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Relativism Part III: The limits of Relativism

In Part II (The Scope of Relativism), we examined Professor John Hick’s Duck-Rabbit experiment designed to illustrate Relativism in its various forms – cultural, moral and religious. The image Hick uses is deliberately designed to look either like a Duck, or a Rabbit, depending on how your brain interprets the data in front of it.

It is a clever illustration of relativist thinking. One group of people look out at the world and interpret it one way, another group or culture see the same information and interpret it differently. One group see the stoning of adulterers as just, while others see it as barbaric; in one culture thieves are put through programs of restorative justice, while in another, the thieves have their hands cut off. There is no right or wrong in this, it’s just ‘ducks’ and ‘rabbits’ as each community views life differently. The same of course, can apply to individuals.

The presumption of relativism

The Duck-Rabbit sketch unwittingly reveals a hidden assumption of relativists. In reality, the picture is not a sketch of a rabbit, nor of a duck. It is a sketch deliberately drawn to look like both a duck and a rabbit. The unknowing subjects in the experiment might be justified in seeing either a duck or a rabbit but the person showing the picture, the one conducting the experiment, knows full well this is a clever work of art designed to trick people.

Relativism claims to be able to see the whole picture, while the rest of us see ducks and rabbits.

What does this say about the relativist? Well, for one thing, it reveals that the relativist is claiming implicitly to know something that the others do not: he or she apparently knows that people do not view things absolutely but only partially or relatively. But how does the relativist know this? How does the religious relativist know it is not ultimately true that Jesus was God in the flesh and died on a cross? How does the moral relativist know abortion is not wrong in an absolute sense? How does the cultural relativist know that female circumcision is not a violent, unjustifiable practice? Does the relativist, like the one conducting the duck-rabbit experiment, have special access to the macro-Truth of the situation that the rest of us know nothing about?

Relativism claims to be able to see the whole picture, while the rest of us see ducks and rabbits. Whenever relativists say ‘Each person has their own truth—it’s all relative,’ they are presuming to know something that is yet to be discovered by the vast majority. And they never stop to tell us how they know this.

Does diversity imply relativity?

Philosophers agree that a major reason for the rise of relativism was the sheer diversity of opinion among human beings about cultural, moral and religious matters. This was the point made by the early cultural anthropologists. The insight is a valuable one, and Christians will gladly agree with it. But does this diversity imply there is no Truth external to the opinions of men and women? In other words, does descriptive relativism lead logically to the normative relativism we’ve been discussing. No, say most philosophers.

It cannot be relatively true (for Christians) that Jesus did die on a cross and relatively true (for Muslims) that he did not.

Take this example. Most people living in the 12th century believed the Earth was larger than the Sun; most people today believe the opposite. Does this diversity of opinion (across the centuries) imply that the truth about the Sun is simply relative? Of course not. Diversity of opinion has nothing to do with Truth. It is not enough to say, as people often say, ‘What is true for one person does not have to be true for another.’ This sentence is grammatically valid: it has a subject, an object and a verb. But it does not correspond to the real world. In what sense was it true for 12th century folk that the Earth was larger than the Sun? In no sense at all. This ‘true for’ phrase is trying to say that this was the opinion of 12th century people. ‘True’ is completely the wrong word. The point here is that diversity of opinion about things cultural, moral and religious does not logically imply the relativity of what is claimed. To repeat my earlier example, it cannot be relatively true (for Christians) that Jesus did die on a cross and relatively true (for Muslims) that he did not. It is either true or false. The issue is: what is the basis for deciding the truth or falsehood of these opinions?


A major problem with relativism is the one Plato raised almost two and half thousand years ago. Relativism is self-contradictory. You cannot claim that truth is relative and expect people to accept what you say as ‘true’ non-relatively. If the statement is true absolutely, it proves that not everything is true relatively. And, if the statement is only relatively true, we can dismiss it as an opinion. The poem by English journalist Steve Turner puts this well:

We believe that each man must find the truth
that is right for him
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust. History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
Excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.

