START HERE with Relativism

Relativism is normally encountered early in the course, in order to contrast it with absolutism. This is not without its problems!

To begin with, we need to accept that few moral theories are purely relativistic. The most purely relativistic theory is existentialism, but this isn’t on most A level courses. So we study Situation Ethics instead.
Here are some resources to help you get to grips with relativism.
Situation Ethics is in fact not a relativistic theory at all (despite its classification on this website as a form of relativism), because at its heart it has one absolute, non-negotiable principle, that of agape (unconditional) love. The most loving outcome is the heart and core of this theory. That’s an absolute value.

However, if you follow the handout and extracts through, what you will discover is that Joseph Fletcher, who wrote his influential book Situation Ethics in 1966, himself describes it as relativistic, and spends some time explaining how it is anti-law, anti-absolutes, and anti pretty much everything but, the most loving outcome.
How do we square the academics’ view, that Fletcher’s theory is absolute, not relative, with Fletcher’s own view (and the view of many others, such as the Roman Catholic Church that in the Pope’s words, we have a “dictatorship of relativism”) that Situation Ethics is a paradigm of relativism?
 Unfortunately there is an ambiguity in the term “relativism”. It is a term coined by anthropologists to explain the difference in values found in different cultures, be they the Ik culture of Africa, or the culture of Sparta (see the film 300) or the Eskimos (who practised geronticide or the killing of the elderly).
The ambiguity is this: whilst it may be a mere description of a different culture, it can become more than this.  When JL Mackie confidently declares “there are no objective values” one is tempted to say, as James Rachels does: “who says?” The description has turned into an article of faith or belief. Mackie cannot prove there are no objective values. Click here for Richard Jacobs’ classification of Situation Ethics as “principled relativism”.
There is also the question of which way values face (to put it metaphorically). If we consider the source of morality, is it subjective, in me, or objective, out there in the world? It always fascinates me that Mackie contrasts relativism with objective truth, rather than absolutism which linguistically would appear to be its natural opposite.
Relativism, rather than face at the source, can also face towards the application of values. I could quote philosophers who use it in this very way. If a value changes according to the circumstances (it’s alright to lie when faced with a crazy knifeman asking “where’s your friend”, but not okay when asked by your boss “where were you yesterday? Answer, watching Manchester United in Bremen!) then surely this, too, is relativism, the elastic application of principle to circumstance?
So, if invited to discuss relativism, feel free to use Joseph Fletcher – at the least, you can say that he himself describes his theory as relativistic – was he right to do so? We’re already heading towards a top grade answer! For a very brief outline of cultural relativism, visit Henry Gensler’s website, and here is  a brilliant introduction to the issues.
Here is an excellent discussion of the differences between absolutism and relativism







Past Questions

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