Sandra LaFave

The Issue

People often say things like:

  • “Who’s to say what’s true? Everyone has different experiences; you might even say everyone has a different reality. So what’s true is just a matter of opinion.”

  • “Who’s to say what’s moral or immoral? Everybody has different views (or feelings) about right and wrong; so ethics is just a matter of opinion (or feeling). It's up to the individual or the culture to decide.”

These positions, and others like them, are forms of relativism. Relativism is the view that judgments about truth and falsity, good and bad, right and wrong are relative to the individual person or culture. Different people have different opinions about what’s true but no one can be said to be absolutely right or wrong; rather, everyone is correct. Relativism denies that there can be any objectivity in matters of truth or morality.

Some terminology:

  • Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature, source, and limits of knowledge. Typical epistemological questions are: what is knowledge? What is truth? What is the contribution (if any) of the senses to knowledge? You’re talking epistemology when you say a statement is true. Note that in philosophy the words “true” and “false” apply to statements. Philosophers seldom use the word “true” in its other meaning of “genuine” (“That’s not a true diamond”); they’d use “real” for that.

  • Epistemology is closely linked with another major branch of philosophy, metaphysics, which is the study of what is, or what is real. Typical metaphysical questions include: what is real? What do real things have that unreal things lack? Are some types of things more real than others? Are there different ways of being real? You’re talking metaphysics when you say that something is the case, or is real. Note that in philosophy the words “real” and “unreal” apply to things, or possible things.

  • Epistemology presupposes metaphysics because of the general definition of truth: a statement is true if it corresponds to what is the case (what’s real). So you have to know what is the case (metaphysics) before you can say which statements are true (epistemology).

  • Western philosophy has traditionally assumed that everything is something. Every individual thing is unique in being, of course, but everything has attributes, or characteristics or “properties” (designated by common nouns or adjectives). A thing’s properties designate the classes of which the thing is a member. The most general class is a thing’s “whatness”, “nature”, or “essence” — its kind of being. The universe is thought to contain lots of kinds (classes, sets) of being, designated by common nouns (persons, books, bicycles, trees, etc.) To be essentially one thing implies that one is not essentially something else. For example, if this is an apple, it’s not a banana. It has apple-ness; it lacks banana-ness.

    The whatness or nature of something determines not only what it is, but also in general how it will behave. Science is concerned with the general characteristics of classes of things. Through science, humans can discover, manipulate, predict, and control events.

  • Epistemological relativism is the view that truth and falsity are relative; in other words, no statements are “objectively” true or false. Truth is relative to a person or a culture. An epistemological relativist denies that anything at all can be known. According to hard core epistemological relativism, everything is a matter of opinion, including science. Naturally, anyone who is an epistemological relativist is also an ethical relativist.

  • Ethical relativism is the view that morality is relative. An ethical relativist restricts relativism to ethical matters; an ethical relativist might not be an epistemological relativist. For example, an ethical relativist might accept the possibility of scientific truth but deny the possibility of truth in ethics.

The Argument for Relativism

Relativism is usually supported by the following argument:

Premise1: Different individuals and cultures, at different times, hold widely varying and sometimes contradictory beliefs about what’s real, what’s true, and what’s moral. No truths or ethical rules are common to all individuals or cultures.

Premise 2: Since everyone “comes from somewhere,” there is no possible “objective” standpoint (no “view from nowhere”).

Premise3: What’s true and what’s moral depend solely on an individual’s or a society's perspective.

Conclusion: Therefore, what is real, what is true, and what is moral vary from person to person and from culture to culture. There is no such thing as an objective “truth” or a “fact”. What is true for one person in one culture might be false for another person in a different culture (or even false for someone else in the same culture). What is moral for one person in one culture might be immoral for another person in a different culture, or even immoral for someone else in the same culture.

Note the conclusion carefully: it is not simply restating the first premise. That premise says that people at different times and places have different beliefs about truth and morality. The conclusion says something much more surprising. The relativist conclusion is that what's actually true and false, moral or immoral, differs for different people or cultures: for example, the same statement might be simultaneously both true and false; the same act simultaneously both moral and immoral for different people.


Analyzing the Argument

When we decide whether or not to accept an argument — when we think critically about it — we ask at least the following three questions:

  1. Are all the premises clear?

  2. Are all the premises true (or reasonable to believe)? In other words, are the facts correct?

  3. If all the premises are true, do they support the conclusion? In other words, must the conclusion be true if the premises are true; i.e., is the logic correct?

You can think of these questions as tests; if an argument fails one or more of these tests, the argument is unacceptable.

Let’s assume the premises are clear enough; i.e., this argument passes the first test. Are the premises true, then?


Reasons to doubt Premise1

Certainly it's undeniable that certain specific moral standards vary from culture to culture. But suppose we make a distinction between specific moral rules and ultimate or fundamental moral principles. Do fundamental moral principles differ from culture to culture? Maybe not. Maybe people only disagree about how to implement the fundamental moral principles; but those fundamental principles are actually the same across cultures.

For example, one society might say it's your moral duty to kill your parents when they reach the age of 50, on the theory that they'll be better off in the next life if they enter it while still able-bodied. Another society might say that, under ordinary circumstances (your parents are healthy, enjoying life, etc.), it's your moral duty not to kill them, so they may enjoy life as long as possible. The rules differ, but the fundamental principle is the same, namely, do the best you can by your parents.

