welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Right & Wrong About Right & Wrong

Paul Stearns argues against moral relativism and moral presentism.

“Whatever we may say about the merits of torturing children for pleasure, and no doubt there is much to be said on both sides, I am sure we all agree it should be done with sterilized instruments.”
– G.K. Chesterton

“Man is the measure of all things.”
– Protagoras

One of the most common beliefs that people have about morality is the idea that different times and cultures have radically different moral standards. This assumption fuels moral relativism. Moral relativists believe cultures, individuals, and times do differ in their basic moral values, and that relativism is the best explanation for these differences. Moral relativists also hold that all moral views are equally valid because each culture (or person) invents their own morality.

The assumption that different times have radically different moral standards can also be seen in a position called moral presentism, which maintains that we should not judge the past using our present moral standards. For example, the American comedian Bill Maher recently said that Columbus committed atrocities, “but people back then were generally atrocious.” He argued that our judging Columbus or Washington is like “getting mad at yourself for not knowing what you know now when you were ten”, like saying, “stupid me for wanting to be a breakdancer and ghostbuster.” His point is that it is unfair to judge the past (or his ten-year-old self) from the current more mature perspective.

While there are differences between relativism and presentism, they both make this popular yet questionable assumption that different cultures have different moral standards. In this article, I want to critique this assumption by arguing that fundamental moral values do not change with time or culture, and that we modern people are no more moral than our ancestors. The correct way of viewing history is not to dismiss past mistakes by saying they had different standards, nor to judge them using new moral standards. The correct view is to recognize that different times and cultures share the same basic standards, even if only a few people in any time live up to these universal standards. To support this view, I will outline the three main fallacies relativists and presentists use when arguing that different cultures have different moral standards.

1) Relativists and presentists overestimate moral differences, and underestimate the foundational similarities, among different cultures and times.

The first problem with the claim that morality changes with time and culture is that it doesn’t, since the foundations of morality do not change. Moral people in all times and places seek to reduce unnecessary suffering, create order, be fair, and to treat people with respect. Jesus and Buddha, for example, are worthy of praise not because they are surprisingly modern, but because they lived in harmony with timeless moral standards.

The central claim I’m defending here is that it is a mistake to believe there are fundamental moral differences between various times and cultures. In Ethics for Beginners (2020), Peter Kreeft agrees, and argues that the essential content of ethics across cultures and times doesn’t vary much since

“No one has succeeded in creating a system of values in which arbitrariness, self-indulgence, egotism, cruelty, injustice, force, deliberate lying, and arrogant, sneering superiority were virtues, while wisdom, self-control, altruism, kindness, justice, reason, honesty, and humility were vices. It is psychologically impossible to experience a moral obligation to live the set of vices in the first list or to experience guilt about living the set of virtues in the second.”(p.21)

Not even Friedrich Nietzsche or Ayn Rand succeeded in transforming cruelty and lying into virtues, or reason and self-control into vices! The bottom line is we cannot escape the fact that these are foundational and ubiquitous virtues and vices, and those who overestimate the moral differences between cultures or individuals fail to recognize that.

Here’s another piece of evidence supporting the claim that the moral foundations do not change with time. It was well known not everyone in the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Centuries thought slavery was good; but in fact there have always been moral reformers protesting slavery in their own time. Not only is it incorrect to say everyone before the Nineteenth Century believed slavery was good, it is also disrespectful to the many abolitionists who argued against slavery in their time. Some people have always protested slavery, and continue to do so today (there are more slaves in the world now than ever before).

Some might passionately object by arguing that slavery is clearly the norm in history, claiming that this shows that the idea that slavery is wrong is relatively new. But this claim is incorrect. Do you really think no Egyptian slaves thought the practice unfair, for instance? Are there no records of Aztec slaves wanting justice as well as revenge? Or consider again Jesus and Buddha. The way they treated the sick, poor, and outcast – basically, the lowest or most needy in society – also imply that slavery is wrong. And while only a minority live up to truly universal standards of morality – Jesus, Buddha, some saints or peasants you never heard of – that’s not a good argument against the existence of those standards. They lived a morality that few in any time can live up to, even when they agree with the ideas in principle.

In short, foundational moral standards have not changed. While it is true that slavery has been the norm for the majority of history, the foundational moral obligations to reduce suffering and treat people with respect are not new. But only a few heroes in each time period follow this moral law, which is written on the heart of every human being.

2) Relativists and presentists fail to distinguish between primary and secondary moral values.

The second mistake relativists and presentists make when arguing that different times and cultures have different moral standards, is failing to distinguish between primary and secondary values. While they are correct that some moral values change, they fail to notice that it is only the secondary values that change, not primary ones.

Primary moral values are the foundational (and universal) values that exist before we reason from them, while secondary values are the product of primary values plus reasoning. For example, moral people agree on the primary moral value of reducing unnecessary suffering; and if they later learn that the polio vaccine reduces suffering, then they argue for the secondary moral duty to get vaccinated. Notice that they didn’t invent the secondary moral obligation, they discovered it: they discovered that the polio vaccine reduces unnecessary suffering, and so now have a new way of achieving the primary (and timeless) moral value of reducing suffering. Primary moral values do not change over time or across cultures, although secondary moral values do.

The relativist or presentist may ask, “Are you saying I share the same morality as those who engaged in witch-hunting and human sacrifice?”

My answer is “Yes, basically.” Like you, their morality was based on reducing unnecessary suffering, creating order, being fair, and the other primary values. They just differed in how those values were to be applied. As C.S. Lewis argued in Mere Christianity (1952), you too might adopt witch-hunting if you really believed in witches who sold their souls to the devil to do his evil work of spoiling crops and killing children. The difference between you and the witch hunters is not that they had different fundamental values, it’s that they believed in malevolent, powerful witches while you don’t. Your disagreement with witch hunters is about facts, not about primary moral values.

