Although relativism is most often associated with ethics, one can find defenses of relativism in virtually any area of philosophy. The following article first discusses the general structure of relativist positions and arguments. It then examines several influential ideas concerning relativism in the late twentieth century. Finally, it ends by considering the rise of relativism in one area outside of ethics: epistemology.
What Is Relativism?
Relativism about some property F can be divided into a number of different theses. One relativist view is that there exists a plurality of standards of Fness associated with different places, people, cultures, or times. Call this descriptive relativism. A different relativist thesis is that there is no single universally valid standard of Fness for all places, people, cultures, or times. Call this philosophical relativism. In this view, a plurality of standards of Fness provides the only frames of reference against which the truth of claims that something is F can be evaluated. Such claims thus cannot be evaluated unless and until a framework is specified. A third and further relativist thesis is that we should be tolerant of those who, for some F, use standards of Fness different from our own; each standard is appropriate for its own culture or time. The claim that we ought not pass judgment on those deploying alternative frameworks is often dubbed normative relativism. Although these three relativist doctrines are distinguishable from one another and can be consistently held in various combinations, all three quite often go together.
Most people are and ought to be relativists about some things—etiquette, for instance. Is it rude to call one's colleagues by their first names? Yes and no; yes in Japan and no in the United States. The truth or justifiability of judgments of rudeness can be evaluated only relative to the prevailing standards of etiquette, and it would be absurd to insist that one's own standard is closer to the right way of doing it; it is just different, not better. There is no "universal" standard of etiquette against which each act of rudeness can or should be measured. Relativism about what is funny, edible, or delicious seems reasonable as well. One's own sense of humor or one's tastes are just different, not better, than those of others. Some may feel less confident saying that one's own standard of beauty is just different, not better, than others, but few would press the issue.
About some things, however, it is difficult to defend relativist positions. Few think that arithmetical truths such as 7 + 5 = 12 are only true relative to some arithmetical framework to which there are alternatives that are just different, not worse. There are necessarily no acceptable alternative mathematical frameworks in which 7 + 5 = 12 is false. The ordinary view of moral judgments is that they lie somewhere in between etiquette judgments on the one hand and arithmetical judgments on the other. Some think they are closer to etiquette, others to arithmetic.
It is important to hold agreement on non-F facts fixed to determine whether there is a genuine difference in standards of Fness, and whether a given philosophical view is truly relativist. Parametric universalism (so dubbed by T. M. Scanlon) allows that what is F in one place or time might not be F in another. However, it is not a relativist view, since it allows opposed judgments of whether a given action or activity is F to be generated from a single universal standard of Fness due to different circumstances. Diversity of judgments about Fness, according to the parametric universalist, are traceable to differences in non-F facts, rather than different standards of Fness. Only a view that allows different standards in a given area of concern to be in some sense equally valid is a genuinely relativist view.
Issues and Arguments Relating to Relativism
As obvious as it may seem that we ought to be relativists about some things, late-twentieth-century philosophical discussions of relativism spent a surprising amount of time simply trying to state the view coherently. The ethical relativist familiar to most of us, for instance, combines all three above relativist theses in a way that best illustrates the problem. He will begin with the innocent observation of a diversity in moral practices, infer that therefore there is no single universal moral standard, and then confidently wrap up with the conclusion that therefore no person should judge the actions of those from other cultures or times. As Bernard Williams points out, although this crude bit of reasoning is obviously self-contradictory (the conclusion asserts a universal moral requirement the existence of which the premises deny), avoiding this kind of incoherence has proved surprisingly difficult.
Second, philosophers have also been concerned with the extent of defensible tolerance. For any outlook, sincerely holding that outlook seems incompatible with regarding it as merely one among a number of outlooks, each different, but not better, than the others. How, for instance, could morality have the grip on us that it does if it does not lead us to condemn those who, however distant from us in time and place, radically violate its deepest tenets? The normative relativist requirement of tolerance apparently can only be taken seriously by those who have no sincere moral convictions. Thus the basic relativist dilemma is this: either the "ought" in the claim that we ought not to condemn standards radically at odds with our own is a relative "ought" from within our own standards or an "ought" tied to an absolute standard. The former is incompatible with sincerely embracing and living within a standard. The latter is incompatible with relativism.
Third, does relativism about a given F require skepticism? Skepticism about F holds that there are no good grounds for believing anything really is F. The question is whether relativism about Fness undermines any good grounds for believing that there really is such a thing as Fness. Size, for instance, is relative to some frame of reference, such that a given whale might be tiny while a mosquito huge; but this seems compatible with claiming that the tiny whale really is tiny and the huge mosquito really is huge. Suppose what we morally ought to do is relative to the culture or era in which we find ourselves; is this compatible with claiming that what we ought to do is what we really ought to do? Some, such as J. L. Mackie, have argued that it is not. Moral beliefs, in his view, are beliefs about an absolute standard of conduct. If what exists are multiple standards, each no better than the others for its context, then it follows that there really is nothing answering to our moral beliefs. Others, such as David Wong, argue that moral beliefs are not about absolute standards but about prevailing standards. Hence there is something answering to these beliefs in his view.
The most powerful consideration philosophers have mobilized in favor of the claim that there is a plurality of equally correct standards of Fness is that it provides the most satisfying explanation of existing differences over the question of whether something is F. If relativism explains existing differences—differences that persist even against the background of agreement on non-F facts—then we should be relativists about F. Consider the question whether, for instance, C's "thumbs-up" to D was a rude gesture. Suppose A from one culture and B from another agree on all the nonetiquette facts: C gestured toward D with his fist out and thumb extended skyward. A thinks this was rude. B denies it. One explanation for the dispute is that they have yet to uncover some further fact about the gesture, its deeper etiquette nature. But there is a better one available: A is judging relative to standards from his culture according to which the thumbs-up is rude, while B is judging relative to a different standard according to which the thumbs-up is not rude. Indeed, A and B will likely conclude this quickly. B will say "In my culture, the thumbs-up is a sign of encouragement," while A will say in his it is not.
