Ethics Are Not Relative
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
W. T. Stace, from The Concept of Morals
Kem Stone - 12 September 2007
This text is less of an argument for moral absolutism than an argument against moral relativism. Stace simply
describes both positions in detail, shows why the arguments in favour of relativism are weak, and offers his own
arguments against that position. But there is nothing in this text to support the claim that ethics have an absolute
basis, leaving us just as confused and bewildered about the moral issue as always. I agree with Stace in essence,
but I think he goes too far and condemns relativism too harshly.
Stace begins by clarifying exactly what is asserted by the position of ethical absolutism—namely that there is one
universally applicable moral standard. “There is not one law for one man or race of men, another for another.
There is not one moral standard for Europeans, another for Indians, another for Chinese. There is but one moral
law, one standard, one morality, for all men. And this standard, this law, is absolute and unvarying” (142). Just
as the moral law is applicable in all places it applies in all time periods as well. Any differences in moral opinions
are the result of our ignorance as to the actual moral code. Just as we were once ignorant about the shape of the
earth, believing it to be flat, we were ignorant about the true moral code. The absolutist need not claim that our
current ideas of morality are correct—he may even insist that the ancient Greeks were closer than us to the true
morality—but merely that what is right is right in all times and in all places. This may even be extended so far as to
apply to the entire universe—with the phenomena of right and wrong built into the very fabric of existence itself—
but for the purposes of his own arguments Stace limits the claim to apply to human beings only.
Ethical relativity, Stace then asserts, is merely a negative claim—it is a denial or repudiation of ethical absolutism.
“There is not, the relativist asserts, one moral law, one code, one standard. There are many moral laws, codes,
standards…Any morality…is relative to the age, the place, and the circumstances in which it is found. It is in no
sense absolute” (144). This primary claim of ethical relativism is to be distinguished from the claim that what is
thought right in one country may be thought wrong in another, to which everyone would agree. The claim of the
ethical relativist is that what is right in one country may be wrong in another. Yet here is where Stace sees a
major problem with relativism, as when we ask what makes a particular action right in a particular country, the
answer is that what is thought right in that country is right. The distinction made above is therefore abandoned by
the relativist, who now must accept the consequences that practices such as cannibalism and human sacrifice were
right in the societies which practiced it, and that “burning widows alive was right for Hindus until the British
stepped in and compelled the Hindus to behave immorally by allowing their widows to remain alive” (145).
Turning to the arguments traditionally offered in favour of ethical relativism, Stace brings up the mountains of
anthropological evidence usually offered by those who champion the position. “We learn that all kinds of horrible
practices are, in this, that, or the other place, regarded as essential to virtue. We find that there is nothing, or next
to nothing, which has always and everywhere been regarded as morally good by all men. Where then is our
universal morality? Can we, in face of all this evidence, deny that it is nothing but an empty dream?” (146). The
weakness of this argument, however, is that the variability of moral ideas is not in dispute. The relativist merely
explains it by asserting that morality differs from time to time and culture to culture, while the absolutist explains it
through the assertion that in most times and most cultures, people are ignorant of the true moral code. “There is
nothing in the facts themselves which compels us to prefer the relativistic hypothesis to that of the absolutist”
(146). This I believe must be granted, and indeed it is the same objection I offered against Benedict’s arguments
for moral relativism.
The second argument for ethical relativism is the reason I am not ready to dismiss the position off-hand, and even
Stace understands that it at least has force. This argument “consists in alleging that no one has ever been able to
discover upon what foundation an absolute morality could rest, or from what source a universally binding moral
code could derive its authority” (147). Because all moral ideas are essentially commands (to say that one “ought
to be unselfish” is the same as to say “be unselfish”), we must determine from whom or what these commands
issue. The relativist has any easy time with this question—the basis for all moral codes arise from the prevalent
moral attitudes of each time and culture. Yet the absolutist now has a far more difficult task, as unless he appeals
to the idea of a God from whom all moral law is derived, there is not much else to go on. Stace would perhaps
accept a religiously-based formulation of absolute morality, but recognises that due to the uncertainty inherent in
the issues of God’s existence or His nature, any such code could and would be disputed. “The religious basis of
the one absolute morality having disappeared, can there be found for it any other, any secular, basis? If not, then
it would seem that we cannot any longer believe in absolutism” (148). And if we cannot believe in absolutism,
according to Stace, we must therefore fall back on ethical relativity.
