Friday, July 15, 2005

A strong example of moral relativism


Right, here's an example of something I think demonstrates moral relativism. Here in Australia, it's traditional to wear black clothes to a funeral. In Japan, I hear white is a traditional colour.

In Australia, if you wore white, under most circumstances, people would judge as doing something wrong. Yet the reverse is true in Japan!

This example is so simple that most people don't think of it as exhibiting moral relativism - they jump straight to the principle in question - namely that you should wear a conventional colour. But this is a mistake, or so I would argue. Why?

Because it's not true that they are interchangeable. The people involved will have other learned responses to funereal colours, they will have emotional reactions not to the incongruity but to the colour itself.

Yet, I would argue, there is no rational principle which says that black is necessarily a better colour than white to wear to a funeral. There is nothing that would cause us to reject either viewpoint. Each culture has a rich heritage, and can justify their choice of colour.

In today's world, most people would not pass judgement on the Japanese for wearing white to a funeral -- at least in China. But despite this acceptance of diversity in moral behaviour, it remains morally wrong to wear white to a funeral in Australia.

The implication of this is that many things which we consider to be moral judgements could, according to a solely rational examination, equally well be different. Driving on the other side of the road; nude sunbathing; pornography; bachelor parties; euthanasia; the deliberate killing of other people in some circumstances; punishment; respect for authority.

It strikes me that the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that there is no such thing as an objective and absolute morality. Why? Because these acts are all variously judged as moral or immoral, but exhibit little variation as to the quality of their rational justification.



Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Note - I'm quite aware that there are good responses to this. But I can't handle trying to pre-guess what people's responses will be, and writing a massive dissertation covering off all the angles. This is an organic thing - I'll respond to what comes in.


7/15/2005 12:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Your posting contained many arguments and I don't know where to start. So I will focus on a small aspect.

"It strikes me that the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that there is no such thing as an objective and absolute morality. Why? Because these acts are all variously judged as moral or immoral, but exhibit little variation as to the quality of their rational justification."

I submit it is the intention of the act that determines whether it is a good or bad act. Wearing a white suit is neither good or bad, but if we wear it to show respect we are committing a good act. If we wear it to mock the dead person we are committing a bad act. Until we know a person's intent we don't know whether the act was virtuous or vicious.

It is common to judge a person as good or bad. I submit that there are only good or bad acts, not good or bad people. It is more useful to view a person as mistaken rather than bad, because he or she convinces themself that a bad act is good. Eg it's OK to mock a dead person by wearing white to a funeral because he or she was nasty.

Do you agree?

7/15/2005 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Cooper said...

I see nothing wrong with mocking the dead or the alive, it's just that the dead are easier they don't fight back.

7/15/2005 08:06:00 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

James Rachels has an excellent discussion of these sorts of cultural differences in his introductory textbook The Elements of Moral Philosophy.

I think it's fairly clear that the underlying principle in your example is that one ought to show respect for the dead, and not offend the grieving people at a funeral. What sorts of behaviours are considered "respectful" or "offensive" will of course differ across cultural contexts. But the underlying principle is the same.

This is no more "moral relativism" than it is to recognize that lying can be right or wrong depending on the circumstances. (Think of the proverbial Nazi asking about the Jew hidden in your attic.) Context matters. But that's entirely consistent with objectivism.

7/15/2005 08:51:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

What, then, for you, is the difference between moral relativism and "context"?

What would I need to demonstrate changing in order to invalidate moral absolutism / objectivism?

Is it the principle itself? I feel that I can extend this example to show that more is changeable than the mere specifics of circumstance. But I'll do it tomorrow - it's bedtime now!


7/16/2005 01:57:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...


I'm happy to consider only whether acts or good or evil at this stage. You submit that it is the "intention" - well in both cases our actor "intended" to wear either white or black. I think what you mean is not whether or not their actions were accidental or deliberate, but whether they had their intended consequences or not.

That is a step towards understanding the morality of an act properly. Certainly I'm happy to agree that in wearing colour X, the person was actually setting out to respect the dead. But is that really true? Can you boil down the selection of clothes to such a simple principle? Are the wider connotations of black clothes in Western culture really the same as white cloths in an Eastern one?

For example - do black or white have the same metaphorical and mythological implications in each culture? In other words - is the principle or "intention" or consequence really just a single, unchanging principle? Or is it rather two different but similar consequences?

I would argue that there is a common theme, but I don't accept that the example merely boils down to a universal principle of "appropriate action".


7/17/2005 12:19:00 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

"What, then, for you, is the difference between moral relativism and 'context'?"

Suppose a particular agent S performs a particular action A. Now consider the claim (M): "It was morally wrong of S to do A."

Moral relativism is the claim that whether (M) is true or false depends on who the speaker is.

