Friday, August 11, 2000

Is Morality a Matter of Taste?
Why Professional Ethicists Think That Morality Is Not Purely “Subjective”

by Theodore Schick, Jr. [Stolen without permission from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 4.]

Although the notion that reality is socially constructed strikes many as decidedly odd, it hardly raises an eyebrow. Many who vehemently deny that we can make something true by simply believing it to be so readily agree that we can make something right by simply believing it to be right. The view that belief makes right is known as “subjectivism” or “relativism.” Despite its popularity, there are probably fewer subjectivists among professional ethicists than there are creationists among professional biologists. Why? Because as ethical theories go, subjectivism is about as bad as they come. To see this, it’s necessary to understand something about the nature and purpose of ethical theorizing.

One of the central questions of ethics is “What makes an action right?” Ethical theories try to answer this question by identifying the features that distinguish right actions from wrong ones. That is, they try to determine what all and only right actions have in common. In other words, they try to identify the logically necessary and sufficient conditions for an action’s being right.

The data that ethical theories try to explain include our considered moral judgments and our experience of the moral life. We all make moral judgments, we all get into moral disputes, and we all act immorally from time to time. Any adequate theory of morality must be consistent with this data. If an ethical theory sanctions obviously immoral actions, if it denies that there can be any substantive moral disagreements, or if it implies that we never act immorally, there’s good reason to believe that it’s mistaken.

An ethical theory should also be workable — it should help us solve moral dilemmas. We desire an adequate ethical theory because we want to do the right thing. If an ethical theory doesn’t give us specific guidance in specific situations, it fails to meet one of the primary goals of ethical inquiry.

Subjectivism claims that what makes an action right is that a person approves of it or believes that it’s right. Although subjectivism may seem admirably egalitarian in that it takes everyone’s moral judgments to be as good as everyone else’s, it has some rather bizarre consequences. For one thing, it implies that each of us is morally infallible. As long as we approve of or believe in what we are doing, we can do no wrong. But this cannot be right. Suppose that Hitler believed that it was right to exterminate the Jews. Then it was right for Hitler to exterminate the Jews. Or suppose that Stalin believed that it was right to assassinate his enemies. Then it was right for Stalin to assassinate his enemies. Subjectivism sanctions any action as long as the person performing it approves of it or believes that it’s right. But what Hitler and Stalin did was wrong, even if they believed otherwise. So believing something to be right can’t make it right.

Not only does subjectivism imply that everyone is morally infallible, it also implies that moral disagreement is next to impossible. Suppose Jack says that homosexuality is right, and Jill says that it’s wrong. You might think that Jack and Jill disagree with one another. But you would be mistaken. According to subjective relativism, Jack is saying that he believes that homosexuality is right while Jill is saying that she believes that homosexuality is wrong. But this doesn’t constitute a disagreement because neither is denying what the other is saying. In order for Jill to disagree with Jack, she would have to say that Jack doesn’t believe that homosexuality is right. But it’s difficult to see how she could ever be in a position to make such a claim because, presumably, no one knows Jack’s mind better than Jack.

Subjectivism, then, fails to meet the criteria of adequacy for ethical theories: it sanctions obviously immoral actions, it implies that people are morally infallible, and it denies that there are any substantive moral disputes. Because it is inconsistent with our considered moral judgments and our experience of the moral life, it is not an acceptable ethical theory.

Cultural Relativism
When we say that an action is right, we cannot merely be saying that we approve of it or believe that it’s right. What are we saying then? Many believe that we’re saying that our culture approves of it or believes that it’s right.

Our moral beliefs tend to reflect the culture in which we grew up. For example, if we grew up in India, we may believe that it’s morally permissible for wives to be burned alive along with their dead husbands on a funeral pyre. If we grew up in Syria, we may believe that it’s morally permissible to have more than one wife. And if we grew up in the Sudan, we may believe that it’s morally permissible for young women to have their clitorises surgically removed. If we grew up in America, however, we are likely to believe that none of these practices are morally permissible. Since people in different cultures have different moral beliefs, the conclusion that morality is relative to culture seems unavoidable.

