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Philosophy of Ethics & Morality: descriptive relativism

Updated on April 24, 2015

Weighing up Morality

Descriptive Relativism

Descriptive relativism is the view that the moral values of individuals conflict in un-resolvable ways. In order for views to conflict in the fundamemental way required of this notion it is necessary that the disagreement remains “even if there were perfect agreement about the properties of the thing being evaluated” (Brant 1967; 75). “There is fundamental ethical disagreement only if ethical appraisals or valuations are incompatible, even when there is mutual agreement between the relevant parties concerning the nature of the act that is being appraised” (Brant 1967; 75). The notion of descriptive relativism can be applied to one individual and their difficulty in resolving a personal moral dillema as none of the options available seem to be more obviously correct. It is most commonly used in the form of cultural relativism though as the differences are more clear cut. Cultural relativism takes the notion of descriptive relativism and applies it to the differing moral values which seem to follow cultural lines. “The cultural relativist emphasizes the cultural tradition as a prime source of the individual’s views and thinks that most disagreements in ethics among individuals stem from enculturation in different ethical traditions” (Brant 1967; 75). This view still allows personal histories and beliefs of individuals to form the basis of disagreement among individuals but the focus lies on cultural diversity and the moral beliefs which result from socialisation in a particular culture. However, it is difficult to find examples of descriptive relativism which truly hold up to the standards set for moral disagreement.

Essentially, descriptive relativism is a means of explaining differing moral views as a result of cultural background and experiences. It seems logical and understandable that this should be the case as it is difficult to concieve of a world in which all people agree on moral situations entirely no matter what their social background is. Experience tells us that behaviour does drastically differ from place to place in the world and so cultural relativism seems the simplist, most logical means of dividing the differences. Although it does of course have problems the behaviour of individuals does most often tend to be a result of the history of their society and the cultural norms with have come about from this past experience and social expectations. Cultural behaviour and beliefs come from the development of their own forefathers and their history. Thus, surely this is also the case for morality. It is difficult to concieve of morality being entirely innate, for people to be born with the belief that murder is always wrong or that theft is always wrong seems difficult in a world of more grey areas than black and white ones. Anything being innate is difficult to accept as it seems from experience that we learn everything we do; no behaviour or knowledge has been accepted as innate so why would morality be a different case? Committing acts and thus practicing beliefs would certainly seem to be a learned trait which can only result from the common practices of those around. There are examples of such things as cannibalism being an accepted behaviour in some social groups while in others, like our own, cannibalism is assumed and accepted to be an immoral act. The issue is whether or not we are able to tell these other societies that their behaviour is immoral. What evidence do we have to support our morality above theirs? Perhaps neither view is more intuitively correct from an objective perspective and thus a level of acceptance of other behaviours and beleifs is required. Hampshire descripes the great variety of cultures with a diversity of kinship structures, sexual customs, admired virtues, relations between the sexes etc. and claims that this surely means that we should take the existence of moral conflict seriously (De Crew 1990; 31). It is difficult though to find examples of different moral beliefs which fits in with the requirements for true moral conflict under descriptive relativism. Usually each case can be boiled down to, at least in some sense, a difference in normative, factual beliefs. Surely though this is understandable as morality itself cannot exists outside of society. Without a social structure or culture in which to learn behaviours how could morality and behaviour based upon moralities exist? Morality may be the base upon which we build our behaviours, but perhaps it is a more mutal duality of both morality and socialised behaviours and beliefs which inform how we are to act. Morality may not be able to exists without these factual beliefs to also define correct behaviours. Morality may in fact require the framework social norms provide in order to thrive. Perhaps it is not such a bad thing that moral conflicts can be equated also to conflicts of belief. At least it may be understandable that this should be the case.

There is today the case of whether giving homosexuals equal rights to marriage as their hetrosexual counterparts is a morally justifiable thing to do. Some claim it is immoral to be gay full stop, that you are in the wrong if you act in this way and that there is something immoral about your character. Others claim it is immoral to give homosexuals these rights to marriage dispite believing that homosexuality itself it acceptable. Often this view is supported by the argument that it is not supported by the bible so religious marriage should not be allowed. While there are also those who believe it is immoral to restrict gay rights in such a way that they cannot marry if they want. Morality in this case is difficult to boil down to facts. There is the factual case of whether the bible should be understood factually or whether it can be interpreted to modern culture to consider when deciding if the different views are truly a moral conflict or not. However, in the case of those who believe homosexuality itself is immoral versus those who believe homosexuality is morally acceptable, who is in the wrong in this case is difficult to factually define. The case of whether it can be catagorised as a true moral conflict or not is still there though. Perhaps those who believe homosexuality is wrong have a different factual belief about it than those who believe it is acceptable. There could again be support for one side in the bible in that it may state that it is wrong while the other side of the debate could claim the bible argues for peace and love and such in evidence for support of homosexual rights. However, not all people on each side of the debate have any investment in religion at all. Taking only the atheists who believe either side of the debate about the morality of homosexuality it is more difficult to find any facts about which they can disagree. Perhaps they could disagree about whether it is a choice or not or, more likely, whether it is natural or not. It is still possible to concieve of those who could think it is natural but yet still believe it is immoral because it goes against the norm and for no other reason than this. In essence then it seems that this sort of debate is as close as we can get to a moral conflict free from different factual perspectives. It is simply a question of whether or not a behaviour is morally acceptable or not regardless of any doctrines enforcing one side or the other when those who regard religion as a cause of their view are discounted. Some factual belief could posisbly be the cause of some disagreement still but it is concievable that it need not be. Social norms alone could be the factor which sways many to one side or the other. Why should different perspectives on a moral issue influenced by social expectations be only normative in their difference? Why can they not count as a moral conflict?

