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Moral Relativism in the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre

A Critique of Moral Relativism in the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre



        Man, apart from being a rational being, is also a moral being. Morality, simply put, is beliefs or ideas about what is right or wrong and about how people should behave. The idea of morality is in the nature and consciousness of every man. But when it comes to moral judgments, the case is different. Moral disagreements abound in the history of western philosophy. While some philosophers are of the opinion that morality is objective, others argue that it is relative. Furthermore, with moral relativism, nothing is really right or wrong. This means that evil acts like murder; abortion, rape, incest, perjury, stealing etc. would neither be right nor wrong. Moral relativism may be attractive at a glance, but it destroys the very conception of morality. Therefore, in this work entitled “A Critique of Moral Relativism in the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre”, we wish to present the moral relativism implicit in the Sartrean philosophy, precisely in his notion of absolute freedom as well as expose the problems inherent in this view, which is a denial of moral objectivity. To achieve this, our method shall be expository and descriptive. We shall in the first chapter, clarify the term “moral relativism”, after which we shall consider in the second chapter the views of other moral relativists. The third chapter shall then expose the implicit presence of moral relativism in Sartre’s thought, before looking at its implications in the fourth chapter. Then in the final chapter, we shall make a critical evaluation of our topic and then comes the general conclusion.



1.1           MORALITY

A simple uncontroversial definition of morality is impossible. The word “morality”, is ambiguous. It has no specific definition and this explains why there are many moral theories and controversies. According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy,

morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, having the lessening of evil or harm as its goal, and including what are commonly known as the moral rules, ideals and virtues.1

Morality is as old as human existence. It cuts across every race, age, culture and religion. It is a characteristic of man.


  1. R. Audi et al, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy 2nd ed, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, P.586.

The systematic study of morality is known as ethics or moral philosophy. Moral philosophy is the attempt to achieve a systematic understanding of the nature of morality and what it requires of us – in the words of Socrates, of how we ought to live. “This study in ethics, dates back to the ancient philosopher Socrates. Socrates unlike the scholars before him was primarily a moralist who exemplified his moral teachings in his personal life”. 2   From the days of Socrates to our contemporary era, there have been various moral theories and moral stands. But it is not within the scope of this essay to venture into all of them. We are to limit ourselves to moral relativism as a moral position and the problems inherent in the relativistic view of morality.


  1. J. Omoregbe, Simplified History of Western Philosophy VOl.1, Lagos: Joja Educational Research and Publishers Limited, 1991, P.30.

1.2           RELATIVISM

The Merit Students Encyclopeadia, defines relativism as “the view that truth is relative and therefore may vary from one person or society to another”.3   Relativism is just the denial that there are certain universal truths. It is a philosophical position that nothing is absolutely true and that things can only be judged in comparison with one another. The relativists hold that all points of view are equally valid, be it moral, epistemological, aesthetic or cultural values. Relativism as a doctrine is purely in contrast with objectivity of standards.

All the forms of relativism, hold two basic features in common:


  1. W.D. Halsey, Merit Students Encyclopedia vol. 15, London: Macmillan Educational Corporation, 1975. P.562.

All aspects of relativism assert that things are relative to the subject, culture, era, language or a conceptual scheme. Relativism, also refutes the view that any standpoint or view is privileged over all others.

Relativism as a philosophical movement, could be traced to the ancient philosopher Protagoras. Protagoras was the leading sophist particularly known for his saying that “man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, of those that are not that they are not”. 4   This statement of Protagoras means that no belief can be said to be true or false in itself, for in his view, there is no objective standard or truth. The relativistic position of the Sophists is because of the fact that they traveled from place to place. And at the course of their travels, they observed that cultures and moral codes vary from place to place.


  1. Omoregbe, A Simplified History of Western Philosophy Vol.1. Op. cit, P.27

1.3.0                FORMS OF RELATIVISM

From the foregoing, it is clear that there are kinds of relativism. Scholars have taken relativistic positions on epistemological, aesthetical, moral issues etc. But we are going to consider only three forms of relativism that is: cultural, epistemological and moral relativism.

1.3.1                CULTURAL RELATIVISM

The term culture is defined according to Longman’s Dictionary of contemporary English as “the beliefs, way of life, art and customs that are shared and accepted by people in a particular society”.5


  1. C. Fox et al, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Edinbury Gate Harlow: Pearson Education United, 1978. P.382.

Culture, is generally conceived as, the way of life that is peculiar to a people at a given time. That is why Battista Mondin views culture in the anthropological sense as: “the totality of customs, techniques and values that distinguish a social group, a tribe, a people, a nation. The mode of living proper to a society”. 6

A classical definition of culture was given by Edward Burnett Tylor as “the complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. 7


6 B. Mondin, Philosophical Anthropology, Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 1985, P. 146.

7 J. E.Safra et al, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol.4 15th ed, Chicago: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Inc. 1974. P.874.

