Chapter Three: Relativism

Section  4 Not to be Confused with.....

Relativism is often confused with a number of distinct positions. It is important to keep these things in mind. I find that many students start out thinking that they are relativists, only to discover that they are not -- some are skeptics, others are pluralists, still others are situationalists.

How do they differ?

Can you imagine a skeptic who is not a relativist? How about a relativist who is not a skeptic ?

Can you imagine a pluralist who is not a relativist? How about a relativist who is not a pluralist?

Can you imagine a situationalist who is not a relativist? How about a relativist who is not a situationalist?


Skepticism: from Chapter One, we know that skepticism is an "epistemological" position. It claims that we (or at least I) cannot know what our (or at least my) obligations are, if there are any at all. Skepticism does not say anything about the moral universe - about whether there are moral principles, obligations, virtues, etc. It speaks of our knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the moral universe. So the reason why relativists are not (necessarily) skeptics, is because the relativist thinks s/he knows something about people's obligations -- a person's obligation is nothing more and nothing less than what s/he believes her obligation is. If Susan believes that she is obligated to pay her parents back for all their care, by at least being honest with them, then Susan really is obligated to be honest. The skeptic cannot claim that he (the skeptic) or she (Susan) can know what her obligation is -- in fact, the skeptic holds that neither he nor Susan can know what Susan's obligation is.


This is the position that there are no moral values at all -- that there are no obligations, nothing to prohibit anyone from doing anything at all. Nihilism is a denial of the entire realm of ethical reality. If you are a nihilist, moral conversation, moral arguments, have no point. They are absurd. A moral nihilist would think that two people arguing about whether the President has an obligation to do what is best for the citizens, is simply silly. It would be as pointless as an argument over whether cheese should have blond hair or red hair. Huh??? Makes no sense.

If you think that there is some function to ethical discourse, if you think that a person can be wrong, or a culture can be wrong about what they believe, then you are not a nihilist.

A cultural relativist does believe (or ought to believe, if they are truly a cultural relativist) that a person can be morally mistaken. How? By being mistaken about what his or her culture actually believes. For example, I can imagine a person in Ireland believing (incorrectly) that the Irish society accepts abortion as morally permissible. If that person either had an abortion or encourage someone else to have an abortion, s/he would be violating his/her moral obligation. Do you understand why?


 As a reaction against objective and universal and absolutist approaches, situationalism argues that every situation is different. Therefore, absolute rules are inappropriate because they are too inflexible. The only ethical "rule" is to love, which Christ said was the greatest commandment. Love alone, because it has its own moral compass, can be trusted to know what to do in any situation. The Bible may give us a record of what loving decisions looked like in concrete situations, but those decisions are not binding.


Problems with situationalism


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

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