The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Relativism or human rights?


I’m going to start by painting pictures of two viewpoints. It might not be clear at first why I’m doing it, but just stay with me, all will be explained shortly.

Moral Relativism

On the one hand imagine a group of people who are moral relativists. Moral relativism is the view that there are no transcendant moral facts, but only relative moral perspectives. Regardless of one’s view of morality, pretty much everyone believes that a plurality of moral perspectives exist. This is just to say that not everyone agrees on moral issues – hardly a controversial observation. Different individuals and different cultural groupings hold different beliefs about morality. But moral relativists go much further than this simple factual observation. Moral relativists believe that this diversity of moral beliefs is reflective of the fact that there are really no universal moral facts. People hold different perspectives on morality, and those perspectives are all equally correct.

Relativism can be subdivided into two basic kinds: Subjectivism and conventionalism. Subjectivism is an individualistic take on relativism, where every individual person determines their own morality. Not only does a person decide what they believe about morality (a phenomenon that we all observe), but a person literally determines what is morally right for them. The boundary of moral truth is the individual. What is really moral within those boundaries depends on that individual, and is not binding on anyone beyond that boundary. You might hear overtones of subjectivism from people whether they have actually decided on subjectivism or not; “Abortion: maybe not right for you, but right for me!” “Don’t impose your moral views on other people, each person has to decide what’s right for them.” “If you think that your morals are right and mine are wrong, then you’re just being narrow minded.” You get the idea.

Conventionalism is more of a “group think” approach to relativism. Here, morality is the custom, consensus, or collective opinion of a group – perhaps a cultural category, tribal group, society, or some other kind of cluster of multiple people. In conventionalist relativism moral values are determined by one’s group, and what is deemed right really is morally right for that group, even if not for others. Different cultures will therefore have different moral codes, and what makes this a relativist approach is the further claim that none of these moral codes can truly be said to be morally better than any other, since there is no morality that stands over and above all different cultures. If I were a conventionalist, while I might not personally like Sharia law, female circumcision or honour killings, I would have no way of claiming that there was anything morally wrong with it, since it is acceptable to those cultures that practice it, and morality is constructed by cultures. As soon as I make the claim that other cultures ought not do those things or that they should conform to the values cherished by my culture, I have overstepped the mark, and I am no longer acting like a relativist.

The opposite of moral relativism is moral “objectivism” or moral “absolutism.” It’s the view that there really are moral facts – claims that are absolutely true, whether we follow them or not. Moral facts, being facts and not conventions, transcend individuals and cultures, much like, say, laws of science. I think that relativism is an absurd position to take, and it is no accident that moral philosophers have no time for it. It’s no accident that, as Chris Goawns noted, moral relativism has the rather undesirable distinction among ethical viewpoints “of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone” (see the “Moral relativism” link above). However, this blog entry is not intended as a critique of relativism, so I will not introduce reasons why I think it is wrong. The first thing I have set out to do is to paint a brief and accurate picture of what moral relativism is.

Human Rights

OK, that picture is painted. As promised, here is the second picture I want to paint. Imagine a group of people who are… there’s probably a really good one-word noun for it, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but we’ll call them people-who-believe-in-human-rights (I’d use the term “humanitarians,” but that’s a little broader than just a concern for rights). According to these people, everyone, everywhere, in all nations and cultures – all people – have some basic rights. These rights are basic things in that they’re fundamental. Human rights are not the product of human laws. In fact, these people say, it’s quite possible to have a collection of laws that are fundamentally wrong because they are contrary to human rights. Perhaps those laws deny people the right to freedom of speech or religion. Those laws might deny women to show their face in public. Perhaps those laws forbid journalists to publish anything that is unsupportive of the government. According to these advocates of basic human rights, there would be something terribly morally wrong with these laws, whether the laws were passed here in New Zealand, in Australia, in Japan, in Afghanistan – anywhere in the world. Rights are things that ought to be left alone so that people can enjoy them, and to do otherwise is wrong, whoever you may be. I’m not going to paint a picture that is so detailed that it requires you to imagine each and every one of the rights that these people believe in, for now it is enough just to say that they believe that there are some human rights of an unspecified number.

