Displaying Is Relativism Unethical?

Relativism could be defined as follows: when we decide that a course of action is moral, it is not objectively true but related to some background situation, a local cultural preference or a particular situation. With relativism, what counts as truth is what we regard as true or rational by our local standards. Relativism challenges the possibility of an absolute conception of truth and the possibility of reaching any absolute conception of truth. In other words it could be that certain things are true but that we can never actually reach that truth. The Sophist Protagoras reportedly said that man is the measure of all things. Now it seems reasonable that my particular view of a piece of music or whether a wind is hot or cold, depends on my outlook – what I am used to and what I like. The Greeks took this idea and moved it on into the moral domain.

There is a great deal of negativity towards relativism. People seem to be rather reluctant to accept the idea that right and wrong are not things which we can use to label certain actions or behaviours or attitudes. Adults in particular seem to want schools to teach pupils the difference between right and wrong. Our laws indicate a view of what should be permitted and what should be restricted. In other words, it is one thing to hold an individual preference or view but as soon as we are talking about groups of people, relativism starts to look quite suspect. In an age of human rights when we are used to seeing things on TV from far off places that seem wrong, we can feel very strongly about that. It seems to be wrong. We call on human rights as something that should be for all, or perhaps just an idea of a basic natural sense of justice and injustice.

The problem is that cultures are different and it is not always straightforward whether we have a good position to judge others. A society which has great freedom for men and women, and correspondingly few social obligations to control for instance the way in which relationships can be made and broken, might look down on a society which has limitations on those freedoms and quite a lot of social control, on the role of women and the prescription of heterosexuality as a norm. On the other hand the more controlling society might have stronger family cohesion and might look at the family and social breakdown found in the more liberal society as the source of problems. Each perspective is conditioned. Where is the position of objectivity, or neutrality? Perhaps the strength of relativism is that it can consider both perspectives and actually discern more than a position locked to one truth would be able. This a possible virtue of relativism.

Perhaps we need to be much more suspicious of what certain groups or authorities say truth is at all. Perhaps we need to take responsibility for finding truth for ourselves. Truth might be much more difficult to tie down and should be much more highly valued than some of the previous narratives or stories from religious, political or philosophical traditions. This kind of relativism means that we do judge others, and we do make decisions about moral conduct, but that we see ourselves as having a very important responsibility in discerning those things, rather than relying on ready made answers. However there is a tendency to slip from this to ‘Anything goes’ which seems much more frightening. There are no controls, no truth, no limits. It is not clear how relativism can avoid this slip accept that it suggests someone who has not taken serious responsibility for conduct and judgement. For this reason, relativism is unlikely to become popular for parents who worry about their children, for politicians who have responsibility for the protection of the people who elect them, and for religious people who have a sincere conviction that their religion offers the truth.

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