Moral Relativism and Ethics:

What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?

Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © by Kenneth Cauthen 1998. All rights reserved.
ABSTRACT: Ethical beliefs have strong implications for how we live. Beliefs about these beliefs have no necessary or inevitable consequences for what we believe to be right and good or for what we do in practice. My particular question is whether relativism, which is a belief about beliefs, is an adequate or workable foundation for ethics. I believe that it is. Can relativism sustain high moral standards, moral passion, courage, and commitment? I believe that it can.
A lot of debate takes place among philosophers today about the nature of truth. Alas, it is a morass of arcane jargon, technical analysis, precise definitions, and subtle distinctions in which competing theories slay each other right and left. Most of them mercifully vanish rapidly from the scene. Even the more prominent among them disappear after their fifteen minutes of epistemological fame leaving only the major efforts to live in the history books.[1] While impressive as examples of mental acumen, intellectual agility, and logical skill, the products of these high-level exercises about which theory of truth is most adequate have little or no practical value. They help us not one bit in the routines of daily existence or in making decisions about ultimate matters of meaning, morality, and religion, not to mention their uselessness for generating wisdom in the penultimate realms of economics, politics, social policy, and culture. Is there a God? Does life have meaning and purpose? What is the supreme good human beings ought to seek? Should assisted suicide be legally permitted? All the debates ever conducted on the correspondence theory of truth versus its competitors stacked on each other never produced a solution to a single one of these questions or to many other subjects of importance, however interesting or entertaining they may be as intellectual pursuits as such.[2]

What Matters and What Doesn't?

The more important question, then, is not which among rival theories of truth is true but whether any practical consequences follow from believing one theory of truth rather than another. The thesis to be explored in this essay is that while beliefs about reality and morality matter a lot, i. e., have practical consequences, beliefs about these beliefs matter only a little or not at all. To be precise, I am suggesting that beliefs about reality and morality have practical consequences to the extent that people actually live by what they believe to be true and right or at least affirm that they ought to. We do not always live in accordance with our beliefs, but frequently we do. In the sense, then, that beliefs about reality and morality exert a strong gravitational pull toward living them out in experience, they have practical consequences. Again, to be precise, I am suggesting that beliefs about beliefs do not have necessary or inevitable consequences for the way we actually live. That they may have practical consequences for some particular persons or communities is an empirical matter and cannot be predicted in advance. These qualifications should be kept in mind when the shorter and unqualified form of my thesis is employed.

My particular interest in this subject is whether relativism, which is a belief about beliefs, is an adequate or workable foundation for ethics. Does relativism prevent us from discerning and affirming those principles most productive of justice and happiness for all? Can it sustain moral passion, courage, and commitment to live by the highest and best we know? Those who abhor relativism maintain that valid moral judgments mirror the objective structure of reality. Right and wrong are grounded in natural law or the will of God or some other pattern in the very nature of things. Otherwise all sorts of dire consequences follow. Not all criticisms assume the same definition or apply to every type of relativism. Some of the typical alleged defects can be listed. If moral claims reflect time and place rather than grasp universal truths, ethics rests on insecure foundations. If moral standards are nothing more than a collection of disparate opinions, they cannot have a binding or necessary claim on our allegiance. If moral judgments are merely subjective preferences or expressions of feeling, no appeal can be made to anything beyond that. Objective judgments about right and wrong are undercut. Meaningful debates about morality are impossible since there is no standard beyond the opinion of the disputants to serve as a basis for judgment. If moral values are relative to a particular person or group and not universal principles grounded in reality itself, no basis exists for calling people to a higher standard than the one they now have. Hope for moral progress is undermined. In fact, the very concept of progress is rendered meaningless. Unless moral values are anchored to reality, mirror something present in the nature of things, we cannot say that some moral views are inferior to others. Two contrary views could be equally valid, since valid only means that somebody prefers it. Worst of all, relativism ultimately is the equivalent of saying that might makes right since those who have effective influence or the power of coercion determine standards of behavior, beyond which no legitimate appeal can be made.

In this essay I refute the view that relativism, as I use the term, is corrosive of the moral life. I will argue that it matters what people believe, but it does not matter what they believe about belief. The content of belief has practical consequences. A fanatic who is absolutely persuaded that God has authorized the killing of enemies may actually slaughter people in acting upon that conviction. But do any practical consequences follow from whether that extremist has a correspondence, a coherence, or a deflationary theory of truth or believes that truth is the ideal ultimate outcome of rational inquiry? Or does it matter whether the zealot in question is a relativist or an objectivist? The crucial issue, then, is not whether beliefs about reality and morality matter. They do. It is rather whether beliefs about beliefs matter.

What is Relativism?