Yet this would be highly undesirable, as in the final section of his text Stace puts forth his arguments against ethical
relativity. In the first place, we are inclined to judge certain systems of morality as better or more advanced than
others, and accepting relativism would make all such comparisons meaningless. We can not say that we have
made any moral progress in the abolition of slavery, as the whole notion of moral progress becomes meaningless.
This leads to the second problem—namely that if all moral valuation is meaningless, what is to prevent our falling
back even farther into their nihilism, with each man determining his own moral law unto himself?
Yet even if we do not go this far, there is a third problem with relativism—which asserts that what is right is only
what is right for a particular group—in the difficulty in determining what actually is right within the particular
group. How can anyone truly know what the moral standard is? “How is even a member of the group to know?
For there are certain to be within the group…wide differences of opinion as to what is right, what wrong. Whose
opinion, then, is to be taken as representing the moral standard of the group? Either we must take the opinion of
the majority within the group, or the opinion of some minority” (149). Yet how can we determine which minority
has the correct moral opinion without any standard by which to judge this? And if we consent that it is the
majority that always has the right, we must therefore accept that all moral reformers are wrong, and that even
Jesus was preaching immorality to the Jews. We will often find that we must designate as good what so clearly
seems to us as base and evil.
Finally, Stace offers a practical argument against relativism: “If men really come to believe that one moral standard
is as good as another, they will conclude that their own moral standard has nothing special to recommend it. They
might as well then slip down to some lower and easier standard” (150). According to Stace, if we abandon the
idea that morals are absolute, we might as well choose our own morality, or abandon morality altogether. This
would result in many people acting selfishly to the detriment of all others because they can discern no particular
reason to behave in any other manner. While this is a genuine concern I believe it to be unfair, and will return to
this point later.
Stace concludes by diagnosing a reason for why relativism has become so prevalent, and the danger inherent in its
widespread acceptance. “We have abandoned, perhaps with good reason, the oracles of the past…we do not
know what to put in the place of that which has gone. What ought we, supposedly civilized peoples, to aim at?
What are to be our ideals? What is right? What is wrong? What is beautiful? What is ugly? No man knows.
We drift helplessly in this direction and that. We know not where we stand nor whither we are going” (150).
Because of our ignorance as to matters of truth, morality, and beauty, many conclude that there is no truth, no
morality, and no such thing as beauty and that these all of these concepts are purely subjective. Stace calls this
opinion defeatism, and makes the bold assertion that “when all the despair and defeatism of our distracted age are
expressed in abstract concepts, are erected into a philosophy, it is then called relativism” (150).
Finally, Stace goes even so far as to claim that if the present civilization should fall, future historians will no doubt
look back upon our times and state that one of the major causes of its collapse was our inability to hold
steadfastly to an unchanging moral idea. “Civilization lives in and through its upward struggle. Whoever despairs
and gives up the struggle, whether it be an individual or a whole civilization, is already inwardly dead” (151).
Therefore Stace not does not merely believe relativism to be a weak philosophical position, but a position so
dangerous that it could even bring about the downfall of the human race!
