Relativism is a philosophical stance which asserts that concepts have relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. The term is often used to refer to the contexts of moral principles, where in relativistic modes of thought, principles and ethics are regarded as applicable in only limited and provisional context. As with competing stances of absolutism, there are many forms of relativism which vary in their degree of controversy, ranging from truth relativism, which is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture and this can imply various forms of cultural relativism, moral relativism, and absurdism which can accept both absolute and relative aspects and qualities of Reality and values. Recognition and reconciliation of various contentions between stances of absolutism and relativism can involve many forms of dialectic and semiotic disciplines and techniques.
- Alphabetized by author
- Ethical relativism reminds us that different societies have different moral beliefs and that our beliefs are deeply influenced by culture. It also encourages us to explore the reasons underlying beliefs that differ from our own, while challenging us to examine our reasons for the beliefs and values we hold.
- Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez, in "Ethical Relativism" at Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University
- The proclamation of relativism is provocative. (...) I am not particularly interested in being an apostle of relativism. But as I come from a dogmatic culture [Franco's regime], I'm allergic to some things. Truth, Reason and absolute correction were Catholic in that culture. Now I hear that postmodern relativism is the cause of the moral misery and the loss of values. It is seen that there is a nostalgia of dogmatic culture, disguised with some democratic and enlightened discourse. That dogmatic culture has relativism as its enemy, for that reason I claim this convicted relativism. But it is not an absolute relativism.
- Joxe Azurmendi, interview in Hegats (2010), p. 209
- Can an idea — a notion as abstract as Relativism — produce by itself the effects alleged? cause all the harm, destroy all the lives and reputations? I am as far as anyone can be from denying the power of ideas in history, but the suggestion that a philosophy (as Relativism is often called) has perverted millions and debased daily life is on the face of it absurd. No idea working alone has ever demoralized society, and there have been plenty of ideas simpler and more exciting than Relativism.
- Jacques Barzun, in The Culture We Deserve (1989), "The Bugbear of Relativism," p. 89
- Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church is often labeled today as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, look like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff (18 April 2005); as published in The Essential Pope Benedict XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches (2008) edited by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, p. 22
- in a society, in a culture, which all too often make relativism its creed - relativism has become a sort of dogma - in such a society the light of truth is missing; indeed, it is considered dangerous and "authoritarian" to speak of truth, and the end result is doubt about the goodness of life - is it good to be a person? is it good to be alive? - and in the validity of the relationships and commitments in which it consists.
- To confuse our own constructions and inventions with eternal laws or divine decrees is one of the most fatal delusions of men.
- Isaiah Berlin, in Essays in Honour of E. H. Carr (1974) edited by Chimen Abramsky, p. 9
- Nietzsche … tried to apply to his own thought the teachings of cultural relativism. This practically nobody else does. For example, Freud says that men are motivated by desire for sex and power, but be did not apply those motives to explain his own science or his own scientific activity. But if he can be a true scientist, i.e., motivated by love of the truth, so can other men, and his description of their motives is thus mortally flawed. Or if he is motivated by sex or power, he is not a scientist, and his science is only one means among many possible to attain those ends. This contradiction runs throughout the natural and social sciences. They give an account of things that cannot possibly explain the conduct of their practitioners. The highly ethical economist who speaks only about gain, the public-spirited political scientist who sees only group interest are symptomatic of the difficulty of providing a self-explanation for science and a ground for the theoretical life, which has dogged the life of the mind since early modernity but has become particularly acute with cultural relativism.
- Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: 1988), pp. 203-204
- At the end of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge Faust has to confess: "I now see that we can nothing know." That is the answer to a sum, it is the outcome of a long experience. But as Kierkegaard observed, it is quite a different thing when a freshman comes up to the university and uses the same sentiment to justify his indolence. As the answer to a sum it is perfectly true, but as the initial data it is a piece of self-deception.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nachfolge (1937), translated as The Cost of Discipleship (1959), p. 51
- Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.
