What is Normative Relativism?


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  • #1
While descriptive relativism and metaethical relativism are fun to talk about, normative relativism takes the cake. Descriptive relativism states that views on morality can differ from location to location and between cultures and metaethical relativism states that there should be different views on morality between groups and not only that, there can also be moral truths among groups, depending on how they view their situations and the world at large. It's sort of like a staircase. Descriptive is the bottom step and metaethical is the middle step. Normative is the top step and it is so because it states this:

Not only are there moral differences between groups and not only should there be, along with a variety of moral truths, no one group should ever critique another based on their version of morality. And furthermore, no group should ever interfere with another group's intent to live in their society and carry out their specific code of conduct.

If you were a normative relativist, you would argue that there is no central pillar of morality on which we can rely, therefore, one group has no jurisdiction over another in terms of morality. Just because morality might have been considered and determined to be the best in your culture, because there's no concrete moral standard set across the globe, you must face the fact that your culture may be acting with its own best interests in mind and those fair and just interests may not apply well to others. And because they might not, you have no right to interfere with what others have determined to be moral and just. No one set of morals is better or worse than any other.

Now this is where things get confusing. It's sort of a brain twister. Think about this: You live in the United States of America and have decided that you are a normative relativist. You're fairly idealistic, so it's not a huge leap for you to think this way. You say, "Here in the U.S., our morals are no better than anyone else's. We as a nation have no right to interfere with the goings ons of another nation. I do declare, so on and so forth." You feel great about this statement and you hold your head high. You also say, "I believe that our nation is a nation of normative relativists and we all believe that no nation's set of moral standards are any better or worse than any other nation's. We have a duty to respect how other nations choose to run their affairs. We should not condemn any other nation and we shouldn't feel as though we are a superiorly moral nation. So there."

Now here's the tricky part. Just because you have declared the U.S. to be a normatively relativist nation, this doesn't mean that every other nation on earth need believe the same thing. Other more conservative nations and cultures may feel as though they align with a much more strict objective morality. They claim that there truly is only one set of moral rules (theirs) and the entire world should follow them. Understandably, this might upset you. You certainly don't want to fall under another culture's moral code, especially if it's wildly different than your own. So you stand up and declare even louder than you did last, "No nation can impose their version of morality on another and that's the last I'll say about it!" The thing is, by standing up and loudly making that declaration, you've essentially imposed your moral beliefs on all other nations around the world. You happen to be a normative relativist and you consequently claim that all nations on earth should be normative relativists as well. Doesn't this sound like a moral truth? A universal value? What if those in other nations don't believe the way you believe? What if they are religious and they view their morality as the only just one - one they'd love to impose on you? And because you're not religious and you don't want to have anyone else's morality imposed on you, you fight for a more relativistic approach. Whether or not you know it, by fighting for this alleged freedom of morality, you're actually attempting to impose your version of it on others. And when someone does this, it becomes clear that they're criticizing other cultures and beliefs. And when someone believes in a universal way of thinking about morality or a universal moral truth, they're considered what's known as a moral objectivist or a moral realist. Funny how these things are so circular, isn't it? When a moral relativist fights for a specific form of morality and attempts to apply this principle to all other cultures, they are, in fact, engaging in the same type of moral objectivism that they so adamantly deny.


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  • #2
I've been hearing about moral subjectivism. I'm not sure what this is and I can't find any good literature on it. How does it compare to normative relativism and moral objectivism?


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  • #3
Okay, you probably already know that morality can be either objective or subjective, meaning, it can be firm and absolute or flexible and changing depending on who's thinking about it. With objective morality, or moral objectivism, if something is wrong, it's wrong everywhere, no matter what. No matter who's considering it or where they're considering it. According to this theory, there are absolute truths in the world. Some activities are moral while others are not.

When it comes to subjective morality, or moral subjectivism, things are quite the opposite. Instead of morals or rules being firm and true, they're based on the individual who's thinking of them. Morality is decided by the smallest unit, which is the individual. With this theory, it's not the community, village, culture, or other group that decides on what's moral and what isn't, it's, again, the single person.

To moral subjectivists, it's said that morals are based on how an individual thinks. What their tastes, moods, opinions, and other thoughts are. Ethics and morals can change like the wind. For instance, if someone decides that kicking a puppy is moral and just, then it is. If someone else thinks that stealing gas from a gas station is okay, then it is. The types of people who subscribe to this moral theory reject the assertion that some activities are right and wrong. To them, it's up to each and every person to decide what type of moral code they'll live by.