The increased knowledge in various fields, and the progress of anthropology facilitated to a great level, a deeper understanding and an appreciation of cultures quite different from one’s own. This awareness made people know that there are cultural variations amongst peoples from different period and localities. The anthropologists were the first to discover the variations in moral codes and cultural practices in different societies. Peoples from different tribes and nations have different norms that guide them which may be different from that of other nations.

For instance, “wife lending among the Eskimos is practiced as a gesture of hospitality, a way of cementing a friendship and promoting mutual aid in a hard and dangerous environment”.8   This particular cultural practice of the Eskimos is not found in Africa or Europe.


8 Ibid, P.874 – 875

The cultural relativists in the above instance will be of the opinion that one should not conclude that the culture of the Eskimos is inferior or superior, because for them, cultural norms are relative to the society it evolves from.

Cultural relativism is just the stand that cultures themselves should not be graded as higher or lower. In this sense therefore, cultural practices cannot be said to be “correct” or “incorrect” which implies then that we have no independent standard by which culture may be judged, since every standard is culture bound. The anthropologists hold this view tenaciously and argue that cultural opinions are relative and therefore unscientific.


Etymologically, the term epistemology is from the Greek root episteme (“knowledge”) and logos (“reason”). Epistemology is the study of the origin, nature and limits of human knowledge. Epistemological relativism is the theory that enquires into the extent, certainty, possibilities and limits of human knowledge.

Relativism of knowledge, found its place first in the mouth of the Sophist Protagoras, precisely in his dictum which says that “man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, they are not”. 9

This Protagoras’ dictum advocates for relativism of knowledge. For instance, if I am the measure of all things, whatever I think exists, exists for me alone and whatever I don’t think exists, do not exist, this will imply relativism in knowledge. Protagoras went further to say that “knowledge is limited to our various perceptions and these perceptions will differ with each person.


  1. E. Stumpf, Philosophy: History and Problems, New York: McGraw Hill, 1971. P32

For example, if two persons were to observe the same object, their sensations could be different because each would occupy a different position in relation to it”. 10

Epistemological relativism is, therefore, referred to as cognitive or conceptual relativism, which states that every epistemic position is as true as any other rival position. Thus, the objectivity of knowledge is discarded. It is evident according to discoveries that human knowledge has no place for relativism since it is progressive in character. If knowledge is to be relative to the subject involved, it will make meaningless, the human quest for knowledge, and the concept of ignorance will hold no water.


  1. Ibid

        It is against this dangerous stand in epistemology that some philosophers criticized and showed that knowledge cannot but be objective. Plato in his allegory of the cave and the metaphor of the divided line, refuted the relativists and showed that knowledge is absolute and distinguished from opinions and shadows which are not certain and true”.11 So Plato’s epistemology, in summary, shows that knowledge is universal and can be attained rigorously by passing various stages.


just as it is the case with epistemological relativism, the conception of relativism in morality was encountered first in the history of philosophy in the thoughts of Protagoras.

He provided the view of moral relativism when he said that “man is the measure of all things and it is in the realm of morality that this was most obviously applied”12 Moral relativism, simply put, is the view that is opposed to the universality of morality and the universal application of moral principles. Individualism is the extreme form of relativism which goes to the extent of claiming that morality is an individual affair, a personal matter which every man decides for himself. It is up to the individual in this context to decide for himself his own moral values, what is morally right and what is morally wrong for him. “The Sartrean existentialism advocated moral individualism”.13 For the moral relativists, thee are no moral standards that can be universally applied to all peoples at all times and places.

  1. E.L. Miller, Questions that Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy 4th ed, New York: McGraw – Hill Companies, Inc. 1996 P. 402 – 403.
  2. J. Omoregbe, Ethics: A Systematic and Historical Study, Lagos: Joja Press, 1989, P.66 – 67.

For them, the idea of truth in morality is a myth. Moral relativists argue that, all moral positions and views are equally valid. Relativism in morality, challenges our belief in the objectivity and universality of moral truth. It says in effect that, there are only the various cultural codes and nothing more. Moral relativism, which is a theory about the nature of morality, at first blush, seems plausible. However, like all such theories, when subjected to rational analysis, we notice that it is not as plausible as it initially appears to be.

        One can rightly agree that thee are some elements of moral practices and regulations that are controversial and relative in a sense. But to say that morality is not objective is indeed arbitrary.

        In conclusion, we wish to establish in this first chapter, that it is an obvious fact that cultural norms and observations are not the same everywhere. But that does not mean that epistemological and moral truths are relative. Before now, people believed that the earth is flat, the peoples’ ignorance in those days, does not mean that thee is no objective truth in the knowledge of geography. In the same way, peoples’ ignorance about some moral issues does not mean that thee is no objective morality. Therefore cultural outlook could be relative, but knowledge and morality are not relative but objective.

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