What Is Relativism?

Man is the measure of all things.

- Protagoras, as quoted in E. Hussey, The Pre-Socratics

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss relativism, a philosophy of shifting sands. "Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of educating is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own 'ego'." Pope Benedict XVI, in a speech given in June 2005, showed that the issue of relativism is as contentious today as it was in Ancient Greece, when Plato took on the relativist stance of Protagoras and the sophists. Relativism is a school of philosophical thought which holds to the idea that there are no absolute truths. Instead, truth is situated within different frameworks of understanding that are governed by our history, culture and critical perspective. Why has relativism so radically divided scholars and moral custodians over the centuries? How have its supporters answered to criticisms that it is inherently unethical? And if there are universal standards such as human rights, how do relativists defend culturally specific practices such as honour killings or female infanticide?

Listen to the In Our Time episode on Relativism

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

Are you a relativist? A relativist is someone who says things like “There are many truths, many ways of seeing things.” Compare this with the non-relativist, or absolutist, who says, “This is how things are, and there are no two ways about it.” What’s your reaction to these opposing viewpoints? If the relativist sounds decent, non-judgemental, and understanding – someone you feel a connection with – whereas the absolutist sounds biased, unforgiving, and unthinking – someone you would avoid – then you are just the audience I’m aiming at.

Of course one can unproblematically be a relativist about taste in art, or in gardening, or anything involving only purely subjective evaluations. But the philosophically interesting kind of relativism is cultural relativism, also known as (or is at least a substantial subdivision of) moral relativism...

Continue reading Ray Prebble's article: Are You A Garbled Relativist?

Further Reading

Relativism, roughly put, is the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning, and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them. More precisely, “relativism” covers views which maintain that—at a high level of abstraction—at least some class of things have the properties they have (e.g., beautiful, morally good, epistemically justified) not simpliciter, but only relative to a given framework of assessment (e.g., local cultural norms, individual standards), and correspondingly, that the truth of claims attributing these properties holds only once the relevant framework of assessment is specified or supplied. Relativists characteristically insist, furthermore, that if something is only relatively so, then there can be no framework-independent vantage point from which the matter of whether the thing in question is so can be established...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Relativism by Baghramian & Carter

Bonus Webcomic

A Dialogue on Morality - Existential Comics

Related Topics

If you’re interested in relativism, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 Nihilism | Truth

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