If it is true that truth is relative, there is automatically one truth that is not relative (the truth of relativism). And, if you allow this exception, it is going to be very difficult to disallow other exceptions. And then the whole relativism wave crashes. Philosophers call this the ‘exemption problem’. In order to sustain the thesis that ‘truth is relative’, relativists have to exempt their own truth from the picture. Another form of the exemption problem goes like this. Relativists often insist that because all moralities are relative—no one morality being better than another—we should respect and tolerate them all. However, respect and tolerance are in themselves moral values which the relativist is claiming we should adopt. How can you insist on certain moral values (tolerance and respect) at the same time that you are arguing there are no objective moral values. If there are no objective moral values, then even tolerance and respect are not exempt from this relativity. On what basis, then, can a thoroughgoing relativist ask for tolerance and respect.

Relativism and tolerance

Probably the most attractive thing about relativism for the average person on the street is the seeming connection between relativism and tolerance. If I insist that moral, cultural and religious ‘truths’ are simply relative—that no one is right or wrong—then this is likely to inspire tolerance toward other people’s views. And there is no question we need more tolerance today!

This longing for tolerance is one thing the Christian worldview shares with the relativist. But two things have to be kept in mind before we decide that tolerance is best won through relativism. Firstly, the relativist position is no more friendly toward Christians, Muslims, pro-lifers, the Sudanese and so on than the absolutist position is. In the end, the relativist is still saying that Christians are wrong to think of Jesus as True and Real and that Muslims are likewise wrong to think that their (contrary) views of Jesus are True and Real.

While relativists would rarely put it like this, relativism insists that the ‘truths’ held by different people are, in a larger sense, false.

Again, the relativist is really saying that pro-lifers are mistaken when they say abortion is truly murder and that the pro-choicers are also mistaken when they say that terminating a foetus is truly a matter of choice. Sudanese are wrong to affirm female circumcision as a truly valid human behaviour, and Westerners are wrong to think the practice is, in reality, abominable. In short, while relativists would rarely put it like this, relativism insists that the ‘truths’ held by different people are, in a larger sense, false. I cannot see how this is any more respectful or tolerant than the person who says plainly to the Christian, Muslim, pro-lifer, Sudanese or Westerner, ‘I believe you are mistaken; the truth of the matter is …’

Secondly, what many relativists think of as ‘tolerance’ turns out to be an inferior version of the virtue. For many today, tolerance means little more than a willingness to accept every viewpoint as true and valid. But I want to suggest this is not tolerance at all. It is simply a strategy for avoiding arguments.

True tolerance does not involve accepting every viewpoint as true and valid; it involves treating with love and humility someone whose opinions you believe to be untrue and invalid. A tolerant pro-lifer, for example, is not one who accepts as true and valid the pro-choice idea that it is okay to kill unwanted foetuses. No: the tolerant pro-lifer is one who, while rejecting abortionist arguments, nonetheless treats pro-choicers with kindness and respect.

In the same way, being a tolerant Westerner does not involve accepting as valid the traditional Sudanese practice of circumcising young girls. It involves laying out my opposing arguments while always honouring the Sudanese people as fellow members of the human family. True tolerance is the noble ability to treat with grace those with whom you disagree. For Christians this ought to be second nature, since the Lord proclaimed in the Christian gospel is the epitome of humility, love and gentleness.  Sadly, it is often not the case.

The basis of social reform

Not only does relativism have no monopoly on tolerance, just as importantly, it loses the any basis for social reform and development. From time to time throughout history, certain individuals and groups have perceived deep moral faults within their society and worked for reform. This was not part of a natural evolution from one social ethic to another; it was usually a moment of crisis and confrontation.

If things are only ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ relative to society, movements calling for moral change are, almost by definition, misguided and illegitimate.

Obvious examples include the anti-slavery movement of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the women’s rights movement of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King (1929-1968) and the movement to end apartheid championed by Nelson Mandela (born 1918). These individuals (and their armies of supporters) needed more than careful moral insight; they needed enormous moral courage often in the face of forceful and violent opposition. And, yet, with persistence, such reform movements were able to improve society in substantial ways.

