What is Metaethical Relativism?


Aug 3, 2020
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On the surface, descriptive relativism and metaethical relativism may seem very similar. But when you look under the hood a bit, the differences become stark. While the descriptive version accounts for moral variations among different cultures and societies, the metaethical version looks deeper into an individual's or group's psyche.

Descriptive moral relativism is one where morality can vary widely and can change dramatically from culture to culture and even, dare I say, time to time.

If you look at the above statement, you'll notice that it sort of just...is. Yes, sure, because groups and cultures are different and require a variety of needs and ways of living, then yes, their moral centers can differ from one another. That's nice, but there's nothing concrete about it. It seems like it's a mere observation that we're asked to live with. We either accept it or reject it. In another post, the author laid out and argument for why someone might want to adhere to descriptive relativism or moral objectivity. With moral objectivity, there can be moral truths among earth - things that are always moral or always immoral, which is at odds with the former.

I think one of the primary facts that we must admit is that different groups around the planet will always live different lives. No two will be the same - ever. And because of this, there can be no standard of morality between or among groups. Sure, there can be general norms that can be agreed upon as we grow closer to one another as a species, but as far as tradition, religion, funerals, family structure, foods we eat, and so forth, go, complete commonality can never completely exist. We'll never be a homogeneous people. And not only can we never be completely homogeneous, we'll actually stay radically different. Culture, in cases like these, takes precedence.

Metaethical relativism touches upon both moral objectivity as well as descriptive relativism. Basically, it says this: Yes, there can be different versions of morality that are based on the wants, needs, and differences among cultures, while simultaneously, there can be moral truths, but only among those groups. So while morality can be flexible depending on where you are or who you're with, it can also be constant, depending on where you are or who you're with. The moral truth we speak of is therefore relative to the specific groups or cultures themselves. This type of relativism also claims that while moral truths can exist, they can only do so within that specific group. As if it belongs to the group.

It all depends on how the people within a group think. The word relative is a slippery one. It can actually allow people to get away with a lot. If one culture or religion says that it's imperative to work every single day of the year and claims that it's moral to do so because of so and so, another group can claim that work free holidays are required for similar reasons. And guess what - the second group is just as justified for making that claim as the first one is, simply because the inhabitants of that group deem it so. Again, the morality of a group is dependent on the viewpoints of the people within it.

I can fathom how this type of difference in morality can infuriate certain types of people. For instance, in Canada, there are massive seal hunts that kill thousands and thousands of seals. I'm sure animal rights activists would love to end this practice. As they would love to end the entire fur trade as well. A trade that furriers likely have no problem with. I'm also sure that animal rights activists believe there is a moral truth in that whales and dolphins shouldn't be slaughtered in Asia (or anywhere for that matter), while many in Asia don't see a problem with the practice at all. With metaethical relativism, each of these practices, even those who are resistant to them, are moral, as long as the group agrees they are. In a nutshell, morality is relative.

How do you feel about metaethical relativism? Do you believe that morality can be so fluid or is it much more rigid, as the moral objectivists claim? Personally, I tend to think that morality tends to be more fixed. I just don't think we are able to apply the words moral or immoral to as many activities as consistently as we'd like. And therein lies the debate, I suppose. Let me know what you think.
What is Metaethical Relativism? was posted on 08-22-2020 by JodyBuchanan in the Philosophy Forum forum.

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