Relativism is often summed up with the phrase, “There are no absolutes.” Which, of course, is an absolute statement. So it refutes itself.
Seems like a trivial enough philosophy. At least it did, until I took “Philosophy, Science and Religion” from The University of Edinburgh, a MOOC at coursera.org. In it, the professor outlined a couple different forms of Relativism, some of which forced me to take it a little more seriously.
First of all, there are various fields to which Relativism can be applied. One of those is aesthetics. If I declare that something is beautiful, I don’t expect it to be absolutely beautiful such that can be used as a standard for knowing whether everyone else on earth understands the absolute standards of beauty and ugliness.
You can also apply Relativism to ethics. It is a bit controversial, however, to suggest that moral good and moral evil is relative. Although many people want to believe that right and wrong can each be determined individually, most of us would agree that Hitler’s actions were evil – but under a relativistic ethic, wouldn’t he be right by his own standards?
Then you can apply Relativism to epistemology. But to suggest that all truth is relative is to imply that even that statement is relative, reducing it to a reductio ad absurdum - it cancels itself out. It is one thing to say that beauty is relative; it is quite another to imply that truth is relative.
So Relativism is more useful in some disciplines than in others. But there are different types of Relativism which can also be considered.
Global vs. Local Relativism: Global Relativism is easier to refute since it assumes that literally everything is relative – truth, goodness, and beauty. But again, to say “There are no absolutes” is an absolute, and to say “All is relative” means that it is also a relative statement. Global Relativism is, therefore, a little bit of an intellectual joke.
Local Relativism, however, considers Relativism to apply to only some fields, for example, as delineated in the examples above. Maybe Relativism applies to aesthetics and ethics, but not epistemology. Or maybe it only applies to aesthetics and matters of personal taste. As such, it is not as easily dismissed as Global Relativism, and in some cases, need not be dismissed at all. It is important to note, however, that some see both religious truth and ethics as a matter of personal taste.
Methodological vs. Substantive Relativism: Substantive Relativism is the easy-to-refute Relativism here. It is based on the following argument.
1. Beliefs sometimes differ systematically.
2. Where beliefs differ, there is no way to decide which is true and which is false.
3. Therefore, beliefs are relative.
But if I believe scrambled eggs are bad for you and you believe they’re healthy, does our disagreement necessitate that eggs are unhealthy for me but healthy for you? (There’s no way to decide which is true and which is false, after all. We hear the nutritionists going back and forth all the time on this subject.) Obviously, this statement (about reality) cannot possibly be relative. Either eggs are healthy, or they are not. They cannot be both. And they certainly cannot be different things for different people based only on what each person believes about it. In a similar way, if I believe it’s morally wrong to let citizens buy guns, but you believe it’s morally right to let them do it, our disagreement does not necessitate the relativity of our beliefs. The Substantive Relativist would assume that there’s no way to determine if I am right or if you are; thus, gun purchases are wrong for me but right for you. Such is nonsense.
Methodological Relativism, on the other hand, suggests that there are instances in which we should approach a situation with a relativistic mindset. If I am an anthropologist, for example, studying a culture in which cannibalism is the norm, this Relativist says I should approach it from a Relativist point of view. This Relativist does not deny that I may believe cannibalism to be absolutely wrong; it just insists that I, as a researcher, refrain from evaluating the culture and simply collect the facts. So this Relativism is more of an avoid-evaluations-while-researching sort of viewpoint. This does not sound so much like Relativism as it sounds like simply keeping an open mind, perhaps as one uncovers the forensics of a crime scene, or conducts a scientific experiment in a controversial field.
Personal vs. Cultural Relativism: Personal Relativism is the belief that each individual’s views on truth, goodness, beauty, etc. are relative. But this runs into problems almost instantly since you and I may have very different views on, say, ethics. Are we honestly to allow every criminal the dignity of saying his crimes were right for him, in his own worldview?
So instead, many Relativists base Relativism off of a cultural point of view. Instead of giving every wayward soul a voice in right and wrong, right and wrong is determined by a collective of individuals. Each society has a set of rules, of what is right and what is wrong, and there is no way to determine which society’s standards are correct or not. Thus, right for one society may be wrong for another.
But believe it or not, history has shown that great evils can be accomplished not just by a single deranged individual, but by entire societies. For, if Cultural Relativism is correct, we are forced to admit that cannibalism in the cannibalistic culture mentioned above is good, for them. We are to accept the death penalty for women who eat bananas in old Hawaiian culture. And if the people insist a widow die on her husband’s funeral fire, we are to allow that because after all, that’s part of the standards that India determined to be morally right.
What about the people who believed slavery was acceptable in the 19th century American South? And need we mention Hitler once more? For he was able to sway almost his entire nation to believe him. Is something as dreadful as antisemitism ok if enough people in a society believe it to be right? What about the human slave trade? No, these things are absolutely evil. Even Cultural Relativism fails as a truly compassionate worldview.
Global Relativism: Everything is relative.
Local Relativism: Some things are relative.
Substantive Relativism: Cannibalism is right in cannibalistic societies, and wrong in non-cannibalistic societies.
Methodological Relativism: Don't worry if cannibalism is right or wrong, just gather information about the society.
Personal Relativism: What's right for you may be wrong for me.
Cultural Relativism: What's right in Ancient Rome may be wrong in Modern Tibet.
On Hawaiian culture: Lesha Myers wrote an example essay at the end of her book, Writing Research Papers. In it, she researched Hawaiian culture before and after their discovery by Captain Cook.
On Indian Widows: mentioned in Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.
Relativism in this way is covered in Week 2 of Coursera's "Philosophy, Science and Religion" course from the University of Edinburgh. The entire course was quite fascinating, its only got four weeks' worth of material, and lecture lengths/quizzes are a minimal commitment - i.e. it's a concise little course, perfect for a busy life!