Chapter Three: Relativism

Section  2. Common Elements

What do both forms of relativism share?

There are two components to the relativist's position.*

1. Diversity Thesis

The Diversity Thesis is nothing more than the observation that not everybody agrees what the most important values are, or what obligations humans have to one another, or what actions are forbidden by moral law, etc. In other words, the Diversity Thesis merely affirms that different people believe different things about morality.

This thesis is, I think, obvious to everybody. It does not need to be argued for -- only described. There are two versions of this thesis.

First -- social diversity. Different cultures have different moral commitments. This version is obvious to anybody who has traveled abroad, or who comes from an immigrant family. Perhaps somebody can share something from their own experience -- do you have a example of a moral principle which is more closely adhered to than is popular in the states? Or can you think of a principle which is followed in the States that is not valued highly in the place of your own origin?

Second -- individual diversity. Isn't it clear that even within a given culture there are a diversity of moral perspectives? Is there a single moral world view among Irish Catholics? I can assure you that there is not. How about African Americans? Surely there are some who are liberal democrats, and there are others who are conservative republicans. Alan Keyes, a candidate for president in the most recent election, is one of the most conservative public intellectuals in the nation. Let's narrow down the cultural group -- Catholic moral theologians. This is a pretty small demographic group. They are all male, mostly white, all Catholics, all trained in the same religious tradition, all having gone through the same type of academic training. Still, there is a rich diversity of voices in that chorus of writers. There are some who believe that artificial birth control (the pill, condoms, etc.) is contrary to God's law, while others among them believe that even active euthanasia is sometimes morally acceptable. Now that is diversity! One might think that here, if anywhere, you'd find a great deal of unanimity [I've never been able to say that out loud!]. The members of this cultural group share so much. Their experiences and commitments overlap deeply, and yet we find disagreement, argument, dissention.

Now, none of this, absolutely none of this, should lead one to think that ethical relativism is true. All it says -- thus far -- is that people disagree with each other. In order for ethical relativism to be true, the dependency thesis needs to be true also.

2. Dependency Thesis

The Dependency Thesis is the more important of the two doctrines. It asserts that the validity of moral obligations, moral values, etc. depends upon the beliefs of (a) moral agents (subjectivism), or (b) cultural groups.

The conclusion that is drawn, then, is: There are no universally valid moral principles, objective standards which apply to all people.

Let's look a bit closer at this thesis, for it is really the more important of the two. It says that whenever I am morally obligated to perform some action, whenever I am morally forbidden to perform an action, or whenever I am called (by my moral commitments) to live out some virtue or other, all this obligation is based on the belief that I am so obligated. The belief ground of my obligation is simply my belief. Let me rephrase -- the dependency thesis asserts that moral obligation of any kind is grounded in the particular beliefs that I (or we) happen to hold.

So if you are a relativist, whether of the cultural or the individualist type, then you believe not only that people tend to disagree, but also that the validity of their obligations rests on nothing more than the fact that they perceive themselves to be under those particular obligations.

This is as good a definition of relativism as any. And notice that it is a negative statement; it takes the form of a denial. And what it denies is a good way of telling what it is opposed to: universal objectivism (or universalism, for short).


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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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