“Different strokes for different folks” might be the simplest and least controversial expression of relativism, the idea that what’s good or bad, right or wrong, or true or false, can be different for different people. Yet, relativism is not only controversial but right at the heart of some of the most divisive issues of our day, issues like whether evolution and / or creationism should be taught in schools and whether the United Nations has a right to censure China for human rights abuses. The answers to these questions depend on what you believe about relativism.
The idea that morality or truth is relative, means that what is moral or what is true depends on something else, such as culture, situation, or some other ‘frame of reference.’ Or, to put it another way, relativism is the idea that things are only moral or true within certain limits, or in certain senses. Which implies that nothing is universally true, false, right, or wrong. And this is the implication that makes relativism one of the most modern and controversial philosophies of all time.
A lot of scientists oppose relativism, because it implies that there is no objective reality (a reality which is the same for everyone, not matter what they believe). Opponents of relativism fear that it gives people license to do whatever they feel like, however immoral, or to believe in anything, no matter how incorrect. And relativism does seem to get used that way by some people; you have probably heard the idea that all opinions or all faiths should be equally respected.
But, in truth
Relativism does not justify doing or believing in whatever you feel like; it says only that truth and morality are relative to something; this isn’t the same as saying “anything goes”!
Others regard relativism as one of the greatest conceptual leaps forward of all time—especially scholars in sciences like anthropology, linguistics, and psychology. Because in these fields, people have learned, through much experience, that many truths and morals are different in different culture; and the first motivation for relativism is not to be prejudiced against other people’s religions and cultures.
As an example of cultural relativism, you should know never to tip servers in China. You might think that even if it’s not expected, it’s the right thing to do. But in China, tipping is a terrible insult to the server; it implies that you think they’re so poor and incapable of supporting themselves, that they need your charity. So, tipping is obviously right in our culture, and obviously wrong in their culture! This is the kind of example that justifies relativism; or you might argue that the Chinese perspective is just wrong! However, you would have a hard time justifying absolute morality in this case.
II. Types of Relativism
Descriptive versus normative relativism
Descriptive relativism simply describes the differences between cultures, without saying anything about how they should be; this is the usual in anthropology. “Normative” is the kind of relativism usually discussed by philosophers—i.e. the question of whether we should be relativists.
Can refer to any aspect of culture—religion, language, everyday behavior—but practically speaking, cultural relativism is usually about what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable—such as tipping, marrying children, and eating beef, all practices which are right in some cultures and wrong in others.
This means that how you know things can be different in different contexts and cultures. For example, in some cultures, people believe that they can learn true things from dreams. If you felt obligated to respect that idea, you might be an epistemic relativist.
Also known as alethic relativism – means that truth is relative, as discussed in previous sections; this is the one kind of relativism that is equally opposed by some religious and some scientific authorities!
Moral / ethical relativism
As discussed throughout this article, says that right and wrong is relative to your belief system or culture.
III. Controversies about Relativism
Does relativism mean that we must tolerate ideas and practices that we believe are wrong?
What do you think? What about a religion that requires people to take illegal drugs? What about a nation which does not give individuals all the human rights that we believe in? These are real examples–ones which we in America, as a nation, have accepted. In general, we DO feel obligated to accept the practices of religions and cultures that we might disagree with—even some that violate our laws. But there are limits; for example, we oppose the practice of female genital mutilation, which is traditional in some countries.
There is no rule to tell us when to be relativists and when to enforce our own beliefs. We believe that it is wrong to interfere with others’ freedoms if they’re not hurting anyone, which means allowing some native American tribes to use the drug peyote in their religious rituals. On the other hand, we believe in protecting people from harm, which is why we don’t allow female genital mutilation. So, we seem to be relativists, within limits—limits we are still arguing about in our society.
The same is true for relativism about truth. Some Americans believe that it is wrong to teach only evolution, and not creationism, in schools. They argue that we are obligated to present all beliefs. But, most people who do not share their faith argue that they misunderstand relativism; even if truth is relative, that doesn’t mean that a story from a holy book should be presented as a scientific theory.
In any case, the tension between relativism and our belief that some things are just right or wrong continues to be a huge source of social controversy.
IV. Quotes about Relativism
“Is,” “is,” “is”—the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to make sense. I don’t know what anything “is”; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.” ― Robert Anton Wilson
Robert Anton Wilson has been on a crusade in support of truth relativism for decades. He often writes about the idea that whenever you say X is Y, you are at best stating a limited truth, if any truth at all. He often points out that “is” (or “are”) allows us to say and think bigoted things such as “Jews are X” or “Blacks are Y” – ideas which are not only bigoted, but simply irrational—because everybody is different. Wilson often writes about the work of 20th century logician Alfred Korzybski who argued that our language often encourages us to think in non-relativistic ways that are incorrect; for example, if we didn’t use “is,” we could never say, “an electron is a particle” or “an electron is a wave”; we would have to say, something like “when I look at it in one way, it seems to be a particle, and when I look at it in another way, it seems to be a wave.” Which is both relativistic and much more accurate.
