Relativism is the view or claim that there is no absolute referent for human beliefs, human behaviors, and ethics. Relativists claim that humans understand and evaluate beliefs and behaviors only in terms of, for example, their historical or cultural context. Ethical or valuational or axiological relativism is the view or claim that there do not exist any absolute values or absolute standards for ethics.
Descriptive or observational relativism is the view or observation that different people, groups, societies, and cultures do in fact have differing views about right and wrong, good and bad, truth or falsity—it is the observation that the actual views that people have or hold about good or bad, right or wrong, true or false, do in fact vary from person to person, group to group, and society to society. In other words, observational relativism holds that, as an observable fact, the views about good and bad, right and wrong, truth or falsity are relative to the person, group, society, or culture that is being investigated or considered. No reasonable or sane person can deny the truth of at least some degree of observational relativism.
Philosophers identify many different kinds of relativism depending upon what allegedly depends on something and what the something is that it depends on. The term often refers to truth relativism—the doctrine that no absolute truth exists, but that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as language or culture. This can be called epistemological relativism. The other most common form of relativism is ethical relativism, the view that claims about what is good or bad, right or wrong, are always relative to the claims or beliefs of some particular person, society, or culture.
The concept of relativism has importance both for philosophers and for anthropologists, although in different ways. Philosophers explore how beliefs might or might not in fact depend for their truth upon such items as language, conceptual scheme, culture, and so forth; with ethical relativism furnishing just one example. Anthropologists, on the other hand, occupy themselves with describing actual human behavior. For them, relativism refers to a methodological stance, in which the researcher suspends (or brackets) his or her own cultural biases while attempting to understand beliefs and behaviors in their local contexts. This has become known as methodological relativism, and concerns itself specifically with avoiding ethnocentrism (the application of one's own cultural standards to the assessment of other cultures).
The combination of both philosophical relativism and anthropological relativism results in descriptive relativism, which claims that different cultures do, in fact, have different views of morality, which they have not succeeded in unifying under one general conception of morality. Thus, one might want to claim that all cultures, for example, prohibit the killing of innocents. The descriptive relativist reply to this is that while this might be true at a general level, different cultures have different understandings of what "innocent" means, and so are still culturally relative.
Elements of relativism emerged at least as early as the Sophists in the fifth century B.C.E..
One argument for relativism suggests that our own cognitive bias prevents us from observing something objectively with our own senses, and notational bias will apply to whatever we can allegedly measure without using our senses. In addition, we have a culture bias, shared with other trusted observers, which we cannot eliminate. A counterargument to this states that subjective certainty and concrete objects and causes form part of our everyday life, and that there is no great value in discarding such useful ideas as isomorphism, objectivity and a final truth.
Another important advocate of relativism, Bernard Crick, a British political scientist, wrote the book In Defence of Politics (first published in 1962), suggesting the inevitability of moral conflict between people. Crick stated that only ethics could resolve such conflict, and when that occurred in public it resulted in politics. Accordingly, Crick saw the process of dispute resolution, harms reduction, mediation or peacemaking as central to all of moral philosophy. He became an important influence on the feminists and later on the Greens.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson define relativism in their book Metaphors We Live By as the rejection of both subjectivism and metaphysical objectivism in order to focus on the relationship between them, i.e. the metaphor by which we relate our current experience to our previous experience. In particular, Lakoff and Johnson characterize "objectivism" as a "straw man," and, to a lesser degree, criticize the views of Karl Popper, Kant, and Aristotle.
In ethics, it is necessary to distinguish between descriptive ethical relativism and normative ethical relativism.
Descriptive ethical relativism (this can also be known as observational ethical relativism) is the observation that different groups, societies, and cultures do have differing views about right and wrong, good and bad—it is the observation that the actual views that people have or hold about good or bad, right or wrong, vary from person to person, group to group, and society to society.
Normative ethical relativism is the ethical theory that people should or ought to accept, believe in, or support the ethical views of the group or society in which they live. Most adherents of normative ethical relativism hold that normative ethical relativism is required because there is no way to get beyond the differing norms of different groups or societies, thus the best thing to do is to go along with whatever norms are held by the given group or society in which one exists. Normative ethical relativism could be summed up in the slogan, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
It is important to notice two crucial weakness in and objections to normative ethical relativism. The first is that, despite what many people claim, descriptive ethical relativism does not logically imply normative ethical relativism. The fact that a given group or society holds to some ethical norm does not imply that anyone, even a member of that group or society, ought to accept or abide by that ethical norm. A second crucial objection to normative ethical relativism is that, for any norm, society, or group, we can always ask the question, "Group G believes that belief (or practice) X is good. But is belief or practice X really good?" We can always ask, for any belief or practice, whether it is really good, despite the fact that those persons or groups or societies that hold it think it is good. For example, we can ask: "Some societies think that female genital mutilation is good. But is it really good, or are those people and societies that think it is good wrong in their belief that it is good?"
