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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Well, relativism— the simplest kind of relativism— is the view that truth is relative to individuals or at least to communities or cultures. So what’s true for one may be false for another, what’s true for one community may be false for another. There is no “Truth” with a capital T, there are many ‘truths’. So people will sometimes say “well that may be true for you but it’s not true for me”. And in its simplest form, relativism is the argument that the truth is whatever we believe it to be. So if one individual believes this is true, then for that individual, it is true! You don’t just believe it, it’s true.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 seconds For this other individual, they believe it’s not true- therefore, it’s not true, and there’s no fact of the matter, as to which of these beliefs is correct. Not many relativists are relativists about all truth, they are not relativists when it comes to historical truths or mathematical truths. Usually they restrict the range of relativism to moral truths; they are moral relativists.

Skip to 1 minute and 21 seconds They think that that there is no fact of the matter, no truth with a capital T, when it comes to the wrongness of female circumcision, if people in North Africa think that is morally desirable, then it’s true- for them, it is morally desirably— for Westerners, it’s morally objectionable, if that’s what they believe well then that’s true, well then there’s no Truth with a capital T as far as the rightness or wrongness of female circumcision is concerned. That’s moral relativism. There are various problems with moral relativism. One obvious objection you can raise is that it makes us infallible, morally speaking. I mean, surely, conceptually, it’s possible for us to make mistakes morally speaking? As individuals, we can get things wrong.

Skip to 2 minutes and 17 seconds Or at least as communities, as cultures, we can get things wrong. We used to think that slavery was morally acceptable, and now we don’t; we realise that previously we were mistaken about that. Well, if relativism is true, then we never, we don’t get things wrong, because the truth is whatever we believe it to be! So when we believe that slavery was morally acceptable, that was true, it was! That was a fact, if you like!

Skip to 2 minutes and 46 seconds In fact if you think through the consequences of moral relativism, you can see, to pick the most cliched example, you end up having to say something like ‘if moral truth is relative to community, the Nazis are a community, if mass-murdering Jews is considered morally acceptable by Nazis well for them it’s true that it is and who are we to judge?’ You’re going to end up endorsing that position which, frankly, no one is prepared to endorse, I take it. Along with relativism, you sometimes find a form of non-judgementalism- the view that it is wrong to judge those who have other moral points of view.

Skip to 3 minutes and 30 seconds And then added to that is the thought that it’s then wrong to point the finger at these other cultures and say ‘no that’s wrong, you shouldn’t be doing that’. There’s an obvious problem with that kind of non-judgementalism, insofar that relativists are now pointing the finger at you and telling you that you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing, they’re making a moral judgement about you, they’re doing the very thing you shouldn’t be doing. So there’s an inconsistency in their position. Humanists tend to emphasise the importance of reasoning when it comes to morality. You should think carefully about what you believe, morally speaking, you should subject your views to close critical scrutiny; and in this way we can make moral progress.

Skip to 4 minutes and 18 seconds Well, you can’t really hold that view if you’re a moral relativist, because the view that you end up with after engaging in all that critical thinking won’t be any more true than the one you started with. They are both going to be equally true, as long as you believe its true. So if you think as a Humanist, and you probably do think this as a Humanist, that actually we can get closer to the truth, by thinking critically about morality, then again you can’t really sign up to moral relativism.

Moral relativism

Philosopher Stephen Law explains moral relativism and some of the problems with it.

Question: Relativism is not without its problems, but, without divine commands, do we have to accept it is the only alternative?

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Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

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