- George E. P. Box, in Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces (1987), co-authored with Norman R. Draper, p. 424 ISBN 0471810339
- At every turn, the struggle for equality was resisted by many of the powerful. And some have said we should not judge their failures by the standards of a later time, yet in every time there were men and women who clearly saw this sin and called it by name.
- George W. Bush, Hope and Conscience Will Not Be Silenced (8 July 2003)
- Relativism is not indifference; on the contrary, passionate indifference is necessary in order for you not to hear the voices that oppose your absolute decrees. ... Relativism is neither a method of fighting, nor a method of creating, for both of these are uncompromising and at times even ruthless; rather, it is a method of cognition. If one must fight or create, it is necessary that this be preceded by the broadest possible knowledge … One of the worst muddles of this age is its confusing of the ideas behind combative and cognitive activity. Cognition is not fighting, but once someone knows a lot, he will have much to fight for, so much that he will be called a relativist because of it.
- Karel Čapek, in "On Relativism" (1925)
- I was in that ultimate moment of terror that is the beginning of life. It is nothing. Simple, hideous nothing. The final truth of all things is that there is no final Truth. Truth is what's transitory. It's human life that is real.
- Paddy Chayefsky, in Altered States (1980)
- Truth is the ground and condition of freedom. Unless it is true that human beings deserve to have fundamental liberties respected and protected, the tyrant does no wrong in violating them. Relativism, skepticism, and subjectivism about truth provide no secure basis for freedom. We should honor civil liberties because the norms enjoining us to respect and protect them are valid, sound, in a word, true.
- Robert P. George, Twitter post (1 January 2018)
- The function of the lawyer is to preserve a sceptical relativism in a society hell-bent for absolutes. The worse the society, the more law there will be. In Hell there will be nothing but law and due process will be meticulously observed.
- Grant Gilmore, The Ages of American Law (1977), p. 110
- There's a tremendous irony in the way conservatives have adopted their position on evolution. After all, the right has been complaining about relativism — the idea that there is no absolute truth — for years. Now, challenging the conclusions of science in the name of cultural tolerance, conservatives have created their own version of radical deconstructionism. Aping the French academicians they once excoriated, they're undermining the very idea of empirical reality, dismissing inconvenient facts as the product of an oppressive ideology.
- Michelle Goldberg in Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2006) edited by W. W. Norton, p. 102
- The human race isn't worth fighting for, only worth killing. Give the Earth back to the animals. They deserve it infinitely more than we do. Nothing means anything anymore.
- Eric Harris, as quoted in 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos (2018), by Jordan B. Peterson, Random House Canada, p. 147
- The market is neutral and relativistic; it does not inquire as to the origin or validity of the desires it responds to. ... We do not think we require discussions about our use of resources but are willing simply to sum up dollar-backed private desires. There is a rather good correspondence between these characteristics of the market and the relativistic, subjectivistic ways of thinking about ethical issues.
- Stephen Hart, What Does the Lord Require? How American Christians Think about Economic Justice (Oxford University Press: 1992), p. 122
- Sharp fluctuations of moral absolutism and moral relativism are also among the attitudes of intellectuals revealed in this study. The moral absolutism is reserved for the stern judgments of their own society, while a pragmatic moral relativism appears when they give the benefit of the doubt to certain dictators and their political systems as long as they find them fundamentally praiseworthy and well intentioned. It follows that the centrality and consistent use of the critical faculties of intellectuals has often been overestimated.
- Paul Hollander, From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez, Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship (Cambridge University Press, 2016), p.14
- With his attractive picture of human flourishing, Aristotle offers lasting refuge against the seas of moral relativism. Taking us on a tour of the museum of the virtues — from courage and moderation, through liberality, magnificence, greatness of soul, ambition, and gentleness, to the social virtues of friendliness, truthfulness, and wit — and displaying each of their portraits as a mean between two corresponding vices, Aristotle gives us direct and immediate experience in seeing the humanly beautiful. Anyone who cannot see that courage is more beautiful than cowardice or rashness, or that liberality is more beautiful than miserliness or prodigality, suffers, one might say, from the moral equivalent of color-blindness.
