Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 95–113 | Cite as

Varying versions of moral relativism: the philosophy and psychology of normative relativism

  • Katinka J. P. QuintelierEmail author
  • Daniel M. T. Fessler


Among naturalist philosophers, both defenders and opponents of moral relativism argue that prescriptive moral theories (or normative theories) should be constrained by empirical findings about human psychology. Empiricists have asked if people are or can be moral relativists, and what effect being a moral relativist can have on an individual’s moral functioning. This research is underutilized in philosophers’ normative theories of relativism; at the same time, the empirical work, while useful, is conceptually disjointed. Our goal is to integrate philosophical and empirical work on constraints on normative relativism. First, we present a working definition of moral relativism. Second, we outline naturalist versions of normative relativism, and third, we highlight the empirical constraints in this reasoning. Fourth, we discuss recent studies in moral psychology that are relevant for the philosophy of moral relativism. We assess here what conclusions for moral relativism can and cannot be drawn from experimental studies. Finally, we suggest how moral philosophers and moral psychologists can collaborate on the topic of moral relativism in the future.


Moral relativism Moral psychology Experimental ethics Normative ethics Tolerance 



K.Q. is grateful for the financial support of the Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek-Vlaanderen. Without implying that they would agree with our perspectives, we thank UCLA’s XBA group, and Stephen Stich, whose ideas helped shape our thoughts on these matters.