Of course, it does not follow from the fact that different frameworks for judging Fness exist or have existed that no single correct universal standard of Fness exists. Different frameworks might be assessable as more or less close to some all-encompassing universal standard. Perhaps because of its complexity, it is simply difficult to understand or know the correct universal standard of Fness. But it may be that the existence of different frameworks could be explained by the absence of a universal standard. It also does not follow from the fact that there appear to be different frameworks for judging Fness that there are in fact different frameworks. The parametric universalist in moral standards, for instance, holds that diversity is a result of the application of a very general but universally shared standard to locally diverse conditions. If that view is right, then the philosophical relativist position that there is no such universal standard—sometimes referred to as "metaethical" relativism—lacks its main support, as an explanation of moral diversity.
Shared Motivational Attitudes
Gilbert Harman has argued for philosophical relativism about what he calls "inner" moral judgments. These are moral judgments that imply that the agent has certain motivating reasons to do something, and the person making the judgment and his audience endorse those reasons. For instance, the claim that S ought to do some action is an inner moral judgment. Harman claimed that relativism about such judgments is a "soberly logical thesis" about "what makes sense" and what does not in our moral language (1975, p. 3). The motivating reasons implied, Harman argued, are those that derive from an implicit agreement reached by bargaining between people of differing powers and resources. Such moral judgments are thus relative to this agreement. This agreement, in turn, may differ from society to society, each being different but not better than the other agreements. In a society with slavery but no agreement that speaks against it, for instance, it is false that the slave owners ought to free their slaves. Even if we would condemn such a society, Harman's view implies that it would be "inappropriate to say that it was morally wrong of the slave owners to own slaves" (1975, p. 18). The agents involved are not parties to an agreement that would give them the relevant motivations.
In fact, the claim that slave owners are doing something wrong ought to be a logical mistake, if Harman's relativism is a "soberly logical thesis." But it is hard to see how this could be so. Surely it makes sense to say of slaveholders in a slaveholding society of the sort Harman envisions that they are doing something wrong. Perhaps we should not blame someone for an act if she had no chance to avoid it, and a person brought up in a slaveholding society might have had no chance to see slaveholding as wrong. Perhaps we should not blame her, if saying that she did wrong is a form of blame. But that such judgments, at least under some circumstances, might be inappropriate does not make them contrary to a soberly logical thesis.
In later works, Harman has elaborated his view so that it combines four theses: (1) there is a plurality of moral frameworks, none more correct than any other; (2) moral judgments are elliptical for more complex judgments whose truth conditions include one of these frameworks; (3) morality should not be abandoned; and (4) even if relative, moral judgments can play a serious role in practical thought (Harman and Thomson, pp. 3–19). The second thesis is an important adjustment: Relativism is, he argues, not a claim about "what makes sense" in our moral statements but a claim about their truth conditions. What we are saying when we say the slaveholder is doing something wrong makes sense. It is just that we are saying something false because the slaveholder is not party to an agreement giving him motivation to act accordingly. But the third thesis runs into the relativist dilemma. What sort of "should" would we be invoking in saying that morality should not be abandoned? Suppose "morality" refers to some moral framework: We "should" have some morality or other. Then either there is some absolute framework that makes this "should" true, or there is no standard at all that makes this true. From within the point of view of one morality, it is not true that some other morality should not be abandoned.
Real and Notional Confrontations
Bernard Williams was concerned to come up with some way of stating normative relativism such that it is coherent and does not fall victim to self-contradiction. Recall that the self-contradictory ethical relativist view is the claim that since there are no universal moral standards, no one ever ought to condemn the practices of other cultures. The main issue is whether philosophical relativism can coherently be grounds for normative relativism. Coherent normative relativism requires recognizing the absence of a vantage point from which one can make meaningful evaluative comparisons between alternative frames of reference for judging Fness. Such a vantage point would result in what Williams calls a "real confrontation" between systems of belief (1981, pp. 132–143).
The idea is this: the possibility of normative relativism arises only when some action or practice is the locus of disagreement between holders of two self-contained and exclusive systems. Two systems of belief, S1 and S2, are exclusive of one another when they have consequences that disagree under some description but do not require either to abandon their side of the disagreement. When groups holding S1 and S2 encounter one another, this can result in a confrontation between their systems of belief. A real confrontation between S1 and S2 occurs when S2 is a real option for the group living under S1. In a notional confrontation, S2 is not a real option. S2 would be a real option for a group living under S1 if two conditions held. First, those in S1 could "retain their hold on reality" living under S2, in the sense that they would not, for instance, need to engage in radical self-deception. Second, they could acknowledge their transition to S2 in the light of a rational comparison to S1. If the conditions for a real confrontation are not met for holders of S1, however, then there is only a notional confrontation with S2 and there is no "point or substance" to considerations of whether S2 might be a better or worse system of belief than S1. If a member of S1 does not regard the confrontation with S2 as a real confrontation, then "the language of appraisal—good, bad, right, wrong and so on … is seen as inappropriate, and no judgments are made" (Williams, 1985, p. 161). The suspension of such judgments amounts to adopting normative relativism about S1 and S2.
The language of appraisal is appropriate regarding S2 only if those in S1 could "go over" to S2. The hoi polloi who pursue the pleasures of so-called "low" culture may judge that there is little of value in a life crowded with the elite activities of "high" culture. It is a real possibility that they could learn to love opera and lose their taste for country music, so they may evaluate doing so in their own terms. Those from the low culture judge high culture to be boring; those from high culture judge low culture to be tacky and lacking depth. However, Williams observes, "the life of a Bronze Age chief or a medieval samurai are not real options for us: there is no way of living them" (1985, p. 161). They are too alien to permit us to make the same judgments made between culture mavens.
In this respect, however, Williams's account, like Harman's, fails to deliver what it set out to—a coherent normative relativism. For it is not clear in what sense it would not be "appropriate" to appraise these moralities as less morally enlightened than our own. If appraisals of S2 are inappropriate, then they must be inappropriate according to some S. Can S1, then, forbid appraising other Ss? It is difficult to see how it could, if, as we assume, a system of belief requires having a grip on the thinking of those within it that prevents taking an external view of it. Suppose Williams thinks that a "real option" is an option that would be as good or better from a point of view external both to S1 and S2—say, the point of view of human well-being. This would be to abandon relativism. For according to the relativist, there is no S external to particular systems such as S1 or S2, a universal standard from which one could judge that appraisal is inappropriate. To measure S2 and S1 by human well-being would be to hold human well-being up as a universal standard. Alternatively, suppose Williams is thinking, like Harman, that this is a "soberly logical thesis"; it is just nonsensical to judge medieval samurai morals to be better or worse than our own. Williams himself denies this claim, saying that the vocabulary of appraisal in such cases "can no doubt be applied without linguistic impropriety" (1981, p. 141). But if he were to accept that this was a logical or linguistic impropriety, then he, like Harman, would have to explain how this could be so, given it seems intelligible enough to say that their morals were worse in many respects than our own.