- Leon Kass, "Looking for an Honest Man," National Affairs (Fall 2009)
- We have adopted in the modern world a sort of a relativistic ethic ... Most people can't stand up for their convictions, because the majority of people might not be doing it. See, everybody's not doing it, so it must be wrong. And since everybody is doing it, it must be right. So a sort of numerical interpretation of what's right. But I'm here to say to you this morning that some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so. It's wrong to hate. It always has been wrong and it always will be wrong. It's wrong in America, it's wrong in Germany, it's wrong in Russia, it's wrong in China. It was wrong in 2000 B.C., and it's wrong in 1954 A.D. It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong. It's wrong to throw our lives away in riotous living. No matter if everybody in Detroit is doing it, it's wrong. It always will be wrong, and it always has been wrong. It's wrong in every age and it's wrong in every nation. Some things are right and some things are wrong, no matter if everybody is doing the contrary. Some things in this universe are absolute. The God of the universe has made it so. And so long as we adopt this relative attitude toward right and wrong, we're revolting against the very laws of God himself... My friends, that attitude is destroying the soul of our culture! It's destroying our nation! The thing that we need in the world today is a group of men and women who will stand up for right and to be opposed to wrong, wherever it is. A group of people who have come to see that some things are wrong, whether they're never caught up with. And some things are right, whether nobody sees you doing them or not.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Rediscovering Lost Values, Sermon delivered at Detroit's Second Baptist Church (28 February 1954)
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that 'An unjust law is no law at all.'
Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963)
- But the philosophy that killed off truth proclaims unlimited tolerance for the "language games" (i.e., opinions, beliefs and doctrines) that people find useful. The outcome is expressed in the words of Karl Kraus: "Alles ist wahr und auch das Gegenteil." "Everything is true, and also its opposite."
- Leszek Kołakowski, "Our Merry Apocalypse" (1997), as quoted in Is God Happy? Selected Essays (Basic Books, 2013), p. 318
- Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored - contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man - such as a policy of "don't care" on a question about which all true men do care - such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance - such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did. Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.
- Abraham Lincoln, Cooper Union address (1860)
- There are two separate and distinct solutions to the problem of what constitutes reliable knowledge — the one solution may be termed relationism, and the other relativism.
- Karl Mannheim, in Ideology and Utopia (1929)
- A modern theory of knowledge which takes account of the relational as distinct from the merely relative character of all historical knowledge must start with the assumption that there are spheres of thought in which it is impossible to conceive of absolute truth existing independently of the values and position of the subject and unrelated to the social context.
- Karl Mannheim, in Ideology and Utopia (1929)
- Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and those who claim to be the bearers of objective immortal truth … then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity... From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable.
- Benito Mussolini, Diuturna [The Lasting] (1921) as quoted in Rational Man : A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics (1962) by H. B. Veatch
- Relativism poses as humble by saying: “We are not smart enough to know what the truth is—or if there is any universal truth.” It sounds humble. But look carefully at what is happening. It’s like a servant saying: I am not smart enough to know which person here is my master—or if I even have a master. The result is that I don’t have a master and I can be my own master. That is in reality what happens to relativists: In claiming to be too lowly to know the truth, they exalt themselves as supreme arbiter of what they can think and do. This is not humility. This is the essence of pride.”
- John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God.
- Socrates is not just expounding noble ideas in a vacuum. He is in the middle of a war between those who think truth is absolute and those who think truth is relative. He is fighting that war with everything he has.'
- Robert M. Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), Ch. 29
- How are you going to teach virtue if you teach the relativity of all ethical ideas? Virtue, if it implies anything at all, implies an ethical absolute. A person whose idea of what is proper varies from day to day can be admired for his broadmindedness, but not for his virtue.
- Robert M. Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), Ch. 29
- We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires.