Moreover, the fact that there is no general agreement among people on ethical norms at present does not prove that universal or absolute ethical norms cannot exist. Just as, in mathematics, the fact that certain theorems have never been proved—and there is thus no knowledge at present whether those theorems are provable—does not show that those theorems are actually false or unprovable, the fact that universal ethical norms are not yet known or accepted does not show that such norms do not exist or that they can never be found.
The term "relativism" often comes up in debates over postmodernism and phenomenology. Critics of these perspectives often identify advocates with the label "relativism." For example, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is often considered a relativist view because it posits that cultural, linguistic and symbolic beliefs shape the way people view the world. Similarly, deconstruction is often termed a relativist perspective because of the ways it locates the meaning of a text in its appropriation and reading, implying that there is no "true" reading of a text and no text apart from its reading. Claims by literary critic Stanley Fish are also often discussed as "relativist."
These perspectives do not strictly count as relativist in the philosophical sense, because they express agnosticism on the nature of reality and on our ability to know things. Nevertheless, the term is useful to differentiate them from realists who believe that the purpose of philosophy, science, or literary critique is to locate externally true meanings. Important philosophers and theorists such as Michel Foucault, Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche, political movements such as post-anarchism or post-left anarchy can also be considered as relativist in this sense, though a better term might be social constructivist.
The spread and popularity of this kind of "soft" relativism varies between academic disciplines. It has wide support in anthropology and has a majority following in cultural studies. It also has advocates in political theory and political science, sociology, and continental philosophy (as distinct from Anglo-American analytical philosophy). It has inspired empirical studies of the social construction of meaning such as those associated with labelling theory, which defenders can point to as evidence of the validity of their theories (albeit risking accusations of performative contradiction in the process). Advocates of this kind of relativism often also claim that recent developments in the natural sciences, such as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics, Thomas Kuhn's work on paradigms, chaos theory and complexity theory show that science is now becoming relativistic. However, many scientists who use these methods continue to identify as realist or post-positivist.
The Catholic Church for some time now, especially under Pope Benedict XVI (who formerly headed the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith as a cardinal), has identified relativism as one of the problems of today.
Relativism, orthodox Catholics say, constitutes a denial of the capacity of the human mind and reason to arrive at truth. Truth, according to Catholic theologians and philosophers (following Aristotle and Plato) consists of adequatio rei et intellectus, the correspondence of the mind and reality. Another way of putting it states that the mind has the same form as reality. This means when the form of the computer in front of me (the type, color, shape, capacity, etc.) is also the form that is in my mind, then what I know is true because my mind corresponds to objective reality.
Relativism, according to the Catholic and Aristotelian viewpoint, violates the philosophical principle of non-contradiction, a most fundamental principle of all thinking, and without which humans have no way to understand each other nor any possibility of science.
The denial of an absolute reference denies God, who equates to Absolute Truth, according to these Christian philosophers. Thus, they say, relativism links to secularism, an obstruction of God in human life.
The possibility of denying absolute truth is based on the concept of original sin, according to traditional Catholic theology. The first head of the human race, Adam, offended God and misused his reason, thus wounding himself and the nature he was supposed to pass on to the rest of his descendants. Our human nature while largely functional has, through these "wounds," a certain difficulty in reaching the truth, either because (1) our mind is distracted and easy exhausted, or (2) our will hesitates in doing what is good, just and true. Thus, many Catholic theologians contend that the choice of atheism not only has intellectual roots but moral roots as well.
John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor ("The Beauty of the Truth") stressed the dependence of man on God and his law ("Without the Creator, the creature disappears") and the "dependence of freedom on the truth." He warned that man "giving himself over to relativism and skepticism, goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself."
In Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), he says:
In April 2005, in his address to the cardinals during the pre-conclave Mass which would elect him as Pope (a key public address to the top leaders of the Church), the future Benedict XVI talked about the world "moving towards a dictatorship of relativism."
On June 6 2005, he told educators:
Then during the World Youth Day in August 2005, he also traced to relativism the problems produced by the communist and sexual revolutions, and provided a counter-counter argument.
All links retrieved April 21, 2008.
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