Moral Relativism and the Concrete Universal

by Chris Horner

Photograph taken by author

There are some notions, ideas and arguments, that no matter how often they are exposed as fallacious, are rebutted and refuted, seem to recur again and again. Moral relativism is one of them.[1] Put simply, this is the view that one’s moral judgments are delimited by the culture or period in which one lives, so that it is impossible to make meaningful moral judgments about other times and places, since they had or have criteria for what is good or bad that may be quite different from one’s own. It seems to be stuck on ‘repeat’. The perennial nature of such ideas ought itself to make us pause before we repeat the ritual of refutation. We need to ask, what, exactly, the attraction is  – what is it about the idea that seems to make it so irresistibly attractive and inevitable? Rather than an error to be corrected by better reasoning, it looks more like a symptom. Moral relativism never seems to go away, no matter how often philosophers try to swat it. The same is true of a related notion – ethical subjectivism (the view that  moral judgments rest on personal taste, or emotions and nothing more). So rather than just show for the umpteenth time why the arguments for moral relativism are flawed, it would be better to go on to ask why they have this quality of eternal recurrence. There is an insight at the bottom of the idea that has got twisted, and its ‘symptomatic’ aspect has something to do with the nature of alienation in modern society.

Basic Moral Relativism

Here I will be mainly concerned with what we might think of as Basic Moral Relativism (BMR). There are more sophisticated versions, but it is in this form that the non-philosopher usually encounters it. I shall also ignore variants of BMR, such as cultural relativism, although much of what I will have to say applies to these, too. Finally, I am going to focus narrowly on BMR only as it applies to moral judgments about the past, since it is in that form that it has been having its most recent revival. It is the popular version of it I am interested in: the kind that says that we should not condemn the actions of slave owners because ‘what they did was right for them by the standards of their day’ etc. This is not just a descriptive claim (‘different times, different mores’) but has a normative thrust to it: it is telling us that we ought to limit our moral judgments in a certain way. It is interesting how often this kind of argument comes up and its very popularity is, I think, worthy of consideration.

BMR goes something like this: ‘right and ‘wrong’ can only mean right and wrong in a period in history. It is thus a mistake to use the standards of one epoch to pass moral judgment on actions performed in the context of another. As no one can be right or wrong in this kind of disagreement, it is better to see the morality of period A as right for them, just as we are right, for us, when we make moral judgments according to our, possibly quite different moral criteria in period B. There is no overarching or absolute moral standard, so no one can be Right, capital ‘R’.

Part of the attraction here is that the view seems to acknowledge that particular and diverse codes and practices exist, and that in such diversity it is arrogant to assume one has the Right Answer. But it is also worth remembering that there is a difference been accepting that one group may be right in such matters and saying that no-one can get it right about moral issues. We should note that the relativist has made a radical claim: that because there is no overarching, universal moral code above or between epochs to provide the necessary criteria, no meaningful moral judgments about other times are possible.

The position has multiple problems. One is the status of one’s own commitments. If I take a time machine back to period A, where they sacrifice the first female born in every family, what am I to make of my own responses? I may want to condemn the practice – but as a relativist I know that my view is ‘just’ the product of my upbringing in a certain culture at a certain time. Should I view my own reaction to the practice of slitting the throats of innocents as merely a prejudice of my own, on all fours with other customs of my culture like diet or clothing styles? Should I say ‘when in culture A, do (and approve) just as the culture A people do’? And when I get back to culture B, will I confidently readopt my original view about the matter, saying ‘now I am home again I find the practice repellant’? Will it seem less like a local prejudice when I am among my fellow culture B folk?

When considering the past in this light, we need to make a distinction between societies and cultures that are, in effect, museum pieces and those which present, in some way, ‘live’ options for our own judgments and practices. Neolithic societies are surely of the former kind. Their form of life and way of understanding is so different to ours that it is difficult to say what was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in what people did in those times (I am not saying that we can’t learn a lot of other things from them of course). So here, a kind of limited descriptive relativism, or at least respect for distance may be appropriate. It’s not really full-bodied BMR though, since without a time machine the neolithic form of life isn’t accessible to me, something about which any kind of moral judgment seems relevant. Despite the people who dress up like Druids and attend places like Stonehenge, I don’t think that form of life and its mores are accessible to any of us because they aren’t really thinkable as options that would mean much to a 21st century person. They are too different.