With respect to some areas of thought and discourse, unbridled relativism will be less attractive than a relativism that requires certain boundaries be respected. As we have seen, it is difficult to see how tolerance about alternative standards of Fness can be maintained unless we suppose there is some viewpoint independent of these alternative standards from which to evaluate them. Many philosophers have come to the conclusion that there is such a viewpoint, although it can only be a very broad standard imposing limits on the range of acceptable standards. Some such philosophers, such as David Wong and Michael Walzer, do not shun the label "relativists," but they are perhaps better described as "pluralists." Pluralism holds that a range of different standards of Fness exists and can be tolerated, but only within limits. One sort of pluralism might be based on a kind of indeterminacy among acceptable standards: Begin with a universally valid framework for any acceptable standard, including, for instance, demands such as that any valid standard must treat like cases alike. Such a framework alone is not itself a standard for Fness and so cannot provide any kind of guidance. It is, rather, a second-order standard, or a standard for any acceptable first-order standard Fness. Suppose, further, this framework marks off a "range" property of standards, in the sense that no standard fits the framework any better than any other standard fits the framework (as when, for a given circle, no point within the circle is more within it than any other) (see Rawls, p. 508). As long as a given standard fits the framework, it is acceptable, but an indefinite number of different standards could meet it. This case offers no grounds for judging that any standard of Fness is "better" or "worse" than any other, based on the second-order framework, except to say that either a standard fits the framework or it does not. Limited tolerance, then, would amount to approving of those standards within the range that fit the framework and disapproving of those outside of that range, based on the second-order standard of acceptability provided by the framework.
A different sort of pluralism would be based simply on epistemic modesty (i.e., a justifiable reticence to assert claims that one does not know to be true). One can even combine this with parametric universalism: a single universally valid framework yields standards that deliver opposed conclusions in a given case depending on the circumstances. Modesty implies that even if there is a determinate answer to the question whether, for any given thing, it is F or not, it may not be possible to be confident enough of this in any case. Suppose, then, no one can be confident that he or she knows how that framework is to be put into practice in any particular culture or time. That is, she does not know which of the available standards that fit the framework is best given the circumstances. Then, where one is not confident, one should be tolerant.
Whether pluralism of either kind can meet the challenge of developing a coherent defense of tolerance is not clear. For one thing, pluralism based on epistemic modesty implies a kind of diffidence in the face of alternative standards that is sufficient to prevent the modest judge from condemning the alternative standards. Yet it must also leave one confident in the importance of one's own standard. Moreover, although pluralism based on indeterminacy allows one to see one's own standard as acceptable based on meeting a sort of minimum, this is hardly the sort of endorsement that can sustain its grip on us in the face of a variety of equally acceptable alternative standards.
Contextualism and Relativism in Epistemology
By far the most discussed form of relativism is ethical relativism. However, relativist issues arise quite frequently in almost every area of philosophical research. One of the most significant trends in late-twentieth-century epistemology has been the rise of views that are broadly either relativist or pluralist and are loosely collected under the banner "contextualism." Contextualists hold that the truth of sentences attributing knowledge, such as "S knows that p," like the truth of sentences attributing tallness, such as "S is tall," depends on the contexts of their use. In particular, the speaker's context determines which standards of epistemic justification are in play. Hence, A's statement "Stella knows that Stanley loves her" may be true, while B's seemingly contradictory statement "Nobody ever knows anything at all" might also be true, since their contexts of utterance might invoke quite different standards of justification. A's may be a conversational context; perhaps Stella has told A about Stanley's having confessed his feelings to her, A knows that Stella is a good judge of dissembling, and so on, so A can rule out the possibility that she is ignorant. In A's context, that possibility is not salient. B, on the other hand, has been studying Descartes and in that context the possibility that everyone is being tricked by an all-powerful evil demon is very salient. In A's context, the demon hypothesis is out of place. That "Stella knows" is true relative to one context of A's statement that she does, but not relative to B's context.
In effect, contextualism amounts to a kind of speaker relativism, in which the standards in play are determined by the person making knowledge claims. Standards are relative to contexts, and the context is set by the speaker. A certain standard is appropriate for each context. A speaker then "picks out" the relevant standard when making knowledge claims that then determine the truth conditions of the claim. However, it may be better to classify contextualism as a kind of pluralism, because any contextualist will hold that there are standards of justification no lower than which can be gone in any circumstance. For instance, there are no contexts in which simply having a belief that something is so counts as knowledge. Thus a range of standards exists, each appropriate for some context, but all are subject to a certain baseline minimum of justification.
It also seems as if contextualism could be regarded as a parametric universalist view. For instance, evidentialism is the view that S knows p only when S's belief fits the evidence. When someone says that S knows that p, the evidentialist who is a contextualist will say that this will be true only when, according to the speaker's context, there is enough evidence and the belief fits it well enough. What varies here, then, is not the standard of justification; the standard is that a justified belief must fit the evidence. It is the degree of fit that varies according to context, and that is not a matter of standards varying.
Steven Stich, however, defends an unambiguously relativist view of knowledge. In his view, it doesn't make sense to think that there are standards of rational belief formation independent of those that happen to be accepted in a given place and time. Standards of rationality in belief formation vary from locality to locality. And this, it seems, is grounds for holding there is no universal standard. But someone knows something only if her beliefs about it are rationally held—formed for good reasons. Since the standards vary, knowledge varies with it. Hence, according to the prevailing standards of rationality in one locality, a belief may be held for good reasons, while in another those selfsame reasons may not be good enough.
