Relativism and Absolutism   (Text copyright 2005 by Theodore Gracyk)

If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.

--Abraham Lincoln 

Herskovits reading

Cultural relativism is the position that:

Each person makes judgments reflecting his or her enculturation. (This assumes that different cultures present differences in enculturation, and these differences appear in different patterns of judgment that are typical or “normal” for persons in each culture.)

.·. There are no absolute values to guide judgments.

A second, more radical argument:

Different languages reflect different systems of enculturation.

.·. Each person makes judgments reflecting their enculturation.

.·. There is no reality that can be judged except through the mediation of a group’s conventions about that reality.

.·. Both right/wrong and true/false are relative to what is normal for members of your “group.”

Relativism is sometimes defended for more practical reasons, such as that it is an antidote to ethnocentrism.

Gentle ethnocentrism is valuable for strengthening the ego, etc. 

Harsh, Euroamerican ethnocentrism “gives rise to serious problems.”

Absolutes are fixed and permit no variation 

Universals concerning values are the “least common denominators” of human life, but they can take many forms, all of them equally valid. 

But this last claim (of the "equal validity" of every culture) is usually identified as ethical relativism. It is not the same position as cultural relativism (compare the claim of equal validity with the formulation at the top, where there is no claim of equal validity).

For more about relativism, click here.

William H. Shaw's critique of relativism

Absolutism holds that some "absolutes" (some fixed principles) are true apart from their being endorsed by any individual or group.

The key distinction made by the absolutist but not the relativist (where "X" is a placeholder for whatever is at issue):

Thinking X is right vs. X actually being right.

If we are not tempted by nihilism or subjectivism, then showing relativism to be mistaken is good reason to adopt absolutism. (But notice that this does not tell us which type of absolutism to endorse.)

Three arguments made by Shaw against relativism:

Argument that subjectivism (individual relativism) is “muddled."

Argument that that ethical relativism has unacceptable consequences (e.g., social reformers are always immoral).

Argument that ethical relativism is false. 

If every cultural system is valid, then none is better or worse than any other (there is no non-ethnocentric reason to prefer one to any other). But then random torture of small children is perfectly right for no other reason that that it is believed right by the culture that tortures the children. 

But believing this behavior to be right does not make it right.

.·. Ethical relativism is false.

Second version of the argument:

If every cultural system is valid, then none is better or worse than any other (there is no non-ethnocentric reason to prefer one to any other).

But even relativists believe that some cultures are worse than others (harshly ethnocentric Euroamerican practices are often singled out as worse than the "gentle" ethnocentrisms of most tribal peoples).

.·. Ethical relativism is false.



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Last updated Aug. 9, 2012