OK, the pictures have been painted. Now comes the claim that I want people to accept: These two pictures exclude one another. You cannot consistently think of yourself as belonging in both of these groups of people at the same time. You might believe in human rights, or you might be a moral relativist (or perhaps neither of these things apply to you), but you cannot consistently be a moral relativist and a believer in human rights.

To some (perhaps even most) people this will, I think, seem fairly obvious. To believe in human rights is to say that there are moral claims that are true beyond yourself and beyond the boundaries of your own culture or social grouping. It’s possible for people from other cultures to get it wrong, and to fail to uphold the rights that they should uphold. This is another way of saying that those moral principles are not relative.

The most well known statements about human rights in the Western world illustrate this very well. Perhaps the most widely cited is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.. Here’s a selection of the kind of thing we find in it, in no particular order. I’ve emphasised a few words.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

And so on. I have emphasised two types of words. First, I have emphasised words that stress universality. This was intended as a universal declaration, which is why it is littered with references to “everyone,” “all human beings,” “no one” and “without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion.” Relative claims are very far from what are being made here. Secondly I have emphasised the moral words, in particular, “entitled.” This certainly doesn’t mean “legally” entitled, because the authors were well aware that unfortunately not everyone is currently legally entitled to the things it lists. The idea is that whether all societies recognise it or not, all people are, as a matter of fact, morally entitled to certain things.

In another widely quoted and loved statement, President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address stressed the belief that human rights are not the fabrications of society, but are really, existing properties that exist whether we like it or not:

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

Not everyone realises that this conflict exists (rather like someone who wants no tax and a great state funded welfare system).

For example, Andrew Yip and Michael Keenan describe a divide within the Anglican community. It’s not this stating of the obvious that caught my eye, however. In particular they identity a rift between those who look favourably on the church’s endorsement of same sex unions and those who do not, those who legitimise same-sex sexual unions and those who not, and those who endorse the ordination of people in such relationships and those who do not. Take a look at one of the ways in which the writers contrast these two groups and their attitudes. Packing in a number of words that are likely included to boost the “yuck” factor of their description, they first refer to “the traditional discourse that upholds moral absolutism, predicated primarily on scriptural inerrancy and traditional authority, most clearly illustrated through the stance of conservative evangelicals.” On the other side, with language as loaded loaded as it can be, we have the view that “Christianity needs to open its arms to embrace the diversity of human life,” a “non-traditional religious discourse” that is “clearly informed by the broadening cultural (secular) discourse of citizenship that emphasizes human rights as well as personal liberty and happiness.” Whatever other contrasts are going on, and stripping away the misleading (and actually inflammatory, in spite of its niceness) language, there is a contrast made between people who believe in moral absolutes on the one hand, and people who believe in human rights on the other.

In more popular level cut n thrust internet tirades this kind of thing is no less prevalent. It’s not always stated bluntly, but examples are there to be found. For example, in the very same blog post Deane over at the Dunedin School blog advocates moral relativism and also denounces those who “want to take away rights from women, homosexuals, and other minorities.” Do people have a duty to uphold rights (and therefore warrant disapproval when they do now), or are morals relative? Decide, because it can’t be both.

It may be emotionally satisfying, and perhaps it gives one the hope of appearing less offensive, to present oneself as undogmatic, accepting, tolerant, nice, approachable, inoffensive, yadda yadda, and the profession of moral relativism may – on first appearances anyway – seem to amount to just this (it’s actually not, and I think it amounts to the opposite, but this piece isn’t a critique of relativism). It’s also obvious why people, relativists included, want to be seen to uphold fundamental human rights. To do otherwise will be viewed as evil, ogrish, as unthinkable. But those who want to advocate both are going to have to breathe in, bite the bullet, and make a choice.

To believe that all humans have rights is to reject relativism. To embrace relativism is to reject human rights for all. Which side, if either, are you on?