- Joseph Ratzinger, Homily at St. Peter's Basilica before the conclave of cardinals (18 April 2005)
- Those who espouse the relativistic "methods" introduced into the humanities by Foucault, Derrida and Rorty are vehement adherents to a code of political correctness that condemns deviation in absolute and intransigent terms. The relativistic theory exists in order to support an absolutist doctrine. We should not be surprised therefore at the extreme disarray that entered the camp of deconstruction, when it was discovered that one of the leading ecclesiastics, Paul de Man, once had Nazi sympathies. It is manifestly absurd to suggest that a similar disarray would have attended the discovery that Paul de Man had once been a communist -- even if he taken part in some of the great communist crimes. In such a case he would haved enjoyed the same compassionate endorsement as was afforded to [György] Lukács, [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty and Sartre.
- Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, Thinkers of the New Left (Bloomsbury, 2015), pp. 236–237
- A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is "merely relative," is asking you not to believe him. So don't.
- Roger Scruton, in Modern Philosophy (1995), "The Nature of Philosophy", p. 6
- In argument about moral problems, relativism is the first refuge of the scoundrel.
- Roger Scruton, in Modern Philosophy (1995), "Some More -isms", p. 32
- Metaphor and analogy can be helpful, or they can be misleading. All depends on whether the similarities the metaphor captures are significant or superficial.
It may not be entirely vain, however, to search for common properties among diverse kinds of complex systems... The ideas of feedback and information provide a frame of reference for viewing a wide range of situations, just as do the ideas of evolution, of relativism, of axiomatic method, and of operationalism... hierarchic systems have some common properties that are independent of their specific content.
- Herbert Simon, in "The Architecture of Complexity" in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1962), Vol. 106, p. 467
- He says somewhere that man is the measure of all things, of the existing, that they are, and of the non-existing, that they are not.
- Socrates, quoting Protagoras of Abdera, Plato, Theaetetus, 152a, Theaetetus and Sophist, translated by Harold North Fowler, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1921, 1961, p.40-41, translation modified
- Strictly speaking, relativism does not permit social progress, because the new culture is by definition no better than the one it replaced.
- Dinesh D'Souza, The End of Racism (1995), Ch. 6
- Liberal relativism has its roots in the natural right tradition of tolerance or in the notion that everyone has a natural right to the pursuit of happiness as he understands happiness; but in itself it is a seminary of intolerance.
- Leo Strauss, in Natural Right and History (1953)
- Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.
- Leo Tolstoy, A Confession
- Satan: There is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And You are but a Thought — a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities.
- Absolute relativism, which is neither more nor less than skepticism, in the most modern sense of the term, is the supreme triumph of the reasoning reason.
- Miguel de Unamuno, in The Tragic Sense of Life (1913) as translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch (1921)
- I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it.
- Kurt Vonnegut, in an interview in Playboy (July 1973)
- I believe that the biggest disease in Europe today is called cultural relativism. And I want to fight with all my life this misconception by politically correct, often liberal and leftist politicians, who invented the multicultural society, that all cultures are equal. … I am proud to say that our culture – that is based on Christianity, on Judaism, on Humanism – is not only better, far better, than what I see as a barbaric Islamic culture, and that we should fight to preserve it for our children.
- Geert Wilders, CBN News interview (May 2012)]
- Cultural relativism dictates that all cultures are equally moral and valuable—though in practice, Western culture is often presented as inferior to all others, stained as it supposedly is by racism and imperialism.
- Geert Wilders, Marked for Death (2012), Ch. 11: "The Facilitators"
- Cultural relativism is undermining our willingness to defend our civilized Western culture against the barbaric culture of Islam. People who do not believe that their values are worth defending will not defend them.
- In its original literal sense, "moral relativism" is simply moral complexity. That is, anyone who agrees that stealing a loaf of bread to feed one's children is not the moral equivalent of, say, shoplifting a dress for the fun of it, is a relativist of sorts. But in recent years, conservatives bent on reinstating an essentially religious vocabulary of absolute good and evil as the only legitimate framework for discussing social values have redefined "relative" as "arbitrary." That conflation has been reinforced by social theorists and advocates of identity politics who argue that there is no universal morality, only the value systems of particular cultures and power structures.