Stich's statement of epistemological relativism appears to conform to Harman's original model. In particular, it conforms to Harman's view that "there is no sense attached to" judging dimly the practices of someone who conforms to standards other than our own. Because of this, it also inherits the difficulty of explaining why that kind of judgment seems to make sense. There is no apparent confusion about what someone is saying when she says that those people over there have no reason to believe what they believe, even though they think they do. We may think it morally inappropriate to make such judgments, but it is not nonsensical. Indeed, we may even think our condemnation to be epistemically rash. But just as in the case of ethical relativism, if we do think it epistemically rash to condemn the epistemic practices of others, it must be based on some standard of rationality. If it is based on our own standards, however, it is not clear how we can maintain confidence in those standards when forming beliefs on their basis. If it is not based on our own standards, then we must be invoking some nonrelative standards. It seems that relativism in epistemology faces the same dilemma that ethical relativism faces.
Normative relativism in a given area counsels tolerance of practices that conform to alternative standards prevailing in the area. The paradigm of acceptable tolerance is clearly the case of etiquette. Here we have grounds for a defensible and thoroughgoing relativism. And here the relativist doctrines we have discussed fit: Clear-eyed judgments that the practices in a different culture conforming to standards of etiquette prevailing there are rude are, indeed, puzzling. What could such judgments mean? It is true both that such judgments make little sense and that we ought not to try to engage in them. But what distinguishes etiquette from other areas is its relative lack of importance in our thinking and behavior. We can maintain our manners even while taking an external view of them as simply one standard of etiquette among others. When we turn to claims about what is of value or what is rational, for example, the subject matter itself raises the stakes. Once the stakes are raised, we seem less able to take an external view, to maintain our views about what is morally worth doing, or what it is reasonable to believe. Future work on relativism will no doubt bring new ways of thinking about such difficulties.
See also Philosophy: Historical Overview and Recent Developments ; Philosophy, History of ; Philosophy, Moral: Modern ; Skepticism .
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Robert N. Johnson
Like many terms ending in "ism," the term relativism is used somewhat loosely in philosophy; a view is generally said to be relativistic if it maintains that there are no absolute principles in some order of knowledge (e.g., epistemology, metaphysics, history, or mathematics), or in the moral order, or in the aesthetic order. It denies that any of some class of statements is absolutely true, or that anything is absolutely right or good, or that anything is absolutely beautiful; and asserts that judgments vary according to the subjects who make them at different times, or in different places, or under some other circumstances. The subject whose judgments are relative may be thought of either as an individual person, or as a universal subject (man); the first usage is generally characteristic of ancient Greek relativism, and the second of various modern relativisms (see subjectivism). Relativists are often called skeptics when they deny that what appears true to one subject and false to another can ever be shown to be either absolutely true or absolutely false (see skepticism).
Apart from a brief sketch of cultural and ethical relativism near the end, this article is limited to a discussion of some of the major philosophers who, in treating of the nature of knowledge and reality, have adopted positions often called relativist. A chronological sequence is followed.
Greek Relativism. In the history of ancient philosophy the idea of "true knowledge" was first made explicitly relative by the sophists, the most notable figure among whom was Protagoras of Abdera (fl. c. 450–440 b.c.) who enunciated the homo mensura doctrine: "Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not." This doctrine is based on the "deceitfulness" of the senses and on the fact of disagreement in philosophy and religion. It is generally interpreted as meaning that each man is the measure of all things; that there is no objective truth in virtue of which one man is right and the other wrong, since a man's own peculiar nature is intimately involved in every judgment; and that therefore contradictory statements can be made on any subject and each can be true according to circumstances. (Cf. Plato's Dialogues: Protagoras, Theaetetus, and Sophist. )
The basic error of Sophist relativism is sensism, the identification of all knowledge with sense knowledge. While an adequate critique of this position is impossible here, one may point out that the assertion, "What appears true to one person may appear false to another," is not warranted by the typical examples adduced in its support. "Socrates is sitting" and "Socrates is not sitting" may both be true without contradiction. The apparent relativity is due to incomplete formulation of the propositions: when time and place are specified it is easy to see that there is no contradiction between "Socrates is sitting in the kitchen at three p.m." and "Socrates is not sitting in the kitchen at three-fifteen p.m." And the statement, "What is true for me may be false for you" gains its plausibility from the fact that a statement about me may be true while a similar statement about you may be false.
Origins of Modern Relativism. In the genesis of modern relativism the Copernican theory played a role of great importance by showing, contrary to popular belief and to the traditional Ptolemaic system, that the earth revolved around the sun and was thus not the absolute center of the universe. Giordano bruno argued that though to man's senses the sun appears to move and the earth does not, motion is relative to the position of the observer: to an observer on the sun the earth would appear to move. To follow sense-bound reason is to take as objective what is really relative from the higher point of view of mystical intuition.
In providing reasons for doubting the value of all previous philosophies, Michel de montaigne in his Apology for Raimond Sebond (1580) played an important role in setting the stage for modern philosophy. Thus the intellect is untrustworthy, mainly because of its dependence on the utterly untrustworthy human senses, "the greatest foundation and proof of our ignorance"; and to show this he repeats the arguments of classical Pyrrhonian skepticism (see pyrrhonism). There is no way out of this skeptical intellectual despair; but in practice one ought stoically to rely on "universal reason," expressed in tradition and the customary social order, as a guide to life; and one ought to cease looking for intellectual support for what is held by faith, since Protestant reliance on reason surely leads to nothing but radical doubt and uncertainty.
One effect of the work of Galileo galilei (1564–1642) was to cast doubt on the truths of traditional philosophy, and implicitly to question the value of any nonmathematical methodology in attaining truth. There should be no philosophical investigation of final causes; man cannot penetrate to "the true and intrinsic essence of natural substance"; and only primary qualities (number, motion, rest, figure, etc.), which can be given precise quantitative formulation, are the true and real accidents of bodies and can be studied; secondary qualities (colors, tastes, odors, etc.) have only a subjective reality in the sensing subject. Galileo left the way open to the denial of the possibility of attaining extrascientific truth, a denial found in the radical empiricism of David hume.