Glenn Peoples


No true Scotsmen – or Christians


You heard me right the first time, I am not an inerrantist


  1. Joey

    But Glenn, everyone knows that moral “absolutists” are intolerant and don’t believe in human rights 😉

    (End sarcasm)

  2. Everybody who believes in human rights must be intolerant of some things. 🙂

  3. Andy

    Great discussion Glenn, but I disagree with your characterisation of relativism. While I’m sure it is one that many people have endorsed (particularly anthropologists), it is a very naive form of relativism that you are describing. I accept that a relativist is committed to the idea that there are no transcendent truths. But I don’t think a relativist is committed to the idea that there are no universal truths. For example, couldn’t a relativist believe that every culture in the world endorses a right to life? If so that relativist would believe that there is a universal – but non-transcendent- moral truth (a right to life). And it seems fair that this individual could characterise themselves as a relativist because the moral fact is still made ‘true’ only by the code of the culture in question(it’s just that, as a contingent matter, every society agrees on this one).

    I disagree that ‘ moral philosophers have no time’ for relativism. In the last 30 years Dreier, Harman, Levy Prinz and Wong are all prominent moral philosophers who have defended relativism.

  4. Yes Andy, a relativist could think that a right was “universally held” if every culture in the world endorsed, say, a right to life. However he couldn’t say that a right to life exists whether cultures admit it or not, and this is what I have tried to point out. What’s more, a relativist, even if he thought that some rights were universally believed in would also have to concede that many are not universally believed in. How far the right to life extends and to whom it applies, whether speech or religion should be free, whether women have the right of equal treatment to men, along with others, are examples of this. These aren’t “universal truths” in the sense you describe (namely, that everyone believes the claim), since not everyone believes in them. I don’t think a self proclaimed relativist is typically ready to abandon the claim that these rights really do exist, and the psychological strain that a western relativist will have to exert in order for her to say “I accept that if a middle eastern culture tramples women’s rights, then those rights really don’t exist there and they have no obligation to act differently” is pretty impressive.

    While it’s true that there do exist in the world some moral philosophers who are self-consciously relativists, those same philosophers would readily admit to defending what is clearly a minority view.

  5. Don’t confuse my use of ‘rights’ with the liberal invention of transcendent ‘rights’ you cited above.

    Rights are nothing but a device to enforce a particular relative moral code. They only ‘exist’ through the recognition of ethical norms in a particular society. I don’t buy into that Rousseauist-United Nations-Natural Law tradition. Rights ‘exist’ because I want them to ‘exist’, that’s all.

    I did inform you that I was a consistent relativist, and you just haven’t taken me at my word, Glenn. 😉

  6. Bob

    “Rights ‘exist’ because I want them to ‘exist’, that’s all.”

    So what happens when someone want rights that are contradictory to yours? Will you criticize them? On what basis?

  7. Ken

    The fact that we can reach a broad agreement on human rights says something about the objective basis on which moral decisions can rest. Also common moral intuitions and intelligence which have evolved in our species (and actually some other species too).

    But it is silly to call that “objective morality” – and even sillier to attribute it to gods, demons, fairies,, spirits, etc., as Kennedy does in your quote.

    The scientific investigation of morality has come a long way and should not be ignored. We don’t have to attribute it to gods as we used to with thunder and lighting before we understood them.

    In the end “objective morality” and “god-given morality” produces the worst sort of moral relativism. It has enabled “divine jsutification” of slavery as well as freedom, segregation and apartheid as well as equality, discrimination against women, homosexuals, and same sex relationships, as well as acceptance of these, racial genocide as well as racial acceptance, etc., etc.

    Once we start using the “god” argument we can justify anything – good or bad. And we can deny the innate moral intuitions and logic which our species has.

  8. Bob asked: “So what happens when someone want rights that are contradictory to yours? Will you criticize them? On what basis?”

    I might ignore them. Or, if I’m moved to comment, I might point out that they’re annoying me or other people. Or I might get them to agree that they produce negative effects that they might agree are negative. Or I might threaten them with violence, for example, legal imprisonment if it is against the law. Or I might point out that their claim is inconsistent with other beliefs that they hold and that they should therefore change it. Lots of options, really. People negotiate ethics in this way all the time.

