4.5 Questioning Relativism

In recent years even in the field of anthropology, which was once the field most committed to the truth of relativism, there has been a growing emphasis on the universal values underlying culturally different ways of expressing those values. To take a few examples, we all:

  • honor the dead with some sort of funeral rites and find it incredibly offensive to mistreat the dead.
  • act so as to help the group to survive.
  • believe in the importance of telling the truth in general, even if exceptions are sometimes made to this.
  • distinguish between acceptable and wrongful killing of other human beings.

The possibility that there is a common moral ground between groups of people is tempting as a possible alternative to relativism. What relativism gets right is the fact that we all disagree about how to carry out the basic moral demands these core values impose on us. But what it gets wrong is the degree to which we do all disagree. After all, we all have some way of honoring the dead, we all think that the survival of our group is important, we all recognize that communication is only possible against a general background of truth-telling, and we all agree that there is something that should be considered the wrongful killing of a human being or murder, even if different cultures have very different ways of putting these values into practice.

  • But then, wait a moment, doesn’t relativism just reappear on another level?
  • So what if we all agree on the importance of honoring the dead?
  • Our different views about how exactly to do this have the potential to lead to serious conflict.
  • How might we resolve this kind of conflict?

To see how we might respond to the question of whether relativism simply reappears at another level of analysis – that of the implementation of supposedly common core values – let us take a closer look at what I claimed above was one of the common core values all human cultures share, the distinction we all make between acceptable and wrongful homicide. The relativist might argue that the fact that we all agree that there is such a distinction does nothing to alleviate the conflicts between different ways of interpreting its meaning and putting it into practice. Take the way in which this value was put into practice in Nazi Germany: it was considered wrong to kill a member of the “Aryan” race, but acceptable and even necessary to kill Jews, Slavic people and Gypsies (among others). We, on the other hand, fought against Germany in WWII because, among other reasons, we disagreed that this was a legitimate way to make the distinction between acceptable and wrongful homicide. Our beliefs are that it is only acceptable to kill others in self-defense, in a just war or, in some cases, as a penalty for very serious crimes. Is there any way to resolve this conflict, or does relativism gain back all of the ground it has lost in the preceding discussion? It seems to me that there is.

Respect and avoiding causing harm to others is a good place to start. Its like that quote, “Your freedom stops where my nose begins”.

– Marlene Goodbrod

Once we recognize that even Nazis are not living in an utterly foreign moral universe, that they share with us the basic idea that there is an important moral distinction between justified and unjustified homicide, the whole game changes. We are no longer faced with a disagreement about fundamental values, those core moral beliefs that that seemed so personal and out of reach to discussion and critical evaluation. Instead we have a conflict about something that at least seems amenable to criticism and revision – our understanding of what exactly is going on, or the facts of the situation. Is there really such a thing as fundamentally different biological races? Are there any measurable differences between groups of people organized by skin color, facial features, or ethnic origins? Is there really a plot to undermine “our” group that is being carried out by a network of shadowy agents from “their” group? These are no longer moral questions, but questions of fact. And while such beliefs and the story-line they are often connected with about hostile inter-group relations do tend to take hold of many people at times of great social stress, and under the influence of demagogues, at least it seems like there is hope for changing people’s minds about these questions.


Relativism is a difficult position to come to grips with. First of all it seems completely obvious to many people that it must be true, especially those who are sensitive to the ways in which us humans differ from each other. But the fact that many people come to discussions of relativism already thinking that it is true masks the fact that it is hard to defend with explicit arguments in favor of it that don’t beg the question. And then there is the deeper philosophical question of whether it is even a coherent position that makes any sense at all. In some sense it may not even be possible to deny the truth of all truth as more extreme versions of relativism seem to do.

  • Can a relativist ever lay claim to being correct about anything including the correctness of relativism?

  • In case she did, then anyone else could simply say, “well relativism may be true for you, but it’s not true for me!”

But relativism also presents a challenge to its opponents since it seems to acknowledge how firmly it is that we all tend to stick to our sense of what is right and what is wrong. People do tend to dig in and refuse to either accept reasons against their own favored views or even the possibility of compromise. In spite of this, however, radical changes of viewpoint as a result of reflection on one’s own values are possible. See the links below for some examples. What these show, it seems to me at least, is that it does make sense to look at values as amenable to rational reflection and justification. We will look at some different ideas about what this involves in the third part of this book. Before we get there, we will need to open up two more cans of worms – the view that the only way to provide a solid backing for value judgments is if they are based on some kind of absolute authority (chapter 5); and the view that value judgments either are or should be essentially self-serving (chapter 6).