Empiricist and Rationalist Versions. Hume's philosophy can be seen as an attempt to establish the foundations of a genuinely empirical study of human nature—an investigation equivalent, for Hume, to determining what solutions would be given to traditional problems if the methodological limitations of Newtonian mechanics were imposed on philosophy as a whole. It follows that any book not devoted either to mathematics or to "experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence," such as a work on metaphysics or theology, can contain "nothing but sophistry and illusion" and one should "commit it then to the flames." Agreeing with his empiricist predecessors, John locke and George berke ley, that the immediate objects of the mind are its own contents or perceptions, he found it impossible to transcend these and found himself holding a radical phenom enalism: man's perceptions and their subjective connections are all he knows and all he can hope to know. One cannot even know whether there is an external world or a personal self, for any inference from subjective impressions to something beyond has only subjective validity. Both senses and reason are so fallible that no science can possibly be founded on them. "Shall we then establish it as a general maxim that no refin'd or elaborate reasoning is ever to be receiv'd? … By this means you cut off entirely all science and philosophy" (Treatise, 1.4.7). Hume thus bore witness to the dilemma of radical empiri cism: throw metaphysics into the fire, and science must follow; save science from the flames, and you cannot but save some metaphysics.
Immanuel kant attempted in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) to restore the bridge between sense perception and nonprobable intellectual knowledge, the bridge so effectively cut by Hume with his critique of causality. But the Kantian solution, noetic hylomorphism, is itself relativistic in that the forms of sensibility and the categories of understanding are part and parcel of reality as man knows it: intersubjective reality is constituted by the application of a priori forms and categories to the manifold of perception. Kant saw no way of saving realism, for if intellect wholly depends on sense, it is forever sense-bound and Humean skepticism is the outcome; he was thus led to adopt a rationalistic position, substituting a priori elements for innate ideas. It is clear that Kant's "Copernican Revolution," as he called it, proved too much. Not only is Newtonian physics erroneously made definitive scientific knowledge, but "pure natural science" becomes the necessary result of man's mental digestive and organizing system and, as Karl Popper has remarked, it becomes impossible to explain why Newton's discovery had not been made earlier [Conjectures and Refutations (New York 1963) 95].
John Passmore has written, "The main tendency of 19th-century thought was towards the conclusion that both 'things' and facts about things are dependent for their existence and their nature upon the operations of a mind…. They all agreed that if there were no mindthere would be no facts; they disputed, only, about what there would be—the Absolute, sensation, or a stream of experience…. Yet none of these writers… was prepared explicitly and consistently to assert that facts are merely recognized by a mind, not made by it." [A Hundred Years of Philosophy (London, Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1959) 175.]
Positivism. The relativism of Auguste comte is embedded in his positivist thesis that all knowledge consists in a description and correlation of the facts of observation; any attempt at explanation in theological terms or in terms of metaphysical natures and essences should be abandoned as belonging, according to Comte's historical hypothesis, to one of the earlier and now outmoded stages of man's evolution to positivism.
British Relativists. The associationist phenomenalism of J. S. mill led him to define matter as the permanent possibility of sensation and the external world as the world of possible sensations succeeding one another according to laws ("Berkeley's Life and Writings," 1871); even mathematical propositions are generalizations from experience and subsequent experience (see associationism). Mill's opponent, Sir William hamilton, was famous as an exponent of "the philosophy of the conditioned" or "the relativity of knowledge." For him, although man is directly conscious of independently existing qualities of mind and matter, he has no direct acquaintance with mind-in-itself or matter-in-itself; and he knows things only as they are related to his experience of them, not as they exist in themselves. Herbert spencer believed that Hamilton was right in asserting that nothing in its ultimate nature can truly be known, and that man has no definitive consciousness of anything but the Relative; but wrong in concluding that man can know nothing of the nonrelative. Spencer held that one could reason to an Unknowable, Incomprehensible Power that is the source of phenomena, which he associated with the law of evolution. He identified evolution and progress in such a way as to claim that "progress is not an accident, not a thing within human control, but a beneficent necessity."
T. H. Green (1836–82) maintained that all reality lies in relations, and that since relations exist for a thinking consciousness, the real world must be a world made by (external) Mind, yet somehow constituted by man's mind qua participant in the eternal consciousness. F. H. brad ley believed that things are a finite being's distortion of reality: man's ordinary judgments are "riddled with contradictions," and so attain mere Appearance, since Green was right in maintaining that thought is by nature relational; only in the Absolute, "an all-embracing, suprarational … experience" are appearances transcended [Essays on Truth and Reality (Oxford 1914) 249].
Pragmatism and Other Influences. For the pragmatist William james both things and facts about things are tools made by the mind to come to grips with the endlessly flowing stream of experience. It is unnecessary to suppose that either things or consciousness, considered as entities, exist: "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object." The proponent of secular humanism, F. C. S. Schiller (1864–1937), went beyond James in denying that "there is an external world given independently of us and constraining us to recognize it"; for both truth and reality, are man-made, and Protagoras was perfectly right in maintaining that "man is the measure of all things." Today pragmatism is strongest in the writings of social theorists, an application of relativism strikingly found in the writings of John Dewey and his followers. Perhaps the most influential American educational theorist of the first half of the 20th century, Dewey insisted that education be both practical and liberal: devoted to learning how to change the world for the better, though by "better" Dewey means that which is pragmatically relative to what is discovered experimentally.
Three other influences might be considered as leading to the apparent weakening of absolutist positions in the 20th century: (1) the development of modern mathematics, especially of non-Euclidean geometries, which seem to cast the shadow of relativity over what was traditionally regarded as the very paradigm of science; (2) the work of some theorists in logic who tended to identify logic with mathematics; and (3) the fall of classical physics as a result of relativity and quantum theory.
One significant contemporary relativist position is that of Marxist polylogicism, which asserts that the logical structure of a man's mind is correlated to membership in his socioeconomic class. Another important relativist school of thought is that of logical positivism, which develops and refines the phenomenalism of the British empiricists. Its thesis is that a material thing is a group of actual and possible sense data, for to say of a material thing that it exists is to say that it is possible to perceive it.
Critical Evaluation. The various positions that can appropriately be called relativistic are, to that extent, negative in character, involving a denial that such-and-such absolutes can be attained or known. An adequate critique of any of these positions can be given only by showing which absolutes can be successfully defended, and how; such a task obviously cannot be accomplished here. But it may prove useful to indicate briefly some objections to which phenomenalism, a historically important and currently popular form of relativism, is open.