  9. Shawn

    Ken claims “And we can deny the innate moral intuitions and logic which our species has.”

    If they are products of Darwinian evolution, then they are not innate, but merely current delusions given to us by nature and circumstances to support the survival of the race. According to Darwinian evolution if what helped the survival of one race over another was the extermination of the other then that would be perfectly moral.

    Once we start using the “evolution” argument we can justify anything – good or bad.

  10. Deane, sure, as a relativist you can believe in a convention specific to your own congregation (i.e. set of people who agree with you) about there being things that you affix the label “rights” to. The only thing you eliminate the possibility of is the things that people call human rights, those things that attach to all people everywhere. As a consistent relativist, I don’t expect to see you ever complaining about human rights abuses outside of that circle. 😉

    And you’re right, I don’t take you at your word. I think that you think you’re a relativist. I just think that you’re actually not a relativst.

  11. Ken, if rights are real and they have an objective basis, then objective morality exists.

    For personal reasons you might find that uncomfortable, but when people say that objective morality exists, they just mean that there is an objective basis for morality, so there are (at least some) moral facts.

    Dont let language that you don’t like put you off the idea.

  12. Ken

    Glenn – if that is how you wish to define “objective morality” – great. But it has nothing to do with gods, goblins, fairies, spirits, etc. It has to do with our objective existence as an intelligent, sentient and social species.

    And I don’t see how you can imagine I find that uncomfortable.

    Once we bring our gods, etc., into justification of moral actions we open ourselves up to worst sort of moral relativism. And we ignore our won ability to use moral intuition and logic.

  13. Ken, you are mistaken about what moral relativism is.

    Moral relativism is not the view that there exist different moral codes that people hold, based on their religious beliefs. This is just moral pluralism, the view that differing moral belief sets exist.

    Moral relativism involves a further claim, saying that different moral codes are neither more nor less right than each other. As you probably know, people who believe that moral facts are based on theological facts certainly do not hold this view. Muslims believe that moral claims that conflict with those taught in the Qur’an are false, for example, indicating that they cannot possibly be thought of as relativists. Indeed, theologically grounded ethics is typically despised by moral relativists precisely because it is such a staunch and explicit objectivist outlook.

    PS, you’re welcome to make sweeping claims about what morality is and is not based on. Just so you know however, morality comes from God. There – I gave as much good reason to believe my view as you did yours. 🙂 But then, how moral facts are grounded is not, and will not become, the subject of this blog entry.

  14. There are no rights which “attach” to people, independent of people “attaching” them subjectively (in their minds). In reality, human rights do not “attach” to even one person, let alone every person.

    And you are wrong if you think a relativist can’t complain about any action, anywhere. Of course they can require, command, cajole anybody to accept their morals. This non-objective, purely subjective negotiation of moral codes happens all the time. You just need to appreciate that the “morals” are not considered objective by a moral relativist (something that some people have not yet grasped). I might have a subjective reason to want others to change their moral code. For example, I might find their behaviour distasteful. Or, I might find it to be inconsistent with other morals that they hold and ask for greater cosistency.

    Yours, consistently (despite your baseless doubts),

  15. Deane, I think it’s clear enough already that I am not talking about people who undermine things that you like and call rights, but who are being inconsistent. That’s just not the issue.

    I am right that a relativist cannot (consistently, at least) say that there’s something actually wrong with other cultures failing to protect the things that you subjectively think of as rights. I don’t think there has been any doubt all along on anyone’s part that this is what I am talking about.

  16. No, a relativist can consistently claim that anybody in any culture is wrong under their own subjective evaluation of wrong. What they can’t do is say that there is some objective standard outside everybody’s subjective standards for claiming this.

    For example, if I saw somebody from a culture that practiced horse-flogging flog a horse, I would call it ‘wrong’. And I would do so, even if I knew that the person had different moral standards.

