Relativism

Relativism is one of the major philosophies of our day, but I think that it has been successful largely because people don’t think that hard about what it is before accepting it.

For example, how many people even know what relativism means? I doubt that a majority of Americans would be familiar with it. It is a philosophy that is very subtle, since many people seem to go along with it without realizing.

Relativism is the philosophy that the truth (most commonly this means morality) changes depending on the person and situation, instead of it being the same at all times.

Reading it like that, it seems pretty wishy washy, right? So what would make someone practice a belief like that? Relativism is a philosophy that seems to allow you to be more compassionate, since if you practice it, you will not seem to be as judgmental, as you will be fine with other people doing whatever they want as long as it doesn’t affect you.

This seems like a perfectly good standard at first glance, doesn’t it? But it runs into a couple of problems.

First, say two people both practiced (moral) relativism. The first believes that all cats should be killed, while the second believes that cats should be protected. There is a clear contradiction here, they both can’t possibly be right, can they? The value of cats can’t vary by whoever is judging them, that wouldn’t make any sense! Relativism leads to contradictions in what is considered to be the truth, which makes it impractical.

The second major problem with relativism is that it denies inherent truths, like moral truths and natural laws. A refresher: natural laws, according to Jacques Maritain, are

“an order or a disposition which human reason can discern and according to which the human will must act in order to attune itself to the necessary ends of the human being. The unwritten law, or natural law, is nothing more than that.”

Someone who practices relativism could easily justify things as horrible as murder, which of course violates natural law. In the mind of a relativist, “I believe what I believe is the truth, so nobody can say anything about it.”

This extreme situation usually doesn’t happen because relativists nowadays still tend to hold a couple of absolute truths, like the dignity of life of an able bodied person who has been born.

The fact that relativists still hold a few things back in their “do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t affect me” philosophy is very telling. This shows us that they do in fact desire an absolute guarantee of their own well being, claiming that that is an absolute truth or moral code. So it’s weak sauce relativism, since it is only relativism to a certain point. This shows us that people want to get away with doing little bad things but don’t want to be affected by the really bad things. Relativism is convenient when it comes to taking the easy way out, but it is inconvenient when forming a coherent moral code that is just for all.

Moral absolutism, on the other hand, claims that there is a moral code that does not differ depending on what the general public or any individual thinks. Even though the Nazis supported the mistreatment and murder of the Jews, the worth of the Jews was not based on what the Nazis thought of them. The worth of the Jews was in their inherent rights as human beings. The worth of African Americans was not in the eyes of the American government but also in their inherent rights as human beings. These inherent rights of people do not change based on what country they are in, what year it is, what the public opinion is, or anything. They are inherent to who people are. In the same way, lying or murder are never morally right.

31 thoughts on “Relativism

    • Haha good point, I guess I left it up for the reader, though my leanings are pretty obvious. Moral absolutism is the only one that makes sense. Relativism just ends up contradicting itself. Someone could say that they think that relativism is right. Yet, by saying that and being a relativist, it doesn’t actually mean anything since they believe that their views hold no weight in terms of reality and truth. So nobody in the world can absolutely say that relativism is true. It isn’t possible..

      • Of course, it’s only not possible under your definition of it. One who defines it as say, “Certain acts that may otherwise be considered immoral can be moral relative to extenuating circumstances” would say that a much more closed definition of relativism makes much more sense than absolutism. After all, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” –Obi-Wan Kenobi

      • Sounds like moral absolutism to me, if that is the correct course of action. The correct answer on an exam depends on the question, does it not?

      • It’s not moral absolutism. it’s moral absolutism with necessary wiggle room.

      • Why is the wiggle room necessary? If morality is not absolute then there can’t be such a thing as morality but rather a set of preferences.

      • There is always need for wiggle room. Take the example, The eskimo tradition of killing the ederly and babies. They would leave their elderly in the snow and kill a large amount of their babies. They did this because, in their culture, doing so was necessary to maintain the survival of the entire tribe.

      • Your example is a reason why absolute truth is useful and necessary, because even though that culture endorsed that morality, it was not the correct morality.

      • It also is “necessary to maintain the survival of the entire tribe.” By absolute morality, the “right” thing to do is keep them alive so that there would not be enough resources to provide for the entire tribe, and none would survive. By absolute morality, death of the entire tribe is better than death of the elderly and babies.

      • Either way, my goal is not to prove what is and isnt a morally absolute value, but rather that they exist and are to be followed.

      • Your point is that murder is never morally right; ergo Eskimo tribes should not commit murder for the purpose of the survival of the rest of the tribe; ergo Eskimo tribes, if following this absolute morality, should die out.

