In my Ethical Theory class this semester, the students have been debating relativism.  I had always taken relativism to be the claim that there are no absolute truths.  But it is slowly dawning on me that maybe this is not how those who call themselves relativists really define the term.  What some of them actually say is that relativism means being open-minded about different perspectives.

The first definition of relativism (believing that there are no absolute truths) suggests that no one can ever really be said to be wrong about anything.  In this respect, those who advocate relativism will say, “that’s true for you but not for me” instead of “I think you are wrong on that point.”  So there is acceptance of a weak notion of truth: the term “true” simply becomes a synonym for “personal belief.”

But the second definition allows a stronger belief in truth.  Being open-minded about different perspectives does not necessitate accepting all perspectives as true.  You can be open-minded about a belief but then, after further consideration, reach the conclusion that it is false.

I am sympathetic to being open-minded.  But I think it is confusing to call this relativism, since a lot of people define relativism according to the the first definition.  Why not just call the second definition “open-mindedness” or “perspectivism”?

Regarding the first definition of relativism, I have never heard a convincing argument against some notion of absolute truth — but I am open-minded.  I would like to hear people’s best attempts to put forth such an argument.  I am doubtful that this is possible, because the claim that “there are no absolute truths” is itself an absolute truth is self-contradictory.

I really do believe that some beliefs that people have are simply untrue.  For example, if someone claims that “women are inferior to men,” or that “men are inferior to women,” I do not think that such statements are true at all.  This is why I do not call myself a relativist.

6 Responses to “Relativism”

  1.   jhansen Says:


    What is slowly dawning on me as I work through this issue in Ancient Philosophy is that some students don’t like the idea of being called an “absolutist.” They might reject relativism–especially because of the quite convincing argument that you make above–but they don’t know what that makes them. And, if rejecting relativism makes one an absolutist, then, I think, the fear is they worry they will be seen as moralists. So, another clarification seems in order, namely, that rejecting relativism does not make one a moralist, if by moralist, we mean someone who believe that he or she is in possession of all moral truths and can criticize the behavior of others with a kind of omniscience. So, we need to find a new name for “the opposite of relativist” perhaps?

  2.   Laura Rediehs Says:

    Good point. I realize that I never describe myself as an absolutist — instead, I told the class that I do myself like perspectivism. But maybe other terms are needed too.

    I also have more recently noticed that sometimes people mistake skepticism for relativism. Some of my students have claimed to be relativists on the grounds that they do not feel that they can make claims to absolute truth: no one can be sure of what is true or not. I pointed out that that position is actually skepticism, not relativism. One could believe that there really are truths, but at the same time also believe that humans are incapable of ever being sure of what is really true.

    One more point: in class, we’ve now also constructed a distinction between “strong relativism” (the claim that there are no absolute truths), and “weak relativism” (the claim that certain kinds of truth claims are in fact relative to particular individuals or cultures). “Weak relativism” still allows for some kinds of truth claims to be absolute. In other words, just because some truth claims are relative does not mean that all claims to truth are relative.

  3.   Matt Sims Says:

    I really like how you’ve gone beyond the first definition of relativsm, for by considering all positions as mere “personal beliefs” seems awefully analgous in meaning and practice to the idea of “separate but equal”. It is as though other “personal beliefs” are true over there in other cultures, but we in our culture are in no way expected to engage other “personal beliefs” because they function outside of the context of our own culture.
    My view is that it would be beneficial to frame this discussion by first recognizing that our “personal beliefs” will always interact with other “personal beliefs” of other individuals in other cultures (here I am thinking of such issues as International law, and attempts to curb global warming). I like what Richard Rorty has to say on this topic, in regards to doing what we can to keep the discussion open and ongoing. If we can do that, we can avoid falling back into a shell of relativism that protects us from critical inquiry rather than encouraging it through the kind of open-mindedness that you speak of.

  4.   Joe C Says:

    I think that at some points the actual meaning behind relativism is too vague to have any meaning. So to clarify I’ll just describe the definition I use functionally as relativism.
    From my own thought process I’ve come to the conclusion that human beings internal thoughts are in and of themselves completely consistent logically. Not consistent with logic as is used in mathematics or philosophy, but a logical system determined by their own experiences and habituation. Though these logical process can appear incorrect from an outside point of view the thoughts themselves are consistent with the process that originates them, even if these processes are flawed.
    Taking this stance I’ve come to the conclusion that although actions may be judged as right or wrong, the action itself has consistent internal logic. From this idea I’ve taken the stance that things cannot ever be judged right or wrong, because it is impossible to have the same decision making process as another individual.
    However, I believe from a pragmatic viewpoint we can take the actions that are most useful to us as a society at a certain time and deem them right or wrong in the context of that specific spatio-temporal culture. Society’s do change, meaning that these pragmatic actions will not always remain the same and thus their usefulness is relative to a certain time and place. I find this to be the most accurate description of the human thought process and value assessment.

  5.   Laura Rediehs Says:

    Joe: You say: “Though these logical process can appear incorrect from an outside point of view the thoughts themselves are consistent with the process that originates them, even if these processes are flawed.”

    So, if I add 8 and 5 but mis-count and get 12, that’s just fine, because it is consistent with my (flawed) process at arriving at this conclusion?

    And all subsequent results of this don’t matter, even if it means that I end up only preparing 12 meals for 13 people, and someone has to go hungry? And there’s nothing wrong with that?

  6.   Joe Says:

    The outcomes of these processes do matter. We learn from outside feedback that we are not acting in the most pragmatic way, via this cycle we learn to inform our processes through the practical feedback we receive. So in any ultimate sense its not flawed, but due to pragmatic concerns our actions change to accommodate the most commonly held process as a mode of thought.

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