Opposing Viewpoints: Moral Universalism vs. Moral Relativism

by Wendy Connick,

Ethics is the branch of philosophy that examines questions of morality, or right and wrong. While applied ethics addresses questions such as “If X happens, what is the ethical thing to do?” meta-ethics takes a step back and looks at even more fundamental questions like “Do moral terms such as 'good' and 'evil' have meaning?” and “What are the basic factors we should use to make moral judgments?”

Philosophers attempting to answer the second question are divided into two basic camps: moral universalism and moral relativism. Moral universalists believe that certain actions are “good” or “evil” regardless of an individual's beliefs. Moral relativists, on the other hand, believe that morality can only be decided by one's cultural or personal beliefs.

Moral Universalism

Also called moral objectivism, this philosophy argues for the existence of a universal ethic. Certain behaviors are simply wrong regardless of the circumstances. In a 2007 interview Noam Chomsky defined universalism as “If something's right for me, it's right for you; if it's wrong for you, it's wrong for me.”

Universalism is based on the idea of a “rational test” that can be applied to any ethical dilemma. The exact nature of this test varies widely among different factions of universalists. For example, utilitarianism states that the correct rational test is “Does my action create the maximum good for the maximum number of people?” If the answer is yes, then a utilitarianist would say that the action is morally correct.

Moral universalism in the form of human rights has become widely accepted in the past several decades. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the United Nations in 1948, and the Geneva Conventions (which define fair treatment of prisoners of war) are based on the theory of moral universalism. In other words, human beings all have certain rights and to deny those rights is always immoral.

Moral Relativism

Different cultures and individuals have different standards of right and wrong. Moral standards also change over time in the same culture. For example, slavery was considered moral in the United States at one time &ndash but not anymore.

Moral relativists argue that there is no known universal rule that defines right and wrong. Instead, morality is determined by the standards of a person's own authorities. These authorities might be a government, a religion or even a family member.

To carry the argument further, if one society believes that slavery is wrong and another believes that slavery is right, a moral relativist would say that either side may be correct. We have no way of knowing for sure whether slavery is ethically right or wrong, since human beings have not yet found an absolute moral yardstick with which we can judge.

Moral Nihilism

In its most extreme form, moral relativism becomes moral nihilism. Also called amorality, this philosophy takes moral relativism a step further by stating that there is no absolute basis for right and wrong. Therefore, morality is meaningless: a person's or culture's ethical rules are entirely artificial, created to keep a society running smoothly. To a moral nihilist, if a society decides that murder is wrong, this is just as arbitrary a decision as if it decided that a red traffic light means “stop.”