Relativism Part II: The Scope of Relativism

John Dickson examines different types of relativism

Relativism is ‘the theory of knowledge or ethics which holds that criteria of judgment are relative, varying with the individual, time, and circumstance.’  It is as old as the 5th-century BC philosopher Protagoras and has impacted the range of human experience—morality, culture, religion, philosophy, science and the very notion of existence itself (see the article, ‘The Origins of Relativism’). Once the wave of relativism got moving it swamped all before it: the catchphrase ‘Everything is relative’ is overused to the point of cliché today. And while few of us really believe that everything is relative, there are at least three spheres of life that have come to be viewed relativistically: culture, morals and, of course, religion.

Cultural relativism

Cultural relativism is the view that no one culture is better or worse than another—just as the early anthropologists argued. The habits of one culture are true/valid only within that culture and are not necessarily true/valid for another culture. In Part I, I mentioned the example of female circumcision, but plenty of others exist. In Australia recently the Egyptian Muslim cleric Sheikh Taj Din al Hilali was quoted comparing unveiled women to ‘uncovered meat’ inviting the attacks of prowling cats (i.e., men). The uproar in the media was fascinating. While apologising for the offence to non-Muslim Australians, Sheik Halali defended his comments on the grounds that they were intended for a Muslim audience. For Muslims, he believed, his teachings were culturally appropriate (many Muslims publicly disagreed with him). Not good enough, declared Sophie Mirabella MP, who took the opportunity in Parliament to call for an end to such ‘cultural relativism’:

I rise this evening to speak on an issue very close to my heart, and that is the need to stand up for who we are as a nation and the need to say no to men who use any excuse for rape—the need to say no to Sheikh al-Hilali … [W]e certainly have not misunderstood him calling all of us women ‘meat’ just because we do not grab a huge sheet and wrap ourselves as if we should be ashamed of the bodies that God gave us. We are not going to stand by and let this man get away with it. There needs to be an end to cultural relativism … There are basic laws that apply to all Australians and one Australian legal system should apply to every single Australian whether they be atheist, Christian or Muslim. On behalf of not just the women in my electorate but all Australian women I reject these comments that he has made.

Strong stuff; and the discussion continues.

Moral Relativism

Moral relativism, of course, is the same logic applied to the question of right and wrong. For one person abortion is immoral; for another it is perfectly legitimate. No one is right or wrong. Such views can only be evaluated relative to the framework of the person holding such views. While the moral relativism argument sounds compelling, it has always troubled philosophers, even the relativistic ones. Murder may seem morally acceptable to a serial killer but not to society at large—and not, I should add, to most relativists either.

So, murder is not immoral in the absolute sense; but it is ‘wrong’ within societies which decide it is wrong.

So how do we work out which framework to use when determining right and wrong? Most relativists have answered: society’s framework. There is no right or wrong in an absolute sense, say relativists, but societies can debate and legislate on what they consider appropriate for the group. Once this social contract is determined—through habits, customs and laws—people are obliged to live according to the agreed upon moral code. So, murder is not immoral in the absolute sense; but it is ‘wrong’ within societies which decide it is wrong.

A fascinating example of a thoroughgoing relativist is Lord Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), probably the greatest atheistic mind of the 20th century. In 1948 Russell was invited to debate, live on BBC radio, the renowned Roman Catholic philosopher, Frederick Copleston (1907-1994). At one point, Copleston pressed Russell to explain what he thought was the basis of distinguishing right from wrong. Russell admitted that, for him, it is just like choosing one colour from another (‘C’ is Copleston; ‘R’ is Russell):

C: Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?R: I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

R: By my feelings.

C: By your feelings. Well, that’s what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

R: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn’t been gone into in the same way and I couldn’t give it [to] you.

C: Well, let’s take the behaviour of the Commandant of Belsen. That appears to you as undesirable and evil and to me too. To Adolf Hitler we suppose it appeared as something good and desirable, I suppose you’d have to admit that for Hitler it was good and for you it is evil.

R: No, I shouldn’t quite go so far as that. I mean, I think people can make mistakes in that as they can in other things. If you have jaundice you see things yellow that are not yellow. You’re making a mistake.