Seeing Value 

The case is different with the much more recent practices of chattel slavery, and imperialism. They still have repercussions in the present. Much of the difficulty of applying BMR here is that it seems to dispense with the idea that we might have good reasons for condemning slavery that apply to past and present. We have reasons for holding views about good and bad that we want to back up with arguments: they aren’t like taste in food or apparel. I can explain my outrage at human sacrifice, slavery and imperialism in ways that make sense to people then and now. Those reasons may not have been shared by those who did such things, but the only way to get anywhere here is to examine what we value and why, and be prepared to argue for it. I do not think that my account, based on respect for persons, will come to seem a mere ‘prejudice’ about the Confederacy in 1861 when I examine the speeches and writings of the slave owners. The mere fact that some people thought differently back then is no argument. It is possible to show why slavery was and is wrong, as some others did at the time. 

Values aren’t just arbitrary projections on to the indifferent facts of life, but are bound up with how we see those facts; subjective and objective can’t be cleanly separated. I think we ‘see’ better than the apologists for slavery, as did the abolitionists of that time. This isn’t, of course mainly due to good thinking and sound debating points, but because of material changes brought about by the struggles of the people of that time and this. We are the inheritors of those struggles, struggles that have expanded the circle of our moral concerns. The cruel and narrow view that white men had the right to own black bodies isn’t something (most) people want to go back to. The same applies to the great revolution our times – the women’s movement, feminism. Whatever the good or bad faith of the proponents of the subordination of women it is hard to imagine arguing for the return to the way things were 250 years ago. And this isn’t arbitrary: we see differently and can give reasons based on a kind of moral vista that can account for the one-sidedness and of the past, not forgetting that there were others in that past who also saw the same things.

The Problem with Absolutes

Yet there is a lingering problem. It is the loss of faith in moral absolutes. It is hard to believe that there are a bunch of ahistorical moral truths just hanging there, available to the morally sensitive, or that the March of History has just somehow led us to the high ground of moral certainty that was always waiting for our ascent.  Does the arc of history bend towards justice? I’d like to think so, but I do not know this. The view that it does can lead to what has been called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’: moral absolutists, standing like moral accountants, awarding marks for whoever in history approximates to our current views.[2] But there is no faith today that inexorable moral progress is guaranteed by some metaphysical principle about the direction of life and the universe, still less that moral judgments can be founded like 2+2=4. I think the recurrence of the BMR tendency comes in part from this feeling.

We are what the past became. We learn from it – its wisdoms and errors. That they are seen as errors (or worse) is a matter of historical and critical development. We cannot just say ‘here my spade is turned’ as if reasons have come to an end and we just have feelings about what is right, although we have those too. We have a perspective which, to be sure, is embedded in a history, but this need not lead us to any variety of relativism, basic or not. In fact, seeing the self not as a disembodied ethical judge, but rather as actually rooted in a history and a culture may be our best way of avoiding the blank subjectivism and relativism we have been considering. This is because the universal claims we want to make (‘slavery is wrong’) can actually only arise from the particular historical struggles of persons and groups. The universal is a ‘concrete universal’, not something abstract, hanging in transcendental space, waiting for us to reach up to it. It is something we achieve.

The Alienated Consciousness

                   Hackney Wick, London (photograph: CH)

There is a kind of alienation that underlies both moral absolutism and BMR, as it does the view that ‘it is all subjective’ (as if moral and political views were just a function of personal taste). The demand for moral absolutes and the recoil into relativism and subjectivism stem from a social pathology, as Hegel recognised in his Phenomenology of Spirit.[ 3]  It is a particularly modern malady of the alienated subject, constantly trying to ground her moral claims in ways that in the end can never satisfy. The alienated reflective consciousness recognises its own work in whatever standard or criterion it sets up as a basis for its judgements. If X is true or good just because I say so, then it isn’t independently good at all. It is just a product of my will. Realising this provokes a scepticism about any basis or grounding for ‘value judgements’.

