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Can there be a coherent Relativism?

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Introduction

Can there be a coherent Relativism? Characterised generally relativism, within the context of ethics, is the view that all moral standards are relative to an individual or culture. Under a relativist conception of ethics there are no moral 'facts', and the 'rightness' or 'wrongness' of an action is dependent on the views, beliefs and values of groups, societies or cultures in which the actions are performed. Relativism is neatly summed up by the ancient Greek sophist Protagoras (480-411BC) in his statement that "Man is the measure of all things". And that there may in fact be more than just one true morality. Moreover what is morally right for one group or culture may not be right for every group or culture. This was a typical view among the sophists at the time of Protagoras and was grounded in a prevailing belief in 'Nomos' or social convention over 'Physis' or nature. However, when Protagoras uttered this statement he meant it to encompass all aspects of human life and not just morality. This strongest form of relativism, that all truths are relative not just moral ones, has led to its own unique set of problems but within the scope of this study we are concerned only to look at relativism within the context of ethics and morality in general. Can relativism form the bedrock for a coherent conception of morality? And if not what are the problems with the thesis that may render it incoherent? ...read more.

Middle

If relativism is true is it absolutely true or relatively true? For if it is relatively true we may simply refute what the thesis is claiming to advocate on its own grounds and by its own rules. So if we pass over this 'strong' relativism that seems to sink by its own weight and move on to a more sophisticated formulation we are faced with a question that seems to typify the very nature of the issue we are faced with in discerning the truth of relativism. Is it possible for two genuinely conflicting ethical beliefs to be equally valid? To help me illustrate this with more clarity it will be useful to look at the similarity commented3 on between questions of relativism within ethics and a possible analogy with Locke's primary4 and secondary qualities. If ethics are more like secondary qualities namely, colour, smell, taste, temperature etc... then the answer to the question I have just asked must be: 'yes' that 'it is possible for the two conflicting beliefs to be valid equally'. Secondary qualities are subjective and dependent on the perceiver. So if making a moral judgement is like making say a colour judgement the consequence of that judgement may vary from person to person. If we take the example of a 'colour blind' person who perhaps judges a red ball to be green might it not also be similarly the case that a 'morally blind' person might judge a right action to be wrong. ...read more.

Conclusion

Can relativism provide answers to specific examples in our own history where we judge an action wrong? Can relativism justify the actions of for example Hitler? To say that 'Hitler ought not to have done what he did' by our usage of language somehow sounds too-weak to describe the enormity of the crime he committed, even to call it a crime seems to underplay it by putting it in the same basket as thieves or fraudsters. We can't say that what Hitler did was wrong or we would be judging him by our own standards and culture. But was Hitler really outside of our culture? Relativism does not really provide us with an answer to this example. Relativism faces criticism on another front also in its failure to allow condemnation of the customs of other cultures such as slavery and its not allowing us to say that such practices are inferior to our own. It is clear however that such practices as slavery are morally indefensible. So, to bring the matter to a close, what can be said? Is the thesis of ethical relativism really doomed to in-coherency? Is there anything that may be said in its favour? It is clear that stronger forms of relativism are subject to serious and even fatal problems, however if relativism is used wisely it is a robust thesis, able to withstand a good deal of critical analysis, that can adequately make sense of differences in ethical beliefs from culture to culture. So long as it is not pushed to extremes it seems to me that it manages to survive the challenge of in-coherency. ...read more.

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