    Are you beginning to see how relativist morals work, Glenn? The scales might drop from your eyes when you begin to appreciate that relativists don’t hold objectivist assumptions.

  17. Deane, the best assumption I can make is that you don’t know what I mean, which may well be my fault. I will try again.

    A person who is self consciously a relativist, who deliberately affirms moral relativism, and who thinks that the denial of moral relativism is factually mistaken, will also be aware that his subjective feelings or in-house agreed on rules within his own culture just don’t apply anywhere else. What he can say is – and I think this is what you were trying to get at – “if those people were doing those things in this culture that I am in or if their culture shared my values and they still did the things that I am doing, then what they are now doing could be deemed by me to be wrong for them. But right now it’s not wrong for them. For me, maybe.” They can look at other cultures and say “oooh, yuck, I’m personally relieved that my culture’s not like that, I don’t like it!” But this is not a moral condemnation of any sort, relative or otherwise. Moral relativists believe that moral rules apply only relatively – to limited domains/cultures/people.

    So I see what you want to say, but it doesn’t, in spite of what you think, undermine my denial about what relativists can consistently say.

    “Do you get it yet? Are you beginning to understand?”

    Those two questions aren’t serious, and I apologise if they offended. I presented them because I think you’d see them as uncivil and presumptuous. We disagree. There is no need to assume that anyone who disagrees with you must obviously fail to understand the concepts involved. I’d like you to treat this like a disagreement between intelligent adults, not a cognitive failure. As it is your glib asides (both here and at your own blog) have the effect of making you come across like a sneering fundamentalist, which I am sure you do not want. My exposure to moral theory is such that the assumption that if I disagree with you about moral relativism, then clearly I don’t really know what it is, is probably not smart. I won’t assume this of you. Return the favour.

  18. Nope, I do understand what you are saying, and you are wrong.

    As a relativist, I can condemn any culture, anywhere – from my own perspective. I need not abstain from condemnation, even though I am fully aware that they apply only to my own in fact. Prescription is different from description.

  19. Well, my parting observation then is that in practical terms yes, you can engage in the practice of doing whatever you like. Yep you can condemn whatever you wish. I agree. Go right ahead.

    Inconsistency is legal in this society, and not objectively immoral either. 🙂

  20. There is no inconsistency in a relativist condemning those she does not like, as though one’s own rules applied to them, or from the desire that one’s rules did apply to them. A relativist may judge someone under any set of rules (prescription), while recognising that they might have a different moral code for judging morality (description). There is no inconsistency. Morals, unlike facts, can contradict in different peoples’ heads.

  21. Bob

    Hi Deane,

    Sounds like anything goes, why bother with moral at all then?

  22. Bob, it isn’t anything goes.

    Actually, one can be quite attached to one’s own moral code. People tend to feel quite strongly about the way they should interact with other people. Habits form and feelings grow. And if you choose to live among people, you can’t avoid the process starting (unless you’re the odd exceptional psychopath). That’s why people tend to bother – it’s because they’re bothered.

  23. Bob

    “A relativist may judge someone under any set of rules (prescription), while recognising that they might have a different moral code for judging morality (description).”

    So you judge people as wrong even though you don’t think they are really wrong because there is no such thing as right and wrong?

  24. No, I really think that they are wrong. And there is such a (subjective) thing as right and wrong.

  25. Bob


    “unless you’re the odd exceptional psychopath”

    Why is it ‘odd’ for relativists to realise what relativism truly is and acting accordingly?

  26. Bob

    “No, I really think that they are wrong.”

    In what sense? and on what basis?

  27. So a relativist may condemn another person’s deeds “as though one’s own rules applied to them”?

    Oh, so you mean, as though something that she thinks is false were false were really true?

    I agree. That’s what inconsistency is.

  28. On the basis of the moral code I have in my mind, which is largely determined by the societies in which I mingle. By ‘wrong’ I mean contrary to the ethical norms of this moral code.

  29. Glenn – no. That the morality of another society exists can be accepted as true (descriptive) while at the the same time we consider our own morally better moral code should (prescriptively) apply.

