What Is Relativism

Relativism holds that morals (truth? justice? laws?) change with the times. So, what was good and virtuous a couple hundred years ago is not necessarily good and virtuous right now. No one timeframe can claim the moral high ground as the set of truths _agreed_ upon by society for that time are just as valid as a set agreed upon by another society. Hmmm, I think it cuts across time _and_ space. So, being white male American, I don't have a leg to stand on when criticizing other cultures. It's all relative. -- TerryLorber

Except that, according to the relativists, as a white male American, all the other cultures have the right to criticize you.

Well, then, they aren't really relativists, are they? -- TerryLorber


As a relativist, I don't think it has anything to do with the times. It has to do with the inability to prove any one value system as correct. I don't even think you can make a statement about other systems being as "valid" because valid is an unprovable judgement as well. As any standard of proof is not objectively provable it stands to reason that relativism's viewpoint is correct. Of course, we must still select a moral system, but you don't get to be a fundy about it.

And since most value systems (past and present) have not been relativistic, where does this leave the relativist?

It leaves us just fine. Why wouldn't it?

You don't see the paradox? If there is no privileged standpoint, the belief that relativism is evil (or false, or just undesirable) is equally true. The selection of a moral system is no longer arbitrary for the relativist. So my question remains (and I'm genuinely interested) where does this leave the relativist? --ChrisSteinbach

Relativism is similar to GoedelsIncompletenessTheorem. Also see RussellParadox. Rather than argue if moral system's involve recursive primitive functions and care about being complete and consistent, let's just assume a moral system is attempting to be a relatively complicated formal system. If it's not, really there's nothing to argue about because then you can say anything you wish. Even given Godel's theorem, we still have myriads of formal systems. Even with relativism, there are myriads of moral system. It's just that no system gets to say it is the one and only true system. We have many mathematical systems because people just invent them and some turn out to be useful. We have many moral systems for much the same reasons, but with the addition that as humans we have to act so we must develop an explicit or implicit system of morality as a basis for our actions. For me, this is the role of consciousness, to make a choice without the appeal to the authority of a proven true moral system.

I should point out that not all forms of relativism succumb to this paradox. ThomasKuhn's relativism, based on "paradigms", is more descriptive than prescriptive. -- ChrisSteinbach

Can you explain? I couldn't find any detailed information on it.


Hmmm. There was a radio show last night about the notion of 'hero' in two thousand year old Chinese folk tales. The similarities with a Western European notion of hero were very strong. Both saw a hero as strong, loyal, courageous, self-sacrificing, and a fighter for the downtrodden.

I think culture varies tremendously, but not basic morals. Killing, theft, and sexual violation are wrong pretty much universally. -- IanRae

We kill during war. The US has capital punishment. We can kill in self defense. We take taxes which can be considered legalized theft. The powerful have been able to steal in every culture. Sexual violation is not a problem in many parts of the world where women have few rights.

Most cultures accept killing during war and self-defense (i.e. they are common exceptions to the rule). Most cultures also have capital punishment, often more harsh than the US. The powerful steal and it's universally considered unfair by the masses. Sexual violation is usually taken much more seriously in other cultures - witness the woman in Nigeria who will be stoned to death for pregnancy out of wedlock.

Er, how about sexual promiscuity, or extra-marital sex. She's not getting stoned b/c she raped someone, is she? -- TerryLorber

Obviously rules differ in different cultures. But they seem to be variations on a common theme. Relativism goes much further and says there are no universal rules at all. If this were true, we should see cultures with polar opposites, such as where theft (by everyone all the time) is glorified. We don't see such cultures. QED.

Where are these relativists I've been hearing so much about, anyway?


I don't think an example about Nigeria is at all compelling. I think you just have to get the stats on violence on women to see this rule is not a rule or a variation. When does a variation make something different in kind? I think the rules regarding women are sufficiently different in kind.

We see many cultures where it is ok to steal and raid from other tribes. That's quite polar. That's not stealing-is-good-by-everyone-all-the-time. I can't think of a culture that is completely polar on theft because I don't think you can organize a society that way.