Utilitarianism — the ethical theory that says you should do what produces the greatest good of the greatest number — has been proposed as one of these “fundamental moral principles,” implemented in very different ways in different cultures, different circumstances. It's easy to think of contradictory ethical rules equally consistent with utilitarianism, depending on circumstances. For example, depending on circumstances, prohibiting birth control might maximize the general happiness; in other circumstances, requiring birth control might maximize general happiness.

Can we say for certain, then, that no universal fundamental moral principles exist? On the contrary, anthropologists, social psychologists, and cognitive scientists are concluding more and more that in fact some moral principles are common to every culture, for evolutionary reasons. 



Is it true that since everyone “comes from somewhere,” there is no possible “objective” standpoint (no “view from nowhere”) for humans?

Most contemporary philosophers would agree that everybody does have a point of view, and that no one has perfect God-like objectivity.  But so what? Does that imply that all beliefs are equally reasonable and that one person’s belief is necessarily as true as another’s? No. “There’s no view from nowhere” does not imply that “epistemologically, anything goes!” In other words, even if Premise2 is reasonable, the argument for relativism still fails the logic test. 

The relativist conclusion is simply too strong. Even if there’s no view from nowhere, it’s not necessarily the case that “anything goes” epistemologically and you can believe whatever you like and all beliefs are equally correct.  For example, even if there’s no “view from nowhere,” my belief that “red means stop” is still a better belief than “red means go,” for practical (pragmatic) reasons. Pragmatist philosophers would point out that some beliefs, especially scientific ones are extremely useful as predictors; these beliefs work. For example, scientific beliefs about gravity and acceleration and mass, etc., correctly predict that people who jump off the Empire State Building will die. A person really can’t say, “Well, I don’t have to worry about that, because I don’t believe in scientific principles.” (Phoebe on Friends talks this way; that’s why she’s funny.)


Reasons to doubt Premise 3

Is it true that what’s true and what’s moral depend solely on an individual’s or a society's perspective?

There are really two questions here:

  1. Does truth depend solely on what an individual or a culture believes?

  2. Does morality depend solely on what an individual or a culture believes?

The answer to the first question is clearly “no.” Believing that something is so doesn’t necessarily make it so.

But if the answer to the first question is “no”, the answer to the second must also be “no.” Moral belief is just one kind of belief. Believing doesn’t make it so, in morality any more than in any other sphere. So even if beliefs about morality differ from culture to culture (which they probably don’t), it does not necessarily follow that what is moral or immoral differs from culture to culture.


The Trap of Dogmatic Relativism

Dogmatic relativism claims that epistemological relativism is true. But if epistemological relativism is true, there’s no such thing as a “true” statement; there are only opinions. So dogmatic relativism is self-contradictory (inconsistent); if it’s true, it can’t be true! The relativist believes on the one hand that nothing is true, and on the other hand, that it’s true that nothing is true. In other words, if all statements are just somebody’s opinion (and “who’s to say?” applies), then the relativist’s own relativism is just the relativist’s opinion (and “who’s to say?” applies)!


Relativism, Absolutism, and Dogmatism

You might still be tempted to accept relativism because you think it’s the only alternative to moral absolutism. Moral absolutism is the view that there is but one eternally true and valid moral code, which applies with rigid impartiality to all people in all cultures at all times and places. But, you might think, moral absolutism is surely wrong and dangerous; it leads to intolerance and dogmatism. People who think they know “the truth” about morality tend to be insensitive to alternative ways. Moral absolutists have perpetrated horrible persecutions, wars, and genocide on other people and cultures. Therefore, we should be relativists in the name of tolerance. There are no moral absolutes, but everyone should be respectful and tolerant of other people and other cultures.

This argument is very popular, but flawed. Four critiques are important:

  1. The argument presupposes that there are only two options: absolutism and relativism. This is a false dilemma fallacy. Relativism is not the only alternative to absolutism. One could reject absolutism and still say that some behaviors are morally better or worse. Most contemporary moral theories, e.g., utilitarianism and virtue ethics, are neither absolutist nor relativist.

  2. The argument is self-contradictory. “Everyone should be respectful and tolerant” is a moral maxim the relativist intends to apply to all people in all cultures; yet at the same time the relativist denies that any moral maxims apply to all people in all cultures! The relativist, to be consistent, must say that respect and tolerance are required only if one’s culture requires them.

  3. When the relativist criticizes absolutism for causing harm, the relativist seems to be presupposing an objective inter-cultural notion of harm. But this is exactly the sort of idea a relativist cannot presuppose, since according to relativism, what counts as harm for one culture might not count as harm for another.

  4. Relativism actually encourages the very ethnocentrism good-hearted relativists are trying to combat. People who have internalized the message of relativism rightly conclude that other cultures are hermetically sealed. You often hear people of good will say things like “You just can’t understand people of my sex/people of my race/people of my sexual orientation, etc., if you haven’t had our particular experience of oppression, if you’re not one of us.”  But if you can’t really learn anything about other cultures, why try? Why not be lazy and give up?





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