Relativism, however, cuts the nerve of all such moral reform. If things are only ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ relative to society, movements calling for moral change are, almost by definition, misguided and illegitimate. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on ‘Relativism’ says: ‘the relativist has no grounds by which to evaluate the social criticism arising within a free or open society … [and] appears in fact to undercut the very idea of social reform.’  In other words, a relativist can hardly call for the reform of society at the same time as arguing that there are no moral truths beyond society.

The situation is worse for relativism when in comes to the question of 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 a different society to change its ways. This was exactly the point made by the American Anthropological Association in 1947 as the United Nations discussed the pressing issue of universal human rights. Fortunately for the world, the U.N. rejected such relativism and the following year established the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a wonderful document that insists there are moral absolutes transcending time and culture. The document begins:

Now, therefore The General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of the Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

I would love to quote all 30 Articles of this inspiring document but the above is enough to illustrate something that thoroughgoing relativism denies: that some moral truths are absolute, and binding on all societies regardless of culture.

To what are things ‘relative’?

At the heart of relativism is the insistence that ‘truths’ are only true relative to a framework. The ‘truths’ of Jesus’ deity and death, for example, are true only relative to the framework of Christianity (they are not true relative to the framework of Islam). The concern of relativism is to connect beliefs with their bases. Female circumcision has a basis only in reference to Sudanese culture. Morals have a basis only in reference to the society in which they are agreed upon. And so on.

Admittedly, there is something of value here that relativists have highlighted: our beliefs must depend upon a framework, they must have a reference point. Otherwise, they are just random shots in the dark. But this is a dangerous truth for relativists to uncover, for the question that comes immediately to mind is: upon what framework does relativism itself depend? Or, to what reference point does relativism refer? The answer is: none, except within the mind of the relativist.

If our views can be shown to correspond to more than the whims of human culture and mind, relativism loses its footing and relevance.

The question of a reference point is one that presents itself to all claims about the world, whether scientific, moral, cultural or religious. In other words, every claim must have a basis. When traditional Sudanese men claim that it is a noble thing to circumcise a teenage girl they must, in a multi-cultural society like ours, be able to provide reasons why the practice is acceptable. Otherwise, they cannot complain when Westerners protest that this custom is a violation of women’s rights.

Of course, it is also true that Westerners must, likewise, provide reasons for their protestation. The reasons will indicate the reference point or framework. So, for instance, Westerners might try to put forward medical, sociological and psychological arguments against female circumcision. But if it turned out that there were no reasons for the respective views, beyond saying ‘this is what our culture thinks’, then neither side of the debate would have any firm basis for critiquing the other. A kind of resigned relativism would then be advisable. My point is simple. If our views can be shown to correspond to more than the whims of human culture and mind, relativism loses its footing and relevance.

This is not the article for outlining the basis of the Christian worldview but the larger point is worth pondering. Christians have reasons for thinking there is a God to whom we all belong. They have reasons for thinking God has revealed himself in the teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And they have reasons for thinking the Bible is God’s Word to humanity. Once persuaded of these things, Christians find comfort in the fact that their views are not determined by culture, tradition or psychological make-up. They live and think in accordance with the Absolute—an Absolute that has revealed himself on the human stage. This comfort is something relativism has no possibility of replicating.

But the Christian worldview is not only comforting; it is exciting. People sometimes fear that living by the Christian reference point will put them out of step with contemporary culture. That may well be the case, but that is part of the thrill of singing along to an eternal melody, rather than a culturally composed jingle. A truth that is relevant for all human cultures throughout time will, by definition, contradict any particular human culture at some point. Why? Because societies are constantly changing, sometimes coinciding with the truth, sometimes deviating from it. It is part of the fun of being a follower of Jesus that one can sit loosely to culture—loving some parts of it, rejecting others. Whether in the 1st century or the 21st century, the power and excitement of the teaching of Jesus is that it sounds like a voice from outside human society. It is a voice that knows us only too well and calls us to live beyond the historical ‘blip’ of our particular culture.

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.

Read Part I and Part II of this article.

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 I: The Origins of Relativism

John Dickson explores the origins of modern day relativism