Moral Relativism
By Simon Blackburn
Professor of Philosophy
at Trinity College, Cambridge.

This article was originally published
in the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal, "Think"


There are philosophers (absolutists) who like to stress objective truth and constancy. Then there are others (relativists) who like to stress cultural contingency and mutability.

The absolutists think that the relativists have no standards. The relativists are accused of encouraging the licentious thinking that goes on in some parts of the humanities.

The relativists think the absolutists are too conservative and complacent, and that their words merely express personal fetishes.

I like to illustrate the way these groups talk past each other with an anecdote.
A high-powered ethics institute presented a panal of representatives from the great religions.

First the Buddhist spoke of the ways to achieve calm, the mastery of desire, the path of enlightenment. The panellists all said "Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great."

Then the Hindu talked about the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release. They all said "Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great."

And so on, until the Catholic priest spoke of the message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation and the way to life eternal, and they all said "Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great." But at that, he thumped the table and shouted: "No! It's not a question of it if works for me! It's the true word of the living God, and if you don't believe it you're all damned to Hell!"

And they all said: "Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great."
The joke here lies in the mismatch between what the priest intends - a claim to unique authority and immutable truth - and what he is heard to be offering, which is one more saying like all the others.

Of course he talks of certainty and truth, says the relativist. That's just his certainty and truth, made absolute in his own eyes.

Having said this, the relativist need not attack people for putting words like 'true' on their doctrines. To have a belief and to hold it to be true are the same thing. In the story the priest will not be the only one who seizes on the word "true": a Buddhist holds Buddhist doctrine to be true, and a Hindu holds Hindu doctrine to be true, just as inevitably.

So far the absolutists seem to be on the defensive.

The relativists mock and disapprove of them for being insufficiently tolerant of other perspectives and points of view. And toleration is surely a Good Thing. But is the relativist view really so attractive?

Genghis and Rosie

Suppose I believe that fox-hunting is cruel and should be banned. And then I come across someone (Genghis, let us call him) who holds that it is not cruel, and should be allowed. We dispute, and perhaps neither of us can convince the other. Suppose now a relativist (Rosie) comes in, and mocks our conversation. "You absolutists," she says, "always marching on as if there is just one truth. What you don't realize is that there are many truths. It's true for you that fox-hunting should be banned - but don't forget that it's true for Genghis that it should not."

How does Rosie's contribution help?

Perhaps she is trying to get us to see that there is no real disagreement. But how can that be so? I want people to aim at one outcome, that hunting be banned, and Genghis wants another. At most, one of us can succeed, and I want it to be me. Rosie cannot stop us from seeing each other as opponents.

Perhaps Rosie is trying to get us to respect and tolerate each other's point of view. But why should I respect and tolerate another point of view simply because someone else holds it?

I already have my suspicions of Genghis: in my book he is perhaps cruel and insensitive, so why should his point of view be "tolerated"? And in any case, I should be suspicious of any encouragement to toleration here.

The whole point of my position is that hunting should not be tolerated - it should be banned. Tolerating Genghis's point of view is too near to tolerating Genghis's hunting, which I am not going to do.

Rosie the Relativist seems to be skating on thin ice in another way as well. Suppose she gets ruffled by what I have just written: "Look," she says, "you must learn that Genghis is a human being like you; having respect and toleration for his views and activities is essential. If you did not make a fetish of absolute truth you would see that."

I, on the other hand, say "toleration of Genghis is just soggy; it is time to take a stand."

If Rosie thumps the table and says that tolerating Genghis is really good, then isn't she just making a fetish of her own relativism? She has taken the idea that there are no absolute values and used it to justify elevating her concept of toleration into an absolute value!

But of course, Rosie's intervention hasn't helped at all.

Perhaps Rosie wanted to stop the conversation: she is like someone asking "Will you two just stop bickering?" This can be a good thing to say. Some conversations are pointless.

Agree to Differ?

If you and I are in an art gallery, and I say Rembrandt is better than Vermeer and you say Vermeer is better than Rembrandt, and we start bickering about it, the best advice may well be that we stop. Perhaps we can agree to differ, because nothing practical hangs on our different tastes.

But however, in moral issues we often cannot just agree to differ.

Agreeing to differ with Genghis is in effect agreeing to tolerate fox-hunting, and my whole stance was against that.

"Anything Goes"? "It's All Relative"?

Naturally, the burden falls on those who want to forbid: in liberal societies, freedom is the default. But this cannot be a carte blanche for just any kind of behaviour, however sickening or distressful or damaging. It is just not true that anything goes. So conversation has to go on about what to allow and what to forbid. Again, Rosie the Relativist is not helping.

So why do people like to say things like "it's all relative" or "I suppose it depends on your point of view"? What you say will always depend on your point of view, and whether another person agrees with you depends on their point of view.

But the phrase is dangerous, and can be misleading. The metaphor of points of view might be taken to imply that all points of view are equally "valid". After all, there is no one place from which it is right to look at the Eiffel tower except, perhaps, for one purpose or another.

When We Cannot Think This Way

However, when it comes to our commitments, we cannot think this way.

If I believe that O.J. Simpson murdered his wife, then I cannot, at the same time, allow that the point of view which says he did not, is equally valid. It follows from my belief that anyone who says he did not murder his wife is wrong. They may be excusable, but they are out of touch or misled or thinking wishfully.

It is only if I do not hold a belief at all, but am just indulging in an idle play of fantasy, that I can admit that an opposing fantasy is equally good. If I like fancying Henry VIII to have been a disguised Indian, I am not in opposition to someone who enjoys fancying him to have been Chinese. That's just the difference between fiction, where the brakes are off, and history, where they are on.

Relativists do not fret much over mundane historical truth.

Relativism really grips us when we are talking of contested moral issues or difficult theoretical issues where it is easier to think 'there is no fact of the matter'.

Is Relativism Dangerous?

Is relativism dangerous? I think it all depends.

Sometimes we need reminding of alternate ways of thinking, alternative practices and ways of life, from which we can learn and which we have no reason to condemn. We need to appreciate our differences. Hence, in academic circles, relativism has often been associated with the expansion of literature and history to include alternatives that went unnoticed in previous times. That is excellent.

But sometimes we need reminding that the time ultimately comes when we must draw a line and take a stand, and that some alternative ways of looking at things can be corrupt, ignorant, superstitious, wishful, out of touch, or plain evil.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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