people think that since we find different moral principles in
different cultures, there cannot be objective moral principles
binding on all cultures; morality must be culturally relative.
This argument, however, begins with a misleading use of data,
is logically fallacious, does not allow us to make what we would
normally consider to be legitimate moral judgments, and leads
to bizarre conclusions.
A closer look at the data shows that moral commonalities among
cultures are much more abundant than moral differences. The differences
are actually a small minority. We study them in anthropology classes
because they are the exception, but in fact the vast majority
of moral principles are held in common. Moreover, many of the
dissimilarities are merely variations in moral reasoning and application
of the common principles. The ethical disparity between cultures
is far less than we are led to believe.ii
Second, it doesn't follow logically that just because there are
some differences between cultures, transcendent moral principles
do not exist. What follows from the fact that culture X says action
A is wrong and culture Y says action A is right? Not very much!
It does not follow that there is no objective moral truth regarding
action A. It may very well be that culture X is correct and culture
Y is wrong about action A, or vice versa. Relativity in moral
belief does not entail relativity in moral truth. Belief
doesn't change truth.iii
Not believing in gravity does not change the objective fact, that
if you step off the tenth floor balcony, you will fall to the
ground. Likewise not believing in a moral law does not render
it inoperative or non-existent.
Furthermore, if ethics were culturally relative it would be impossible
to evaluate cultures morally. One could not condemn as immoral
what another culture approves, even if that is racism, infanticide,
ethnic cleansing or wholesale genocide. If cultural relativism
is true, the Nuremberg war trials following the Second World War
were nothing more than a kangaroo court - a farce. Nazi war criminals
defended themselves by claiming that they were just following
orders within the framework of their culture and legal system.
But Robert Jackson, chief counsel for the U.S. at the trials responded
by saying that: there is a "law beyond the law" of any
individual nation, permanent values which transcend any particular
Furthermore, if ethics were relative to culture, any declaration
of universal human rights would be nonsense. You can't have it
both ways. If ethics are just relative to culture, there are no
universal human rights; and if there are universal human rights,
as the United Nations believes, then ethics are not relative to
But, as we have already seen, our reactions and judgments show
that we do think that there are moral principles that transcend
cultures and justify our condemnation of such occurrences as apartheid,
ethnic cleansing and the Nazi atrocities.
The furor over the caning of the American teenager, Michael Fay,
by Singaporean authorities in the early nineties is a good example
of the fact that people do think morals are transcultural. If
ethics were just culturally relative North Americans would have
no basis for claiming the caning was just or unjust. Yet both
those who support or condemn the Singaporean law, reveal that
they think the moral principles at stake are transcultural in
Another problem with cultural relativism is that one seeking to
reform society from within would find oneself in a real dilemma.
If whatever a culture does is right for that culture, it would
be immoral to try to initiate change, no matter how awful the
practices are, whether slavery, child labour and abuse, or denial
of women's rights. None of this is consistent with our moral sensibilities
or practices regarding making moral judgments.
Furthermore, cultural relativism leads to bizarre conclusions.
Imagine an island of 100 people. They take a vote on whether murder
is right or wrong and the results are a 50/50 split. The next
day some of the "murder is right" side kill one of the
"murder is wrong" side. Now the count is 50 to 49 in
favor of the "murder is right" side, and murder becomes
Now let's say the "murder is wrong" side slay two of
the other group. The vote is now 49 to 48 in favor of the "murder
is wrong" proponents. So now murder is wrong even though
it was right when they did it, and so on! A view that leads to
such absurd conclusions cannot possibly be true.vi
damaging criticism of ethical relativism is that it is self-refuting.
Many ethical relativists say or think, "There are no objective
morals and you shouldn't act as if there are," or "You
ought to be a moral relativist." The moral relativist thinks
relativism is universally true, and that everyone else should
agree. But if relativism is true, then there are no moral "oughts"
that apply to everyone, including that one.
So relativism may be fashionable, but it's not livable. It's self-refuting
and leads to bizarre conclusions. Moreover, our reactions and
judgments about the mistreatment of others and ourselves betray
our real position on morality. We do not act as if morality is
relative to individuals or cultures. We act as if there are objective
moral principles that are obligatory and binding on all people.
The Roman philosopher Cicero succinctly summarizes what we have
found: "Only a madman could maintain that the distinction
between honourable and dishonourable, between virtue and vice,
is only a matter of opinion."
Having acknowledged that objective moral principles exist, the
obvious questions arise:
How could such principles exist? Where do they come from? What
makes them objective, binding, and obligatory, especially on those
who disagree? These are questions about foundations.