Moral Conventionalism is one of the two forms of the philosophical theory of Moral Relativism. “According to Moral Conventionalism, the validity of moral standards depends on their acceptance within a particular cultural group,” while the other form, Moral Subjectivism (also known as Ethical Subjectivism) claims that the validity of moral standards depends on an individual’s personal choice or commitment.[1]

Moral Conventionalism is the combination of three theses:
  1. “The existence of a conventional morality is necessary for the welfare of any society
  2. Everyone in a society has a prima facie obligation to conform to its conventional morality
  3. Society is prima facie justified in upholding its conventional morality.” [2]

Moral Conventionalism is a theory of moral conduct that determines its agreement on what is right or wrong based on a society or culture’s general agreement (social convention).[3]

For example, the moralities of some societies demand that grown children make every effort to personally care for their elderly or dependent parents; moralities of another society may allow (and sometimes require) that elderly and dependent parents be exposed to the elements so that nature may claim their lives and relieve their children of the burden of taking care of them; while other societies deem it acceptable for grown children to put their elderly, dependent parents in a nursing home or pay a home-care nurse to take care of them. From a Moral Conventionalist perspective, we cannot deem one of these beliefs to be more acceptable or right over another because all we have are our standards which apply to our culture; and all they have are their standards which apply to their culture. Each of these standards is morally correct for the relevant parties.[4] We cannot compare the moral standards of two or more different cultures and claim one as right and one as wrong.

Arguments for Moral Conventionalism

Moral Conventionalism influences the ways in which members of a society express their moral attitudes.

Conventional morality must be capable of change.[5] For instance, these changes may come about from technological innovations or medical discoveries, and these changes could therefore affect the conventionalism of different societies.

Conventional morality is necessary in a liberal society in which pluralism (many different values) can exist.

Moral Conventionalism provides the grounds of moral conduct of how members of a society should act toward one another.[6]

Moral Conventionalism may lead to regularity and predictability of how the moral agent will respond to certain situations and in turn, will allow the moral agent the peace of mind that his or her actions will be accepted and will not be criticized by most members of the society.[7]

“Conventional morality prescribes decent conduct, but since such conduct is vast in number and various in kind; it leaves ample room for freedom and individuality.”[8]

Arguments against Moral Conventionalism

Moral Conventionalism may be subject to criticism for its lack of strictness and consistency.[9] Different cultures could hold different morals to be worth more than others.

Each society is made up of many different cultures, and if Moral Conventionalism is appropriate, individuals in a society could find themselves faced with many different answers when they question their own moral practices.[10]

Moral Conventionalism could lead the moral agent to rationalize modes of moral conduct that may lead them to act in a less than ideal manner.[11]

Moral Conventionalism could lead to individuals following the conventional morals of a given society without rationalizing the validity of those moral standards. Misguided moral rationalizations could lead to unsatisfactory results, which could warrant excuses from the individual such as, “I was only doing what I was told to do.”[12]



  1. [1] Waluchow, W. J. (2003). The Dimensions of Ethics: An Introduction to Ethical Theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press Ltd.
  2. [2] Kekes, J. (1985). Moral Conventionalism. American Philosophical Quarterly, 22(1), 37-46.
  3. [3] http://philosophyreaders.blogspot.ca/2013/02/moral-conventionalism.html
  4. [4] Waluchow, W. J. (2003). The Dimensions of Ethics: An Introduction to Ethical Theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press Ltd.
  5. [5] Kekes, J. (1985). Moral Conventionalism. American Philosophical Quarterly, 22(1), 37-46.
  6. [6] Ibid.
  7. [7] http://philosophyreaders.blogspot.ca/2013/02/moral-conventionalism.html
  8. [8] Kekes, J. (1985). Moral Conventionalism. American Philosophical Quarterly, 22(1), 37-46.
  9. [9] http://philosophyreaders.blogspot.ca/2013/02/moral-conventionalism.html
  10. [10] Waluchow, W. J. (2003). The Dimensions of Ethics: An Introduction to Ethical Theory. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press Ltd.
  11. [11] http://philosophyreaders.blogspot.ca/2013/02/moral-conventionalism.html
  12. [12] Ibid.