It cannot be assumed that relativism means the same thing to everyone. In fact, a variety of definitions can be found in current usage, not all of which are compatible. Hence, communication and argument require clarification of the term and its alternatives. Three major types of views about the status of moral beliefs can be noted. I will define my outlook in relation to the other two. I intend to defend only my own brand of relativism.

A. Objectivism

True moral beliefs correspond to and correctly represent something objective in reality. They are valid in that they are descriptive of something discovered in the nature of things. They are not subjective creations but adequate and reliable discoveries of something independent of the minds that discover them. They are true whether anyone believes them or not. Moral reality is what it is whether anyone knows what it is or not in the same sense that the law of gravitation was in operation before the law thereunto appertaining was formulated by human beings. Our present beliefs may be wrong, but further thought and insight may lead to better knowledge. Some moral beliefs are right and true, i. e., put us in touch with reality. Contrary beliefs are wrong and false, i. e., they misrepresent the way things really are. Some beliefs are so obvious that we are justified in saying that they are true, e. g., torturing babies for the fun of it is wrong. About others we may be unsure, but we can be certain that there is a truth objective to us. We can pronounce rival views wrong in accordance with the certainty with which we hold them. With regard to at least some moral questions, relativism can be overcome or transcended. Reason and/or divine revelation can unite us with what is the case in the nature of things. Two points, then, are essential to this position: 1. an objective moral order exists, and 2. on some crucial moral issues we can have reliable or even certain knowledge about what the objective order obligates us to do.

B. Objective Relativism

An order of truth, meaning, and value is real and objective to us, but all actual systems of belief are relative to time and place and can only be established and tested by methods and standards internal to each outlook. We can never be sure that our assumptions, methods, and conclusions capture reality. No supreme court exists to adjudicate disputes among rival perspectives. Any such court offers no transcendent or absolute insight but only one more relative interpretation. The intention is to describe and represent the objective order of things in our theories and practices, but certainty about truth claims in the realms of morality, religion, and philosophy in so far as these involve high-level claims about the structure of things in themselves eludes us. Reality is available to us only in some version of it that is dependent on the perspective of the interpreter and exists among others likewise relative to their creators. We cannot definitively pronounce others wrong if we mean that their beliefs do not correspond to reality. We can say we believe they are wrong and act accordingly depending on the importance of the issue. Objective relativism, then, is objectivist about reality but relativist with respect to our knowledge of that reality.

C. Subjective Relativism

Moral beliefs are expressive of the dogmas, customs, convictions, beliefs, preferences, feelings, or attitudes of some group or individual -- and nothing more than that. They do not mirror an objective order of reality and have no validity outside the minds of those who profess them. There is no objective order of morality that can be used to judge among contrary outlooks. Moral standards vary from one culture to another, and no universal, absolute culture-transcending standards can be employed to grade them according to their degree of truthfulness. Whether moral beliefs correspond to patterns within the nature of things independent of minds is not a proper question. The moral beliefs people profess and act upon have their origin and validity solely within the framework of their creators and advocates. We can express and act upon our own beliefs, preferences, values, and feelings in whatever ways we choose to, including opposing contrary views. We cannot, however, pronounce alternative ways of believing wrong or inferior to ours if wrong means offensive to reality or something other than being different from ours.

To summarize, objectivists are objectivists with regard both to reality and least some moral convictions. Objective relativists are objectivists with respect to reality but relativists with respect to our knowledge. Subjective relativists are objectivists with regard neither to reality nor to our knowledge.

This way of distinguishing between these major types of belief about moral beliefs is mine. Obviously, various subtypes and overlappings may exist. Others will want to revise them and perhaps come up with a more accurate rendering of the actual views held by our contemporaries. All I claim is that these three types point in general to alternatives that in some approximate versions are or could be held, with whatever modifications the authors would care to make. They are in a sense "ideal types" that may have a heuristic value even when not totally accurate with respect to every particular outlook that falls roughly within a given category.

Objectivist Relativism

Two issues need to be distinguished. 1. The first is whether an objective order of reality, meaning, and morality exists in independence of our beliefs about them. 2. The second is whether we can have reliable or certain knowledge of this objective order. The first question has to do with reality, while the second deals with our knowledge of reality. Important dividing lines between points of view turn on this distinction. I am an objectivist on the first question but a relativist on the second one. My objectivism, however, can only be justified internally, i. e., in terms of the whole sets of beliefs I have about reality. It is in these sense that I am a relativist. To put it differently, I am a skeptic. I do not deny the objectivity of moral standards. I affirm merely that we cannot be sure that there are objective standards. Nor can we be certain what they are. We can only assert what is compelling to us using the best methods of inquiry available at any given time, but all methods and conclusions are justifiable only within a particular point of view. Relativism for me, then, means that we can discover and test truth only by making use of the language and the resources available to us in our time and place. This does not preclude the possibility that these truth-finding, truth-testing procedures may actually put us in touch with objective reality. We are, however, left with the question of knowing for sure whether and when they do or not. We cannot be certain on the big issues of life, morality, religion, and death whether reality has been captured or accurately represented in our categories or whether we are mistaking a subjective conviction invulnerable against doubt for objective truth.