As a theory of perception, phenomenalism is a doctrine about the relations between material objects and sense data, i.e., what one immediately and directly experiences. It maintains, in an ontological form, that a material thing is the permanent possibility of sensation (J. S. Mill), or the class of its appearances (B. russell); or, in the contemporary linguistic idiom, that statements about material objects are reducible to, or translatable into, statements about sense data. A realist would question: (1) the fundamental assumption that the only immediate objects of perception are sense data; (2) the possibility, even in principle, of carrying out the reductionist translation, both because of the lack of verbal means and because the appearances associated with a given material object are infinitely numerous and complex; (3) the possibility of explaining the causal influence of unobserved material things that are only clusters of possible sense data—e.g., one cluster of possible sense data, the water at the bottom of a well, emits an actual noise when another cluster of possible sense data, an unobserved and so hypothetical stone, strikes it [cf. H. H. Price, Perception (London 1932)]; (4) the possibility of formulating laws of nature as laws of regularity among sense data; and (5) the possibility of a reductionist translation without presupposing the physical order and without using a concept of the physical order in the very translation.
Ethical Relativism. From the time of Herodotus, civilized man has been aware of the existence of what are apparently differing value systems and ethical codes. This awareness was the occasion for the development of what is today called cultural or sociological relativism, defined as the view that different groups of people have different moral standards, and that the same act may be thought right by one group and thought wrong by another. To claim this is not to make the further claim that both groups are equally right: for one might maintain that though each group believes its standards right, this is not to say that both groups are right.
Though the very existence of fundamental moral disagreements is controverted [cf. K. Duncker, "An Enquiry into the Psychology of Ethics," Mind 48 (1939) 39], let us suppose that such disagreements do exist. If one now maintains that conflicting moral principles are equally correct, he will be known as an ethical relativist. An ethical relativist, then, is a cultural relativist who maintains there is no rational method of determining which of any conflicting positions is right, and so neither is rationally preferable and each is equally right. An ethical relativist must maintain that there is no one governing principle that justifies different practices in different societies; a utilitarian, for example, cannot be an ethical relativist because he will maintain that differing moral codes can be tested by the principle of utility and shown to be comparatively better or worse.
A widely held version of ethical relativism maintains that to speak of ethical codes as more or less justified is senseless, on the ground that ethical statements are noncognitive, being nothing more than expressions of emotion, wishes, exhortations, or commands. Another important relativist position is that of some existentialists, who claim that to think of morality as being a matter of rules or codes is mistaken, for each moral situation so differs from any other that a rationally justified decision is impossible.
An adequate critique of ethical relativism would entail a discussion of natural law. But quite briefly, ethical relativist positions are open to the following major objections: (1) all propositions comparatively assessing moral standards and codes whether past, present, or future, would be rendered meaningless; and (2) once the notion of a standard for the whole of humanity is dismissed, there is no logical stopping-place short of separate individual standards arbitrarily adopted, and every judgment to the effect that one man is morally better or morally worse than another becomes meaningless.
See Also: knowledge, theories of; ethics, history of; relation.
Bibliography: a. aliotta, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 4:1–11. m. j. adler, ed., The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, 2 v. (Chicago 1952);v.2, 3 of Great Books of the Western World 2:569–587. La Relativité de notre connaissance (Louvain 1948). j. a. passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (London 1957). a. aliotta, Il Relativismo, l'idealismo e la teroia di Einstein (Rome 1948). r. h. popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (Assen 1960). e. may, Am Abgrund des Relativismus (3d ed. Berlin 1943). s. e. asch, Social Psychology (New York 1952). p. w. taylor, Normative Discourse (Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1961), esp. ch.6. g. v. hinshaw, "Epistemological Relativism and the Sociology of Knowledge," Philosophy of Science 15 (1948) 4–10.
[r. l. cunningham]
Relativism, put very generally, states that a particular feature varies (or at least can vary) relative to certain phenomena. Prime candidates for the varying feature have been meaning, truth, rationality, justification, knowledge, value, and morality. Relativism thus arises in many areas of inquiry, and it has numerous variations within each area.
Relativism about truth states that truth varies relative to, for example, the concepts, the beliefs, the purposes, or the reasons possessed by an individual or a group. Relativists about truth thus suggest that truth is, in a sense, always truth for an individual or a group with certain concepts, beliefs, purposes, or reasons. Cultural relativism about truth, for instance, implies that truths are true for a culture (perhaps in virtue of that culture’s system of concepts, or conceptual scheme) but need not therefore be true for a different culture (say, with a different conceptual scheme). Relativism about truth, then, denies that truths obtain in virtue of reality independently of an individual’s or a group’s concepts, beliefs, purposes, or reasons. It thus opposes certain kinds of realism, or objectivism, about truth. Relativists must be cautious, however, not to suggest that their relativism about truth is true absolutely, or nonrelatively. If, however, relativism is true relatively, and not absolutely, opponents will find room for their absolutism about truth.
Concepts, truth-bearers, and statements are perhaps relative, regarding their existence, to a natural language or some other person-dependent phenomenon. This position seems coherent at least. Even so, we cannot thereby infer that what concepts, truth-bearers, or statements are about is similarly relative to person-dependent phenomena. Referring, describing, and explaining are perhaps relative to a natural language or some other person-dependent phenomenon, but it does not follow that the things about which one says something are similarly relative. Relativists and antirealists sometimes overlook this important lesson. It calls for a plausible distinction between human semantical activity and what such activity is about (e.g., objects, properties, states, or relations).
Morality has long been a prime candidate for relativism. Moral relativism, put very broadly, states that certain moral features vary relative to certain phenomena. Such moral features can include the basic moral beliefs accepted by an individual or a group, the basic moral requirements pertaining to an individual or a group, and the correctness of moral judgments or standards. Relativism corresponding to such moral features encompasses moral-belief relativism, moral-requirement relativism, and moral-correctness relativism. Moral-belief relativism can be assessed by empirical investigation, and is much less controversial than the other two versions.
Moral-requirement relativism entails that the moral requirements binding on a person depend on, and are relative to, the person’s intentions, desires, or beliefs (or those of certain people in the person’s society). Moral-requirement relativism has two common forms. Individual moral-requirement relativism states that an action is morally obligatory for a person if and only if that action is prescribed by the basic moral principles accepted by that person. Social moral-requirement relativism states that an action is morally obligatory for a person if and only if that action is prescribed by the basic moral principles accepted by that person’s society.
