Azara Blog: What is relativism?

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Date published: 2005/04/20

The BBC says:

Shortly before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a withering denunciation of relativism. For those unfamiliar with even the blunter points of philosophy, what was he driving at?

Moral relativism is the idea that moral principles have no objective standard, so states its dictionary definition.

In its extreme, the view that there are no hard and fast rules on what is right and wrong, on which values are set and should be fought for.

It is in contrast to absolutism, that there is one truth.

Relativism is "Different opinions, no one authority, and as many 'truths' as there are people or societies or cultures advancing different ways of doing things," says Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.

It is easy, he says, "to give relativism a slogan: Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. One man's meat is another man's poison." And when that is applied to ethics, then goodness, virtue and duty also lie in the eye of the beholder.

So, for the western liberal, living under western liberal influences, with western liberal opinions, he says, contraception and abortion are in, but for the Catholic Church, they are out.

In his sermon ahead of the conclave to choose a new Pope, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned of the need to preserve the Church's traditional Catholic tenets against modern trends, against the "dictatorship of relativism".

Moral standards, Catholic conservatives believe, should be perfect and unchanging.

At the same time, relativism was being attacked in the British general election campaign. Under it, said Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative Party, traditional British values are "being trashed" as "the victims have become the aggressors and the aggressors have become the victims"

On education, much is made of a lack of discipline in schools at a time when parents can challenge the teachers who used to be a figure of absolute authority.

The arguments' theme is not new. Two and a half thousand years ago, Professor Blackburn points out, Plato opposed relativism in his Dialogues when he sought "one true opinion, real knowledge, real authority" and wanted to establish the error of other opinions.

In the Reformation, Martin Luther argued authority came from each believer, from the bottom up, not from the top down, as Church heads would have it.

As Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosopher's Magazine, highlights, relativism grew under "early globalisation" when explorers discovered other cultures had different standards and morals, a catalyst to reconsider their own.

In the late 20th Century, postmodernism had academics arguing that there is no one truth, just many interpretations. And in politics, some cast the impeachment of President Clinton as an absolutist attempt to establish right over wrong.

But philosophers warn against painting a crude black and white contrast between one absolute truth and the rest - bagging together all "relativists".

"The problem is that it's not just a contrast to absolutism," says Baggini.

Relativism, he says, gets "a bad name" from opponents like the church who cast it only as "an anything goes" approach to moral questions. The reality has a much more diverse set of views, he says.

That bad name, he believes, is "perhaps the biggest example of philosophical illiteracy".

For once a halfway-decent article on the BBC website, give a bonus to the author(s) (it's not stated who that was). However it is not correct to see "the impeachment of President Clinton as an absolutist attempt to establish right over wrong", it was just a rightwing attempt at a coup (which they then achieved in the 2000 presidential election proper).

The only people who believe in "absolutism" are the people who believe they have the authority to dispense what the absolute beliefs ought to be. They rarely have a decent argument as to why their beliefs are any better than the opposite. (Referring to arbitrary interpretations of 2000 year old texts does not count.)

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