It is claimed that “Descriptive relativism requires that there be well-defined cultures or groups with monolithic views, since the thesis at issue is that such cultures and groups, or their representative members, have different fundamental moral beliefs” (Levy 2003; 169). However, it is clear that individuals within every concievable form of 'group' will likely disagree with one another in some moral respect. How can we cluster individuals together and claim moral unity when there are individual disagreements? “We are committing the sin of ethnocentrism...if we do not realise that...[all cultures] contain moral diversity” (Levy 2003; 170). Not all Christians agree on contraception just as not all British people, or Scottish people, agree on contraception. Is it possible to homogonise societies dispite these variaties of opinions? What of cases in which an individual falls into multiple groups or cultural categories? As Levy says “all cultures are a blend of elements from heterogenous sources. Cultures are never fixed entities with stable boundaries. Instead they are fluid, constantly altering and constantly shading off into one another” (2003; 170). However “The fact that cultures are neither bounded, nor completely homogeneous, does not show that moral statements cannot be true or false relative to them” (Levy 2003; 170). Levy presents an analogy with language which claims that, dispite the cross-contamination of language, e.g. words being French yet having made their way into English, we still make claims that certain words are English and certain words are French. “Languages shade off into each other, just as cultures do, and some words will exist on the edges of a language, comprehensible to speakers of that language, but heavily marked as foreign.” (Levy 2003; 171). Beyond this there is also the fact that speakers of the same language can disagree about grammatical correctness and speakers can have varying dialects incomprehensible to other speakers of the same language (Levy 2003; 171). The analogy of language in this case seems a little simplisitic as there are issues of complete individuality in moral opinions which are not shared with others at all, thus more extreme than a dialect, rather instead like an individual speaking their own language alone. However, the idea of blurred boundaries seems relatable as those words which exist in more than one language are still generally attributed to one above others. In this sense cultural divides are similar, though more extreme again. Although there are individuals and groups within every culture which do not agree and which counter the opinon of what is attributed to the group as a whole, there is still a sense in which the group can be counted as a single whole under the cultural definition. There are likely to be practices and beliefs which are shared by many and accepted by most. The cross-cultural contamination of a shared world does make the division difficult but for ease of communication and understanding (as in language) we still manage to divide cultures as we see fit. Although, Barth points out that “cultural differences can persist despite inter-ethnic contact and interdependence” (1998; 10). Barth also claims that

“categorical ethnic distinctions do not depend on an absence of mobility, contact and information, but do entail social processes of exclusion and incorporation whereby discrete categories are maintained despite changing participation and membership in the course of individual life histories” (1998; 9-10)

Thus, there remains a stable social structure and a continuation of shared cultural beliefs and behaviours despite any spread of peoples. “The ethnic boundary canalizes social life” as it entails social complexities that mean the shared identity of members of an ethnic groups “implies a sharing of criteria for evalutation and judgement. It thus entails the assumption that the two are fundamentally 'playing the same game'...” (Barth 1998; 15). The inclusion of members into a group entails their following that groups pre-existing social structure and beliefs making a cultural divide a little more reliable than it at first may seem. There is the issue that different cultures will have different outlooks on how to draw a divide but in essence there is a shared understanding of a cultural group. Although the analogy of language is rather weak, and there are clearly vast complexities in the division of cultural groups and what qualifies as their shared beliefs, it is possible that there are no other examples complex enough to fully explain cultures. Anthropologist though are able to use the term and attempt to explain the most prominent features of a social group, perhaps only because they cannot hope to achieve anything complete enough to encapsulate the complexity, but that surely means there is some validity in creating such a divide at least if only to use in the practice of studying to aid understanding.

