Applying Relativism

Applying relativism

Relativists believe values come from socially approved habits or forms of life

Relativism can be either a descriptive attempt to make sense of the many different cultures and values in the world – cultural relativism – or a stronger statement that there are and never will be any objective criteria by which to judge between different values and cultures (so called normative relativism).

Abortion

The relativist argues that values come from culture or “forms of life” (beliefs, practices, attitudes) which change over time. There is no way of judging that my form of life is better than yours. This means that a relativist could believe that abortion is wrong (Catholic Italy) or right (secular Britain) depending on our shared beliefs about the sanctity of life and the moral status of the foetus.

A key variable tends to be our belief in God – and what sort of God we believe in. The Incas practised child sacrifice, Christians exalt the sacredness of human life as male and female are made in God’s image. This doesn’t mean “anything goes”. What it does mean however is that the rational basis for ruling on abortion varies from society to society and age to age, and there is no objective standard for ruling between them and saying “my way of thinking is better or more rational than yours”.

Euthanasia

Case study on Daniel James who chose assisted suicide in Switzerland in 2008.

The relativist argues that values come from culture or “forms of life” (beliefs, practices, attitudes) which change over time. There is no way of judging that my form of life is better than yours. This means that a relativist could believe that euthanasia is wrong (Catholic Italy) or right (secular Holland) depending on our shared beliefs about the sanctity of life and the issue of the right to choose. A key variable tends to be our belief in God – and what sort of God we believe in. The Eskimos practised euthanasia of the elderly, Christians exalt the sacredness of human life as male and female are made in God’s image. This doesn’t mean “anything goes”. What it does mean however is that the rational basis for ruling on euthanasia varies from society to society and age to age, and there is no objective standard for ruling between them and saying “my way of thinking is better or more rational than yours”. The Eskimo practice stems from the form of life of food shortages in winter, requiring a limitation on the numbers to be fed in order for the group to survive. In Britain the form of life is different (though not superior) – drugs keep people alive long after the quality of life has all but vanished and they might prefer to choose death.

Designer babies

Designer babies is an ambiguous idea as there is a difference between designing a baby to save another child’s life and designing a baby because you want it to look like some ideal. The relativist argues that values come from culture or “forms of life” (beliefs, practices, attitudes) which change over time. There is no way of judging that my form of life is better than yours. This means that a relativist could believe that designing a baby is always wrong, because it is “playing God” (Catholic Italy) or right (secular Britain) depending on our shared beliefs about the sacredness of the created order versus the idea of happiness. A key variable tends to be our belief in God – and what sort of God we believe in. There is also the attitude to science itself – should we use scientific discoveries to further human happiness as God has made us rational, or is there a point where scientists are “playing God” by interfering directly with nature. This doesn’t mean “anything goes”. What it does mean however is that the rational basis for ruling on designer babies varies from society to society and situation to situation, and there is no objective standard for ruling between them and saying “my way of thinking is better or more rational than yours”.  What a relativist may be clear about, however, is a reasonable basis why people are likely to agree on a moral difference between creating a life to save a life (saviour siblings) and creating a life in order to create a superior child (more intelligent, better looking) – it’s just that the very idea of “reasonable” is culturally-conditioned, so my “reasonableness” won’t be the same necessarily as yours.

 IVF treatment

In vitro fertilisation involves taking a sperm and injecting it into an egg. The resultant embryo can be genetically screened for defects or hereditary disease. What makes the issue complex is that it is possible for the resultant child to have three biological parents – an egg donor, sperm donor and a womb donor. There is also the issue of embryo wastage – several eggs will be fertilised and some discarded. The relativist argues that values come from culture or “forms of life” (beliefs, practices, attitudes) which change over time. There is no way of judging that my form of life is better than yours. This means that a relativist could believe that IVF treatment is wrong or right depending on shared beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of interfering with natural processes. The Catholic Church cannot support IVF treatment as the sperm and egg don’t belong to the married couple, and as embryos are human beings and are wasted in the process. It’s important to note that a relativist doesn’t believe “anything goes”. What the relativist does believe, however, is that the rational basis for ruling on IVF treatment varies from society to society and age to age, and there is no objective standard for ruling between them and saying “my way of thinking about IVF is better or more rational than yours”. There are no absolutes – God, rules, or principles.

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