Philosophy 148 - 8.2.4 Moral Pluralism vs. Moral Relativism

Moral pluralism argues that there are different moral frameworks that cannot be unified into one. One implication of this is that one culture may have difficulty understanding the values of another culture because they have completely different concepts of what is good, and we might not be able to find a way to reconcile these differences. Cultural differences play an important role in value pluralism and the idea that there can be multiple frameworks for understanding morality.

At the same time, pluralism is not the same as relativism. Moral relativism makes a larger claim than pluralism because it not only asserts that there are multiple moral frameworks, it also asserts that each framework is equally valid insofar as individuals, communities, and cultures determine what is moral. Moral relativism thus prohibits cultures from judging each other’s value systems.

Nussbaum uses the example of genital mutilation as an example of why moral relativism raises issues (1999). If morality is completely relative to a culture’s own traditions and values, it would be impossible for any outsiders to condemn female genital mutilation or other practices that harm women or keep them in a weakened or exploited state. Nussbaum argues that feminist issues should not be evaluated by local traditions and that a global notion of justice is needed to address gender inequality. She thus argues for a universal account of justice that is sensitive to differences between cultures, which she calls reasonable pluralism.

Pluralism and relativism get at the heart of many real-world ethical issues that people navigate in life, especially when they look at moral beliefs from historical or cultural perspectives that show how different values can be. Situating different values in relation to each other is difficult, and how people do so has practical outcomes for how they define what is right or wrong, which actions they consider ethical or unethical, and what aims they pursue in life.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax