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Moral and Cultural Relativism

Relativism is, without doubt, the philosophy du jour. Considered tolerant, broad-minded and forward-thinking, moral and cultural relativists have had a huge impact on our society. But do we understand the arguments of the relativist and if so do we really want a society that embraces strict cultural and moral relativism?

Cultural relativism asserts that no culture is better or worse than another and that the habits of one culture are valid within that cultural framework. Moral relativism is the same logic applied to right and wrong. There is no ultimate ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, argues the relativist. Such ethical issues can only be evaluated relative to either a society or an individual. While a seemingly promising philosophy the implications of such a relativist view are enormous.

The relativist has no basis upon which to govern society other than the feelings of the majority. Murder may seem socially acceptable to a serial killer, but not to society at large – and of course not to most relativists either. But as the relativist cannot argue that murder is immoral in the absolute sense, they can only declare that murder is ‘wrong’ when the majority of people in a society believe it to be wrong.

despite appearances, the relativist position is no more tolerant than the absolutist position

While seemingly forward-thinking, relativism cuts the nerve of all moral reform. If things are only ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ relative to society, movements calling for moral change – such as William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery movement, or the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King – are, almost by definition, misguided and illegitimate. A relativist can hardly call for reform while at the same time arguing that there are not moral truths that lie beyond society. The situation is even worse when it comes to moral reform across societies. If there is no moral truth external to cultural frameworks, there can be no basis upon which one society may urge another to change its ways. How can a relativist Westerner call for an end to the Sudanese practice of female circumcision? According to the relativist both the Sudanese approval and the Western horror of female circumcision are simply different viewpoints that are both correct within different cultural frameworks.

Many have embraced relativism as a philosophy because of the seeming correlation between relativism and tolerance. However, despite appearances, the relativist position is no more tolerant than the absolutist position. Relativists can be tolerant of many conflicting truths only by insisting that the ‘truths’ held by different people are, in a larger sense, false – a position that is surely no more respectful or tolerant than the person who says to the Sudanese or Westerner, ‘I believe you are mistaken; the truth of the matter is…’

Moral and cultural relativism are currently in vogue, yet might we hope for something better? Could we find something less subjective than human whims and the feeling of the majority to which society can align its moral compass? The Christian worldview offers another such option – it insists that God created the world and so his own character shapes reality. Ethics, then, are not a matter of feeling or democracy; they derive objectively from the one who is apart from culture, independent from individual psychology and who, for all time, has stood at the centre of the universe.

This is a condensed version of John Dickson's article on the Limits of Relatavism.

John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

Kate Wilcox is a CPX Intern