Consider too human sacrifice. Many of the people who engaged in human sacrifice had different factual beliefs from you, not different primary moral values. Would you object to human sacrifice if you believed in a god who commanded the sacrifice, and the many consequent utilitarian benefits of the sacrifice, such as rain for the crops, so that the rest of the people may survive? Again, your disagreement with those who practiced human sacrifice is mostly a disagreement on factual grounds and the associated secondary moral values, not a disagreement about primary moral values.

In The Elements of Moral Philosophy (1986), James Rachels uses the example of Eskimos who sometimes killed newborns. It sounds like the Eskimos had a very different morality, until you understand that in the harsh Arctic environment they did not have the resources to feed everyone. The Eskimo mother allowed her baby to die because the alternative – the older children dying – was worse. Again, our apparent moral disagreement with the Eskimos is not a disagreement in primary values, for we both feel an obligation to care for the young. The disagreement arises because of the different environments and resulting factual claims at work. In this harsh environment, you too would probably choose to sacrifice one baby to save two older children.

To take a modern example, when two people disagree about a moral obligation to get vaccinated, they usually agree that it is good to reduce unnecessary suffering, but disagree on the scientific claims. For example, Bob may want what is best for his son, but he does not believe the moral obligation to get his son vaccinated because he believes the vaccine will harm his son. In this case, again, the apparent moral disagreement between pro and anti-vaxer is about factual claims, not about primary value claims.

In short, most moral disagreements between times and cultures are not about primary moral values, but are instead disagreements about factual claims and secondary values. The truth is that we share the fundamental moral values with our ancestors. This should not be surprising since we are the same species on the same planet. Nor should it be surprising if we find we share similar moral roots with other primates.

3) Relativists and presentists mistakenly think different times have radically different moral standards because they mistakenly believe the present is more morally advanced than the past.

Most modern people believe the modern world is morally better than the past because many countries have legally abolished slavery, child labor, and other evils. Modern people may also feel superior because those who would disagree with them are, for the most part, dead. But let’s address two problems with the claim that the present is morally better than the past.

First, in Orthodoxy (1908), G.K. Chesterton argued that those who believe the present is more advanced often say that people should ‘get with the times’, but this is no more useful than saying ‘Get with Thursday at 3 pm instead of Friday at 1 pm’. Time is just a number, and it is no help to tell people to ‘get with the times’. Should you get with the abolitionists or with the slaveholders in their time? Or in modern times, do you get with the moral vegetarians or the moral carnivores? How can one ‘get with the times’, when the times always contain contradictory views?

So instead of advising one to ‘get with the times’ (which often translates to ‘get with the majority’), one should advise people to get with their conscience, which tries to reduce unnecessary suffering, treat people with respect, and the rest. Generally, one should get with good reasoning and the deeper aspects of morality that do not depend on one’s culture, the majority opinion, or the time in which one lives. Get with morality instead of the times!

Second, I am tempted to reverse the narrative and argue that we are generally less moral than our ancestors (even the ones who owned slaves). Technologies such as social media and Weapons of Mass Destruction have made it much easier to demonize, dehumanize, and kill others. Meanwhile, global economics helps us benefit from de facto slave labor, without our having to see the faces of the slaves. Indeed, there are many modern forces that make it easier for us to cause unnecessary suffering, demonize others, and, in general, be immoral, than it was for many bad people of past eras.

In short, it is a narrow modern prejudice to say modern people are more moral than their ancestors. If you follow your conscience in any time, you will conflict with your times on some issues, and you will then have more in common with moral reformers in the past (or future) than you do with any other people in your own time. Moral people in all times experience the moral law, and the failure to live up to it.

Let me clarify two points. First, I am not claiming I would have acted differently than people in the past who owned slaves or contributed to genocides, were I in their culture. On the contrary, both psychological experiments (for example, Milgram’s) and the evidence of history indicate that over 90% of us go along with authority and peer pressure (that is, with social norms) even if it involves acting against conscience. But there is human conscience, and its roots are older than you and any culture. You do not have a better conscience simply because you live in modern times. Rather, at best we might say we’ve simply had longer to work out (or through) the secondary implications of the same universal, timeless, primary moral values.

Second, some will argue that since there are obviously individuals and cultures who do not share any primary moral values, my thesis that some values are universal must be mistaken. For example, there are psychopaths whose primary value is to cause unnecessary suffering instead of reducing it.

The problem with this objection is that it is based on a misunderstanding of the thesis. This asserts there are universal moral values – moral values that are true for all times and places in human history – not that everyone recognizes or follows them. A math analogy can help one see the confusion. The person who believes that 2+2=5 does not have a different math, thus proving that mathematics is not universal; instead they are mathematically deficient. In a similar way, the person who feels no obligation to reduce unnecessary suffering does not have a different morality, but is instead outside the sphere of morality. Such a person does not refute the thesis of universal basic morality, but is instead morally deficient.

To conclude, different cultures and times do not have radically different moral values, and it is a mistake to believe we are fundamentally morally advanced simply because we are modern. While we do have better factual knowledge about how to reduce suffering (for example, germ theory and polio vaccines), the moral obligation to reduce unnecessary suffering is a timeless primary value that we share with our ancestors, and to some degree even with other primates.

It is difficult to be highly moral in any time, because in all times people are tempted to demonize others and cause unnecessary suffering when it is in their self-interest. This is why the moral heroes of different times have more in common with each other than they do with the majority in their own time. When someone understands these points, they are less likely to dismiss morality itself as a product of their time or culture.

© Paul Stearns 2023

Paul Stearns is Philosophy Professor at Blinn College, Texas.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X