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Relativism - Conclusion

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Normative relativism in a given area counsels tolerance of practices that conform to alternative standards prevailing in the area. The paradigm of acceptable tolerance is clearly the case of etiquette. Here we have grounds for a defensible and thoroughgoing relativism. And here the relativist doctrines we have discussed fit: Clear-eyed judgments that the practices in a different culture conforming to standards of etiquette prevailing there are rude are, indeed, puzzling. What could such judgments mean? It is true both that such judgments make little sense and that we ought not to try to engage in them. But what distinguishes etiquette from other areas is its relative lack of importance in our thinking and behavior. We can maintain our manners even while taking an external view of them as simply one standard of etiquette among others. When we turn to claims about what is of value or what is rational, for example, the subject matter itself raises the stakes. Once the stakes are raised, we seem less able to take an external view, to maintain our views about what is morally worth doing, or what it is reasonable to believe. Future work on relativism will no doubt bring new ways of thinking about such difficulties.


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Robert N. Johnson

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