Relativism

This is the view that beliefs and values reflect the particular times and places in which they are held. Instead of their lasting for all time and applying universally, they are subject to social and cultural conditioning. This was the conclusion of some philosophers, both Greek and Indian, going back over two thousand years: change and diversity are omnipresent. The river of life never stands still. It has been reinforced by the observations of cultural anthropologists and globe-trotting tourists. Flux is evident on all fronts. However, other philosophers and social scientists draw attention instead to constants and continuities.

Illustrative scenarios

Driven to do relatively anything

Though (in the UK at least) she always drove on the left hand side of the road, that was one of the two fixed rules which Sam followed when in her car. She’d been driving since she was 16; now she could almost do it in her sleep. She knew her highway code and how to check the engine for oil. She could also read road signs and maps. However, her other rule was always to please herself.

She liked driving fast on motorways. With no sign of speed cameras or police cars she would happily drive at 90mph. If the car in front in the outside lane was only doing 75mph and didn’t pullover, she had no hesitation about overtaking on either side. Neither was she slow to exploit a closing outside lane to pass other slow-moving traffic that had already followed the signal to funnel down to fewer lanes. She was adept at nipping in at roundabouts, going through traffic lights up to two seconds after they’d turned red, and parking in a restricted area with the aid of an inflatable carrier-bag to prove, if need be, that she’d been loading. Dropping the debris of choc bars and plasticated coffee from the car window didn’t bother her. Neither did using her mobile phone at virtually any speed, though she usually didn’t text at over 45mph. .

If asked about any of this, Sam had no qualms. Others could do the same if they wanted; more fool them if they didn’t. Extended to a philosophy of life, she was earning good money and though she wasn’t in any permanent relationship that suited her well.

question: what moral reasons might there be why Sam shouldn’t be encouraged in her ‘happy relativism’ - ones which she couldn’t just dismiss as ‘sour grapes’ or useless moralising?

Bulwinder’s bafflement

It was that time of year again. Bulwinder’s thirst for travelling the world was unquenchable. At least, so it had seemed. Now, he was feeling less sure. During the last few months he’d been looking through the photographs he’d taken on his different trips, and he’d found it strangely disturbing. Alongside the colourful kaleidoscope of people and places, he had become more and more aware of bewildering confusion. It wasn’t that people spoke such different languages, wore different clothes, and had such different facial features. All that he’d always taken for granted. He’d expected variations in food habits too, but not the eating of cockroaches.

Maybe that was the picture that had started the rot. It reminded him of the accusation he’d faced in India, that he was viciously prejudiced not to esteem the rat. But how could some in that society be so accepting of human poverty? It was as though only he was noticing that desperate begging was all pervasive on the streets. The very young girls he’d seen in the bars in Thailand had been too blatant in trading their physical affections for it not to be known by police, tourist companies, and families generally, yet no-one seemed to mind. In Botswana, the country that had so impressed him by what he’d learned of its economy, its schools, its working democracy, he’d be shown great physical warmth and affection, but he’d also been astonished that a third of all adults were HIV positive. In Jerusalem there’d been all that evidence not just of interracial and inter-religious feuding but even of interdenominational wrangling. He had to face it, life was full of factions, different living assumptions, with different routines for working and playing.

Being fat in America wasn’t just an epidemic of overactive thyroids. In England, being solitary in an old people’s home isn’t because so many people never had any family or friends. If he wasn’t disgusted, he was certainly baffled. Were there no norms that could help him and others make consistent sense of the world – except toleration? Perhaps that was what really matters, he should simply accept the diversity of everything. It need not rape him of his sense of fairness. He could now begin to see that being fair was a childish sense he should have long since outgrown

question: what might persuade Bulwinder that becoming tolerant of diversity need not mean that he should abandon any idea of universal moral sense and justice?

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