Digest of terms

relativism

the view that beliefs and values reflect the particular times and places in which they are held, and that there is no justifiable means of grading some as superior to others. 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 several thousand years. Thus, according to the Jain notion of Anekāntavāda (attributed to 6th century BCE Mahavira), there are many different points of view; and none is more true or complete than the others. Similarly, Protagoras in dialogue with Plato is recorded as saying: What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me'. In other words truth and morality are subjective and relative. Such philosophical reflection has been reinforced by the observations of cultural anthropologists and globe-trotting tourists. There is, to all appearances, a wide variety of norms, customs and practices.

However, other philosophers and social scientists draw attention instead to constants and continuities (see natural law, universal values). Marriage may be monogamous, polygamous or even polyandrous, but a rule against incest is generally universal. Killing is permissible in many different circumstances, but murder is not. Truth-telling and trust, though often avoided, are universally affirmed as morally desirable principles. Again, divergent social practices may reflect underlying agreement of principle (in the harsh circumstances of traditional Inuit life leaving the old to die may have been the necessary price to pay for the survival of the group, and thus not a contravention of the principle of the value of life).

Philosophers distinguish between descriptive relativism (a record of observed cultural differences), normative relativism (when in Rome do as the Romans do), and metaethical relativism (there is no way of adjudicating between the different moral systems). See Concept Scenarios.

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