      • Who are you to tell me what my point is? I just stated, my point is that an absolute morality exists. Your Eskimo example does not refute that absolute morality exists, in fact your example seems to highlight how we all see that their actions are wrong even though they were accepted by a community group, showing us that morality does not depend on what one or many people say it is but rather that it exists outside of what people perceive it to be.

        Do you agree with me that moral law exists?

      • You stated in your blog that “lying and murder are never right.” And that is wrong.

      • Because if they don’t murder the elderly and babies, then the entire tribe dies, including the elderly and babies.

      • Anon, that is a massive misuse of terminology. Mostly every society agrees that Murder is the unlawful taking of life and there are lawful taking of life. If there is some necessary conditions in which taking another life is needed (Which you brought up) then it can’t be murder. Therefore your example doesn’t establish some meta-ethical thesis of Moral relativism where moral judgment’s truth-aptness is relative to either person to person or to culture (cultural relativism).

      • Fine. Let me rephrase my last point, since you got hung up on a technicality.

        To say that there are some situations in which the taking of a life is right means that that morals are relative to their situation.

    • Anon, the second-order claim “Is moral relativism absolutely wrong?” is misleading. Chris’ original point was that moral relativism involves logical self-contradiction. It is also self-defeating, take the moral relativist claim “It doesn’t matter what you believe”, that claim doesn’t even fulfill it’s own requirements for if you truly believe that proposition that “it doesn’t matter what you believe” then that entails that your beliefs really DO matter, so there are underlying presuppositions that need to be justified, but are not under moral relativism. Your claim about that Eskimo tradition doesn’t justify moral relativism, all it shows is that there are some situations in which a killing is necessary. It doesn’t prove that the moral truthfulness of murder is relative to each culture.

      • To say that there are some situations in which murder is right means that that morals are relative to their situation. I’m not sure what you are saying.

      • Anon, You are arguing for meta-ethical moral relativism, but all you have given can only be used to justify what is called descriptive moral relativism where there are disagreements across societies. This article was mainly focused on meta-ethical moral relativism. As I have said before, the fact that there is some exception to some situation doesn’t entail that moral judgments and their capability of being true or false is relative to society.

      • No it does not. This is why I stay away from the term “Absolute” as it ends to endless confusion. Just because there are some exceptions to the rule like killing in self-defense in our culture, doesn’t mean that “Murder” simpliciter is a relative. All it shows is that there are some cases in which killing is permitted, and that doesn’t contradict our moral intuitions about Murder. Once again, understand the difference between Murder as an unlawful taking of life and lawful takings of life.

    • Anon, that is a misuse of term “relativism”. That is why I specifically gave you the technical definition prevalent in the literature. It states that the moral judgments we make and their truth-aptness (capability of being true or false) is relative from culture to culture. Stating that there are some Circumstances in which a killing is justified for some reason does not establish relativism. So it is wrong to say that “morals are relative to situations” is a corollary from the aforementioned exception.

      • why is it wrong to say that morals are relative to situations when we have clearly just created a situation in which a normally immoral action (killing) is now moral?

      • Anon, my technical definition should have cleared that confusion up. It is not relativism in the purest since of the term since the fact that there are such exceptions doesn’t entail that morality is somehow relative.

      • But it does. It absolutely does. Or rather, it makes moral absolutism false.

  1. Relativism is not that bad imo, assuming we’re talking about the differences in cultures and society’s i.e., Confucianism vs. Modern West where we have a communitarian vs liberal moral dichotomy and I don’t think that one is superior to the other, they both hold their own weight. I believe this to be true having witnessed it myself in other countries and people and have been mesmerized by it. Relativism is okay if we have a very defined version of it. Capitalism vs Communalism is a another example of a moral points of views that everyone differs on and there certainly isn’t a absolute in which one IS better (and for the longest time in American history communalism was the “conservative” position until about the 1950s).

    However, if we’re talking about moral relativism i.e., what we consider “civilized” vs. “uncivilized” I completely agree. Trying to pretend that stoning and killing adulterers, polygamy, the murdering of “Others”, forced marriages, etc. is “due to their culture” and “we don’t understand” is nonsense in my definition. There are moral absolutes that nearly everyone agrees with, our sense of right and wrong, but the debate of relativism and absolutism is broader than what you allocated.

    Just food for thought, while I’m sympathetic toward what you said Chris, I would be careful when you start running on an icy cliff.

    Cheers!

    • We are just talking about moral relativism here, Paul, so yes we completely agree. I’m not sure what you meant in your first paragraph, though.

      • First paragraph was obviously me rambling incoherently about cultural and political and economic relativism which is part of the bigger debate, but alas, it matters not. Just a reminder that while moral absolutism rues the day, at least I’m fairly certain most humans share a sense of shared objective morality we don’t share the bond when it comes to culture, economics and politics.

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