"Ethics Are Relative" by Edward Westermarck

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from Ethical Relativity
The Reading Selection from Ethical Relativity
[Ethics Is Not Normative]
[Moral Principles Are Not Self-Evident]
[Whether God Is the Source of Right]
[Moral Subjectivism Is Not Arbitrary]
[Moral Judgments Are Not Objective]
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

Edward Westermarck (adapted from The Edward Westermarck Memorial Lectures)

About the author…

Edward Westermarck (1862-1939) taught sociology and moral philosophy at the University of Helsinki; later, he taught sociology at the University of London. He initially sought graduate work in moral philosophy but quickly concluded that normative ethics must be based on empirical behavior and so turned to field work. As a pioneer in anthropological field work, he championed a comparative methodological approach which was later superseded by the functional methodology of Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski who viewed society holistically rather than in terms of specific customs. In our reading, Westermarck argues that the moral norms of a society emerge from the struggle for survival of that society and evolved from the general and disinterested moral emotions of the individuals making up the society. So his use of the term "moral emotion" is not necessarily related to personal feelings of approval and disapproval of specific forms of behavior. Westermarck's theory, here, is not so different from Durkheim's theory of collective consciousness: Westermarck's moral emotions are indeed the same sort of notion as Durkheim's collective conscience. Westermarck's work on moral philosophy in Ethical Relativity, from which our reading is taken, is the culmination of fifty years of research into human social behavior.

About the work…

In his Ethical Relativity,[1] Edward Westermarck argues for both psychological and ethical relativism[2] and attempts to base ethics on the biological basis of emotion. Westermarck holds that impartial moral emotions or moral sentiments are the basis for customary moral judgments. Consequently, Westermarck concludes moral values cannot be objective since they originate in emotion. Even so, impartial or dispassionate moral emotion is not entirely subjective since it is an customary human reaction to a particular moral experience. In the book from which our reading selection is taken, Westermarck argues forcefully for ethical relativism by emphasizing that there is no empirical basis for objective standards in ethical theory. Nevertheless, even though ethical judgments are based on feelings, he does not believe ethical relativism leads to ethical subjectivism.

Ideas of Interest from Ethical Relativity

  1. Explain how a normative science of ethics is defined.

  2. According to Westermarck, what is the basis for the belief in the objectivity of moral values?

  3. Why does Westermarck object to the notion of a conscience as the basis of the objectivity of moral judgments?

  4. Explain why, in Westermarck's view, "[T]o say that something is right because it is in accordance with the will of a Supreme Being is to reason in a circle."

  5. What reasons does Westermarck give for supposing ethical relativism is an advantage to morality?

  6. How does Westermarck answer the charge of "ethical subjectivism" against his view of ethical relativity?

  7. Clarify Westermarck's argument that moral judgments cannot be objective even though they are not arbitrary.[3]



Edward Westermarck, Ethical Relativity (New York: Littlefield, Adams & Company, 1932).


In brief, psychological (or sociological) relativism is the empirical observation that moral behavior and the consequent morals differ among cultures, societies, and groups—both in the present and in the past. On this view, moral standards are descriptive—not prescriptive—and so this view is generally noncontroversial. Ethical relativism is the denial there is one objective moral standard for all groups at all times; more precisely, ethical relativism is the doctrine that differences in moral standards ought to exist among different cultures.


Try to be more informative than Garner and Rosen's assessment, "He seems to believe that moral judgments are not objectively true, though he admits that, in a sense they are objectively true." Richard T. Garner and Bernard Rosen, Moral Philosophy: A Systematic Introduction to Normative Ethics and Meta-ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 246.