The idea of fundamental ethical disagreement requires further exploration as some claim that disagreements of this sort do not actually exist, that all apparently moral dilemas can be put down to non-moral or factual disagreements. For example, the Inuit practice of female infanticide seems to us morally abhorent as killing is regarded us abohorent to this cultural generally. However, if we introduce the fact that Inuits were reluctant to do it and did it only as a means of survival, and that females were the victims as males were disproportially killed while hunting so it ensured a more equal balance in adult men and women then we can see the act as a more understandable practice (Levy 2003; 168). Female infanticide among the Inuits does not prove to be adequte for descriptive relativism as it lacks the fundamental differences necessary. This case is one in which the disagreement seems to be more a result of non-moral fact as the Inuit acted out of a sense of necessity. Their moral notions do not innately conflict with our own. Levy presents further examples of cases of moral disagreement which fail to conform to descriptive relativism. The case of increasing welfare reforms as a moral issue in which some claim it to be morally right while others believe it is morally wrong. It could though be the case that those who deny that there should be an increase in welfare reforms believe it will cause greater reliance on welfare and thus increase poverty in the long run (Levy 2003; 166). Thus, it is completely believable that on each side of the argument there are individuals with the exact same set of moral principles yet different factual beliefs about how to achieve their aims. The Dinka practice of live burial of their spear masters is a further example of apparent moral disagreement which is in fact the result of different factual beliefs. The Dinka believe their spear master to be the “repositories of the vital force of the tribe and it's cattle” and this vital force is contained within the spear masters breath (Levy2003; 167). If allowed to die naturally the vital force leaves the tribe, but when buried alive, at a time dictated by the spear master, then the vital force remains with the tribe. Although it seems initially to us that the Dinka are committing a brutal murder, if we held the same factual beliefs then it is likely we would in fact do the same thing without any change to our morality. “Live burial for them is like donating blood or a kidney is for us...It is true that both blood or kidney doners and spear-masters suffer various degrees of injury, but it is in a good cause, and both the altruistic victims and the beneficiaries see it as such” (Kekes quoted in Levy 2003; 167). From these examples of disagreements which initially appear to be morality based but are in fact based more on factual disagreements it is clear that disagreements at the fundamental level required for descriptive relativism seems less common than it seems at first. This, however, does not mean that disagreements at this level do not exist. The difficulty though lies in where to draw the line in seeking different factual beliefs. Surely individuals within even the same society do not hold all the same factual beliefs about any given moral subject. Perhaps it is an impossible task to truly find an example of complete moral conflict.

In conclusion, it's difficult to find examples of true moral conflict to support descriptive relativism. However, this difficulty does not mean it is impossible. The diverse nature of the world and even humanity in particular make the conception of a universal morality difficult to concieve of and so true moral conflict seems intuitively most likely. There is an argument against being accepting of differences too much as surely that leads to us allowing others to act in ways that seem to us so abhorent. Womens rights in other parts of the world for example. If descriptive relativism were the standard view would we then be forced to consider the practices of genital mutilation and rape in other parts of the world as justified as there is a different moral belief there which allows for such practices? Surely descriptive relativism does not entirely hold us to this view. Being able to learn from one another, to see each side of the moral conflict and take on aspects and perhaps affect change as a result is surely acceptable practice even within descriptive relativism. Mutal learning and inter cutlural adaptation is something which could result from a descriptive relativist stance without having either side claim supperiority and enforce and change. However, it does seem that descriptive relativism has more problems than other perspectives in morality and so is perhaps not the best for a philosophical perspective. For studies such as anthropology it has proved useful and educational but this could be a case in which it is not so useful for other academic disiplines. The anthropological persuit is to find commonality and differences between social groups, to study how humanity differs in practice and belief and how we are all similar. The philosophical persuit however is to seek a more reliable understanding of morality itself, what it means and how to define it universally rather than specific to any place. Descriptive relativism acts only to describe the differences not explain them adequetly. Thus, descriptive relativism is lacking as it does not offer support for philosophers to claim that any particular view is more or less moral than another. However, the view of descriptive relativism does point out that perhaps the social background is necessary in the formation of a moral stance. Morality may not actually exist out with a social, behavioural structure.


Barth, F. 1998 (1967). Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: the social organisation of cultural difference. Waveland Press, Prospect Heights.

Brandt, R. 1967. "Ethical Relativism," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, vol. 3: 75-76

DeCrew, J. 1990. “Moral Conflicts and Ethical Relativism. Ethics. 101: 27-41.

Levy, N. 2003. “Descriptive Relativism: Assessing the Evidence”. The Journal of Value Inquiry. 37: 167-177.

Piroozvand, S. & Nassiri, M. “Moral Relativism under Criticism”. Journal of Emerging Trends in Educational Reseach and Policy Studies. 3(4): 593-599.

Rachels, J. (2009) “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism”. In Steven M. Cahn (ed.), Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology (pp.14-31). Oxford University Press.

Taylor, P. (1954) “Four Types of Ethnical Relativism”. The Philosophical Review. 63(4): 500-516.


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