Moral Relativism

I often hear people — usually conservatives — argue generally against a supposed shift from “moral absolutism” to “moral relativism.” But I’m genuinely unsure about what exactly this means concretely, and I wonder whether someone has a crisp, specific definition of what constitutes bad moral relativism.

To begin with, I take it that we would all agree that most moral commands are sensitive in some measure to some of the circumstances surrounding the action. Intentionally killing someone is generally wrong, but most of us who aren’t complete pacifists think that it’s not wrong when you do it in proper self-defense, or in proper defense of another, or in a just war, or in some other circumstances. Taking someone else’s property without permission is generally wrong, but I assume most of us would agree that there are emergency situations that might justify it (or that would at least greatly mitigate its wrongness). One can of course debate about particular matters, for instance abortion, capital punishment, and the like. But these generally aren’t debates about moral relativism vs. moral absolutism, so much as about the particular moral rules that are involved.

I take it that we would all also agree that some moral commands should be enforced by law, and others should not, and that some behaviors are clearly immoral while others are matters of personal preference and still others are moral or not depending on their particular effect on the actors and others around him. So one can say that rape is morally wrong, and should be legally punished. One can say that adultery is morally wrong, but probably should not be legally punished, or one can disagree with that. And one can say that the choice whether to have sex with more or fewer partners is a personal choice, which could be immoral under some circumstances (for instance, involving a high risk of disease to partners, or lying to the partners), personally destructive but not immoral under a range of other circumstances, and a matter of personal taste under still other circumstances — or one can say that premarital sex is always immoral. But in any case that too wouldn’t be because we take an abstractly absolutist or relativist view, whatever that means. It’s because we have a particular judgment about the morality of the behavior. (Even those that think that premarital sex is always immoral, after all, think that the morality of many kinds of behavior varies with the circumstances.)

I take it that we would also agree that moral commands may vary in some measure from society to society, simply because social variation may affect some of the boundaries of the moral commands. I suspect, for instance, that different property rules make sense depending on whether the society is nomadic or settled, or whether enforcement of certain kinds of rules is easy or difficult. Different societies can reasonably have different ages of consent for marriage or for sex, depending on the economic characteristics and social norms of the societies.

Now one can imagine a categorical moral relativism that takes the view that no society’s moral rules can be permissible evaluated by outsiders; and I agree that this is wrong. But in my experience very few people actually take such views, and say something like, “Well, the Holocaust was right for the Nazis, though I wouldn’t want to try it here.” (Many more object to interference in other nations’ actions with regard to their citizens on prudential grounds, and some do so on sovereignty grounds, but I think very few object to such interference in all circumstances purely on the grounds that no government’s actions can be morally evaluated by people in other countries.)

So it seems to me that in practice virtually no actual current debates really turn on moral relativism vs. moral absolutism. Rather, virtually everyone agrees that there are moral norms that are binding on people, whatever their subjective beliefs might be, that those norms are in some measure “bumpy” — they can’t necessarily be defined through very simple bright-line tests, but are sensitive to various circumstances — and that there are various costs to enforcing those norms through law, and to not enforcing those norms through law. The questions, in my experience, are nearly always about what those moral norms are, and what legal rules, if any, should enforce them, not about moral relativism vs. moral absolutism. And talk of moral relativism vs. moral absolutism, I think, is nearly uniformly more distracting than helpful.

But perhaps I’m missing something, so let me ask: Is there some clear, usable definition of supposedly improper moral relativism that would actually advance particular moral or legal debates? Again, please make sure that the definition relates to what constitutes relativism as such, and not what the moral rule might be. A statement such as “belief that it’s OK to abort fetuses is wrong because it’s moral relativism,” for instance, seems to me wrong — the questions at the heart of the abortion debate relate not to whether there are moral norms that are applicable even to people who reject them, but rather what those moral norms are.