Three Types of Relativism

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)


Ever talked to someone who spoke as though they were experts in the field, even though they obviously are not?  I come across this often on campus, especially regarding the topic of morality and ethics.  I will hear someone say that what is right is what one’s society deems is the moral action to take.  Then a few sentences later they will say that it is okay for them to do whatever they want because morality is based on what the individual decides is right and wrong.

What these people, who assume they are well-read on this issue, miss is that they have just contradicted themselves.  They do not understand that three different brands of relativism exist.  Why is this important?  Because beliefs held in one category of relativism are not held in others, yet many often mix the beliefs held in differing camps.  In this post we will get a cursory glance at each of the three and will break them down in future posts.

The first kind of relativism is named cultural relativism or descriptive relativism.  This branch says that what is right for one society is based off of how they evolved.  If something brought pleasure or benefit to the tribe, then it was deemed right and, conversely, if it brought dissatisfaction and harm to the clan, then it was deemed wrong.

Those who hold to this view point to evidence that says that there is such diversity in moral codes throughout the globe, that no one society’s can be better than another.  Seems reasonable enough, right?  The next post will deal in particular about this type of relativism.

The second camp of relativism is that of conventional relativism or normative relativism.  In this view, actions that are moral are those that align with what one’s culture says to do.  One must be content to follow the rules, as to not disrupt the nation.

The reasoning used by this group states that the reason a culture rises and sustains itself is through its people obliging by the precepts established by those who rule.  This view  claims that all societies’ need to stay away from each others’ issues and instead focus internally and heighten the moral responsibility of their citizens.

The third and final system of relativism is individual relativism or subjectivism.  This one dominates the minds of those on college campuses across the United States, Canada, and much of Europe.  This one you probably understand already, but I will define it just in case.  Individualism says that each person, regardless of their cultural background gets to decide what actions they should or should not do.

This mindset endangers more lives than any other type of relativism, however, it does not take long for people who claim this type of morality to reveal that they actually do have some broader definition of morality.

This is a little off the topic of defining differing views of relativism, yet it is paramount that this issue be addressed.  It is this:  Christians cannot be relativists.  That simple, yet more and more “Christians” are claiming that moral absolutes do not exist.  Why must Christians believe in transcendent truth?  Because a key tenant of Christendom is that all  have sinned, or in other words, have broken the law of God.  If absolute oughts and ought not are non-existent, then there is no need for Jesus to pay for our sins because sin does not exist.

What type of relativism do you see most often?  Why do you think that is?


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