C: Yes, one can make mistakes, but can you make a mistake if it’s simply a question of reference to a feeling or emotion? Surely Hitler would be the only possible judge of what appealed to his emotions.

R: It would be quite right to say that it appealed to his emotions, but you can say various things about that among others, that if that sort of thing makes that sort of appeal to Hitler’s emotions, then Hitler makes quite a different appeal to my emotions.

C: Granted. But there’s no objective criterion outside feeling then for condemning the conduct of the Commandant of Belsen, in your view?

R: No more than there is for the color-blind person who’s in exactly the same state. Why do we intellectually condemn the color-blind man? Isn’t it because he’s in the minority?

For the relativist, what is right and wrong comes down to the feeling of the majority. That is all there is. The Christian worldview, by contrast, insists that the world was created by God and so reality is shaped by his own character (of justice, love, and so on). Ethics, then, are not a matter of feeling or democracy; they derive objectively from the One who stands at the centre of the universe.

Religious Relativism

Religious relativism is the view that religious claims are not true in any external way, but only within the belief system of the religious adherent. So, for instance, while it is true for Christians that God became a man in Jesus Christ and died on a cross,  it is true for Muslims that Jesus did not die on a cross and was only a human being.  No one is right or wrong in an ultimate sense. Both groups are right about Jesus relative to their own religious framework. Such religious relativism is sometimes called simply ‘pluralism’, the view that religious truth is plural in form, not singular.

A modern version of the Buddhist Elephant Parable is offered by a leading pluralist today, Prof. John Hick of the University of Birmingham (UK). He presents us with a picture first used in early studies of illusion:

The sketch, as you can see, shows an ambiguous figure drawn to look like both a duck (facing left) and a rabbit (facing right). Take a moment to see both for yourself. If shown to a culture which knew ducks but not rabbits, says Hick, the picture will be interpreted quite validly as a sketch of a duck. If shown to a culture that knew only rabbits, however, the picture would be interpreted naturally enough as that of a rabbit. No one is right or wrong, says Hick. It is simply a matter of perception. Likewise with religion, Hick argues. Muslims see Allah, Hindus see Vishnu, Krishna and so on, and Christians see Jesus. No one’s belief is true in an ultimate sense; but everyone’s belief is true relative to their cultural framework. Again, Plato would ask if this applies to the pluralism as well?

John Hick’s Duck-Rabbit analogy wonderfully illustrates not just religious relativism but cultural and moral relativism as well. Some Sudanese see female circumcision as a noble practice; Westerners see it as mutilation. Pro-choicers see abortion as a woman’s right; pro-lifer’s see it is as the murder of a voiceless human being. No one is right or wrong; it is just ‘ducks’ and ‘rabbits’. We just see life differently. That’s all.

Or is it?

Dr John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Australia)

An edited version of this article appears in, Simon Smart (Ed) A Spectator’s Guide to Worldviews, (Blue Bottle Books), 2007.

Further reading:

Sissela Bok, Common Values, Columbia MO: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Gilbert Harman, Explaining Value: And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

John Hick, The Rainbow of the Faiths: Critical Dialogues on Religious Pluralism. London: SCM Press, 1995.

Robert Kirk, Relativism and Reality: A Contemporary Introduction. London: Routledge, 1999.

Hans Kung (ed.), Yes to a Global Ethic: Voices from Religion and Politics, New York: Continuum, 1996.

James Rachels, “Subjectivism,” in A Companion to Ethics (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy), edited by Peter Singer. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, 432-441.

Mi-Kyoung Lee, Epistemology after Protagoras: Responses to Relativism in Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.

Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

David B. Wong, Moral Relativity, Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1984.

— “Relativism,” in A Companion to Ethics (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy), edited by Peter Singer. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, 442-450.

F. L. Woodward, The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon (Part II). London: The Pali Text Society, 1987.


‘Relativism,’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online):

‘Moral Relativism,’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online):


Relativism Part III: The limits of Relativism

The final part of John Dickson’s examination of relativism