A debate concerning Relativism

It’s a saturday night in Da Hammer, and if I was a normal hetero male of my generation, I’d be out bar-hopping right now. But I’m evidently not, since I’m at home trying to write a book about environmental philosophy. And I suddenly remembered a discussion I had with

  a while ago, concerning some of the criticisms of Relativism which appear in The Other Side of Virtue.

(Which, as a short Google search revealed, seems to be getting good reviews.)

So, by request, here is a short discussion on why I think Relativism, as an ethical idea, is inadequate.

Relativism is the view that any value of any kind, whether it be ethical or aesthetic, is meaningful only in relation to some particular context of time or place. A value might be relative to a particular culture or sub-culture, or a region of the world, or a particular age in the history of a culture, or even a particular individual. Its implication is that all values, being relative, are not absolute, nor universal: there can be cultures or regions or times where some value has no relation, and therefore has no force.

Relativism, especially ethical relativism, is rejected by most professional philosophers because it does not meet the standards of an intellectually rigorous and logically sound moral theory. One of the reasons for this is a matter of pure logic. Since the relativist position is that all values are relative to time or place or individual, then relativism itself, as a value, must also be relative to time or place or individual. It follows that there might be at least one time or place or individual relative to which relativism itself does not apply. In other words, if relativism is true, then there must be some person or place for which it must be false. On the level of pure logic, Relativism is thus a self-refuting theory.

Relativism usually comes in two forms: personal belief relativism, and cultural relativism.

Personal belief relativism is the claim that an action is morally right if the person doing it believes it to be morally right.

The first line of objection to this principle is obvious: some people, let us call them evil-deed-doers, believe that it is right to bargain in bad faith (i.e. make promises or enter contracts one doesn’t intend to keep), or sell human beings into slavery, detonate bombs on passenger trains, or initiate a war of occupation and genocide (while also, perhaps, concocting false pretenses for the war, planting false evidence, and so on). The truly committed, unapologetic relativist has only one response to these evil-doers: ‘but it was right for those people to do those things; it corresponded to their belief structure’. Well, I wouldn’t argue that such people believed in the rightness of such acts. But we should be concerned with what people ought to believe about what they do. We can’t seriously claim that it was right for Stalin and his Communist party to believe that it was right to kill twenty million Kulaks. We can’t seriously claim it was right for Regan to believe it was right to finance the paramilitary gangs that tortured and killed the field workers in Nicaragua’s co-operative farms.

Or, if we can claim it was right for those people to believe such things, I’ve one more belief to add to the list: I believe it is right for me to give a passing grade only to the students who sit in the first two rows of my classroom. Well, this is an obviously irrational belief; but it is my belief, it is right for me, and that is what makes it right, and none of my students in the back row can have any objection – unless they appeal to moral principles other than personal belief relativism.

Cultural relativism is the idea that the rightness or wrongness of some action is determined only by reference to the accepted moral norms of the society and the culture of the person doing it.

Many people who are cultural relativists believe that their principle inspires tolerance and respect of cultural differences, and indeed celebrates pluralism and multiculturalism.  These people usually also believe that the only alternative to cultural relativism is some kind of dogmatic, domineering, and oppressive  absolutism, which must be rejected since it does not respect diversity and can serve only to justify domination and oppression. The relativist may claim that his principle is a better one than any alternative because it lets people make their own choices and be who they want to be, without interference, and in accord with their own autonomous choices. (Well, even that value is ‘relative’, so the relativist is logically committed to the possibility that there might be some time and place where diversity and difference is not to be respected. But I digress.) The relativist, however, is also logically committed to the view that he must not intervene in the choices and actions of others, even if the other person is about to do that which he himself would regard as seriously wrong.

I can think of various societies that have accepted various moral norms which in our society we regard as deeply wrong. Some societies accept slavery, some accept structures of institutional racism such as apartheid, some societies think it normal and natural to oppress women. The committed cultural relativist is compelled by his theory to accept that in those cultures, slavery, racism, and sexism is acceptable. He therefore thinks it wrong to teach them to act differently, or to interfere with their practices. He might rest his mind knowing that since those societies are not his own, he is not condoning their practices. What happens, however, is an inconsistency in the logic of cultural relativism. The committed cultural relativist is given the choice of either condemning racism, sexism, and slavery, and thus being true to his own culture but intolerant of other cultures, or else accepting such things, and thus being tolerant of other cultures but untrue to his own.  The cultural relativist thus sometimes finds himself morally bound to act in an immoral manner.

Are there any situations in which a person is morally right to do racist, sexist, or slavish things? Some of them might be justifiable in a Utilitarian way. A benefit that could compensate for the loss of someone’s freedom, or dignity, would have to be enormously large, since the loss of freedom and dignity is a very grievous kind of harm. In fact I can’t think of anything at all that would compensate for the loss of such things. The ethical relativist, however, is logically committed to the view that there may very well be situations in which it is right to do anything at all, including harm people in particularly grievous ways, even if there are no compensating benefits. He is also committed to the view that someone else may believe it is right to do such things, and committed to the view that he cannot intervene if that other person tries to do them. But in our society, we do not claim that slavery, perjury, sexual violence, or genocidal warfare are wrong for us but potentially right for others. In fact we codify criminal laws to punish people who do such things. Tolerance of diversity and respect for difference, it would seem, has its limits: and the moment we step over that limit, we are no longer relativists.

– If it is explained that the action is wrong because it is somehow intrinsically wrong, then the person becomes a deontologist: he usually appeals to moral laws derived from nature (what we used to call ‘intuition’), from pure reason, or from religious scriptures or divine revelation.

– If the person says the action likely to produce a lot of unnecessary and uncompensated harm, then he becomes a utilitarian.

– If it is explained that the action is a sign of bad character, then the person shows himself committed to the virtues.

– If it is explained that the action took from someone what was his, or gave him something he did not deserve, he becomes an advocate of justice.

We should therefore reject relativism because, as here explained, it is an inadequate moral theory. But most of all, we should be able to offer each other something better. We should be able to articulate a sound and strong ethical world-view which does not slide into the emptiness of relativism, nor into the alternative trap, the kind of absolutism that ethical relativists appear to be worried about. We should be able to offer people something which separates the good from the bad without logically contradicting itself in the ways here described. But more importantly than that, our ethical paradigm should inspire people, lift them up, enrich their lives, and spiritually transform them into better people. Relativism simply cannot do that job. But there are other models of ethics which can.

And as you know, I’m writing books about them even as we speak.

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One Response to A debate concerning Relativism

  1. Anonymous says:


    It’s lay on Macduff, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him…he seemed such a nice young man.

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