I have no doubt that torturing babies is objectively wrong, although this confidence guarantees nothing. The crucial issue is that I passionately hold this belief. The remaining question of importance is whether I am willing to act appropriately to prevent the torture of babies in real life. My metaethical views are irrelevant both to what moral standards I hold and to what I do about them. It is in this sense that I deny that objective relativism is disastrous for morality. My dispute with the objectivists is not about whether moral standards are rooted in the nature of things. I believe that they are. My reservations have to do with the nature of our knowledge of those independently existing values and principles. Of what practical value is it to know or believe that moral values are rooted in reality unless we have reliable knowledge of the specific obligations incumbent upon us by virtue of that fact? Unless at least some moral standards can be known with certainty, the objectivists are no better off than the two types of relativists when it comes to choice and action. It often happens that those most insistent on an objectivist morality are also confident that they know the truth about that order. Yet some, if not most, of the fiercest disputes are not about whether morality is grounded in reality but about what reality requires of us. An objective relativist like myself can only conclude that the more important question is not about the objectivity of morality but about the certainty of knowledge.

Two objectivists screaming at each about abortion from opposite extremes of the issue, each one certain that the other is absolutely wrong, is not an edifying sight. Of what value in a practical sense is their objectivism? It matters a lot whether they take a pro-choice or a pro-life position in politics. It matters not at all that they are both objectivists about morality. Neither would it matter practically if one were an objectivist and the other a relativist. Claiming to have certain knowledge does not guarantee that one does. I agree that everyone ought to act upon their moral beliefs and fight for them in every appropriate way. But once I have decided that I am an objective relativist, I am not obligated to do anything further. I may choose to write articles and books about the subject and argue with others about the issue -- and have fun doing it. But that has little to do with anything practical that affects the quality of life for the oppressed or the hungry or anyone else with real needs. It is in that sense that I contend that our moral beliefs and whether we act upon them matter greatly, but our beliefs about those beliefs do not. More specifically, disputes on metaethical questions matter only in theoretical thought as distinct from practical life in which thought wrestles with issues that demand choice and action and maybe the spilling of blood when fundamental issues of survival and justice hang in the balance.

To repeat, I am an objectivist with respect to reality but a relativist with respect to knowledge. I affirm the existence of an objective order of reality and morality. However, all claims about reality and morality are made by some agent and hence are relative to that particular socially-temporally-located interpreter -- a society or an individual. Descriptions of reality and prescriptions about right and wrong do not float down from heaven while angels sing. They are created on earth by people. Rival claims are tested by human agents. Societies and individuals say what the world is like and what our obligations are. Truths are pronounced by human beings, reflecting their culture or their own peculiar personal slant on things. Errors are specified by somebody, some individual, some institution, or some group. Hence, all assertions about reality and morality are relative to the interpreting agent reflecting a particular cultural location in time and space. Neither human reason nor divine revelation provides an escape from this predicament. Believing that one or the other does settles nothing.

The decisive point is that the only access to reality we have is through "interprience," i. e., some interpretation of the experience of reality made by some interpreter.[3] Each interpretive scheme originates in and is reflective of some particular time and place. This does not necessarily mean that one cannot be translated into the conceptual framework of another. But they do differ in method and content from other schemes produced by other groups, individuals, institutions, sacred books, prophets, philosophers, or found on tablets of stone alleged to be divinely authored. We cannot adjudicate rival and contrary claims to truth by comparing them with reality itself, since it is available to us only in some version produced by some human agency. We need some experience-interpretation scheme that is itself not just another version of truth but truth-itself. That is exactly what we do not and cannot have. No supreme court is available to make a final resolution, since any court consulted has nothing to offer but one more relative scheme. No escape from this epistemological predicament exists, except in the minds of the more confident who simply pronounce themselves to be in possession of the truth about things, i. e., a correct interpretation, not just one more relative effort. This is a victory over relativism by sheer declaration.