“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” — Pope Benedict XVI
Here, Pope Benedict expresses a common fear about relativism—that it means believing and doing whatever you feel like. Relativism does open the door for people to choose their own individualistic beliefs, and that opposes the idea that the Bible provides absolute truth. However, relativism does not support whatever you feel like; relativists still need to engage in critical thought!
V. History of Relativism
Although relativism has made the philosophical scene off and on throughout history, it is mainly a twentieth century philosophy, especially in the Western world. It’s been part of Buddhist and Taoist thought in the East for over two thousand years. And, 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote, in Hamlet, “there is nothing in this world either right or wrong, but that thinking makes it so.” Nevertheless, relativism was never widely understood, supported, feared, or argued about until anthropologists began actively studying different cultures in the early 20th century.
The Greeks dabbled in relativism, starting with Protagoras at least, and Plato tried to refute it. But after that, we need to leap forward to the Enlightenment and Age of Reason (16th-18th centuries). As with many other modern philosophical developments, relativism was partially inspired by the rejection of traditional authority in matters of truth and morality. The Catholic Church is correct to say that relativism implies the rejection of any absolute truths or morals as expressed in the Bible.
The inspirations for relativism among philosophers are credited most to Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. Kant’s philosophy of idealism said that meaning is relational—that all ideas are defined in terms of their relationships to other ideas, not to some objective reality—which implies that any statement is only true or false, in relation to other statements. This relationism seems to support relativism and, in fact, the two ideas are often mixed up. Meanwhile Nietzsche emphasized that all our inherited ideas are just that—inherited and ideas, not objective truths. But, both Kant and Nietzsche were more relativist about truth than morality.
Finally, it wasn’t philosophy, but science, which popularized relativism in the twentieth century. Several new scientific movements of the early twentieth century–Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum theory, anthropology, and linguistics all implied kinds of relativism. Although, many philosophers and scientists feel that it is misguided to support cultural or moral relativism on the basis of relativity or quantum theory.
The theory of relativity says that certain physical properties, such as mass and length, depend on your ‘frame of reference’—which in physics just means how fast you’re moving, and in what direction. In other words, two people moving in different directions while observing the same thing would measure it to have different lengths. Many people take this as a good analogy for philosophical relativism. In the analogy, ‘frame of reference’ could mean your culture, or belief system.
Meanwhile, quantum theory proved that sub-atomic ‘particles’ have different properties depending on how you observe them; the statements “an electron is a particle” and “an electron is a wave” can be true or false depending on the situation, so their truth is relative. This is important to our notions of truth because it provides a counter example to the rule of traditional logic that nothing can be two mutually exclusive things at the same time; apparently, electrons can, so maybe other truths can be this way too.
Perhaps people would not have applied these ideas to cultural and moral issues if the dawning sciences of anthropology and linguistics had not supported that leap. The most famous early representatives of cultural and linguistic relativism were Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, anthropologists who studied Native American languages; they discovered that those languages seemed to represent the world very differently from European languages, pointing towards the idea that people in different cultures, or with different languages might experience reality differently.
At the same time, anthropology throughout the twentieth century revealed that other cultures can have beliefs and morals that seem all wrong to outsiders—until you understand how they think—such as in the example of tipping in China (section one). So, this has led to the idea that we should never judge other cultures’ beliefs as wrong–although others disagree very much with this conclusion.
VI. Relativism versus Subjectivism
It seems like a lot of people get these two confused! In section four we saw Pope Benedict make this error. Subjectivism and relativism are very close but different in important ways. They both say that there is no objective or absolute truth. However, subjectivism says that all supposed statements of truth are really just statements about individual subjective experience; if I say, “the Earth is round,” that really means in my experience and opinion, the Earth seems round – and according to subjectivists that is the only kind of truth there is. Subjectivism is therefore consistent with relativism; it is the kind of relativism where everything is relative to individuals.
However, you can be relativist without being subjectivist. You might believe that truth and morality are different between cultures without believing that they are subjective. For example, a relativist would have to agree that eating beef is wrong in India, but they could disagree that it is okay for me to eat dogs just because it’s right to me.
VII. Pop Culture
Example #1: Morally relativistic anti-heroes
Relativism makes great cinema, theater, and television. Morally controversial decisions and heroes make for good drama! Some popular morally relativist characters include Batman, who uses violence and breaks the law constantly, in the name of good, the new Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has been described as “a benevolent sociopath,” and Walter White of Breaking Bad, who does a lot of shocking and dreadful things for what many people would consider good reasons. We could not root for these characters and all their morally questionable actions without believing somewhat in moral relativism.
Example #2: Avatar
Part of this film, which follows a crisis created by clashing cultures, is a case study in cultural relativism. As one of the native (Na’vi) characters says to the human hero about teaching him their ways—they will see if his “madness” can be cured—and by madness, the native means the normal human world-view. Evidently, these Na’vi are not relativists! But the film is relativist; because as the human learns the ways of the Na’vi, he comes to believe in things that seemed false to him before; he learns that truth is culturally relative.