consistency demands that you accept that your grade is relative to whether I like you or not. But you think your grade on the test shouldn’tbe relative to me because that’s not fair. So you do think that there is an objective standard of fairness after all.

There is something else peculiar about personal relativism. It is easy to say that you are a relativist, but it is hard to actually be a relativist. If the beliefs of both child-torturers and child-lovers conflict, the relativist says that they’re both correct. And while you cansay this, it’s hard to believe it. In fact, when confronted with moral disagreements, we make judgments and debate what we should believe and do. In practice, we act as if what we do matters, as if some courses of action and some beliefs are morally preferable to others. In practice, it is virtually impossible to be a relativist. We do think there it is wrong for a samurai swordsmen to try out his new sword on an innocent passer-by.

3C    Questioning the Connection Between Tolerance and Relativism 

Tolerance is generally a good thing. I don’t want my neighbors to exterminate me because I philosophize too much; I’m sure they don’t want me to attack them because they watch too much TV. Tolerance is good, serving to remind us that we may be mistaken about our beliefs. But what is the relationship between moral relativism and tolerance? Are the two connected? Does the theory of moral relativism lead to tolerance?

In the first place there is a contradiction between tolerance and moral relativism. If you’re a relativist, then you can’t consistently defend tolerance as a universal value. If you do, then you’re not a relativist, you’re an absolutist for whom tolerance is an objective value. So relativism and tolerance are logically incompatible.

Now suppose I am a moral relativist. As a relativist, I may be tolerant of your views, but I may also decide that I can do anything I want to you—say, torture and kill you because there is nothing wrong with that. After all, it’s just relative. As a relativist, I might be tolerant of you, but, on the other hand, I might not. My view that the truth depends on me doesn’t seem to be related to how I treat you. There doesn’t seem to be a necessary connection between relativism and tolerance.

Now suppose I am a moral absolutist. As an absolutist, I may be intolerant of your views, but I may also be intolerant of them. So it’s hard to see any connection between moral objectivism or relativism and tolerance. Moral relativism may lead to tolerance or intolerance, as may moral absolutism. In the end, neither moral relativism nor moral objectivism recommends any specific action at all.

In the end we just don’t know the relationship between moral theory and practice, which is probably obvious from your experience. Ethics professors may espouse moral theories, but they may also be horrific people. The religious may espouse charity, but steal the Sunday collection. Theories about how we should act, often don’t translate into action. So even if there should be a connection between moral relativism and tolerance, it doesn’t follow that there is one.

On closer examination tolerance doesn’t appear affected by the content of your belief; rather, tolerance is affected by how certain you are of what you believe. If you’re certain that you know the truth about something, then you will likely be intolerant; if you’re less certain you know the truth about something, you will likely be more tolerant. If we value tolerance, we should be humble.


4A    Emotivism Defined 

The English philosopher A.J. Ayer (1910 – 1989) and the American philosopher Charles Stevenson (1908 – 1979) developed a different version of subjectivism. Emotivism is a theory that claims that moral language or judgments: 1) are neither true or false; 2) express our emotions; and 3) try to influence others to agree with us. To better understand emotivism, consider the following statements:

The Earth is larger than Jupiter.
The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 1964.

Both are declarative statements that are either true or false, and have cognitive content. Now consider the following:

Go Manchester United!

Both are exclamatory statements that are neither true nor false, and have no cognitive content. They expresses emotions and try to influence others to share the emotion.

Emotivists believe that moral language expresses emotions and tries to influence others. If I say homosexuality is evil, I’m just expressing my feeling that homosexuality is disgusting! I am expressing my emotions and, at the same time, trying to influence you to dislike homosexuality. The same analysis applies to any moral judgment. If I say that capital punishment is wrong, I’m just expressing my dislike for it, and trying to get you to agree with me. I might as well have said capital punishment, while shaking my head and rolling my eyes.  And if I say that Stalin or Cheney were bad men—which they were—I’m merely trying to get you to agree with what I’m really saying.

Now the difference between emotivism and personal relativism (subjectivism) is subtle. When personal relativists say Gandhi was a good man they report their view of Gandhi. And this report is true or false depending on whether they are telling the truth. But the emotivist claims there is no truth or falsity to moral judgments whatsoever! If I say I hate abortion—assuming I’m being sincere—then this expressed emotion is neither true nor false, it just is. In other words, the emotivist says that different moral judgments are just like differences in taste. I like carrots; you don’t. I like homosexuality; you don’t. But emotivists don’t consider moral judgments as reporting a speaker’s beliefs; they just express emotions. In the same way that cows moo, humans emote. Therefore, according to the emotivists, moral language has no factual content at all and thus cannot be true or false in any way. Now why would one think that moral language is just a disguised emotional expression?