Hence, a plurality of interpretive schemes compete for our allegiance, each one dependent on some temporal-social location and some human agency. Those who hold to one of them may pronounce the others to be inferior or wrong, but such pronouncements are themselves part of some interpretive scheme and thus marked with the same kind of relativity as those judged to be in error. One of them may actually have it right, i. e., correctly represent or correspond with reality. Our predicament is that we cannot know for sure which one that is. Hence, we can only act on the one that is most convincing to us. When confronted with moral perspectives that are different from ours, we have two choices. (1) We can regard them as we would tastes in art or wines or colors as merely different from ours -- and maybe even abhorrent to us -- but not requiring any other response other than possibly to appreciate the variety that adds spice to life. (2) We can judge the differences to be of such importance that we must contend for our beliefs in the public arena against rival views, using whatever means are appropriate to prevail against them. This is the ultimate practical issue. To be paralyzed and unable to take a stand, act, or fight for causes we believe in is neither a necessary nor a responsible way to deal with relativism. In short, to say that all interpretive schemes are relative is not to say that they are therefore worthless or void of practical consequences.

The standard objection to relativism is that it of necessity involves or leads to or is accompanied by assumptions and claims that have to be understood in a non-relative way. The simplest version of this refutation is that the assertion that all points of view are relative implies that relativity as a point of view is relative too and not a universal or objective truth. Put differently, relativity to be meaningful and worthy of consideration must be meant in an objectivist sense, i. e., as a claim about things are they really are that logically excludes contrary views. If true, the claim itself establishes at least one objective fact and hence is self-refuting. If it is not true, it can be dismissed. A variant maintains that any statement said to be relative must unavoidably be supported by other statements or principles or background assumptions that transcend relativism and hence have a universal and objective status.[4]

The task of spelling out the case against relativism in detail and of responding to it adequately is beyond the scope of this essay. The notion that relativism is logically self-refuting was made at least as far back as Plato against Protagoras (Theaetetus). Versions of the notion that relativism cannot establish the truth of its own position without refuting itself have been made ever since. It is of interest that despite this alleged mortal blow relativism lives even today. This may suggest that at least some relativists are getting at something that is not being refuted and that the critics are missing. My present conclusion is that granting even the most generous assessment of its validity, the case against relativism is not sufficient to undermine its essential claims. Whatever concessions must be made about the limitations and qualifications of relativism, the central point that systems of ethics and metaphysics can only be established or refuted by the truth-finding and truth-testing resources available to a given interpreter is not vitiated. If anyone thinks that the Thomistic proofs for the existence of God can be proven to be or not be in correspondence with reality, let that person come forth with the procedures that can objectively accomplish this feat. Any proposal made for this purpose will be rejected by objectivists who hold contrary positions and regarded as one more relative scheme by relativists. The essential question is whether relativism can be refuted when topics like this are at stake, not whether the affirmation of relativism is itself an absolute claim that is not self-sustaining. Nor is the crucial issue whether one must presuppose the rules of logic, freedom, causality, the passage of time, that some things are better than others, that some real things exist not presently being experienced, that life is meaningful, and the like. I do agree that principles of logic and perhaps some common-sense presuppositions about the nature of the world must be agreed to if any rational thought is to be carried on. Certainly no principles can be affirmed if the affirmation is self-refuting or denied if the denial by necessity presupposes them, but even if one acknowledged that some such set of allegedly universal, foundational beliefs cannot be rationally denied, that would not not go very far toward a refutation of the form of relativism I defend.

When Correspondence Theory Holds and When it Doesn't

Relativism applies especially to systems of morality, religion, and metaphysics that point toward ultimate facts, values, purposes, and meanings ingredient in the fundamental nature of things. Within this context relative means dependent on and limited by the inventory of truth-finding and truth-testing resources available at a given time and place to a particular interpreter. This does not necessarily preclude a given interpretation from being true, i. e., in correspondence with reality. The problem is that we cannot know for sure whether it is true in that sense or not. Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality may have given a correct picture in its main outlines of the nature of the world and God as they really are. But how can we know whether he did or not? Different judgments will be made by logical positivists, Thomists, Hindus, orthodox Christians, and so on. Each of these perspectives illustrates relativity in the sense defined. They can make an assessment as to whether the Whiteheadian cosmology corresponds to reality only by using the truth-testing resources they in all sincerity believe to be reliable. Hence, the relativism I defend resolves finally into a form of skepticism that leads to a version of pragmatism for resolution of questions of meaning, morality, purpose, and metaphysical ultimacy.

In ordinary life, however, we can decide conclusively whether certain assertions correspond with reality for all practical purposes. If I say, "The broom is in the closet," it is possible, once the terms and particulars of the case have been defined and specified, to determine with certainty and finality whether the broom meant is in the closet designated or not. It is not necessary to spell out in detail what I mean, since anyone reading this would know exactly what to do and what tests to apply to determine the truth or falsity of the proposition and would know what correspondence to reality means in this context. After the tests have been made, a pronouncement can be made with such absoluteness that we would say of anyone who disagreed that they did not understand the situation, not that the verdict was open to dispute. Let us grant that philosophers have written long dissertations on the differences between "words" and "things" and wondered just in what respects they can be in correspondence, not to mention the more esoteric questions about what the "broom" really is apart from human language and conventions. This will not deter a family member needing an implement to sweep out the garage from being quite certain about whether the broom is in the closet.

