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Moral relativism: definition and philosophical principles

Moral relativism: definition and philosophical principles

May 1, 2024

A lot of Hollywood movies, superhero comics and fantasy novels talk about good and evil as if they were two clearly differentiated things and that they exist as they are in all parts of the world.

However, the reality is much more complex than that: the boundaries between what is right and what is not right are often confusing . How to know, then, what is the criterion to know what is correct? Giving an answer to this question is already complicated in itself, but it is even more so when something that is known as moral relativism comes into play.

What is moral relativism?

What we call moral relativism is an ethical theory according to which there is no universal way of knowing what is good and what is not . That means that from the perspective of moral relativism there are different moral systems that are equivalent, that is, equally valid or not valid.

You can not judge a moral system from an external point of view because there is no universal moral (that is, that is valid regardless of the situation, place or time).

Examples in the history of philosophy

Moral relativism has been expressed in very diverse ways throughout history. These are some examples.

The sophists

One of the best known cases of moral relativism is found in the Sophists of Ancient Greece. This group of philosophers understood that you can not know any objective truth and you can not find a universally valid code of ethics .

Bearing that in mind, it is not surprising that they used their discursive ability and ease of thought to defend one or other ideas depending on who paid them. Philosophy was understood as a game of rhetoric, a set of strategies to convince others.

This attitude and philosophical position made the sophists win the contempt of great thinkers such as Socrates or Plato, who considered the relativism of the sophists was a kind of mercenary trade of the intelligentsia.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche was not characterized by defending moral relativism, but he did denied the existence of a universal moral system valid for all .

In fact, he pointed out that the origin of morality is in religion, that is, in a collective invention to imagine something that is above nature. If we discard that there is something above the functioning of the cosmos, that is, if faith disappears, morality also disappears, because there is no vector that indicates the direction our actions should take.

The postmoderns

Postmodern philosophers point out that there is no separation between what we would call "objective facts" and the way in which we interpret them, which means that they reject the idea of ​​an objective order both when describing reality and at the time of establish a moral code. That's why they point out that every conception of good and evil is simply a paradigm as valid as any other , which is a sample of moral relativism.

The facets of moral relativism

This system of beliefs based on the relative are expressed through three aspects.


The moral relativism can be limited to pointing out a situation: that there are several groups with moral systems that contradict and that collide head-on.

Metaethic position

Starting from moral relativism, one can get to affirm something that goes beyond the description of these moral systems opposed to each other: that there is nothing above them, and that for that reason no moral position can be objective.

Normative position

This position is characterized by establishing a norm: all moral systems must be tolerated. Ironically, a norm is used to try to prevent behaviors from being regulated, which is why it is often criticized that there are many contradictions in this system.

Metaethics: Crash Course Philosophy #32 (May 2024).

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