Absolutism, Absolute Relativism, and Relative Relativism: A Comparison

Sandra LaFave
West Valley College

In this reading, I compare absolutism, absolute relativism,and various forms of relative relativism with respect to:

  • Metaphysics: what is most real;

  • Epistemology: what can be known; and

  • Ethics: what we should do.

These notes contain references to characters in Norman Melchert's book Who’s To Say?, an assigned text for my Critical Thinking course.


Absolutist Metaphysics
According to absolutist metaphysics, the most real things– essences or Forms or God – are fixed, unchanging, and the same for all persons and cultures. The "really real" is basically static and unchanging. Often, for absolutists, the most real things are also thought to be the best and "highest" things. Plato was a metaphysical absolutist. His influence on subsequent Western philosophy was immense. The paradigm of reality for an absolutist is Plato’s Form of the Good or the Christian God.

Because the world as revealed by the senses constantly changes, the world as revealed by the senses is actually not "really real." "Pure" disciplines such as math, philosophy, and theology, which study the "really real" things, are the "privileged discourses"; they are more important than science, which studies only the apparently real.

Absolutist Epistemology
According to absolutist epistemology, a statement p is true if it corresponds to the essences or Forms of numbers or God or things. Truth applies only to statements whose truth value never changes, e.g., statements about math or God or essential natures such as Dog-ness or Table-ness.

For absolutism, a paradigm of knowledge would be a math statement such as "2 + 2 = 4". This statement is objectively true: it is true whether or not anyone knows it, for all times, cultures, and situations. When rational beings discover this kind of truth (the only kind, for absolutism), they are bound to agree about it.

Absolutist Ethics
According to absolutist ethics, fixed and unchanging ethical rules exist and those rules apply to all individuals in all cultures. Usually these rules are thought to be laid down by the immutable God. God is construed as intelligible, i.e., able to be understood by human reason. Thus if we apply ourselves to the task of reasoning, we will always know which moral rule to use in any particular case. In other words, morality is objective. All rational beings following rational methods will agree what those rules are and how to apply them.

None of the characters in Norman Melchert's Who’s To Say? is an absolutist in the sense defined here. In fact, absolutism is pretty much dead in philosophy. It has been superseded by various forms of relative relativism, such as scientific rationality and pragmatism.



The character Fred is a dogmatic relativist.

Dogmatic Relativst Metaphysics
According to dogmatic relativist (aka "freshman relativist") metaphysics, there is no "objective" reality. Reality is what I/we believe it is.

Dogmatic Relativist Epistemology
According to dogmatic relativist epistemology, there is no "objective" truth of any sort. The statement "p is true" means "I/we believe p."

Dogmatic Relativist Ethics
According to dogmatic relativist ethcs, morality is a matter of feeling and so not a matter of reason; no one's ethical views are more "rational" than anyone else's; so no one's ethical views are any more objectively (rationally) supported than anyone else's. Thus there is no objective morality. All moral views are equally (un)reasonable.

Absolute relativism is committed to ethical subjectivism. Ethical subjectivism is the view that what's moral is what I feel is moral. "Feeling" here is defined as the "opposite" of thinking or reasoning. See my notes on Subjectivism in the Ethics online study guide. One problem with ethical subjectivism is its opposition of thinking and feeling: it seems obvious that thinking and feeling are highly interconnected.

Ethical relativism (also known as conventionalism or cultural relativism) is the view that what's moral is what my culture feels is moral. "Feeling" here is defined as the "opposite" of thinking or reasoning. See notes on Relativism.

Fred falls into the trap of dogmatic relativism when that view is shown to be self-contradictory. In philosophy, dogmatic relativism is also dead.

Supposedly non-dogmatic relativism ("critical theory"), in the hands of theorists like Derrida, probably belongs in this "absolute relativist" column, because it calls into question the notion of disinterested rationality itself. Critical theorists, in other words, would support the view that there is no objective truth of any sort, since all "texts" are situated in a particular socio-political framework, and that framework determines the resulting views.







1. Scientific Rationality (Mike)

Metaphysics: There is a world. Obviously, people can interpret this world in different ways, but certain aspects of this world are the same for everyone. Science explores those.

Epistemology: p is true / we know p beyond reasonable doubt if and only if

  • p is empirical;
  • p is intersubjectively verifiable;
  • p is falsifiable.

However, even if p meets the three conditions above, p might still turn out to be false later on, as science progresses.

"Truth" or "knowledge" is always qualified as truth or knowledge beyond reasonable doubt.

Scientific discourse is "privileged." The self-correcting nature of science ensures that knowledge of the world will get better and better.

Ethics: science has an essential role to play in making life happier for everyone by improving the material circumstances of life: "good" = "happy-making"

2. Scientific Rationality + Faith (Sam)

According to the character Sam, Mike's view is entirely correct, AND the world studied by science was created by God and manifests the divine will. (Some scientists believe in God.) Religious truth, however, is not provable by the methods of science. It requires faith; and for Sam there are good reasons to have faith. Sam is not dogmatic, however. He acknowledges that the reasons he finds convincing might not be convincing for someone else.

3. Pragmatism (Anita)

Metaphysics: to be real, something must make a real practical difference. For example, a table is real because I have to walk around it. If the table made no difference to my life (if I didn't have to walk around it, for example, or never used it to put stuff on), it would not be real; it would be imaginary. Now, God might be real if the notion of God makes a practical difference in people's lives.

Epistemology: p is true/right iff p "works," i.e., enables more satisfactory relations with the world. "God exists" is true for me if it makes my life better (and I am the one who defines "better").

Beliefs that work for one person or culture or time might not work for another. But pragmatists agree that scientific discourse is privileged as long as science tends to continue to produce beliefs that work very well.

4. Non-Dogmatic Relativism (Peter)

In English departments, non-dogmatic relativism is also known as "critical theory," "literary theory," or just "theory. See separate notes on critical theory. Peter claims that fundamental notions like reality, truth, rationality, contradiction, etc., apply only within linguistic or cultural frameworks ("meta-narratives"), and that science is just one of many possible frameworks, and is thus not privileged.





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