- Compare Moral relativism and Cultural relativism. For an unrelated physics theory with a similar name, see Theory of Relativity
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.
Advocates of relativism
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.
Descriptive vs. normative relativism
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.
Relativism: pro and con
- One common argument against relativism suggests that it inherently contradicts, refutes, or stultifies itself: the statement "all is relative" classes either as a relative statement or as an absolute one. If it is relative, then this statement does not rule out absolutes. If the statement is absolute, on the other hand, then it provides an example of an absolute statement, proving that not all truths are relative. However, this argument against relativism only applies to relativism that posits truth as relative—i.e. epistemological/truth-value relativism. More specifically, it is only strong forms of epistemological relativism that can come in for this criticism as there are many epistemological relativists who posit that some aspects of what is regarded as "true" are not universal, yet still accept that other universal truths exist (e.g. gas laws).
- Another argument against relativism posits the existence of a Natural Law. Simply put, the physical universe works under basic principles: the "Laws of Nature." Some contend that, by analogy, a natural Moral Law may also exist.
- A third argument addresses the effects of relativism. As an idea, this argument contends, relativism has the sole social value of making everyone equal by taking away any rules, thus resulting potentially in (anarchy and complete Social Darwinism). Relativism, according to this view, allows individuals to do as they please. Many relativists would add a corollary about harming others, but relativism itself negates these kinds of systems. If I can believe it wrong for me to harm others, I can also believe it right—no matter what the circumstances. It makes no difference in this ideological scheme.
- The problem of negation also arises. If everyone with differing opinions is right, then no one is. Thus instead of saying "all beliefs (ideas, truths, etc.) are equally valid," one might just as well say "all beliefs are equally worthless." (see article on Doublethink)
- Moral Relativism, in particular, in its more pure forms, often defies logic and acts in ignorance of possible truths. With any given action, it has the ability to inflict positive and negative states on other sentient beings, meaning it's impossible for relativism to be "the" law as even with hundreds of factors there is still usually an overall positive or negative outcome, and thus "wrong" would be attempting to seek more negative states than positive ones, possibly for personal gain. Moral Relativism either ignores this or seeks to overwrite it. Because certain things, such as logic, do exist and are constant, it is difficult for relativism to hold true in all scenarios.
- Since logic is inherently constant, and some things are more true than others, it means that "strong" relativism cannot hold true under many conditions. Relativism often ignores how views have different weight to each other. An example of a similar phenomenon is the Gay Marriage debate in the United States—an example where the majority dictates the rights of the majority even when it doesn't apply to them, as they do not weigh up the effects of their views.
- Another argument against relativism is that simply disregarding it often works fine at a pragmatical level.
- Contradictions such as "all beliefs are equally worthless" appear irrelevant, as they constitute arguing from the premise. Once you have said if the X is absolute you have presupposed relativism is false. And one cannot prove a statement using that statement as a premise. There is a contradiction, but the contradiction is between relativism and the presuppositions of absoluteness in the ordinary logic used. Nothing has been proven wrong and nothing has been proven in and of itself, only the known incompatibility has been restated inefficiently.
- Another counter-argument uses Bertrand Russell's Paradox, which refers to the "List of all lists that do not contain themselves." Kurt Gödel, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jean Baudrillard have famously debated this paradox.
- A very different approach explicates the rhetorical production of supposedly 'bottom-line' arguments against relativism. Edwards et al’s influential and controversial "Death and Furniture" paper takes this line in its staunch defence of relativism.
- A strong epistemological relativist could theoretically argue that it does not matter that his theory is only relative according to itself. As long as it remains "true" according to a relative framework, then it is just as true as any apparently "absolute" truth that a realist would postulate. The dispute lies in the distinction between whether the framework is relative or absolute, but if a realist could be persuaded it was relative, then the relativist theory could exist logically within that framework, albeit accepting that its "truth" is relative. A strong epistemological relativist must remove his own notions of universal truth if he is to embrace his theory fully, he must accept some form of truth to validate his theory logically, and this truth, by definition, must be relative. In other frameworks his theory might be regarded as untrue, and so the theory cannot exist here. Looked at from this perspective, with all notions and premises of universal truth removed, the notion of strong epistemological relativism is logically valid.
- Some people argue that God exists and God is the source or locus of at least some absolute values. (In ethics, this view is often called the "Divine command theory of ethics.") But that assertion falls victim to the observation that, even if God exists, this is no guarantee that God is fully good or fully truthful or holds to values that are absolute or that could be considered to be genuinely normative for human belief and action.
The Catholic Church and relativism
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
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:
- The original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people-even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the "right" ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The State is no longer the "common home" where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenceless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part. (Italics added)
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:
- "Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own 'ego'"
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.
- In the last century we experienced revolutions with a common programme – expecting nothing more from God, they assumed total responsibility for the cause of the world in order to change it. And this, as we saw, meant that a human and partial point of view was always taken as an absolute guiding principle. Absolutizing what is not absolute but relative is called totalitarianism. It does not liberate man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him. It is not ideologies that save the world, but only a return to the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true.
- Derek Edwards, Malcolm Ashmore, and Jonathan Potter. Death and Furniture: The rhetoric, politics and theology of bottom line arguments against relativism, History of Human Sciences, 8, 25-49. 1995. Retrieved September 23, 2007.
- John L. Allen Jr,. Report #4: Do-it-yourself religion 'cannot ultimately help us,' pope tells youth, August 21, 2005, National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved September 23, 2007.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Baghramian, Maria. Relativism. London & New York: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0415161495 ISBN ISBN 0415161509
- Beckwith, Francis, and Gregory Koukl. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-air. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998. ISBN 0801058066
- Devine, Philip E.. Relativism, Nihilism, and God. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989. ISBN 0268016402
- Edwards, D., M. Ashmore, and J. Potter. "Death and furniture: The rhetoric, politics, and theology of bottom line arguments against relativism," History of the Human Sciences, 8: 25-49, 1995.
- Edwards, Steven D. Relativism, Conceptual Schemes, and Categorical Frameworks. Aldershot, England: Avebury; Brookfield, Vt.: Gower Pub., 1990. ISBN 0566071339
- Erickson, Millard J. Relativism in Contemporary Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974. ISBN 0801033152
- Gellner, Ernest. Relativism and the Social Sciences. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. ISBN 0521265304
- Hales, Steven D. Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. ISBN 0262083531 ISBN 9780262083539
- Kaufman, Gordon D. Relativism, Knowledge, and Faith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.
- Krausz, Michael, (ed.). Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989. ISBN 0268016364
- Lewis, Charles M. (ed.). Relativism and Religion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. ISBN 0312123922
- Macklakiwicz, Henry. To Hell in a Lexus: The Problems of Today's Relativistic American Society. 2001.
- Meiland, Jack W., and Michael Krausz, (eds.). Relativism, Cognitive and Moral, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982. ISBN 0268016119 ISBN 0268016127
- Mosteller, Timothy. Relativism in Contemporary American Philosophy, London & New York: Continuum, 2006. ISBN 0826486363 ISBN 9780826486363
- Siegel, Harvey. Relativism Refuted: A Critique of Contemporary Epistemological Relativism. Dordrecht & Boston: D. Reidel Pub. Co.: Norwell, MA, U.S.A.: Sold and distributed in the U.S.A. and Canada by Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1987. ISBN 9027724695
All links retrieved December 7, 2022.
- What 'Being Relative' Means – A passage from Lecomte du Nouy's "Human Destiny" (1947).
- Relativism – The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Paideia Project Online.
- Project Gutenberg.
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