Is Morality a Matter of Taste?
Why Professional Ethicists Think That Morality Is Not Purely "Subjective"
by Theodore Schick, Jr.
The following article is 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
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
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."  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:
- People in different societies make different moral judgments regarding the same action.
- If people in different societies make different moral judgments regarding the same
action, they must accept different moral standards.
- If people in different societies accept different moral standards, there are no
universal moral standards.
- 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
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
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. 
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
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.
- Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (New York: Pelican, 1934), p. 257.
- Solomon Asch, Social Psychology, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1952),
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