The Erroneous Moral View of Subjective Relativism

Introduction (Much of the content for this article is taken from the following book, "Beginning Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy.  Author, Lewis Vaughn.)

Subjective Relativism is a view on, or framework for, morality.  There are four major moral frameworks that all people on the earth hold.  There is moral objectivism, subjective relativism, cultural relativism, and emotivism.  I person could try and hold to more than one of those views but they would hold contradictory positions if they did.  Here is a summary of those four moral views:

1. Moral objectivism is the doctrine that some moral norms or principles are valid for everyone— universal, in other words—regardless of how cultures may differ in their moral outlooks. You need not hold, however, that the objective principles are rigid rules with no exceptions (a view known as absolutism) or that they must be applied in exactly the same way in every situation and culture.

a.  Example of distinction between objectivism and absolutism.  An absolutist position would be that lying is always wrong.  An objectivist position would be that lying is almost always wrong except where you must lie to help someone avoid wrongful persecution.

2.  Cultural relativism is the view that an action is morally right if one’s culture approves of it. Moral rightness and wrongness are therefore relative to cultures. So in one culture, an action may be morally right; in another culture, it may be morally wrong.

3.  Subjective relativism is the view that an action is morally right if one approves of it. Moral rightness and wrongness are relative not to cultures but to individuals. An action then can be right for you but wrong for someone else. Your approving of an action makes it right. There is therefore no objective morality, and cultural norms do not make right or wrong—individuals make right or wrong.

4.  Emotivism is the view that moral utterances are neither true nor false but are instead expressions of emotions or attitudes.

In this article, we will examine why subjective relativism is an erroneous view of morality to hold.

Each Individual Gets to Decide What is Right and Wrong

What view of morality could be more tempting (and convenient) than the notion that an action is right if someone approves of it? Subjective relativism says that action X is right for Ann if she approves of it yet wrong for Greg if he disapproves of it. Thus action X can be both right and wrong—right for Ann but wrong for Greg. A person’s approval of an action makes it right for that person. Action X is not objectively right (or wrong). It is right (or wrong) relative to individuals.  In this way, moral rightness becomes a matter of personal taste.

For example , if Ann thinks the flavor of ice cream is strawberry ice cream, then it is strawberry (for her). If Greg thinks the flavor of the same ice cream is vanilla, then it is vanilla (for him). There is no such thing as strawberry ice cream being strawberry for everyone, objectively or generally.  Likewise, the morality of an action depends on Ann and Greg’s mere moral tastes.

Many people claim they are subjective relativists, until they realize the implications of the doctrine—implications that are at odds with our well-reasoned moral experience.

First, subjective relativism implies that in the rendering of any moral opinion, each person is incapable of being in error. Each of us is morally infallible. If we approve of an action—and we are sincere in our approval—then that action is morally right. We literally cannot be mistaken about this, because our approval makes the action right. If we say that inflicting pain on an innocent child for no reason is right (that is, we approve of such an action), then the action is right. Our moral judgment is correct, and it cannot be otherwise.

Yet if anything is obvious about our moral experience, it is that we are not infallible. We sometimes are mistaken in our moral judgments. We are, after all, not perfect beings. From all accounts, Adolf Hitler approved of (and ordered) the extermination of vast numbers of innocent people, including six million Jews. If so, by the lights of subjective relativism, his facilitating those deaths was morally right because it was right for him. It seems that the totalitarian leader Pol Pot approved of his murdering more than a million innocent people in Cambodia. If so, it was right for him to murder those people because he believed it was right.

But it seems obvious that what these men did was wrong, and their approving of their own actions did not make the actions right. Because subjective relativism suggests otherwise, it is a dubious doctrine.

Another obvious feature of our commonsense moral experience is that from time to time we have moral disagreements. Maria says that capital punishment is right, but Carlos says that it is wrong. This seems like a perfectly clear case of two people disagreeing about the morality of capital punishment.  Subjective relativism, however, implies that such disagreements cannot happen. Subjective relativism says that when Maria states that capital punishment is right, she is just saying that she approves of it. And when Carlos states that capital punishment is wrong, he is just saying that he disapproves of it. They are not really disagreeing, merely describing their attitudes toward capital punishment.  In effect, Maria is saying “This is my attitude on the subject,” and Carlos is saying “Here is my attitude on the subject.” These two claims are not opposed to one another, because – subjective relativists must posit - they must be about different subjects. So both statements could be true. Maria and Carlos might as well be discussing how strawberry ice cream tastes to each of them, for nothing that Maria says could contradict what Carlos says.

However, because genuine disagreement is a fact of our moral life, and subjective relativism is inconsistent with this fact, the doctrine is implausible. In practice, subjective relativism is a difficult view to hold consistently. At times, of course, you can insist that an action is right for you but wrong for someone else. But you may also find yourself saying something like “Pol Pot committed absolutely heinous acts; he was evil” or “What Hitler did was wrong”—and what you mean is that what Pol Pot and Hitler did was objectively wrong, not just wrong relative to you. Such slides from subjective relativism to objectivism suggest a conflict between these two perspectives and the need to resolve it through critical reasoning.  A moral doctrine that leads to regular and consistent contradictions – when using logic properly – is a moral doctrine that at best, often leads to false conclusions.

Review of Subjective Relativisms Faults:

1.  Subjective relativism implies that in the rendering of any moral opinion, each person is incapable of being in error. Each of us is morally infallible.  Real life experiences tell us that people make mistakes, including moral judgment mistakes.  Thus, it is unreasonable to believe that each person is morally infallible and will not make mistakes.

2.  Some of history’s worst events carried out by its worst tyrants – like Hitler killing millions of people – would mean than what the tyrant did was morally fine since the tyrant approved of his moral actions.  This would indicate that those who believe subjective relativism believe mass unjustified murder is morally justifiable.

3.  Moral disagreements are real, not imaginary.  Subjective relativism deductively concludes that moral disagreements are not possible since each individual is absolutely correct in their moral views.  That view is unreasonable and leads to contradictions.  Any belief that either leads to contradictions or tries to pretend that real contradictions don’t exist (like saying 1 equals 3 is not contradictory), is not logically sound, and thus should be dismissed.


Subjective relativism is gaining in popularity among many in the Western free societies.  As people reject the existence of God or even the notion that an objective, universal moral code exists that should be observed by human beings, some ethical view must take its place.  As human beings, we are programmed by our Creator to need a moral component to our operating system, so to speak.  Since human beings are naturally selfish, what could be a more self-justifying moral view than that there is no objective or universal moral standard that exist against which people will be held accountable.  The subjective relativist believes, 'What I believe is morally right is morally right for me, and may not be morally right for you'.  Of course, if they are consistent with their view, they should have no problem with another person believing it is morally right to steal from them or sexually abuse them or their children if that person's moral view approves of such actions.

If you are a person who can see the destruction taking place and who want to help in trying to stop it, please, find the One who says, "I am the truth", place your faith in him and enter into his Life and come, join the Peaceful Revolution!

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