Relativism

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One of the worst muddles of this age is its confusing of the ideas behind combative and cognitive activity. Cognition is not fighting, but once someone knows a lot, he will have much to fight for, so much that he will be called a relativist because of it. ~ Karel Čapek

Relativism is a philosophical stance which asserts that concepts have only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. The term is often used to refer to the contexts of moral principles, where in relativistic modes of thought, principles and ethics are regarded as applicable in only limited and provisional context. As with competing stances of universalism, there are many forms of relativism which vary in their degree of controversy, ranging from truth relativism, which is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture and this can imply various forms of cultural relativism, moral relativism, and absurdism which can accept both absolute and relative aspects and qualities of Reality and values. Recognition and reconciliation of various contentions between stances of absolutism and relativism can involve many forms of dialectic and semiotic disciplines and techniques.

Quotes[edit]

Alphabetized by author
  • Can an idea — a notion as abstract as Relativism — produce by itself the effects alleged? cause all the harm, destroy all the lives and reputations? I am as far as anyone can be from denying the power of ideas in history, but the suggestion that a philosophy (as Relativism is often called) has perverted millions and debased daily life is on the face of it absurd. No idea working alone has ever demoralized society, and there have been plenty of ideas simpler and more exciting than Relativism.
    • Jacques Barzun, in The Culture We Deserve (1989), "The Bugbear of Relativism," p. 89
  • Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church is often labeled today as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, look like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires.
    • Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff (18 April 2005); as published in The Essential Pope Benedict XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches (2008) edited by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, p. 22
  • in a society, in a culture, which all too often make relativism its creed - relativism has become a sort of dogma - in such a society the light of truth is missing; indeed, it is considered dangerous and "authoritarian" to speak of truth, and the end result is doubt about the goodness of life - is it good to be a person? is it good to be alive? - and in the validity of the relationships and commitments in which it consists.
  • To confuse our own constructions and inventions with eternal laws or divine decrees is one of the most fatal delusions of men.
    • Isaiah Berlin, in Essays in Honour of E. H. Carr (1974) edited by Chimen Abramsky, p. 9
  • Nietzsche ... tried to apply to his own thought the teachings of cultural relativism. This practically nobody else does. For example, Freud says that men are motivated by desire for sex and power, but be did not apply those motives to explain his own science or his own scientific activity. But if he can be a true scientist, i.e., motivated by love of the truth, so can other men, and his description of their motives is thus mortally flawed. Or if he is motivated by sex or power, he is not a scientist, and his science is only one means among many possible to attain those ends. This contradiction runs throughout the natural and social sciences. They give an account of things that cannot possibly explain the conduct of their practitioners. The highly ethical economist who speaks only about gain, the public-spirited political scientist who sees only group interest are symptomatic of the difficulty of providing a self-explanation for science and a ground for the theoretical life, which has dogged the life of the mind since early modernity but has become particularly acute with cultural relativism.
    • Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: 1988), pp. 203-204
  • Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.
  • Relativism is not indifference; on the contrary, passionate indifference is necessary in order for you not to hear the voices that oppose your absolute decrees. . . Relativism is neither a method of fighting, nor a method of creating, for both of these are uncompromising and at times even ruthless; rather, it is a method of cognition. If one must fight or create, it is necessary that this be preceded by the broadest possible knowledge ... One of the worst muddles of this age is its confusing of the ideas behind combative and cognitive activity. Cognition is not fighting, but once someone knows a lot, he will have much to fight for, so much that he will be called a relativist because of it.
  • The function of the lawyer is to preserve a sceptical relativism in a society hell-bent for absolutes. The worse the society, the more law there will be. In Hell there will be nothing but law and due process will be meticulously observed.
  • There's a tremendous irony in the way conservatives have adopted their position on evolution. After all, the right has been complaining about relativism — the idea that there is no absolute truth — for years. Now, challenging the conclusions of science in the name of cultural tolerance, conservatives have created their own version of radical deconstructionism. Aping the French academicians they once excoriated, they're undermining the very idea of empirical reality, dismissing inconvenient facts as the product of an oppressive ideology.
    • Michelle Goldberg in Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2006) edited by W. W. Norton, p. 102
  • There are two separate and distinct solutions to the problem of what constitutes reliable knowledge — the one solution may be termed relationism, and the other relativism.