Moral-correctness relativism states that moral judgments are not objectively correct or incorrect and thus that different people or societies can hold contradictory moral judgments without any incorrectness. In other words, what is morally correct for one person or group need not be correct for another person or group. Moral-correctness relativism can be developed with various accounts of “relative correctness,” some of which do not imply that whatever moral judgments a person accepts are correct for that person.
Proponents of moral-correctness and moral-requirement relativism have based their case on various considerations, including moral tolerance. They sometimes stress that people should tolerate diverse moral views by allowing those views to be freely expressed. Even so, opponents of moral relativism need not disagree; they can hold that views conflicting with their own should be treated with full tolerance in terms of expression. In contrast, moral-correctness relativists cannot consistently hold that it is objectively correct that “a person morally ought to be tolerant of the views of others.” Such relativists, then, may face a problem of tolerance in morality.
Some moral-requirement relativists hold that a moral requirement applies to a person only if that person accepts (perhaps implicitly) the requirement as reasonable for himself or herself. This view upholds a connection between (1) what is morally required of a person and (2) what that person approves of and has a convincing reason to do. Many relativists hold that a person’s moral reasons (and thus moral requirements) have their basis in that person’s own psychological attitudes, such as that person’s desires, intentions, or beliefs. Gilbert Harman thus proposes that “for Hitler there might have been no [moral] reasons at all not to order the extermination of the Jews” (1975, p. 9). The underlying relativist position is inspired by David Hume (1711-1776); it claims that desire-independent objective principles of morality are inadequate as a source of moral reasons and that certain psychological attitudes (e.g., intentions) of a person are central to any source of moral reasons for that person. The opposite view is inspired by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804); it implies that desire-independent moral principles themselves can supply compelling moral reasons and requirements.
Is a person subject to a moral requirement only if that person has a psychological attitude, such as an intention, that recommends the satisfaction of that requirement? We can evidently “be subject” to a moral requirement in two ways: (1) as a motivating principle and (2) as a rightnessdetermining principle. A moral requirement is a motivating principle for me if and only if I have, on the basis of my psychological attitudes, an inclination to satisfy that principle. In contrast, a moral requirement is a rightness-determining principle for me if and only if that principle determines whether an action I might perform is morally right. The first concerns motivation for a person; the second concerns moral rightness of an action for a person.
Relativism about the motivational efficacy of moral requirements does not entail relativism about the rightness-determining relevance of moral requirements. A person’s motivating psychological attitudes are not automatically morally obligatory or even morally permissible. For instance, Adolf Hitler’s psychological attitudes motivated him to wipe out millions of innocent Jewish people. Obviously, however, Hitler morally should have renounced those evil attitudes, given their role in bringing unjust harm to others.
According to a plausible nonrelativist view, the moral rightness of an action is determined by the action’s consistency with what is prescribed by the set of correct moral principles. Of course, we cannot quickly or easily specify the exact conditions for a moral principle’s belonging to the set of correct moral principles. The task is difficult. Even so, we need not finish that demanding task to recognize that a rightness-determining moral principle for a person does not depend on that person’s intending to satisfy that principle. A moral principle can be rightness-determining for me even if I intend not to act in accordance with it. Morality, as ordinarily understood, is intention-independent in this respect.
Some relativists will reply that there is no such thing as a “correct” moral principle in the sense suggested. These relativists, however, will need to identify the defect in the view that moral principles are correct in the sense suggested. In particular, they will need to show why we should not hold on to a robust notion of moral correctness. They must also specify, in this connection, the sense of “should” in the previous sentence in a way that fits with relativism. In response, nonrelativists will then be able to consider whether the resulting relativism is “true for them.” If it is not, they may proceed with their non-relativism.
A general lesson emerges. Relativists must avoid a self-referential problem in their needed relativist notion of correctness: the problem that their notion of correctness either assumes nonrelativism about correctness or fails to challenge nonrelativism about correctness in virtue of allowing for absolutism about correctness. This is no easy task for relativists about correctness.
SEE ALSO Cultural Relativism; Fundamentalism
Harman, Gilbert. 1975. Moral Relativism Defended. Philosophical Review 84: 3-22.
Krausz, Michael, ed. 1989. Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Paul K. Moser
RELATIVISM . The term relativism is applied to ethical, cultural, and religious views. Relativism contends that such views are to be evaluated relative to the societies or cultures in which they appear and are not to be judged true or false, or good or bad, based on some overall criterion but are to be assessed within the context in which they occur. Thus, what is right or good or true to one person or group may not be considered so by others.
This theory was first presented by certain Greek authors who noted the varieties of religions and moral behavior in the Mediterranean world and suggested that differing mores indicated that there were no absolute standards. Protagoras said, "Man is the measure of all things," and this was interpreted to convey that each person could be his or her own measure. The variations of human, social, political, and ethical behavior were worked into a basic theme of the Greek skeptics. The fact of differences in human behavior is taken to imply that no general standard can possibly apply to all peoples and cultures. Sextus Empiricus even suggested that cannibalism, incest, and other practices considered taboo are just variant kinds of behavior, to be appreciated as acceptable in some cultures and not in others. This reasoning was applied by the Greek skeptics to various religions and their practices. They urged suspension of judgment about right or wrong and undogmatic acceptance of one's own culture.
This relativistic attitude was in sharp contrast to the dogmatic views of the Jews and Christians in the Roman empire, who insisted their revealed information assured them that their religious beliefs and practices were the only correct and acceptable ones. The christianization of the Roman empire and of pagan Europe pushed the relativistic approach aside. There could be some variations in ritual or practice, but in essential beliefs and practices anything different was heretical.
The skeptical-relativist view reappeared in new and forceful ways in the Renaissance, with a rediscovery of the wide variety of beliefs and practices of ancient times, and with the discoveries of radically different cultures all over the world. The rapid development of new kinds of Christian practices resulting from the Reformation also contributed to an emerging view of differences as based on cultural factors. Contrasts with the Ottoman empire made people even more cognizant of the wide range of human beliefs and practices. Montaigne was foremost in presenting the panorama of human beliefs and implying that the fact of difference indicated that each set of beliefs and practices was culturally conditioned. He contended that most people hold their religious views as a result of custom rather than conviction. He also suggested that the religious and moral practices of the "noble savages" were at least as good as those of European Christians.