We could lay out a series of propositions ranging from matters of simple facts in which the correspondence theory of truth is perfectly serviceable to the final facts about ultimate reality in which it becomes increasingly non-useful and finally pragmatically irrelevant.

The follow list will suffice:

1. The Atlanta Braves won the Word Series in 1995.
2. The causes of the French Revolution were . . . . . . .
3. Homosexuality is wrong.
4. God has a primordial nature.
5. God is one substance existing in three persons.

Proposition 1. can be decided absolutely in favor on the view that it corresponds with the reality in terms that everyone understands for all practical purposes. Proposition 2. is much less open to finality and certainty. While relevant facts are publicly available, the outcome depends on the assumptions held by a given interpreter, how the evidence is weighed, how many relevant facts are known, and much else. The moral argument about 3. certainly involves facts, principles, and values that are accessible to all interested parties and intelligible to all rational people, although the outcome depends on some frame of reference relative to the interpreter. Followers of Alfred North Whitehead would maintain that reason and experience can provide evidence relevant to the determination of the truth of 4., but only those within the Whiteheadian camp will be persuaded -- a tiny minority illustrating relativity at its finest. Christians have typically said that the doctrine of the Trinity is given in special divine revelation and is not a truth that can be established or refuted by reason, although it intends to describe objective Reality.

The point is that relativity has different meanings depending on the context. It is negligible in 1., since anyone who understands the meaning of the terms in this English sentence can be persuaded of its absolute truth as a description that corresponds with reality in a sense that ordinary people and even philosophers when they are at home or off duty fully understand. The sentence is simply true. Propositions 2., 3., and 4. depend on assumptions, methods of inquiry, weighing of evidence, and much else besides reflective of particular interpreting agents occupying different circles of interpretation. Where one comes out depends on where one stands and how one proceeds to reach conclusions. Universal agreement about what is objectively true may never come about regarding 2. probably not with respect to 3, and almost certainly not with 4, Few, if any, would claim that 5. can even be discussed apart from Christian traditions, documents, and experiences.

I have written on subjects in theology, ethics, and philosophy and developed an outlook at least in minimalist terms that is to me convincing.[5] My intention is to describe reality as it is, to lay out propositions that correspond with the objectively existing state of affairs. Yet such is the depth of my acknowledgment of relativism and my skepticism that I do not find it useful to ask whether statements about God, the meaning of life, and the moral obligations of human beings are literally true or even approximately represent things as they really are. Non-relativists who hold certain positions with great confidence have no alternative but to say that those who disagree with them are wrong. I am not prepared to say that those who disagree with me on moral, metaphysical, and religious matters are wrong. I just say I see it differently and will act on my own convictions in appropriate ways, and that includes opposing those who differ with means proportionate to the seriousness of the issue. I also assume that every other religious, moral, and metaphysical claim is no less relative in principle than mine. Relativism, however, does not preclude passion, commitment, and action in line with one's own relative viewpoint. It ideally produces humility accompanied by acts of love in the quest for justice and an openness to deeper insight.

Moreover, all claims about morality and religion can be tested by myself and others but without certain or absolutely conclusive results.The first criterion is theoretical. I can employ the rational test of coherence (internal consistency with all other propositions I affirm) and the empirical test of evidence (adequacy in accounting for the full range of experience). Yet I know that however successful I may be in applying these tests of truth, the outcome is such that only one who stands where I stand will see what I see. All I can say is that this is the best I have been able to come up with so far. Methods of justifying claims are internal to the point of view being tested and part of it, so that no method provides a way of escaping the relativity that marks all belief systems.

The second and most important test is practical. Is the outlook useful in interpreting the whole range of my experience in an adequate (rationally plausible) way and in providing guidance in coping with life? When I live by what I find convincing as a rational being, are the results satisfactory and satisfying judged by the best standards available to me up to now as I continue to learn and revise both my theory and my practices? One hopes that learning, maturity, and experience will lead to increasingly adequate and fulfilling ways of believing and living, loving and hoping, thinking and acting. In the end I am a pragmatist who in the presence of the ultimate questions abandons the hope of knowing with certainty what the ultimate answers are. Nevertheless, I find in my own outlook a way of thinking and living more useful and productive than any alternatives available to me at this time. Are my religious and moral convictions literally true? Do they correspond with reality? These questions are interesting but futile. It would be the greatest miracle of all time if out of all the religions and philosophies every produced on this earth, it turned out that my own was the closest of any to getting it right, telling it like it is, picturing objective reality so that the picture and pictured are remarkably alike! I have a better chance of winning the grand lottery at chances of a 100, 000, 000 to 1. Yet I must live some way, believe something, hope for what seems most likely, and die trusting it was not all in vain. I proceed, then, as a relativist, a pragmatist, and a skeptic who employs correspondence theory as far as it will take me, but beyond the ordinary facts of mundane life, that is not very far, especially when one enters the realms of morality and religion.