  • A modern theory of knowledge which takes account of the relational as distinct from the merely relative character of all historical knowledge must start with the assumption that there are spheres of thought in which it is impossible to conceive of absolute truth existing independently of the values and position of the subject and unrelated to the social context.
  • Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and those who claim to be the bearers of objective immortal truth ... then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity... From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable.
    • Benito Mussolini, Diuturna [The Lasting] (1921) as quoted in Rational Man : A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics (1962) by H. B. Veatch
  • How are you going to teach virtue if you teach the relativity of all ethical ideas? Virtue, if it implies anything at all, implies an ethical absolute. A person whose idea of what is proper varies from day to day can be admired for his broadmindedness, but not for his virtue.
  • A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is "merely relative," is asking you not to believe him. So don't.
    • Roger Scruton, in Modern Philosophy (1995), "The Nature of Philosophy", p. 6
  • In argument about moral problems, relativism is the first refuge of the scoundrel.
    • Roger Scruton, in Modern Philosophy (1995), "Some More -isms", p. 32
  • Metaphor and analogy can be helpful, or they can be misleading. All depends on whether the similarities the metaphor captures are significant or superficial.
    It may not be entirely vain, however, to search for common properties among diverse kinds of complex systems... The ideas of feedback and information provide a frame of reference for viewing a wide range of situations, just as do the ideas of evolution, of relativism, of axiomatic method, and of operationalism... hierarchic systems have some common properties that are independent of their specific content.
    • Herbert Simon, in "The Architecture of Complexity" in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1962), Vol. 106, p. 467
  • Liberal relativism has its roots in the natural right tradition of tolerance or in the notion that everyone has a natural right to the pursuit of happiness as he understands happiness; but in itself it is a seminary of intolerance.
  • Absolute relativism, which is neither more nor less than skepticism, in the most modern sense of the term, is the supreme triumph of the reasoning reason.
    • Miguel de Unamuno, in The Tragic Sense of Life (1913) as translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch (1921)
  • I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it.
  • In its original literal sense, "moral relativism" is simply moral complexity. That is, anyone who agrees that stealing a loaf of bread to feed one's children is not the moral equivalent of, say, shoplifting a dress for the fun of it, is a relativist of sorts. But in recent years, conservatives bent on reinstating an essentially religious vocabulary of absolute good and evil as the only legitimate framework for discussing social values have redefined "relative" as "arbitrary." That conflation has been reinforced by social theorists and advocates of identity politics who argue that there is no universal morality, only the value systems of particular cultures and power structures.
  • We have adopted in the modern world a sort of a relativistic ethic... Most people can't stand up for their convictions, because the majority of people might not be doing it. See, everybody's not doing it, so it must be wrong. And since everybody is doing it, it must be right. So a sort of numerical interpretation of what's right. But I'm here to say to you this morning that some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so. It's wrong to hate. It always has been wrong and it always will be wrong. It's wrong in America, it's wrong in Germany, it's wrong in Russia, it's wrong in China. It was wrong in 2000 B.C., and it's wrong in 1954 A.D. It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong. It's wrong to throw our lives away in riotous living. No matter if everybody in Detroit is doing it, it's wrong. It always will be wrong, and it always has been wrong. It's wrong in every age and it's wrong in every nation. Some things are right and some things are wrong, no matter if everybody is doing the contrary. Some things in this universe are absolute. The God of the universe has made it so. And so long as we adopt this relative attitude toward right and wrong, we're revolting against the very laws of God himself... My friends, that attitude is destroying the soul of our culture! It's destroying our nation! The thing that we need in the world today is a group of men and women who will stand up for right and to be opposed to wrong, wherever it is. A group of people who have come to see that some things are wrong, whether they're never caught up with. And some things are right, whether nobody sees you doing them or not.
  • Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.
  • Relativism poses as humble by saying: “We are not smart enough to know what the truth is—or if there is any universal truth.” It sounds humble. But look carefully at what is happening. It’s like a servant saying: I am not smart enough to know which person here is my master—or if I even have a master. The result is that I don’t have a master and I can be my own master. That is in reality what happens to relativists: In claiming to be too lowly to know the truth, they exalt themselves as supreme arbiter of what they can think and do. This is not humility. This is the essence of pride.”
    • John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God
  • Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.

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