  1. Alas R, Gao JH, Carneiro J (2010) Connections between ethics and cultural dimensions. Inzinerine Ekonomika-Eng Econ 21(3):255–262Google Scholar
  2. Barnett T, Bass K, Brown G (1996) Religiosity, ethical ideology, and intentions to report a peer’s wrongdoing. J Bus Ethics 15(11):1161–1174CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bauman CW, Skitka LJ (2009) In the mind of the perceiver: psychological implications of moral conviction. Psychol Learn Motiv: Adv Res theory 50:339–362CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beebe JR (2010) Moral relativism in context. Noûs, 44(4):691–724. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0068.2010.00763.x
  5. Benedict R (1934/2001) Anthropology and the abnormal. In: Moser PK, Carson TL (eds) Moral relativism a reader. Oxford University Press: New York/Oxford, pp 79–80Google Scholar
  6. Brandt R (1967/2001) Ethical relativism. In: Moser PK, Carson TL (eds) Moral relativism a reader. Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford pp 25–31Google Scholar
  7. Campbell RL, Christopher JC (1996) Moral development theory: a critique of its kantian presuppositions. Dev Rev 16(1):1–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chen SY, Liu CC (2009) Relationships between personal religious orientation and ethical ideologies. Soc Behav Personal 37(3):313–320. doi: 10.2224/sbp.2009.37.3.313 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Doris JM, Plakias A (2008) How to argue about disagreement: evaluative diversity and moral realism. In: Sinnott-Armstrong W (ed) Moral psychology vol 2 the cognitive science of morality: intuition and diversity. MIT Press, London, pp 303–332Google Scholar
  10. Dubinsky AJ, Nataraajan R, Huang WY (2005) Consumers’ moral philosophies: identifying the idealist and the relativist. J Bus Res 58(12):1690–1701. doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2004.11.002 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Enright R, Lapsley D (1981) Judging others who hold opposite beliefs: the development of belief discrepancy reasoning. Child Dev 52 (3):1053–1063. Stable URL:
  12. Fernando M, Dharmage S, Almeida S (2008) Ethical ideologies of senior australian managers: an empirical study. J Bus Ethics 82(1):145–155. doi: 10.1007/s10551-007-9568-0 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Flanagan O (1991) Varieties of moral personality ethics and psychological realism. University Press, HarvardGoogle Scholar
  14. Fletcher G (1996) The instability of tolerance. In: Heyd D (ed) Toleration an elusive virtue. Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp 158–172Google Scholar
  15. Forsyth (1980) A taxonomy of ethical ideologies. J Person Soc Psychol 39(1):175. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.39.1.175 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Forsyth (1992) Judging the morality of business practices—the influence of personal moral philosophies. J Bus Ethics 11(5–6):461–470. doi: 10.1007/BF00870557 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Forsyth, Berger RE (1982) The effects of ethical ideology on moral behavior. The J Soc Psychol 117(1):53–56. doi: 10.1080/00224545.1982.9713406 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Forsyth DR, O’Boyle EH, McDaniel MA (2008) East meets west: a meta-analytic investigation of cultural variations in idealism and relativism. J Bus Ethics 83(4):813–833. doi: 10.1007/s10551-008-9667-6 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gabennesch H (1990) The perception of social conventionality by children and adults. Child Dev 61(6):2047–2059. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.1990.tb03586.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Goodwin GP, Darley JM (2008) The psychology of meta-ethics: exploring objectivism. Cognition 106(3):1339–1366. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.06.007 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Goodwin GP, Darley JM (2010) The perceived objectivity of ethical beliefs: psychological findings and implications for public policy. Rev Philo Psychol 1(2):161–188. doi: 10.1007/s13164-009-0013-4 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Haidt J (2001) The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychol Rev 108(4):814–834. doi: 10.1037//0033-295x.108.4.814 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Harman G, Thomson JJ (1996) Moral relativism and moral objectivity. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  24. Hartikainen O, Torstila S (2004) Job-related ethical judgment in the finance profession. J Appl Finance Spring/Summer:62–76Google Scholar
  25. Heyd D (ed) (1996) Toleration an elusive virtue. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  26. Huebner B, Lee JJ, Hauser MD (2010) The moral-conventional distinction in mature moral competence. J Cogn Culture 10(1–2):1–26. doi: 10.1163/156853710X497149 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kelly D, Stich S, Haley KJ, Eng SJ, Fessler DMT (2007) Harm, affect, and the moral/conventional distinction. Mind Lang 22(2):117–131. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0017.2007.00302.x Google Scholar
  28. Kolodinsky RW, Madden TM, Zisk DS, Henkel ET (2010) Attitudes about corporate social responsibility: business student predictors. J Bus Ethics 91(2):167–181. doi: 10.1007/s10551-009-0075-3 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Levy N (2002) Moral relativism a short introduction. Oneworld PublicationsGoogle Scholar
  30. Lu LC, Lu CJ (2010) Moral philosophy, materialism, and consumer ethics: an exploratory study in indonesia. J Bus Ethics 94(2):193–210. doi: 10.1007/s10551-009-0256-0 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Miller JG, Bersoff DM, Harwood RL (1990) Perceptions of social responsibilities in India and in the United States: moral imperatives or personal decisions? J Personal Soc Psychol 58(1):33–47. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.58.1.33 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Nichols S (2004) Sentimental rules on the natural foundations of moral judgment. University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  33. Nichols S, Folds-Bennett T (2003) Are children moral objectivists? children’s judgments about moral and response-dependent properties. Cognition 90:B23–B32. doi: 10.1016/S0010-0277(03)00160-4 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Nucci L, Nucci MS (1982) Children’s responses and social conventional transgressions in free-play settings. Child Dev 53(5):1337–1342 Stable URL:
  35. Nucci LP, Turiel E (1978) Social interactions and development of social concepts in preschool-children. Child Dev 49(2):400–407 Stable URL:
  36. Nucci L, Turiel E (1993) God’s word, religious rules, and their relation to christian and jewish children’s concepts of morality. Child Dev 64(5):1475–1491 Stable URL: Google Scholar
  37. Rest JR (1979) Development in judging moral issues. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MinnesotaGoogle Scholar
  38. Rest JR (1983) Morality. In: Flavell JH, Markman EM (eds) Handbook of child psychology, vol 3: cognitive development. Wiley, New York, pp 556–629Google Scholar
  39. Rest JR (1988) Why does college promote development in moral judgement? J Moral Edu 17(3):183–194. doi: 10.1080/0305724880170303 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ruse M (1986) Evolutionary ethics: a phoenix arisen. Zygon 21:95–112CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Sarkissian H, Park J, Tien D, Wright JC, Knobe J (2010) Folk moral relativism. Unpublished manuscript, Baruch College, CUNYGoogle Scholar
  42. Searle J (1969) Speech acts: an essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge University Press, EnglandGoogle Scholar
  43. Shweder RA (1990) In defense of moral realism: reply to gabennesch. Child Dev 61(6):2060–2067 Stable URL: Google Scholar
  44. Sinnott-Armstrong W (2009) Mixed-up meta-ethics. Philo Issues 19(1):235–256. doi: 10.1111/j.1533-6077.2009.00168.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Smetana JG (1981) Preschool children's conceptions of moral and social rules. Child Dev 52(4):1333–1336 Stable URL:
  46. Smetana JG (2006) Social-cognitive domain theory: consistencies and variations in children’s moral and social judgments. In: Smetana JG, Killen M (eds) Handbook of moral development. Lawrence Erlbaum Mahwah, NewJersey/London, pp 119–153Google Scholar
  47. Sumner WG (1906/2001) Folkways. In: Moser PK, Carson TL (eds) Moral relativism a reader. Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford. pp 69–79Google Scholar
  48. Tian Q (2008) Perception of business bribery in china: the impact of moral philosophy. J Bus Ethics 80(3):437–445. doi: 10.1007/s10551-007-9429-x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Turiel E (1983) The development of social knowledge: morality and convention. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  50. Turiel E, Killen M, Helwig C (1987) Morality. Its structure, functions and vagaries. In: Kagan J, Lamb S (eds) The emergence of morality in young children. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 155–243Google Scholar
  51. Vitell SJ, Paolillo JGP (2003) Consumer ethics: the role of religiosity. J Bus Ethics 46(2):151–162CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Wainryb C, Shaw LA, Langley M, Cottam K, Lewis R (2004) Children’s thinking about diversity of belief in the early school years: judgments of relativism, tolerance, and disagreeing persons. Child Dev 75(3):687–703. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00701.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Winter SJ, Stylianou AC, Giacalone RA (2004) Individual differences in the acceptability of unethical information technology practices: the case of machiavellianism and ethical ideology. J Bus Ethics 54(3):279–301. doi: 10.1007/s10551-004-1772-6 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Wong DB (1984) Moral relativity. University of California Press, Los AngelesGoogle Scholar
  55. Wong DB (2006) Natural moralities. University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  56. Wright JC, Cullum J, Schwab N (2008) The cognitive and affective dimensions of moral conviction: Implications for attitudinal and behavioral measures of interpersonal tolerance. Personal Soc Psychol Bull 34(11):1461–1476. doi: 10.1177/0146167208322557 CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katinka J. P. Quintelier
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Daniel M. T. Fessler
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences and Research Unit ‘The Moral Brain’Ghent UniversityGhentBelgium
  2. 2.Department of Anthropology and Center for Behavior, Evolution & CultureUniversity of California, Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

Personalised recommendations