The Content of Belief and the Status of Belief

With this in mind, let me return to the original thesis. I have distinguished between the content of moral judgments (beliefs) and the status of moral judgments (beliefs about those beliefs).[6] The former matters in that it is the stuff and arena of debate between competing outlooks. The latter does not. Consider three sets of propositions:

I Objectivism

    A  Gratuitous cruelty is wrong.
    B  We are obligated to prevent it wherever possible.
    C  The first two propositions are universally valid,
         objective truths whether anyone believes them to be true or
          not. They reflect something grounded in reality itself.
     D I believe A and B and will live by them.

II Objective Relativism

     A  Gratuitous cruelty is wrong.
     B  We are obligated to prevent it wherever possible.
     C  The first two propositions follow from my philosophy
          of life, but I have no way of knowing whether they mirror
          objective reality or not. However, I believe that they do.
      D  I believe A and B and will live by them.

III Subjective Relativism

     A  Gratuitous cruelty is wrong.
     B  We are obligated to prevent it wherever possible.
     C  The first two propositions are valid only for those
           cultures and individuals who affirm them. They are
           humanly-created values, no more.
     D   I accept A and B and will live by them.

For objectivists (Position I) A and B state objective truths, so that anyone who denies them is just plain wrong, i. e., out of tune with reality. Objective relativists (Position II) like me would say that we believe that A and B are objective truths, but we do not know for sure whether those who deny them are wrong or not, but we will act as if they are. Subjective relativists (Position III) maintain that A and B are opinions or customs or feelings only, so that the question of objective right and wrong is not an issue. For them right and wrong do not exist somewhere in reality independently of subjective beliefs, values, feelings, and preferences. Moreover, the subjective relativist interprets obligation differently from the other two. For the objectivists and the objective relativist obligation refers to a felt necessity to be obedient to an order of rightness grounded in the nature of things. For the subjective relativist it is a self-generated or internalized felt oughtness to live in conformity with ones own culture, convictions, feelings, or preferences.

About this scheme I draw two conclusions:

1. C is not the same kind of claim as A and B. Put most simply, A and B are beliefs. C is a belief about beliefs.

2. A and B matter (have practical consequences). C as such does not (has no necessary practical consequences).

The question is whether some types of C belief about A and B are essential to sustain D commitments. My answer is no. How moral standards and commitments are generated and sustained is a different question and is logically independent of beliefs about beliefs. Of course, someone who holds Position III might say, "Since moral standards have no grounding in reality, they have no claim on me, so I will do whatever pleases me." That choice could be made, but it does not follow logically as a necessary implication of III C. An objectivist who agrees that moral standards have a grounding in reality might also choose to live a self-centered life just as the imaginary exponent of III just mentioned. Augustinian Christian orthodoxy, an objectivist position if there ever were one, says that in fact that is what we in fact all do. We could, I suppose, argue about whether III has a stronger gravitational pull in that direction or not, but it is not a necessary implication of III any more than a belief in the objectivity of moral standard guarantees a virtuous life in accordance with the the universal, objective standards acknowledged by the objectivist. I do not believe that holding Position III is deleterious to morals, but I would be willing to submit the question for empirical testing and would admit to being wrong if the evidence refuted me. I would be willing to bet, however, that if objectivists were found to live by different moral standards, it would be for reasons other than C type beliefs about A type moral issues. Furthermore, until refuted by clear empirical evidence, I will insist that objectivism is no guarantee either of superior moral ideals or of lives more in conformity with professed standards than what is to be found in the lives of relativists. I am not forgetting that I am a relativist, so I readily acknowledge that any judgment about superior morality is made from some point of view.

To make the point another way, I can imagine two slaveholders, one of whom is an objectivist and the other a subjective relativist. The objectivist might appeal to reason (Aristotle) and revelation (the Bible) to show that slavery was right by objective standards. The subjective relativist might eschew that kind of talk and say simply that slavery is the way we do things in this society, and he/she personally approves and has very strong positive feelings about it. Likewise, I can image two abolitionists, one of whom is an objectivist and the other a subjective relativist. The objectivist might appeal to natural law and to the highest principles of Scripture to oppose slavery, maintaining that nature and God pronounce it wrong. The subjective relativist might simply find it personally offensive and repugnant, neither worrying nor caring what the objective order of reality requires, insisting that life in a society free of slavery is merely preferred by those who share that preference.

