What’s Moral Relativism?

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Moral relativism is the belief that morality is relative and people should follow their conscience, while moral objectivism holds that there is an objective morality. The two positions have caused wars, but conflicts between different objective moralities are more common. Moral relativists believe in a moral code, but not universally applicable. Partial relativism is possible, and even moral objectivists admit to some degree of moral relativism. Jean-Paul Sartre was a famous moral relativist philosopher, but not all agree with him. Many are motivated by avoiding ethnocentrism for world peace.

Moral relativism is the philosophical position that morality is relative and that people should try to be good, but only by following their conscience. Moral relativism can be contrasted with moral objectivism, the common position of many philosophers and religions that there is an objective morality, sometimes established by God, an objective right and an objective wrong. These two positions have been intertwined for thousands of years and are a contributing cause to many wars. However, it is arguable that wars and conflicts between conflicting notions of objective morality are more common than wars between objective and subjective moralists.

A phrase that partially sums up the philosophy of moral relativism is “live and let live”. Sometimes the phrase “moral relativism” is used pejoratively by moral objectivists and theists. This is often accompanied by the claim that this relativism implies the complete absence of morality, but moral relativists commonly believe in a moral code, but not that it is universally applicable. Among theists, moral relativism has a bad reputation, especially since most religions teach moral objectivism. An important exception would be Buddhism.

Moral relativism has been around for a long time, with the early writings of the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 – 420 BC) pointing out that every society has its own moral code, and everyone regards theirs as the best. It should be noted that partial relativism is possible: someone might believe in a core of objective moral truth, for example, “killing is wrong,” but believe that more nuanced issues, such as how much of one’s income to give to charity, are more subjective. Most people, even self-described moral objectivists, usually have some area of ​​moral reasoning about which they are not completely certain, and therefore they admit to some degree of moral relativism. Others would argue that this does not mean giving up moral objectivism, just admitting imperfect knowledge about what objective morality is.

One of the most famous and well-known moral relativist philosophers of the 20th century was Jean-Paul Sartre, who pioneered the philosophy of existentialism, which essentially states that humanity is alone in the universe and we have no morals to turn to if not the one we create for ourselves. However, not all moral relativists agree with Sartre. Many moral relativists are motivated simply by avoiding ethnocentrism, avoiding assuming that one’s culture is superior to others. They argue that this is essential to world peace, pointing to numerous historical examples where cultures have committed atrocities on each other due to perceived moral inferiority.

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