In your example, then, we might say it is objectively wrong for an Australian to go to an Australian funeral wearing white. (The Japanese person who denies this does so because he is ignorant about Australian culture and what counts as respectful behaviour in this context. He is simply mistaken in his denial.)

Similarly, it is morally permissible to wear white to a Japanese funeral. Anybody who denies this is, again, simply mistaken. The truth is "relative" to the factual context, not to the speaker.

7/17/2005 03:02:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Similarly, it is morally permissible to wear white to a Japanese funeral. Anybody who denies this is, again, simply mistaken. The truth is "relative" to the factual context, not to the speaker.

If you claim that, you are vulnerable to this suggestion: does every situation, every context, merit its own re-assessment of what is moral?

I would say that moral relativism is the idea that morality is relative to X, where X can be anything. For example, either killing is wrong per se or it isn't, if you are a moral absolutist. A moral absolutist who believes that killing is wrong, for example, must also believe that the death penalty is wrong. Anything that varies by context cannot, therefore, be a morally loaded action.

A moral absolutist could certainly identify principles rather than specific actions, but they would have to be unchangeing, absolute principles which _never_ vary, including by context.



7/18/2005 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Edit - of course that's not the same thing as being *objective*, but it's something I want to discount.

I'll make further reply later...


7/18/2005 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

To further clarify: objective is the opposite of subjective, and relative is the opposite of absolute.

I believe in both relativism AND subjectivism, but they are clearly distinct.

Richard, you seem to be opposing relativism with being objective, which doesn't wash. You can be both a relativist and an objectivist at the same time.


7/18/2005 10:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Alan said...

In a moment, I'm going to finish giving this post a "slow" reading, and give some serious thought to the issues it raises. But one thing jumps out right away: It's China, not Japan, where white was the traditional color of mourning.
In contemporary Japan, people, male and female, wear black to funerals. Men where exactly the same formal "morning coat" to a funeral that they do to a wedding. The only difference is that one always wears a white necktie to a wedding, and a black necktie to a funeral.

7/19/2005 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Alan said...

Why is what color one wears to a funeral a moral issue at all?

7/19/2005 03:45:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Alan : thanks for the corrections. The specifics are good to get right, but the example still stands.

If you're asking historically, how did it become important, I don't really know.

But if you are asking whether, in fact, it might be not a moral issue after all, I think that I can back it up. If you attend a funeral inappropriately attired, I think you will find that you offend people. Since (as mentioned several posts ago in this thread - a while ago now!) my claim is that morality is actually a kind of "agreement" with your society, it is wrong to offend people's moral beliefs, all else being equal.


7/19/2005 04:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

"You submit that it is the "intention" - well in both cases our actor "intended" to wear either white or black. I think what you mean is not whether or not their actions were accidental or deliberate, but whether they had their intended consequences or not.

No - I meant that it is why the person acts that determines whether the act is good or bad, and not the consequence. To continue with the example of the funeral: if I wear white clothes to a funeral because I think that is a sign of respect to the dead, then I am acting well. If however, I miscalculate and upset some of the relatives, that doesn't make my act bad. After all, I can't control how people will react, and if they react differently than I expect perhaps I have simply made a mistake.

If I set out to offend them, and wore a white suit, and didn't realise that this would please them because it is appropriate in their culture, I have acted badly, despite the good outcome.

7/20/2005 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger Jon B. said...

Dear MelbournePhilosopher,

I came across this post when it was the first to come up when I googled "moral relativism" examples.

Sadly though, I didn't see anything in your post that had anything to do with proving moral relativism.

There is nothing morally right or wrong concerning what to wear to a funeral. Your post conflated morality with preferences, which is not surprising since for a relativist all morality is preferences.

However, if all morality is personal or societal preferences the only reason you can give for condemning the Nazis or the war in Iraq is that you don't like it, not that it is wrong, evil, etc.

In fact, those words make no sense if moral relativism is true, and even if our moral philosophy tells us one thing about the Nazis, our moral intuitions reveal our moral philosophy is off (in other words, we know it's wrong even if we tell ourselves there's no such thing as wrong).

All your example proves is that different cultures differ, not a shocker.

However, most devastating to your argument for moral relativism, is it actually proves moral objectivism. Why? Because both examples demonstrate a whole host of moral rules (as demonstrated in the other posts), including the moral principle that one should seek to respect another's cultural distinctives while avoiding offending or traversing them needlessly.

Your example actually refuted the point you were trying to prove. You should check out There are a lot of articles there that could help you gain some more clarity on this issue.

Take care,


7/16/2008 05:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too found this post when searching for moral relativism.