    That is why there is no inconsistency.

  30. Bob – neither a psychopath nor a deeply moral person acts ‘according’ to moral relativism. Moral relativism simply pertains.

    A psychopath has no moral compunctions, whether or not morality is in fact subjective or objective.

  31. Glenn – I think you are applying metaphysical relativism at the level of prescription, which is an error. To do so in fact introduces a false constraint on moral judgment which relativism does not accept. It is another instance of trying to slip in objectivist measures for moral relativism.

  32. That is, it is quite consistent for a moral relativist to recognise that another society is applying a different moral code, while at the same time to claim that the application of your own moral code would be better. Again, this is quite consistent behaviour. You’re not claiming good is bad, but that their good is not your good.

  33. That is, you’re not claiming that their good is their bad, which would be inconsistent. Instead, you’re claiming that their good is not your good (quite consistently).

  34. Bob

    Deane, I must say you are consistently being inconsistent, quite consistently, in your inconsistency.

  35. Deane, what I’m doing is really uncontroversial and simple. I’m saying that someone who is a serious relativist – someone who thinks that her standards cannot be applied to others, who live by their standards, steps outside of her own view when she says that someone else’s behaviour is wrong even though it accords with that other person’s standards.

    Nobody – certainly not me – is smuggling objectivist assumptions in here.

    You’ve also made an illegitimate move to try to save your position. You said that calling the actions of someone in another culture wrong would be like asking her to live as though your moral views were true – Not just that your views existed and applied to you (you already think this!), but as though they actually apply to her as well.

    You can’t back out by saying “that the morality of another society exists can be accepted as true (descriptive) while at the the same time we consider our own morally better moral code should (prescriptively) apply.” You were saying that a relativist can consistently call other cultures to live as though that relativists moral claims were true. You simply had a moment where you freely expressed that which comes naturally, and it makes sense. Saying that people are doing things that are wrong really is to say that we wish they lived as though our moral code were true – the way we (usually) live.

    Your other escape route doesn’t work either. You didn’t say, as you now say in retrospect, that the relativist who condemns is “claiming” that their good is not your good. You said that she is “condemning those she does not like, as though one’s own rules applied to them, or from the desire that one’s rules did apply to them.” It’s not just a claim that their moral beleiefs are different, or there would be no inconsistency. It’s the condemnation of their good, and the expression of the desire for it to change and become my good. It’s to call for everyone to live as though your rules do apply to them all. It’s the desire that everyone lived like, well, objectivists!

    Deane, I share that desire. 🙂

    Bob – for what it’s worth, I’m not interested in inter-blog politics here and I’d prefer that it didn’t come up. I removed your comment.

  36. You were saying that a relativist can consistently call other cultures to live as though that relativists moral claims were true.

    No! Your reference to ‘true’ is another objectivist assumption. I might want other cultures to live as though my moral standards were subjectively theirs, because I am prejudiced towards these standards. But I don’t have this desire because I fantasize that they are ‘true’ in any objectivist/real sense (being a self-reflective relativist). The standards of others are not considered wrong “really”, either, as you put it, which is a further objectivist assumption. Instead, others are only ever wrong to me, on the wish that everybody would apply my standards.

    This is a (subjective) desire for everybody to live like me, not an (objective) desire for everybody to live according to some true/real/objective/transcendent standard which I may or may not have. Because there is no such objective morality, and I do not share your desire for people to believe in imaginary things.

  37. Bob

    Fair enough, and that was a bad comment, thanks for deleting it

  38. Deane, you are not a relativist. You talk about a relativist being able to live towards others as though her own rules applied to others – presumably ALL others (i.e. as though it were true that others were under her rules).

    You object to the suggestion that this means acting as though her moral rules were true.

    There is no difference, Deane. Treating everyone as though my moral rules are universal, i.e. they apply to all people everywhere, is not different to treating people as though my moral claims were true.

    Nobody is smuggling objectivism in.

  39. nick

    Hi Glenn
    Have you ever come across a good critique relating to existentialism and its weaknesses philosophically? If so can you share the source details.

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