It is not belief about the status of ethical beliefs that determines either the content of moral standards or the commitment to live by them. Moral choice is guided by character, and character is a product of nature (genes), nurture (family and culture), life experiences reflected upon, previous choices, and the like. Someone reared in a warm, loving family with clear moral values that are taken to be reflective of the nature of things is not likely to abandon them after taking a college course and converting to subjective relativism. That might happen, but I suspect it would not unless other and more decisive influences and events were at work as well. In any case, I insist that the final test is empirical. Let us examine the moral stances and actions of people and see if any consequences follow from one set of beliefs about beliefs rather than another or from changing from one position to another. I have my opinions based on what seem to me rationally plausible grounds, but it is not what we think but what actually occurs in experience that is decisive.

Some Theses About Relativism and Ethics

The following propositions follow from what has been said so far:

1. Universal agreement does not guarantee objective rightness. If everyone agreed that it was all right to torture babies just for the fun of it, that would not make it right.

2. The mere fact of disagreement, no matter how great, does not disprove the theory of objective rightness. Hence, the fact that a plurality of moral views can be found among various cultures and among individuals within the same culture does not in itself establish the truth of subjective relativism.

3. Objective relativism does not forbid me from holding that views different from mine are wrong. I merely say they are wrong from my perspective or that I believe they are wrong. If relativism means that one idea, value, or practice is about as good as any other, then I am most certainly not a relativist. My intention is to make claims about morality and religion that are true (correspond with reality), and some of them might be. But my views could also be wrong. I believe that some courses of action are objectively superior to others. But which ones? And how do we know? These are the troublesome questions. To answer mine is the right one, and it is right because I perceive the truth correctly will not suffice, since that is, after all, what the argument is about.

4. Objective relativism denies that two contrary views can be equally valid, but validity is always a judgment made from some relative perspective. For subjective relativists validity, if used at all, only means that some group or individual prefers or is committed to or lives by a particular set of standards. Even here two conflicting norms would not be regarded as equally valid for them by the same group or individual.

5. In cases of genuine ambiguity, of course, two courses of action might be equally valid in the sense that both will achieve equivalent mixtures of good and evil, there being no preferable third course of action available. For example, in a particular instance getting a divorce or staying married may result in equal amounts of harm and good, though perhaps distributed in different ways. Here validity is judged by the same moral principles representing one particular outlook. In a wider context, a pluralism of values must be acknowledged that does not allow a simple harmony among them or permit the realization of them all simultaneously in absolute fashion. They can be in conflict. Consider liberty and equality, freedom and order, justice and mercy, and unity and diversity, for example. The values in each of these pairs objectively considered constrain and relativise each other. Sometimes, at least, to get more of one, we have to have less of the other.[7]

6. Absolute subjective confidence in the validity of ones moral beliefs does not guarantee that they correspond with reality. Certitude about them is a basis for acting upon beliefs but is not proof that they are in harmony with the nature of things. If someone believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that torturing babies for the fun of it was OK with the universe or God or Reality or whatever, that would not make it so.

7. Objective relativism does not preclude rational debate with objectivists about ethics. Discussion can include what makes something right or wrong as well as particular matters of morals such as abortion, assisted suicide, and affirmative action. Contending parties can lay out their assumptions and claims along with supporting evidence. Suspected errors of fact, logic, and relevance can be indicated, debated, and refuted. Circles of interpretation will exhibit various degrees of overlapping along with divergence. The disputants can reach a large measure of understanding about the basis for agreement and disagreement. Sometimes persuasive argument will lead to a revision of outlook. Perhaps some positions will approach incommensurability with others, but the reasons for this dissonance can be explored. What reason cannot do is mark out a methodological path that if followed by all competent, rational pursuers of truth will lead eventually to universal conclusions that can be doubted only by defying reason itself. [7]


My present moral beliefs rest on the assumption that we live in the presence of a Divine Creativity that is the source of life and that aims at the fullest possible actualization of enjoyment for all living creatures. As I come better to appreciate who I am and the meaning and purpose of my existence in the larger scheme of things, I may change my mind about that and about what obligations and duties are incumbent upon me. That would matter, would have practical consequences. I could also change my mind about the status of my beliefs and become an objectivist or a subjective relativist, but I doubt if that would matter much one way or the other beyond the fact of the intellectual conversion itself.

Much philosophical discussion is concerned with getting the status of theory correct and does not ask often enough what the practical implications are. I, on the other hand, want to keep asking one question: So what? What difference does it make in experience? With William James I contend that if it does not make a difference in experience, then the differences may be interesting but not very important.

