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Relativism - What Is Relativism?

relativist fness standards view

Relativism about some property F can be divided into a number of different theses. One relativist view is that there exists a plurality of standards of Fness associated with different places, people, cultures, or times. Call this descriptive relativism. A different relativist thesis is that there is no single universally valid standard of Fness for all places, people, cultures, or times. Call this philosophical relativism. In this view, a plurality of standards of Fness provides the only frames of reference against which the truth of claims that something is F can be evaluated. Such claims thus cannot be evaluated unless and until a framework is specified. A third and further relativist thesis is that we should be tolerant of those who, for some F, use standards of Fness different from our own; each standard is appropriate for its own culture or time. The claim that we ought not pass judgment on those deploying alternative frameworks is often dubbed normative relativism. Although these three relativist doctrines are distinguishable from one another and can be consistently held in various combinations, all three quite often go together.

Most people are and ought to be relativists about some things—etiquette, for instance. Is it rude to call one's colleagues by their first names? Yes and no; yes in Japan and no in the United States. The truth or justifiability of judgments of rudeness can be evaluated only relative to the prevailing standards of etiquette, and it would be absurd to insist that one's own standard is closer to the right way of doing it; it is just different, not better. There is no "universal" standard of etiquette against which each act of rudeness can or should be measured. Relativism about what is funny, edible, or delicious seems reasonable as well. One's own sense of humor or one's tastes are just different, not better, than those of others. Some may feel less confident saying that one's own standard of beauty is just different, not better, than others, but few would press the issue.

About some things, however, it is difficult to defend relativist positions. Few think that arithmetical truths such as 7 + 5 = 12 are only true relative to some arithmetical framework to which there are alternatives that are just different, not worse. There are necessarily no acceptable alternative mathematical frameworks in which 7 + 5 = 12 is false. The ordinary view of moral judgments is that they lie somewhere in between etiquette judgments on the one hand and arithmetical judgments on the other. Some think they are closer to etiquette, others to arithmetic.

It is important to hold agreement on non-F facts fixed to determine whether there is a genuine difference in standards of Fness, and whether a given philosophical view is truly relativist. Parametric universalism (so dubbed by T. M. Scanlon) allows that what is F in one place or time might not be F in another. However, it is not a relativist view, since it allows opposed judgments of whether a given action or activity is F to be generated from a single universal standard of Fness due to different circumstances. Diversity of judgments about Fness, according to the parametric universalist, are traceable to differences in non-F facts, rather than different standards of Fness. Only a view that allows different standards in a given area of concern to be in some sense equally valid is a genuinely relativist view.

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