On Philosophy

June 18, 2007

Kinds Of Relativism

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Relativism has a bad name, deservedly, because relativist theories can often be used to justify nearly any kind of behavior. This makes relativism a kind of anti-ethics; rather than being a guide to behavior it simply marks everything, or nearly everything, with a stamp of approval. At least this is true of what is usually described as relativism. But being against relativism in such a general way can be problematic. Almost every ethical theory can be construed as relativism; surely every ethical theory recommends different actions in different circumstances, and so in a way their recommendations are relative. But of course to describe such theories as varieties of relativism would be inaccurate, as that would imply that they are deserving of the kind of dismissal we gave to relativism in general. Obviously that is not a tactic that opponents of such theories are likely to try, but it is not unheard of for opponents of some kinds of ethical theories to try to characterize them as a kind of relativism in order to unfairly dismiss them. In order to avoid such problems I will detail here three distinct kinds of theories which might be called relativism by some, but only two of which can be dismissed as failing to be a kind of ethics.

The first kind of relativistic ethical theories are those we might call complete relativism. Under such theories what the ethical facts are vary from individual to individual, either arbitrarily or based on some facts about the individual. Of course all ethical theories vary what is required from individual to individual to some extent, specifically based on what they are able to do (and sometimes how much hardship that would place upon them). What separates completely relativistic theories from these is that what determines the ethical facts is something essentially arbitrary or subjective in complete relativism. For example, theories that propose that what is right and wrong depends on how the person feels about those actions, or what they believe to be right and wrong, are properly called kinds of complete relativism. Obviously such theories cannot properly serve as ethical theories, and are rightly dismissed as relativistic.

A second kind of relativism is cultural relativism. Cultural relativism defines right and wrong in terms of what the culture generally approves or disapproves of. Admittedly this is slightly closer to being an acceptable ethical theory than complete relativism is, because it can make recommendations at least in the case of individuals; it will recommend that they act as society expects them to act. However, it is still unable to offer advice as to how society should improve itself. Clearly not all societies are as ethical as they possibly can be, and so we would still expect an acceptable ethical theory to make recommendations as to how to best alter society itself, even if it really was the case that we should govern how we act by how society expects us to act.

Finally we come to bounded cultural relativism. Bounded cultural relativism is related to cultural relativism in the same way that most ethical theories are related to complete relativism. Just as most ethical theories accept that there are some objective facts about individuals that ethics must take into account, such as their capabilities, bounded cultural relativism accepts that there are some objective facts about societies that ethics must take into account when making recommendations as to how individuals should act. Obviously this is not the same as normal cultural relativism, unless the only “objective” facts being taken into account are what that society approves of. And there is nothing that prevents an ethical theory best described as bounded cultural relativism from making recommendations about how society as a whole should change. Thus I do not think that bounded cultural relativism deserves to be discarded out of hand just because it might be described as a kind of relativism, even though opponents of such theories might make the effort to characterize them as such because they take cultural facts into consideration.

I care about making these distinctions because my positions on ethics (do what is best for society) and justice (that which makes society harmonious) could be considered bounded cultural relativism. Or they might not be considered relativism at all, at really depends on the way you look at them. But, by drawing such distinctions, hopefully baseless worries that somehow relativism has crept into our philosophy are dispelled.



  1. I’ve responded here.

    Comment by Richard — June 19, 2007 @ 4:17 am

  2. I don’t understand how ‘bounded’ relativism is any different than plain ol’ relativism…does it or does it not say that Nazi Germany was an immoral society? It seems to me that it doesn’t since the Nazi’s did ‘what was best’ for their society…

    “Almost every ethical theory can be construed as relativism; surely every ethical theory recommends different actions in different circumstances, and so in a way their recommendations are relative.”

    You can’t be serious! The laws of (Newtonian) physics predict different outcomes for the gravitational attract8ion of two bodies depending on their distance from each other, but Newtonian Physics is not relativistic! Ethical relativism is the claim that when two people disagree about some fundamental moral claim (like torture is morally permissible) neither of them is wrong, or alternativley both are right, or alternatively, there is no objective fact of the matter about who is correct…if your ethical view denies this thenit is NOT a form of relativism.

    Comment by Richard Brown — June 21, 2007 @ 5:15 am

  3. Bounded relativistic theories may very well say that the Nazi’s are bad. Simply see any of the posts where I explain my opinion about ethics. As for the rest: oh yes, I am serious. So there!

    Comment by Peter — June 21, 2007 @ 12:23 pm

  4. I’ve read someof your posts on ethics, and I found that they were unhelpful in answering my question…almost as unhelpful as your curt response.

    Comment by Richard Brown — June 22, 2007 @ 5:13 am

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