I just want to make one clarification: I think in both cases of wearing white or black, people do so to honor the LIVING as well as the dead. For it is the living who would actually take offense. The dead are, well, dead and likely don't give a damn either way. ;)

5/02/2009 03:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i didn't read all of the other comments, so if you've answered this already, please just point me to your post. But how have you proven that there is no absolute moral? Following the example, what if there is an absolutely right color to wear to a funeral, but as flawed human beings we have not yet figured it out? Two different groups of people in two different locations, in an attempt to choose this absolutely correct color, have used their logic and reason to choose two different colors. One of them may be right (clearly making the other wrong), or both may be wrong. Maybe the absolutely correct color is blue. But as human beings with limited mental capacities what is to say that there is in fact an absolutely correct color, but as of yet we have not been able to come to the right path of logic to find it? Show me the proof, no assumptions.

10/28/2009 03:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, what a waste of time. Utter hogwash.

1/29/2010 10:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read posts like this on the internet hoping to find sound arguments for moral relativism. Your example doesn't prove moral relativism, if such a concept can proved or disproved. There is a fundamental problem when arguing for either moral objectivity or moral relativism: your personal convictions will skew your ability to impartially assess whether or not an observation supports an argument.

A moral relativist may look at differences in perceptions of a particular moral behavior over cultures or time and claim that this evinces a lack of moral absolutes; given the same observations, a moral objectivist may see those differences as either an imperfection in accurately tracking morality or as the gradual convergence to moral truths, principles, or optimal logistics for societies. I'm not sure if any thought experiment or observation could disprove either position.

What people can do is figure out how they perceive morality; I used to wonder if morality still applied to planets devoid of life. Would moral properties persist on such a planet, would such properties exist only as long as a moral observer could witness them, or would such properties cease to exist and only ever existed when the observer projected them onto events? People often treat a societal consensus as a matter of fact, but when you talk about a planet with no inhabitants it has an almost division by zero error - without any life or observers, what makes a celestial occurrence "good" or "bad"? However, in asking these questions, I may have exposed my preference for relativism. (Continued...)

10/31/2011 05:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to make this clear that I don't think moral relativism is a practical system for mundane personal decisions, but an accurate reflection of how to make sense of morality in the universe. I've heard my fair share of "But if we take the moral relativist view,...[insert description nightmarish dystopia here]." These comments both distract and therefore detract from what I'm trying to discuss: the nature of reality, not some sales pitch for a new code of ethics.

To me, moral relativism does not say everyone should tolerate every moral decision/opinion put forward, nor that one person's moral opinions are as useful for a cohesive society as another's; rather, the universe does not force actions to contain moral attributes of "good" or "bad", only that our actions will result in probabilistic consequences. We may 'feel' the badness of an action or the justness of a situation, but that is not a proof of the necessary existence of moral objectivity. Moral relativism dictates that morality is meaningless outside of our minds, though I can conceive of humanity reaching a moral consensus. Whether or not such an agreement can be reached is for politicians, game theorists, and economists to discuss.

This debate should be about truth rather than practicality, even though it seems no amount of anecdotal evidence, circular reasoning, or hyperbolic thought-experiments will change anyone's mind; nor will irrefutable evidence, cogent reasoning, or valid counter-examples. Each person is the sovereign of their own convictions and moral attitudes, but should at least be aware that it is a product of their environment and social influences, not necessarily an objective truth.

10/31/2011 05:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about killing or rape? Whether the culture approves of it or not the victim still dies or gets violated.

This doesn't disprove objective morality, all it proves is that there's lots of silly aesthetic considerations that people elevate to "issues of morality" that really just don't belong there.

In fact considering the social dynamics if people kept their personal aesthetic opinions personal and decided to tolerate other people's choices then logically it would result in less social conflict, more social harmony, and every individual gets to have their way as long as they aren't infringing on another person's rights.

This makes it objectively moral that people ought to hold their personal preferences only as their personal preferences and not demonize others for not sharing them. Only things that can be shown to logically interfere with a person's rights should be condemned as immoral. Otherwise society is wasting its time. If we waste our time hating and discriminating against people who are doing no wrong then it costs everybody. The less qualified employee might get the job for some prejudice the employer has against something irrelevant and petty. When people are thrown in jail for things based on such arbitrary notions as "ew, that's disgusting" instead of a harm which is substantial and proveable that takes that person's productivity out of society.

It is therefore immoral to invent and try to enforce moral wrongs that have no objective need for existing. We should only recognize wrongs that it serves a functional purpose to recognize and only if what ever enforcement is involved outweighs the costs of enforcement.

In short "live and let live" is objectively moral.

11/09/2011 08:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

note the first thing you say about the subject in question: it is tradition. Tradition is not morals. It is just the way things are customarily done. It is neither right nor wrong, therefore it does not make morals relative.

11/30/2012 08:11:00 AM  

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