Mulling over relativism (Part 1)

Part 2

 Relativism, briefly, is the belief that “nobody is objectively right or wrong” and that “because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree.” Like the golden rule, it sounds like common sense and the rational approach to sensitive issues. Alas, I treat it with skepticism. In this post, I’m going to start with what we all agree about moral relativism and take readers step by step through the implications of this intriguing philosophy. Enjoy the ride!


The premise of mainstream relativism, although no one likes to say it, is that morals really aren’t that existent in the first place. That’s a dangerous accusation Wikipedia and others try to stray from, and there are obvious reasons why. However, to say there is no such thing as “objective” morality is to say that morality is the converse: “subjective”. And to say morality is subjective leads to an interpretive anarchy – believe what you want to believe…live how you want to live.

It’s no wonder moral relativism has its critics. Not only does it throw the entire good vs. bad paradigm into the trash, but it also threatens the entire philosophical discourse on morality. All of a sudden, one has an escape route to the tough moral questions by saying that the questions are flawed and have no answers. It’s easy to see how this is attractive, as all of a sudden the tough questions are no longer tough at all – in fact, they are no longer worthy of asking. At the same time, a lack of answers leads to deeper and deeper questions that become more and more troubling: why the heck am I living in the first place?

And that question has always been ever-so-hard to answer. But now that one potential answer has been crossed out – the idea that humans live to be good people – there’s not so many left. You could say that one’s own purpose is to be good in their own standards, another escape hatch, but that leads to more and more questions: why should one have a moral standard in the first place?

Certainly, such an existential outlook wouldn’t be Kierkegaardian. If one resolves to follow  a moral outlook, then, the reasoning has to be something besides “being good because it’s good”. It would have to fall into, I think, a hedonistic or nihilistic attitude – the first being “be good because it feels good” and the second being “be good because human nature is a bull you can’t fight”. Both views are evidently seen as disgusting by all non-relativists or all non-mainstream relativists, and it’s not difficult to see why. It also presses the question on why such views should even be allowed in moral discussion, when neither makes an attempt for “true” morality.

And that’s the catch. The discussion boils down to if there is “true” morality. Is there any objective truth at all? Whether there is or not, relativists would insist the question is unnecessary. If you start with the premise that there are no morals, why bother to look for morals when it’s just a waste of time? Especially if your hedonistic self doesn’t want to bother, or if your nihilistic self hates asking questions. Which makes relativism all the more difficult to talk about – when taking that stance could lead to never questioning the stance again.

And suddenly religion isn’t the dogmatic one. Uh oh.


Part 2


6 thoughts on “Mulling over relativism (Part 1)

  1. Would it be better to then say live your life and your beliefs in relation to others’ beliefs and lives? That is, to say, that while I live my personally chosen hard truth, and believe it to be true, and will discuss and argue it to be the truth, that I also respect those that have come to their own hard truth conclusion, even if that conclusion is different from my own but relatively the same (going back to the golden rule idea)?

    I think I’m trying to explain being ecumenical vs. relativistic. I may need to sleep on that one.


    • “I also respect those that have come to their own hard truth conclusion”

      I certainly agree with that, and relativists do so by the very nature of the philosophy (which is a contradiction I’ll explain later).

      However, there’s a real issue at the core of some relativists – that dogmatic core where there’s no need to challenge one’s morals once they arrive at certain conclusions. And certainly, it’s a rational approach after you arrive at the conclusion in the first place. Which makes the conclusion ever so scary and ever so dangerous.

      And they say religious morals are dangerous…


  2. Pingback: Mulling over Relativism (Part 2) | Whispers of Satan

  3. An interesting post, here. I have two main comments regarding “moral relativism.”

    First, I think that most “moral relativists” don’t really go all the way with the logic that everyone is free to form whatever morals they deem fit. For example, someone might take a soft relativist approach to drug use, saying, “Well, if that person wants to smoke marijuana and it doesn’t do harm to anyone else, that’s fine.” But they won’t extend that to hard drugs. Another person might evoke a similar moral relativism concerning homosexual sex acts, but reject consensual brother-sister incest as repulsive. I think that, above all, moral relativism, when put into practice, is more of a flexible moral milieu–a recognition that there is a sphere of acceptable actions, but that the things on the fringes are to be frowned upon. This, of course, is NOT what it is by definition.

    Second, moral relativism, by definition is self-referentially incoherent. It’s premises go as follows.

    1. If there are no absolute moral truths, then it is wrong to judge people on a basis of their moral truths.
    2. There are no absolute moral truths.

    3. Therefore, it is wrong to judge people on a basis of their moral truths.

    The conclusion of the argument, as it turns out, is an absolute moral truth: it is wrong to judge people on a basis of their moral truths.” The conclusion, then, refutes the first premise, for it declares that there are, indeed, moral truths. Self-referentially incoherent.

    You can also think of this as “everything is relative,” which itself affirms an absolute statement, therefore refuting itself. If everything is relative, then even that statement is relative. It’s just like the peritrope, or table turning, objection in Plato’s “Theatatus” dialogue– “If all beliefs (or morals) are true” then the belief that “not all beliefs (or morals, i.e. to affirm the existence of objective immorality) are true” must be true. If you tolerate everything, you also have to tolerate intolerance. Self-referentially incoherent.

    In other words, you really have to set up some standards unless you want your logic to double back on yourself.

    That’s all I got.

    BUT Just to salvage the logic of moral relativism for the sake of fairness, perhaps it can be outlined thusly.

    1. Either there are moral truths that are objective, or there are not moral truths that are objective.

    2. If there are no moral truths that are objective, then all moral truths are subjective.

    3. If all moral truths are subjective, no truth is morally better than another (one could be, for example financially better or hedonistically better).

    4. There are no moral truths that are objective.

    5. Therefore, (by premise 4, 1, 2, & 3) no moral truth is morally better than another.

    This avoids making any absolute moral claims. It makes an absolute logically claim (that no moral truth is morally better than another), but NOT a moral one. Hence, it is NOT self-referentially incoherent. It just dismisses ethics.

    I’ve got to read part 2 now.




    • For the first, yes, you are correct in a sense.

      Here’s how I see it (credit for this analogy to Prof. Tariq Ramadan).

      Think of a mountain, where the top has absolute Truth. We, humans, are all hikers up this mountain. I have my path to go up, and you cducey have your own. At times we may coincide on this path and at times differ. When we differ, it may be that I chose a different route for no reason except that I had to choose some route. Or, it may be that I chose a different route because I had a strong reason.

      Most proclaimed relativists are fond of saying they don’t have a reason for a certain turn here or there. Most people will say this at times, but proclaimed relativists take the extra mile. Yet for a real relativists, by definition, deny the mountain altogether, deny that it has a top, and deny there is an absolute Truth there. So when proclaimed relativists tolerate certain behaviors, it’s more a recognition of ignorance, while a real relativists tolerate certain behaviors because they see no direction at all.

      This analogy can be extended to absolutism, egoism (I am at the top already), nihilism, religion, interfaith, cultural imperialism, etc. It’s pretty neat.

      You’re logic for the second half of the comment is dead-on, and I hope to write a part 3 on just that.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s