On 26 May 2018, Ireland held a nationwide referendum on whether to overturn their decades-old ban on abortion. Until then, the country’s constitution made abortion illegal in all cases except for when the life of the mother was at stake. Interestingly, during the emotional and soul-searching national discussion, it became clear that both sides felt they were morally in the right. The Catholic Bishop of Ferns, Denis Brennan, called the proposed change of law ‘immoral’ and said that no referendum could change ‘moral truth’. On the flipside, the daily newspaper, the Irish Examiner, called on the people of Ireland to show ‘moral courage’, and vote to allow abortion.

In an increasingly divided world, where people are often split into two polarised extremes, it seems clear that both sides seem to think that they are the ‘moral’ ones and ‘morality’ is on their side. This is clear across the world. In the USA, supporters of President Trump see his political stances as a bulwark against the ever increasing immorality in today’s society, whereas his detractors see him as the immoral one and rail against his every move.

In his seminal work Metaphysics, Aristotle argued that ‘the most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously’ – or, put more simply, two opposing sides can’t both be right about opposite things at the same time. This is fairly obvious. If we say that this article has 1451 words in it, it’s either true or false. It can’t have 1451 words and at the same time, not have 1451 words. Because having and not having 1451 words are direct opposites, only one can be true.

So is Trump moral or immoral? Is abortion moral or immoral? Can something like morality, which is by nature not empirical (i.e. it can’t be measured) be distilled down to a binary choice between right and wrong or correct and incorrect? Is morality absolute or relative?

Moral relativism is the thesis that the moral judgements are not absolute, but rather, relative to the specific norms, culture, history and standard of an individual or group of people.

Early discussions on moral relativism are first found in ancient Greece, five centuries BC. The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, often known as ‘the father of history’, narrates the Persian king Darius asking Greeks in his court whether they would ever consider eating their dead fathers’ bodies, as was the custom of another tribe, the Indian Callatiae. They recoiled in horror and said there was nothing that could ever convince them to do so. Darius then turned to the Callatiae and asked them if they would consider cremating their fathers’ bodies, as was the Greek custom. They too, were horrified at the idea. Here, Herodotus quotes the poet Pindar, who famously said ‘custom is lord of all’; people’s beliefs and practices, and by extension, their idea of morality, is shaped by custom.

In his 1906 work The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck famously said: ‘I am not aware of any moral principle that could be said to be truly self evident.’ He argued that there was no ‘absolute standard’ in morality, and if people could accept this, then they would ‘perhaps be… more tolerant in their judgements, and more apt to listen to the voice of reason.’

However, critics have pointed out that advocating normative moral relativism because of the tolerance it may encourage means that we cannot ever really condemn and action or position, because we must eventually admit that relative to the actor, it may well be morally correct. The British philosopher Walter Terence Stace argued:

Certainly, if we believe that any one moral standard is as good as any other, we are likely to be more tolerant. We shall tolerate widow-burning, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, the infliction of physical torture, or any other of the thousand and one abominations which are, or have been, from time approved by moral code or another. But this is not the kind of toleration that we want, and I do not think its cultivation will prove “an advantage to morality”

In addition, some have argued that the diversity between different cultures and societies is over-exaggerated. Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume discussed this in an appendix to his Enquity Concering the Principles of Morals, where he said that what might be seen as contradictory differences in moral outlook are actually superficial disagreements based on underlying common values. For example, it could be argued that both Trump supporters and those who hate him both want a stronger, more ‘good’ and ‘moral’ society, and so they share a common foundational outlook and worldview, and a shared sense of morality, they just differ on the best way to implement it.

An argument in favour of moral relativism is that it is the best alternative to objectivism. For example, the argument that slavery is wrong would depend on an assumption that all people are equal and should therefore enjoy equal rights. This though, cannot be proved to those who deny it. The American philosopher Gilbert Harman argues against a single absolute morality using this line of thinking. He says that all disagreements rest on different opinions (i.e. not on facts), and that there is ‘no objective way of settling these disagreements.’ Richord Rorty, the late American philosopher, agrees that no moralities can be conclusively proved to be true or false, but he points out that this doesn’t mean that relativists cannot prefer some moralities over others. This preference is likely to be based on the norms and values of one’s own society, otherwise known as an ethnocentric approach.

One of the main objections to relativism is that it is inherently self contradicting, as it arguing for moral relatively involves a commitment to a set of values. The German sociologist Jurgen Habermas explains that by arguing for moral relativity, one is participating in a discussion, and that in itself involves a commitment to open-mindedness, or to sincerity. It follows, then, that anyone arguing for moral relativity is actually leaning on absolute moral principles that are generally accepted by all.

The primary alternatives to moral relativity are moral absolutism (defined by Louis Pojman as the idea that there is at least one principle that should never be violated), and the closely linked idea of objectivism. The late, great, professor moral philosophy Ronald W. said of the latter:

To move towards the objectivist pole is to argue that moral judgements can be rationally defensible, true or false, that there are rational procedural tests for identifying morally impermissible actions, or that moral values exist independently of the feeling-states of individuals at particular times.

The question then becomes: if things are morally absolute, then not defined by specific societies, customs or individuals, then who sets these overall rules? Who decides the rules of morality? Is there a higher power or force of nature that has the ability and the right to make these decisions? How confident can we be of what we term morality, when we know full well that these are influenced by our upbringing, social background and something as arbitrary as the place of our birth?

In the initial example given above of the Irish referendum on abortion, a Dubliner voting for a change in law would presumably feel that they had made the ‘moral’ decision in voting for the legalisation of abortion. Had they been living in Donegal (the only province to favour keeping the abortion ban in place), they may well have felt the exact opposite was indeed the ‘moral’ choice.

When we know that what we define as morality is so easily swayed by so many arbitrary variables, like our place of birth or what century we were born in, do we really have any choice but to resort back to absolute principles of morality, defined and expressed outside of the context of different societies? If so, how do we come up with this overarching set of morals and principles that define how we view life’s decisions and challenges? Given we are limited by time and space, are we even able to come up with them? Does this framework of morality have to be laid out by a higher authority of some sort? Only by addressing these questions are we able to reach some sort of definite answer as to what morality is and how we can define it.