Cultural relativism, unlike subjectivism, does not imply that individuals are morally infallible. But it does imply that cultures are morally infallible. Since cultures make the moral law, cultures can do no wrong.

If cultures were morally infallible, however, it would be impossible to disagree with one’s culture and be right. Social reformers couldn’t claim that a socially approved practice is wrong because if, society approves of it, it must be right. If society approves of slavery, for example, then slavery is right. Anyone who suggests otherwise is simply mistaken. Thus cultural relativism would have us believe that William Lloyd Garrison advocated an immoral position when he advocated the abolition of slavery. But this is not what we believe. We believe that the practice of slavery was wrong even though our culture approved of it. Since cultures are not morally infallible — since they can sanction immoral practices — cultural relativism cannot be correct.

Unlike subjectivism, cultural relativism does not rule out all forms of moral discourse. Since individuals can be mistaken about what their society approves, there can be legitimate grounds for moral disagreement. But since whatever society approves is right, all moral disagreements must be about what society approves. People who disagree about the morality of abortion, for example, must really be disagreeing about whether society approves of abortion. But is this plausible? When people argue about whether abortion is morally permissible, are they really arguing about what their society believes? Could the abortion controversy be solved by means of an opinion survey? Of course not. Thus cultural relativism, too, is inconsistent with our considered moral judgments and our experience of the moral life.

Even if cultural relativism provided a plausible account of ethical disagreement, it would still be an inadequate theory of morality because it is unworkable. It doesn’t help us solve moral dilemmas because there is no way to identify one’s true culture. Suppose you were a black, Jewish, communist living in Bavaria during Hitler’s reign. What would be your true culture? The blacks? The Jews? The communists? The Bavarians? The Nazis? Each of us belongs to many different cultures, and there is no way to establish one culture as our true culture. If we can’t identify our true culture, however, we can’t use cultural relativism to solve our moral problems.

Given cultural relativism’s many failings, why is it so popular? Part of the answer is that many people believe that it promotes tolerance. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict, for example, claims that, by accepting cultural relativism, “we shall arrive at a more realistic social faith, accepting as grounds of hope and as new bases for tolerance the coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence.” [1] But to explicitly advocate cultural relativism on the grounds that it promotes tolerance is to implicitly assume that tolerance is an absolute value. If there are any absolute values, however, cultural relativism is false.

The most a cultural relativist can consistently claim is that her culture values tolerance. But other cultures may not. In fact, fundamentalists of almost every stripe do not tolerate those who disagree with them. From a cultural relativist point of view, then, their intolerance is perfectly justified. Thus any attempt to justify cultural relativism by an appeal to tolerance is bound to fail.

Another reason that cultural relativism is so popular is that it seems to be the only ethical theory that is consistent with the anthropological evidence. The inadequacy of cultural relativism suggests that this conclusion is mistaken, however. To see why, let’s examine the anthropological argument in more detail.

The Anthropological Argument
The anthropological argument for cultural relativism says that, because people in different cultures disagree about the morality of various actions, there are no universal moral standards. But the fact that people disagree does not, by itself, imply that there are no absolute moral standards. Only in conjunction with certain other assumptions can that conclusion be reached. By making these assumptions explicit, we can better judge the soundness of the anthropological argument for cultural relativism. Here’s one way of spelling out the argument:

  1. People in different societies make different moral judgments regarding the same action.
  2. If people in different societies make different moral judgments regarding the same action, they must accept different moral standards.
  3. If people in different societies accept different moral standards, there are no universal moral standards.
  4. Therefore, there are no universal moral standards.
This is a valid argument because the conclusion follows from the premises. The question is, are the premises true? Premise 1 is certainly true, for it has been confirmed by anthropological investigation many times over. What about premise 3? It states that if people disagree about what makes an action right, there can be no correct answer to the question, “What makes an action right?” But this doesn’t follow. From the mere fact that people disagree, we can’t conclude that none of the parties to the disagreement is correct.

