4.2 Defending Relativism

The life history of the individual is first and foremost an accommodation to the patterns and standards traditionally handed in his community. From the moment of his birth the customs into which he is born shape his experience and behavior.

—Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture8

Thus far we have been looking at the pros and cons of accepting relativism as an approach to ethics. In doing so we have been avoiding asking a simple question, that we now cannot any longer avoid – is relativism true? To answer this question we need to take a look at how we might argue for relativism instead of just leaving it as one opinion among others that we might take or leave. Although it may seem obvious to many people that relativism is in fact true, our examination of the explicit case that can be made in defense of relativism will show that it is not in fact based on very good arguments. But I am getting ahead of the story…

Cultural differences

The first and most obvious way to defend relativism is based on the recognition of human cultural diversity. This was what motivated Herodotus to pronounce that “custom is the king of all,” and what has also led many anthropologists and sociologists to embrace similar views. So the first argument for relativism that we will examine here rests on recognition of the diversity of value judgments and tries to argue from this premise directly to the conclusion that there are no ultimate standards for right and wrong.

We all have different views about right and wrong.

Thus there are no standards about what is really right or wrong.

This argument may seem to be persuasive. Doesn’t the fact of human diversity automatically entail relativism? But the question we should ask about this argument is not “Does it seem persuasive?”, but “Is it valid and sound?” Remember, a valid argument is one in which if the premises are true the conclusion must also be true. So is this argument valid? How can we tell? In this case the premise seems obviously true, but does that by itself force us to accept the conclusion? Clearly not, since even if the premise is true and we do all disagree, this alone does not have to mean that there are no standards. However implausible it may seem that there are universal moral standards, the fact of human disagreement about what those standards might look like is just not enough to rule out the existence of standards. To see this more clearly, it may help to consider a more obviously bad argument of exactly the same logical form in which the premise is clearly true and the conclusion is clearly false.

A counterexample

We all have different views about how to deal with stop signs – some people come to a complete stop while others only slow down.

Thus there are no standards regarding stop signs.

The premise in this argument is clearly true. Yet the conclusion is also clearly false, since there really is a correct way to deal with stop signs, the one written in the relevant section of the laws governing driving. What this shows about the argument from cultural differences is that disagreement alone is not enough evidence for the conclusion that there are no real standards. From the fact that we may disagree about some topic we cannot conclude anything about whether or not any of us are really right or really wrong. We need much more evidence than this to support the conclusions of relativism. In fact we disagree about many things. In some of these cases there is a way of settling disagreements – look up the law, check the facts if we disagree about the temperature outside or whether or not it is still snowing. In other cases, there is simply no way to settle differences – some people will just not be convinced that the Backstreet Boys are horrible musicians, or that sushi is the best dish on the planet. Likewise in all matters of style and taste.

So this argument for relativism is inconclusive. Relativism focuses on our differences of opinion and tries to draw from this a conclusion that just does not follow. We still are no closer to deciding whether, as in cases of dispute about the law, we will be able to settle our ethical differences, or whether, as in cases of dispute about taste, we will not. It remains an open question whether or not there are standards in ethics.

Given that disagreement about something does not conclusively tell us whether it is possible to settle the dispute we are left with the questions:

  • Are ethical disputes more like disputes about the law or the facts where there is some possibility of resolving them?

  • Or are ethical disputes more like disputes about taste where the best we can hope for is to agree to disagree?

  1. Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1935)↩︎