It may be prudent to be afraid of the BIG BAD WOLF. I contend, however, that there is no reason to be afraid of the BIG BAD RELATIVIST. In this case, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.


[1] For a good survey of philosophical options in epistemology from Plato to Putnam, see Paul K. Moser and Arnold Vander Nat, eds., Human Knowledge: Classical and Contemporary Approaches (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). So far as I can tell, the main lesson to be learned from this splendid volume is that for every cogent position offered, at least two equally cogent refutations are generated, giving rise to still further attempts to work out the difficulties thought to vitiate previous efforts. For helpful Internet resources on moral relativism, see Ethical Theory; Ethics; Relativism; Pluralism.

[2]The difference between a belief and a belief about belief is not always clear. Consider these two statements. 1. What cannot be known by scientific methods not only cannot be known but is not real. 2. The preceding statement is true in the sense that it corresponds to reality. I call 1. a belief and 2. a belief about belief. Statement 1. asserts something believed to be true (content of belief). Statement 2. affirms something about the nature of truth (status of belief).

[3] It actually is more complicated than this. My view is that at its base reality consists of nothing but experiencers and their experiences. I am a panpsychist in the vicinity of the views of Alfred North Whitehead. For any experiencer reality is what it is experienced as. Hence, I am also close to the pragmatism and empiricism of William James. Our interpretations of our experience may be wrong, i. e., inconsistent with subsequent or other experiences. Interpretations, then, are subject to revision. A duck may experience a sound, interpret it to be coming from another duck, and move in that direction only to experience disastrous results when it turns out that the sound was made by a hunter. An objective order is real, but it is not easy to say what it is that is real other than to say it is what some experiencer experiences it as and interprets it to be. Apart from its being experienced, perhaps the best we can say is that to be objectively real is the power or capacity to affect something. See my Theological Biology: The Case for a New Modernism (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), 65-120, and Toward a New Modernism(Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997), 116-24.

[4] See Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), and David Griffin in Varieties of Postmodern Theology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989). Obviously an extreme form of subjective relativism that affirms that conflicting claims can be true, i. e., true for those who believe it, is easily refuted. See Relativism

[5] For a complete list of my books, see Essays in Theology and Ethics. For my ethical and metaethical theory, Process Ethics: A Constructive System (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1984) is especially important.

[6] For a long, convoluted, and unconvincing argument denying the validity of this distinction, see Ronald Dworkin, "Objectivity and Truth," Philosophy and Public Affairs 25, no. 2 (Spring 1996), 87-139. An online version can be found at "Objectivity and Truth" by Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin insists that to say that a statement corresponds with reality is just a way restating, repeating, or emphasizing the statement itself, not a logically different kind of statement. Take the following sentences: Abortion is wrong. It is true that abortion is wrong, it really is. The statement that abortion is wrong corresponds with reality. According to Dworkin all these sentences mean the same thing. The last one is not different in kind from the preceding ones. Granted the surface plausibility of this, it nevertheless assumes that to say something is true simply means that it corresponds with reality. But there are other definitions or assumptions about what true means. One could say for example, that the statement that abortion is wrong means simply that it is true for me that abortion is wrong, or it is the way I feel about it or that it is more useful or beneficial for society to view it in this way or that this is what my defining community says about it, or that I believe it is true, but I am not sure whether my belief corresponds with reality or not, or reality does not define whether abortion is wrong, people do, and so on. Truth as correspondence belongs in this category and is one option among others for defining what truth means.

[7] Isaiah Berlin spoke of three propositions that have been dominant in the mainstream of Western tradition: 1. All genuine questions have one answer that is true for everybody, everywhere, all the time. 2. A path leading to the discovery of these truths is in principle available to everyone. 3. All truths are compatible and form one harmonious whole. See Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998). In part, it depends on what 1. means. If it means there is no one perfect, conflict-free moral ideal absolutely valid for all societies, I agree. There may be equally excellent but different ways of organizing the plurality of values in line with 3. However, there may be some universal truths about reality that allow only one right answer, so I am not sure that 1. is altogether objectively wrong. The problem is knowing what the one true answer for all questions is. Hence, I agree wholeheartedly in rejecting 2 in accordance with my understanding of relativism. With respect to 3. as far as ethics is concerned, I agree with Berlin in affirming a stubborn pluralism that insists that not all moral values can be realized simultaneously in individuals or societies without qualification, conflict, or limitation. 

I invite comments, assessments, and other responses.
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This is one of a series of essays in theology and ethics. A list and links to all can be found at

Essays in Theology and Ethics.

Presently, the following essays are available:

About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God (Short Version)
A Doctrine of God (Long Version)
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch

Created: Friday, June 26, 1998, 10:38 AM Last Updated: Tuesday, December 22, 1998, 5:23 PM