You can make universal rules if you want. There are just no universally provable rules. [Except that one?] Universal rules are not something you or I make. They stem from human nature which hasn't changed much in ten thousand years. Factors such as: males are stronger, females have the babies, humans tend to organize hierarchically, agriculture requires 'owning' a piece of land, etc. Read GunsGermsAndSteel for a big overview of cultures worldwide since 9.000 BC. Provability seems besides the point. As long as people generally throughout history and across cultures feel that X (theft, murder, rape) is wrong, that's the way it is and will most likely be.

See also TheRedLampOfIncest? by Robin Fox for a look at sexual taboos across current and past cultures.
There are some universal rules. There are just many ways for them to be followed. That's where I think relativism misses the boat. See the IshmaelBook for a through exploration.


That's not stealing-is-good-by-everyone-all-the-time.

I guess you can always restrict the statement enough that it will fit your premise. Yet you can not name one universal rule. You have very vague generalities that you must overspecify to make even remotely applicable.

While we are talking about being vague, tell me, how do you define your relativism? Do you see some well defined boundaries between traditions that we will never, and should never penetrate? And if you are forced to admit that cultures are not closed systems, then how far are you willing to let your relativism go? You could narrow the context to the values and beliefs of the individual at any given moment. But what would you get out of it?

At the heart of relativism (well, cultural relativism anyhow) is a respect for other traditions. But setting up false boundaries by denying these traditions the skills and intelligence to change and interact does not promote culture, it mutilates it. -- ChrisSteinbach

But some traditions are evil and should not be respected.

Yes that's right. Reality is too rich and complex to be tamed by simplistic philosophies. However, terror is never far from the sublime and relativism might offer us a way to recognize the barbarism in our own ideals before we force them on others. To quote PaulFeyerabend (as I so often do):

There is not a single idea, however absurd and repulsive, that has not a sensible aspect and there is not a single view, however plausible or humanitarian, that does not encourage and then conceal our stupidity and our criminal tendencies. (PaulFeyerabend, ThreeDialoguesOnKnowledge?, ISBN 0631179186 )

-- ChrisSteinbach

>Universal rules are not something you or I make. They stem from human nature, which hasn't changed much in ten thousand years.

If this is true, one would expect a lot more similarities than there actually are. Free will allows people to choose their rule set; we are not bound by human nature.

One would only expect more similarities if one thought humans were simplistic. We should probably use the word patterns rather than rules. Free will allows people to choose their actions, not their nature. Ask a homosexual if they think their sexual preference is an act of free will or part of their nature.

We don't find any groups defying gravity. There is nothing similar in human behaviour.

Astronauts, careless Ford Pinto drivers.


But some traditions are evil and should not be respected.

Which ones?

Throwing virgins into volcanos to appease gods. Mutilating young girls. Killing people because they (do not) believe in God or beacsue they are not Aryan. Killing women because they have had sex after divorce. Slavery. Torture. Many more.

If you thought the earth would be destroyed unless you tossed in a virgin wouldn't you do it?

I would even toss a virgin into a volcano just for the fun of it, I happen to be an evil person. But tossing innocent virgings into volcanos remains evil, even when some lunatics believe, the Earth will be destroyed, if we do not appease the gods.

Actually, those are not lunatics at all. Recents floods in Europe and Asia clearly show that we have underestimated the wrath of Gods.

But seriously, somethimes you have only choice among evils. But smaller evil is still evil. Killing innocent is evil, sometimes it can be the smaller evil. The point is that without absolute rules you cannot compare evils, since there is no direction, no fixed point you can use for orientation. Why not destroy Earth? Without absoulte rules there is no good and no evil.
Relativism is the logical belief that each human being is the measure of everything. Human beings tend to aggregate themselves into groups that, depending on several antropological and/or historical happening, has different extensions; to be part of the group (society), each member accepts the rules of the group; these rules exist to make the group tied and stronger than other groups, to promote cooperation, minimize disagreements between individuals. The rules can be encoded in several ways and through several processes; one of these ways is what we call moral and what we call law. -- MauroPanigada
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