Premise 3 is not the only questionable premise in this argument, however. Premise 2 says that whenever people disagree about the morality of an action they must accept different moral standards. In other words, it says that, whenever there is a difference in moral judgments, there is a difference in moral standards. But moral judgments do not depend on moral standards alone.

To derive a moral judgment from a moral standard, we must have some beliefs about the facts of the case. Without such information, no moral judgment can be made. The formula for a moral judgment, then, can be expressed as follows:

Moral standard + Factual beliefs = Moral judgment

Since moral standards alone do not imply moral judgments, it is not necessarily true that, whenever there is a difference in moral judgments, there is a difference in moral standards. Any difference in judgment could also be due to a difference in factual beliefs.

Some anthropologists believe that this is often the case. Solomon Asch writes:

It has been customary to hold that diverse evaluations of the same act are automatic evidence for the presence of different principles of evaluation. The preceding examples point to an error in this interpretation. Indeed, an examination of the relational factors point to the operation of constant principles in situations that differ in concrete details. … Anthropological evidence does not furnish proof of relativism. We do not know of societies in which bravery is despised and cowardice held up to honor, in which generosity is considered a vice and ingratitude a virtue. It seems rather that the relations between valuation and meaning are invariant. [2]

According to Asch, people in different cultures arrive at different moral judgments, not because they have different views about the nature of morality, but because they have different views about the nature of reality.

Consider the abortion controversy. Pro-life people believe that abortion is wrong while pro-choice people believe that it is right. Does this mean that they have different views about the nature of morality? No, because they both believe that murder is wrong. What they disagree about is the nature of the fetus. Is the fetus the sort of thing that can be murdered? Their disagreement, then, is about the reality of the fetus, not about the morality of murder. Since moral judgments follow from both a moral standard and certain factual beliefs, a difference in moral judgments does not necessarily imply a difference in moral standards.

Although moral disagreement is widespread, we do seem to be making moral progress. We have abolished slavery, given women the vote, and made tuna dolphin-safe. This constitutes progress, however, only if there are fixed moral standards against which we can judge our actions and policies. If there were no such standards, we would have no grounds for thinking that things are better now than they were before. The best explanation of the fact that we are making moral progress, then, is that there are universal moral standards.

Where do these standards come from? No one, not even God, can make an action right by simply believing it to be right. Many, including the founders of this country, believe that moral standards can justify themselves!

“We hold these truths to be self-evident” proclaims the Declaration of Independence. A self-evident truth is one that is such that if you understand it, you are justified in believing it. Consider, for example, the statement whatever has a shape has a size. If you understand that statement — if you know what shape and size are — you are justified in believing it. You don’t need any additional evidence to support your belief. What makes self-evident truths self-evident is that they do not stand in need of any further justification; they justify themselves.

It is widely believed that there are self-evident truths in logic, such as the statement that everything is identical with itself. But are there any self-evident truths in morality? Consider the statement, “Unnecessary suffering is wrong.” This statement does not say that suffering is wrong or that no one has suffered unnecessarily. What it says is that whenever one is made to suffer unnecessarily, a wrong has been committed. To anyone who understands what suffering and wrong are, this statement should be self-evident.

If you do not believe that this statement is true, the burden of proof is on you to provide a counterexample. If you are unable to do so — if you cannot cite a situation in which unnecessary suffering is right — then your claim that it is false is irrational, for you have no good reason to make it.

There are a number of such self-evident ethical truths, such as equals should be treated equally and the unnecessary destruction of value is wrong. These principles do not constitute a theory of morality because they do not specify what all and only right actions have in common. But they do serve as boundary conditions that any theory of morality must meet. If a moral theory would sanction violating one or more of these principles — as would subjectivism or cultural relativism — it is unacceptable.


  1. Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (New York: Pelican, 1934), p. 257.
  2. Solomon Asch, Social Psychology, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1952), pp. 378-79.

Theodore Schick, Jr., is Professor of Philosophy at Muhlenberg College and coauthor (with Lewis Vaughn) of How to Think about Weird Things (Mayfield, 1995) and Doing Philosophy: An Introduction Through Thought Experiments (Mayfield, 1999).

© 2000 Council for Secular Humanism