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Classic Text #2

The Problem of Relativism

Jeffrey Stout

Philosophical relativism, both moral and epistemic, is a very old idea. Plato's remarkable dialogue, Theatetus, deals with the meaning of the philosopher Protagoras' doctrine that "Man is the measure of all things." Relativism is also a common idea. You can elicit strong reactions from people who would not regard them selves as "philosophical" by raising issues of relativism. Contemporary politics is frequently cast as being waged as a "culture war," the warring parties being those who believe in moral absolutes and those who believe in moral or cultural relativism. As is the case with many politically charged matters, this culture war stands in desperate need of clarity. It is not at all clear what many people fighting this battle mean by relativism and absolute morality.

In the "Problem of Relativism" Jeffery Stout says; "confusing various senses of relativism is part of what fuels concerns over the significance of moral diversity." He strives to make clear some of what is meant by moral relativism and to establish what we can reasonably claim about the relativity of moral beliefs. Stout's attention to clarity sets an excellent precedent. Conceptual confusion about matters of morality and truth is easily produced by slight changes in meaning. If you want to be grounded in your beliefs about relative truth, then it is crucial to investigate the meanings of the concepts and claims at issue.

A common view of relativism, such as that attacked by culture warriors, is that "anything goes." On this view there is no basis for shared or social morality at all. Whatever anyone wants to believe and do, no matter what the consequences, is perfectly fine and acceptable. On reflection it is not clear that anyone really promotes this conception of relativism. In saying that morality and reality are relative, the philosopher is making a point about the relations of our beliefs and truth. Often the very concept of "truth" is what is at issue.

Stout holds that all justification is relative to cultural and historical conditions. This is so for moral and scientific claims. Justification is the reasoning and evidence that we provide to substantiate the truth of a belief. This is a very important notion. Even the strictest Relativist is not out to claim that we do not require any justification for our beliefs and actions whatsoever. Philosophical relativism is based in the idea that justification of beliefs is relative to cultural and historical conditions (or in another version, individual conditions). That view is not at all compatible with an "anything goes" attitude.

Stout is a Cultural Relativist. He does not accept that all truth is relative only to individual circumstances, such as beliefs, desires, perceptions, etc. Sometimes this idea is expressed in the notion that whatever someone believes is "true for them." Following this view it may seem that "what is true for you" is different from "what is true for me", so truth is never the same for any two people. Stout is not proposing this form of relativism. He says;

"When we say that it was true for people of the time that the earth was flat, we mean only that they believed it was true, not that the earth really was flat and only later became round."

Stout does not accept that the shape of the earth depends upon human beliefs. He does accept that the justification of our beliefs is dependent upon the epistemic conditions, i.e. the available evidence, of the time and culture. That truth and justification may have different conditions make possible one of the most interesting of Stout's points concerning morality;

" evil wherever and whenever it is found. Why do I not say with equal conviction, that all slave-holders deserve blame? Because the truth of a judgment about blame is relative to the agent's circumstances in a way that the former judgment's truth-value is not."

Moral justification and moral blame are completely different matters. We can make determinations about the moral justification of a practice or action. But making determinations about the moral blame of the people who followed that practice or committed the action quite another matter. On this view, we can determine that a practice is evil without implying that the people who followed that practice are evil. Just as people who believed in the flat earth were basing belief on the best available evidence, so practitioners of slavery may have been acting on evidenced that seemed to justify their beliefs (though we now see that it did not). Stout's Relativism allows a standard of moral truth without requiring a position of self-righteous judgment.

Some comments about slavery need to be made. Slavery has existed for all of human history. It still does exist in some places in the world. The United States fought it's only civil war in part over the issue (that was a real culture war). Sometimes people arguing for some version of moral relativism will cite slavery as an example saying; "slavery was right for that culture." To be clear, slavery is the social institution whereby some people are held as the property of other people. Slavery is necessarily a social matter involving power relations among people. In all of history, slavery has been resisted by the people held as slaves. In Egypt, Rome, and the US the enslaved people resisted and protested when they could. It is clear that the enslaved people did not share the belief that slavery was right. Thus, it is not the case that the entire culture agreed at any time that "slavery was morally justified." To insist upon this view now is merely to take the side of the slavers. Cultural relativism depends upon cultural agreement. In the case of slavery, cultural agreement has never been unanimous (not even close). When promoting Cultural Relativism, it is crucial to keep your concepts clear and to be very well informed as to the culture and practices used in your examples.

When reading this articles, keep these questions in mind:

  • What does Stout mean by Truth?
  • What does Stout mean by Justification?
  • Can a belief be true but not justified?
  • Can a belief be justified but not true


It may be valuable for you to browse some related resources. This is not a fixed assigment (the Stout paper is). Rather, these are resources that can assist in connecting with the key ideas and in finding examples of them in practice. Please let us know how these resources do or don't help.

Internet Philosophical Resources on Moral Relativism
Lots of papers and resources. I recommend the ongoing debate over female circumcision on this site.

Ethical Relativism
Lawrence M. Hinman,
A video lecture by Professor Hinman. If you have a fast enough connection and a Realplayer plugin (available at the site) this is worth checking out.

Is Morality Real?
No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed
A real video to try with a discussion of moral value and self-interest. Please note that a Real Video Player plug-in is required to view this video. You can get that plug-in from Please note that the RealPlayer 7 Basic is the free player (you have to look carefully for the link). You do not have to purchase the Plus player.


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