Chapter Three: Relativism
Section 4 Not to be Confused with.....
Relativism is often confused with a number of
distinct positions. It is important to keep these things in mind. I find that
many students start out thinking that they are relativists, only to discover
that they are not -- some are skeptics, others are pluralists, still others are
How do they differ?
Can you imagine a skeptic who is not a
relativist? How about a relativist who is not a skeptic ?
Can you imagine a pluralist who is not a
relativist? How about a relativist who is not a pluralist?
Can you imagine a situationalist who is not a
relativist? How about a relativist who is not a situationalist?
Skepticism: from Chapter One,
we know that skepticism is an "epistemological" position. It claims that we
(or at least I) cannot know what our (or at least my) obligations are, if
there are any at all. Skepticism does not say anything about the moral
universe - about whether there are moral principles, obligations, virtues,
etc. It speaks of our knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the
moral universe. So the reason why relativists are not (necessarily) skeptics,
is because the relativist thinks s/he knows something about people's
obligations -- a person's obligation is nothing more and nothing less than
what s/he believes her obligation is. If Susan believes that she is obligated
to pay her parents back for all their care, by at least being honest with
them, then Susan really is obligated to be honest. The skeptic cannot
claim that he (the skeptic) or she (Susan) can know what her obligation is --
in fact, the skeptic holds that neither he nor Susan can know what Susan's
This is the position that there are no moral values at all -- that there are
no obligations, nothing to prohibit anyone from doing anything at all. Nihilism
is a denial of the entire realm of ethical reality. If you are a nihilist, moral
conversation, moral arguments, have no point. They are absurd. A moral nihilist
would think that two people arguing about whether the President has an
obligation to do what is best for the citizens, is simply silly. It would be as
pointless as an argument over whether cheese should have blond hair or red hair.
Huh??? Makes no sense.
If you think
that there is some function to ethical discourse, if you think that a person can
be wrong, or a culture can be wrong about what they believe, then you are not a
A cultural relativist does believe
(or ought to believe, if they are truly a cultural relativist) that a person
can be morally mistaken. How? By being mistaken about what his or her culture
actually believes. For example, I can imagine a person in Ireland believing
(incorrectly) that the Irish society accepts abortion as morally permissible.
If that person either had an abortion or encourage someone else to have an
abortion, s/he would be violating his/her moral obligation. Do you understand
a reaction against objective and universal and absolutist approaches,
situationalism argues that every situation is different. Therefore, absolute
rules are inappropriate because they are too inflexible. The only ethical "rule"
is to love, which Christ said was the greatest commandment. Love alone, because
it has its own moral compass, can be trusted to know what to do in any
situation. The Bible may give us a record of what loving decisions looked like
in concrete situations, but those decisions are not binding.
- Joseph Fletcher's
Situational Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966) is the most
complete presentation of this view. Some form of situationalism is usually
held by liberal ministers and theologians.
Problems with situationalism
Situationalism's definition of love is unbiblical.
Biblical love by definition has moral content. The God who is loving is also
morally righteous. Therefore, any conception of love that does not involve
absolute moral content is profoundly unbiblical.
Situationalism is excessively subjective. "Love" used in this way does not
automatically know what to do. It may get us close to the person and give us
the motivation to meet his/her needs. But without objective truth, it cannot
distinguish wants from needs, or know how to meet those needs. This is why
situationalism is essentially moral relativism.
Situationalism overlooks the important distinction between "right attitude"
and "right action." While the Bible emphasizes the importance of having the
right (loving) attitude, it also emphasizes the importance of right actions.
God still condemns wrong actions even when they are done with the right
attitude (see for example II Sam. 6:3-7).
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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino 2002. All Rights