Ayer thought that moral language was meaningless because it couldn’t be verified. If I say that there’s a dollar on my desk, you know what I mean and you can verify or falsify my statement—you just go look. But if I say that lying is bad, how you could verify this? Where would you go to see that lying was bad? Ayer argued that statements that couldn’t be verified were meaningless. There is no meaning to propositions like abortion is immoral because there is no way to show these statements are true or false.

While Stevenson granted that moral language didn’t have factual or cognitive content, he argued that it had emotive meaning. Moral propositions aren’t true or false, but they aren’t meaningless either—moral language allows us to express emotions. Thus he could easily account for our differences regarding ethics—we have different emotions. And when we disagree, Stevenson said we have a disagreement in attitude. But reasons or arguments will not change other people’s attitudes.

4B Critique of Emotivism 

Do moral judgments express emotions, exclusively? If I say that Mother Theresa was a good woman, I’m expressing my emotions, trying to influence you, and I’m making a moral judgment. On the other hand, aren’t I doing more? Don’t I believe that Mother Theresa was good in comparison with some standard of goodness? After all, I’m not just saying Mother Theresa, and then smiling. So when I say Mother Theresa was good I express my fond feelings for her, and I do want you to feel the same, but that doesn’t mean that’s all I’m doing. I almost certainly believe that Mother Theresa was good in a way that Dick Cheney wasn’t. So while a moral judgment isn’t exactly the same as a factual judgment, it isn’t exactly the same as exclamatory judgments either. Why?

Consider how I would go about persuading you that Mother Theresa was good, while Dick Cheney was not. I might appeal to her selflessness working with the poor of Calcutta, her devotion to her friends, her daily prayer and meditation, or the positive effect she had on strangers. And by doing this I’m giving you reasons for thinking she was a good person. Now you might say that I just happen to like selfless nuns who win Nobel Peace Prizes and that she was not better than Cheney. In response, I point out that Cheney masterminded the extermination and torture of thousands, had a violent temper, was very unpleasant company, was a Nixon operative, has no remorse for anything he ever did, and almost certainly never meditated.  Again my opponents might not be persuaded. Maybe killing  and torturing thousands is a good thing, or being nice is an awful thing.

But notice that you’re asking me for reasons, and I am giving you plenty of reasons why Mother Theresa, or almost anyone else for that matter, was a better person than Dick Cheney—reasons that most rational persons would accept. And whenever I give reasons, I’m doing more than just expressing emotions; I’m assuming that there is more to moral claims than emotions. If not, why try to convince someone? True, I could try to convince someone by merely continuing to express my emotions. But my emoting wouldn’t convince a rational person. So it seems that objective reason must play some role in ethics.

Certainly it’s true that some people might not be convinced by good reasons, but that does not mean that I didn’t give them good reasons or that reasons are unimportant. It might just be that they won’t accept the good reasons I have given them. Thus, if I point out that your disliking me is irrelevant to what I deserve on a test, then I have given you a good reason why I shouldn’t have failed. And we can probably think of many examples when we give others good reasons to do or believe something and they just won’t listen. This appealing to reasons to persuade suggests that we use moral language to do more than merely express emotions.

Therefore, emotivism presupposes that moral disagreements are incapable of being resolved by rational discourse. There is no way to resolve our attitudinal disagreements unless we are persuasive enough (or violent enough). But we have already seen that there’s another way to persuade—using reason to support our position. We can provide good reasons why x is right or x is wrong. If we appeal to reason, we have discovered a way to resolve our disputes that other than by shouting or beating others into submission. And if reason plays a role in ethics, then there is truth or falsity about ethical judgments.


Some things aren’t relative—throw this book out the classroom window and it will fall. Some elements of morality may be relative, but surely not all of them—you shouldn’t kill your good friend because he owes you a dollar. Tolerance is a generally a good thing, but there is no special connection between it and relativism. We do express ourselves and try to influence others when we make moral judgments, but that’s only a small part of what we do. Killing an innocent person could possibly be justified, but are you ever justified in torturing someone for your own pleasure when there is no good reason to do so? As long as you answer no to this question, you aren’t a relativist. But even if ethics is objective, why should I abide by its dictates?  Why shouldn’t I just seek pleasure? Why shouldn’t I just do whatever I want?  We will discuss these questions in further posts.