Consciousness is itself the source of its own fraught relation to ethics and values. It sees itself, as Hegel shows, as an independent subject confronting an objective world. A kind of ‘disembodied’ self, it tries to impose on the world the standards which will be the basis for moral judgment. An absolutist demand by this self for universal acceptance of the moral truth of its claims obscures the world that the subject is actually a part of, one of particulars, of complexly understood persons living in an interconnected and complex political and ethical world. But it is this world that makes moral judgements possible in the first place. Like a matrix that hold the subject, the ethical substance of the world – its particular practices, customs, beliefs and much more – form the sittlichkeit (the ethical substance of daily life). Yet the subject is alienated from that world when it pronounces on good and evil. The reflective consciousness that wants to ground its universalising judgments in a single criterion or basis for judgment – the nation, the family, personhood, freedom, duty, for example, -inevitably fails. The arbitrariness of seizing on any one of these ‘grounds’ is revealed by and to the person who does the seizing, sooner or later.[4]


We are always already in an ethical world in which the universal and the particular are embedded, in which the universal arises in and through the particulars. To the alienated consciousness, there is a simple but false dichotomy: either the basis for morality is a universal that is just true, or it is false and there can be no moral Truth. To declare that one’s conscience is the guide to Moral Truth leads straight to a moral individualism, at worst, to fanaticism and a dark desire to cut off the head of the Fallen World. The universalism that is actually immanent in the community is here obscured by the will of the individual moral subject. After experiencing the despair that accompanies the encounter with the world, and the disillusioning sense that it is only one’s will that underlies the moral demand, it lapses into moral scepticism, subjectivism and BMR. Alternatively, if the self identifies entirely with the mores of the community: ‘what my culture says is right, is right’ – the result is BMR again. Here the moral integrity and autonomy of persons is lost. Either approach obscures the way in which the real lived world of the economy, the family, education and daily life in general, provide the ground for the ethical obligations that we have. Both universality and particularity are present in the real ethical life of the community.

The Concrete Universal

The ethical is found in a particular community, not in a philosophy class or a debating club. This is how I come to know and value other persons – in their real existence, through the habits and practices and in the institutions that exists in modernity. This need not lead to any kind of relativism in which one approach is seen as good as any other. Rather, one comes to value what it is to be a free person by actually trying to be one, and any kind of universality comes from the possibility of recognising that freedom is valuable for people on the other side of the world, as well as here, and in the past and well as in the present. This is something forged rather than just found, the result of struggle. There may be no metaphysical guarantee of moral progress, but there is the real historical web that is woven in more and more complex patterns by people and their actions. It is only there that a kind of universality can grow. 

The complex world of modern life is now globally interconnected, and the virtues of respect for persons, commitment to the good of others and so on arise from the habituations of daily life (sittlichkeit, again). This is where my horror at human sacrifice and slavery will come from. Ethical universalism grows out of this soil, and nowhere else, and solidarity with other humans, past and present, near or far has this grounding in the experience we have in the world we inherit and pass on to others. The aspiration to the universal is concrete, not abstract, and it supplements rather than displaces the particularities of time and place. Moral progress is never guaranteed, but the inescapable fact of a connected world, immensely more complex and interdependent than any we have ever seen, should drive us more and more to the realisation that the universal must be built in the present for the future. This is no return to mere parochiality. It is the developing universal rooted in the particularity of real lives and real struggles. In ethics there can be no ‘view from nowhere’, no external guarantees of moral correctness can exist outside the developing human world. As for the Confederates of 1861, the injustice they embodied had its critics and opponents then. The imperfect present, which grew out of that past and its struggles, reinforces the judgements of the abolitionists, who grasped a more universal conception of human dignity and freedom. It is our task to develop it further and to promote it in every way we can. Moral judgment and the wider ethical life is grounded in the lived experience of people. It is to be found nowhere else.

[1] I use ‘morality’ to mean the personal and normative codes by which individuals judge right and wrong, and ‘ethics’ to refer more generally to the standards of “good and bad” distinguished by a community. The terms tend to overlap.

[2] The term is EP Thompson’s – see his The Making of the English Working Class (1963, 1980 P.12)

[3] Hegel’s critical account of the ‘forms of spirit’ is in the  Phenomenology of Spirit (1807); his more properly ‘political’ text is the Philosophy of Right.(1821)

[4] Jay A Gupta makes this point forcefully in his Hegel, MacIntyre, and the (Living) Death of Moral Relativism. I follow him closely here, although my overall interpretation has a rather different emphasis. (Telos, Summer 2016, )