I believe Stace goes too far in his critique of relativism, though I essentially agree with what he asserts is the major
weakness of the position. However, only one of his objections—that differences among moral opinion are
admitted to by both relativists and absolutists—is an actual critique of the reasoning behind relativism. The rest of
his arguments are merely reactions to the uncomfortable consequences of accepting the relativist position. We
lose the ability to make judgments about which cultures have more advanced moral codes. We lose the right to
claim that we have made any moral progress through the ages. We must assert that moral reformers are always in
the wrong. We may not like these consequences, but they offer nothing against the validity of relativism as a
If we can find no absolute basis for morality, it may be that we simply have to accept that there is no absolute
basis. As unwilling as Stace is to accept this, he cannot deny that morality may simply be always in the eye of the
beholder no matter how distasteful this idea is to him. With no absolute moral standard, we can not discuss
morality in terms of what actually is right or wrong or better or worse, but what is viewed as right or wrong, better
or worse in a particular time or culture. This does not mean, as Stace suggests, that we must therefore assert that
something is right if the majority accepts it to be—we may simply deny that the concept of right has any absolute
meaning. The relativist need not accept the proposition, “The practitioners of human sacrifice were doing the right
thing because human sacrifice was seen as good in their culture.” He need only accept the latter half of the
proposition: “Human sacrifice was seen as good in their culture,” without consenting to the claim that its
practitioners were doing the right thing. Being accepted by society as good does not make something good—the
concept of good is simply an abstract term with no concrete meaning anyway. There is no good or evil, only
people’s conceptions of good and evil.
Does this mean that the relativist can make no normative claims whatsoever? No, it only means that all normative
claims must be mitigated by consenting that one need only agree with the claim if he or she accepts the
presupposed value upon which it is made. For example I can still claim, “Murder is wrong,” as long as I make it
clear that I am forming this judgment on the premise that all humans have a right to live. If you accept this
premise, you ought to agree with my judgment. Yet if you do not accept the claim that all humans have a right to
live, you need not agree with me, and I am therefore either forced to accept your disagreement or endeavour to
convince you that humans do have a right to live, by basing this on another normative claim upon which we can
Finally, I would say that Stace’s worries about a collapse into nihilism are mostly unfounded. I have lived as an
agnostic for many years, unable to formulate a solid rational basis for my own morality for just as long, and yet I
live what most people would consider to be a moral lifestyle. I do my best not to lie, and to treat others as I
would be treated. I try to live with honour, though I recognise that honour is nothing more than a moral abstract
that I am free to abandon at any time without having broken any universal moral law. I think there is something
basically wrong with the idea that a person needs a concrete code of ethics (perhaps carved into stone tablets by
the Almighty creator of Heaven and Earth) to behave like a good person. It is simply my own disposition to treat
others with kindness and respect, and this I believe is the essential point: people’s philosophical ideas of morality
come secondary to their moral behaviour. There are many people who do good without believing in an absolute
morality. And one must certainly admit that much evil has been done by those who do believe in a concrete,
divinely inspired ethical code. From the Inquisition of the past to the radical Islamic extremists of today, these
examples abound in history, and therefore I believe it is completely unfair to claim that people will behave worse if
they believe in ethical relativity.
As far as extending this to the scope of civilization as a whole, I would certainly reject the notion that relativism
could cause its collapse. Stace calls it a defeatism—but how is it defeat to accept what the facts lead us to
believe is true? Is it defeatism to accept that the earth revolves around the sun in spite of the unpleasant
consequences of this idea—that humans are not quite as significant as we believed—or ought we to continue to
search in vain for proof that the earth really is the centre of the universe because if we accept the opposing view it
could lead to the fall of our civilization? Perhaps a civilization based on such a gross misconception ought to fall, if
truth is a primary value we can consent to.
Stace completely ignores the primary virtue of the relativist position—which is the emphasis on tolerance and the
acceptance of uncertainty when it comes to making value judgments. If human civilization as a whole comes to
adopt these principles, and each culture is forced to recognize that it is not necessarily morally superior to any
other culture, I fail to see how such circumstances would be catastrophic. Yet if everyone believed their moral
code to be the absolute code, it is quite easy to imagine the violent consequences this could spark.
Those who hold steadfastly to the position of ethical absolutism in spite of their inability to find a basis from which
to judge morals absolute may appear to be clinging to this belief out of arrogance. These people want so
desperately to be right—to believe with conviction that they are right—that they will react with profound hostility
to any philosophical position that threatens the idea that anyone can lay claim to absolute truth. Relativism does
not threaten civilization—if it poses a risk to anything it is our ability to be comfortable in the belief that we know
what is right and wrong, true or false. But this sort of uncertainty is not unique to relativism. As I have said
before, all philosophical inquiry challenges our pre-existing notions of things, and in this lies its chief value—so long
as we consent to open-mindedness as a value.