Montaigne's skepticism and cultural relativism were carried further by the French skeptic Pierre Bayle, who insisted that a society of atheists could be more moral than a society of Christians, since moral behavior results from natural causes such as custom and education and not from religious doctrines. Bayle sought to show that such biblical heroes as David, such leading Christians as Calvin and Luther, and saints and popes throughout the history of Christianity have all acted in the moral sphere because of their own human natures and not because of their religious beliefs.
Bayle's analysis was incorporated into the Enlightenment's quest for a science of humanity that would explain why people acted, behaved, and believed in different ways. This science would deem religious beliefs the effects of different physical and psychological conditions, which might be studied neutrally. Climate, history, customs, education, institutions, and so on would account for the fact that societies differ in their social, cultural, and religious practices. One's personal psychological conditions would account for an individual's strong or weak religious convictions. Hume's Natural History of Religion (1757) initiated the study of religion as a manifestation of human behavior in which religious activity is relative to individual and cultural conditions.
This relativistic aspect of religion was identified as a crucial feature of the human condition by the German philosopher J. G. Herder, who contended that every society or culture develops from its own unique idea or character. Ethical and religious norms are part of the expression of these ideas, and no culture is inferior or superior to any other; it is simply different. Thus religion is seen to be relative to the culture in which it appears.
Herder's relativism and the growing interest in comparative studies of language and religion led to the full-blown relativism of Alexander von Humboldt in the nineteenth century, and of many twentieth-century anthropologists. Von Humboldt stated, "There are nations more susceptible of cultivation, more highly civilized, more ennobled by mental cultivation than others—but none in themselves nobler than others. All are in like degree designed for freedom" (Cosmos, London, 1888, vol. 1, p. 368).
The relativist position was further reinforced by various theories of the natural causes of beliefs. The theories of Marx and Freud offered ways whereby one could account for the fact that individuals and groups adhere to beliefs without considering whether or not these beliefs are true. Scholars now began to consider instead whether various religious beliefs were beneficial or deleterious, or why a particular belief arose at a certain moment in human history.
The relativist position was forcefully stated by the anthropologist Edward A. Westermarck in his major work The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas (1906). Westermarck contended on the basis of historical, sociological, and anthropological evidence that no ethical principles are objectively valid. In Ethical Relativity (1932) he further argued his position on philosophic grounds.
Critics of cultural relativism have suggested, first, that evidence of cultural differences does not rule out the possibility that there exist common beliefs and attitudes held by most or all cultures and, second, that factual information about such differences does not eliminate the possibility that one belief system may in fact be better, or more true, than another. Further, philosophers are still arguing about whether causal explanations about people's beliefs evidence the value, truth, or falsity of these beliefs. Yet by the late twentieth century, cultural relativism was a rather common view among many students of ethics and religion.
Brandt, Richard B. "Ethical Relativism." In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards, vol. 3. New York, 1967. A careful presentation and examination of the relativistic theory.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Authorized translation by James Strachey. New York, 1950. A psychoanalytic interpretation of some features of primitive religion and their present form in ordinary neurotic behavior.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York, 1902. A classical psychological description of the role of religion in human experience.
Jarvie, Ian C. Rationality and Relativism: In Search of a Philosophy and History of Anthropology. London, 1984. A critical evaluation of relativism as a proper interpretation of anthropological findings.
Needham, Joseph, ed. Science, Religion and Reality. New York, 1925. Contains, among other essays, Bronislaw Malinowski's "Magic, Science and Religion," Charles Singer's "Historical Relations of Religion and Science," and Needham's "Mechanistic Biology and the Religious Consciousness," all pressing a relativistic interpretation of religion.
Westermarck, Edward A. Ethical Relativity. New York, 1932. The basic philosophical statement of relativism in the twentieth century.
Yinger, J. Milton. The Scientific Study of Religion. New York, 1970. A study of religion in relation to human needs, behavior, and problems. A multidisciplinary approach.
Ariel, Yoav, Shlomo Biderman, and Ornan Rotem, eds. Relativism and Beyond. New York, 1998.
Devine, Philip. Relativism, Nihilism, and God. Notre Dame, Ind., 1989.
Jaki, Stanley. The Only Chaos and Other Essays. Lanham, Md., 1990.
Lewis, Charles, ed. Relativism and Religion. Blasingstoke, U.K., 1995.
Moody-Adams, Michele. Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture, and Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.
Richard H. Popkin (1987)
One of the most forceful statements of a thoroughgoing relativism can be found in the works of Paul Feyerabend. In a series of controversial polemics against scientific objectivity, method, and rationality, Feyerabend refers to himself as a ‘flippant Dadaist’. In Against Method (1975) he uses historical studies of scientific change (as had Thomas Kuhn) to show that for each proclaimed methodological principle of science, an at least equally good case could be made for adopting its opposite. The purpose of the argument was to weaken faith in method as such. The only principle Feyerabend was prepared to support was, famously, ‘anything goes’. In subsequent writings (such as Science in a Free Society, 1978, and Farewell to Reason, 1987), Feyerabend has made clearer the moral and emotional basis of his relativism. He sees a world increasingly dominated by a Western industrial-scientific way of life, which eliminates cultural diversity, destroys the environment, and impoverishes life. The key culprits in this scenario are science and its associated claims to objectivity and reason. This trio are so corrupted by their incorporation into global monotonization that they should be abandoned in favour of a free-for-all in which magic, witchcraft, traditional medicine, and other alternatives have equal access to power and resources.
Against Feyerabend it has been argued that misuse of science by powerful interests is not a sufficient reason for abandoning all the actual or possible benefits which might flow from its detachment from those interests. It might also be argued that the abandonment of reason has been historically no less destructive than its misuse. See also CULTURAL RELATIVISM; METHODOLOGICAL PLURALISM; PARADIGM; POST-MODERNISM.
rel·a·tiv·ism / ˈrelətəˌvizəm/ • n. the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute. DERIVATIVES: rel·a·tiv·ist n.