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For the theory in physics, see Theory of Relativity

Relativism is the view that the meaning and value of human beliefs and behaviors have no absolute reference. Relativists claim that humans understand and evaluate beliefs and behaviors only in terms of, for example, their historical and cultural context. Philosophers identify many different kinds of relativism depending upon what allegedly depends on something and what something depends on.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson define relativism in their book Metaphors We Live By as the rejection of both subjectivism and objectivism in order to focus on the relationship between them, i.e. the metaphor by which we relate our current experience to our previous experience. In particular, they characterize "objectivism" as a "straw man", and, to a lesser degree, criticize the views of Karl Popper, Kant and Aristotle.


Advocates of relativism

The concept of relativism has importance both for philosophers and for anthropologists, although in different ways. Philosophers explore how beliefs might or might not in fact depend for their truth upon such items as language, conceptual scheme, culture, and so forth; with ethical relativism furnishing just one example. Anthropologists, on the other hand, occupy themselves with describing actual human behavior. For them, relativism refers to a methodological stance, in which the researcher suspends (or brackets) his or her own cultural biases while attempting to understand beliefs and behaviors in their local contexts. This has become known as methodological relativism, and is specifically concerned with avoiding ethnocentrism, or applying one's cultural standards to the assessment of other cultures.

The combination of both approaches results in what is known as descriptive relativism, which claims that different cultures have different views of morality, which cannot be unified under one general conception of morality. Thus, one might want to claim that all cultures, for example, prohibit the killing of innocents. The descriptive relativist reply to this is that while this might be true at a general level, different cultures have different understandings of what "innocent" means, and so are still culturally relative.

Elements of relativism emerged at least as early as the Sophists.

One argument for relativism is that our own cognitive bias prevents us from observing something objectively with our own senses, and notational bias will apply to whatever allegedly can be measured without using our senses. In addition, we have a culture bias shared with other trusted observers, which cannot be eliminated. A counterargument to this is that subjective certainty and concrete objects and causes are part of our everyday life, and that there is no great value in discarding such useful ideas as isomorphism, objectivity and a final truth.

Another important advocate of relativism, Bernard Crick, a British political scientist, wrote the book In Defence of Politics (first published in 1962), suggesting the inevitability of moral conflict between people. Crick stated that only ethics could resolve such conflict, and when that occurred in public it resulted in politics. Accordingly, Crick saw the process of dispute resolution, harms reduction, mediation or peacemaking as central to all of moral philosophy. He became an important influence on the feminists and later on the Greens.

Arguments against relativism

A common argument against relativism suggests that it is inherently contradictory or self-refuting or self-stultifying: the statement "all is relative" is either a relative statement or an absolute one. If it is relative, then this statement does not rule out absolutes. If the statement is absolute, on the other hand, then it provides an example of an absolute statement, proving that not all truths are relative.


As a counter-argument, one can say that only one thing in the world, relativism, is absolute, thereby solving this dilemma. This is a softer take on relativism. It says that the argument presented above is correct in a way. Not all statements are relative, but the only statement that is not relative is the statement: "The only thing that is absolute is that everything else is relative." Although this may preserve relativism for all practical intents and purposes as it is commonly applied, it does so at the cost of accepting one objective truth: relativism itself. A soft point of view on this issue is also that of considering relativism as something related only to human beliefs and behaviours which can't be demonstrated. In this way, relativism would have nothing to do with mathematical or scientific truth.

Another counter-argument uses Bertrand Russell's Paradox, which refers to the "List of all lists that do not contain themselves". This paradox has been famously debated by Kurt Gödel, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jean Baudrillard.

A very different approach is to explicate the rhetorical production of supposedly 'bottom line' arguments against relativism. Edwards et al’s influential and controversial Death and Furniture paper takes this line in its staunch defence of relativism.

The Catholic Church and relativism

The Catholic Church for some time now, especially with Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, has identified relativism as one of the problems of today. [1]

According to the Church and some philosophers, relativism, as a denial of absolute truth, leads to moral license and a denial of the possibility of sin and of God.

Relativism, they say, is a denial of the capacity of our mind and reason to arrive at truth. Truth, according to Catholic theologians and philosophers, following Aristotle and Plato, is adequatio rei et intellectus, the correspondence of the mind and reality. Another way of putting it is: the mind having the same form as reality. This means when the form of the computer in front of me (the type, color, shape, capacity, etc.) is also the form that is in my mind, then what I know is true because my mind corresponds to objective reality.

Relativism, according to the Catholic and Aristotelian viewpoint, violates the philosophical principle of non-contradiction, a most fundamental principle of all thinking without which there is no way to understand each other nor any possibility of science.

The denial of an absolute reference is a denial of God, who is Absolute Truth, according to these Christian philosophers. Thus, they say, relativism is linked to secularism, an obstruction of God in human life.

John Paul II

John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (the Beauty of the Truth) stressed the dependence of man on God and his law ("Without the Creator, the creature disappears") and the "dependence of freedom on the truth". He warned that man "giving himself over to relativism and skepticism, goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself".

In the Gospel of Life, he says:

The original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people-even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the "right" ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The State is no longer the "common home" where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenceless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part. (Italics added)

Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI in his address to the cardinals during the pre-conclave Mass which would elect him as Pope, a key public address to the top leaders of the Church, talked about the world "moving towards a dictatorship of relativism." (Italics added)

On June 6, 2005, he told educators:

"Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own 'ego'"

Then during the World Youth Day, he also traced to relativism the problems produced by the communist and sexual revolutions, and provides a counter-counter argument.

In the last century we experienced revolutions with a common programme – expecting nothing more from God, they assumed total responsibility for the cause of the world in order to change it. And this, as we saw, meant that a human and partial point of view was always taken as an absolute guiding principle. Absolutizing what is not absolute but relative is called totalitarianism. It does not liberate man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him. It is not ideologies that save the world, but only a return to the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true.


Edwards, D., Ashmore, M. & Potter, J. (1995). Death and furniture: The rhetoric, politics, and theology of bottom line arguments against relativism. History of the Human Sciences, 8, 25-49.

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