Normative Relativism Isn’t Good for You

Ilmari Hirvonen

Let’s start with a bold conjecture: you’re not a normative relativist. Not at least when it comes to issues like morals, linguistic interpretation, or inference. Indeed, adopting normative relativism in regards such topics would be, at the least, detrimental.

But what is this thing called “normative relativism” anyway, and what’s so bad about it?

In a nutshell, normative relativism can be defined as follows: in a disagreement all disagreeing parties may maintain their own positions and act according to them because any position is as good or as bad as any other. At first blush, this doesn’t sound that terrible. After all, doesn’t a dash of tolerance do us good every now and then? Well, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Let me explain.

In philosophy, the most common place to encounter normative relativism is within ethics. When it comes to moral issues, it’s quite easy to see why normative relativism is problematic. Consider any topic of heated moral debate, say, euthanasia, abortion, female genital mutilation, racism, terrorism, and so on.

Take racism, as an example. Adopting ethical normative relativism would mean that if someone would act, in your mind, in a racist and therefore in a morally unacceptable manner, that person would nevertheless be allowed to think as they do and continue behaving as they did.

Surely this is not an acceptable conclusion. In fact, it would undermine the whole point of ethics and morality. If any ethical position is permitted in theory and in practice, then moral philosophy and possibly even law would lose their reason for existing. As a result, we would probably end up in a non-moral, or even immoral, situation where might is right. In morals, the principle anything goes simply isn’t tenable.

The same holds in many other circumstances. Consider linguistic interpretation. Would you be inclined to say that any reading of your words would be as good as any other? Certainly not. As a more concrete example, imagine that someone is translating Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy”. The translator proceeds by getting their vacuum cleaner’s manual and copying its first few pages as the translation. Now, maybe this could be considered as an interesting piece of modern art as its own right, but it definitely would not be a satisfactory translation of Schiller’s work.

One final example. We’re generally not ready to draw any sorts of conclusions from any kinds of premises. Some inferences are correct or justified whereas others are not. This is precisely why the category of fallacies was created.

If any inference would be as good as any other, we would again be forced to endure a number of unwanted consequences. Just think of all the fallacious inferences you have encountered and suppose that all of them were acceptable. And not just acceptable, in addition people would act in accordance with them without judgement. Outcomes would not be desirable, as history has already taught us. Consider, for instance, situations where political decisions have been made on the basis of bad reasoning. This should suffice to show that this is not the way to go.

There are, at least, five interconnected problems with normative relativism. First, it makes the evaluation of different views hopeless. Second, it is a conversation stopper. Third, it makes progress impossible. Fourth, it renders the existence of norms impossible. And fifth, it leads to arbitrariness.

If any point of view is as good as any other, then by definition it doesn’t make any sense to say that some of them are better than others. Likewise, if all are allowed to hold on to their positions, come what may, then after everyone has stated their opinions, there is really no need to keep on talking. There’s no point in arguing for one of the options because all of them are equally good – or bad.

Change, of course, is possible even if one accepts normative relativism. But under it, there are no grounds for claiming that change is change for the better. This is so because the antecedent position is as good as the subsequent. It’s just different, that’s all. Hence, there can be no progress.

Normative relativism states that nothing is forbidden because anyone can act in accordance to their own position whatever it might be. And when nothing is forbidden, there are no rules – no norms. This, naturally, opens the door to arbitrariness. Some of the problems with arbitrariness, and how normative relativism leads to them, were already demonstrated with the above examples from ethics, interpretation, and inference.

It is very important to understand that the troubles with normative relativism do not plague other isms that are somewhat close to it – isms such as pluralism or other forms of relativism. Pluralism encompasses a myriad of convictions but quite often these share one of the following two sentiments.

The first common option for pluralists is to insist that different viewpoints are required in order to give an adequate conception of something. Here, the different perspectives are not, at least in some sense, incompatible. On the contrary, they are complementary. It might be that one perspective cannot be applied at the same time as another, but that does not mean that one of them would have to be false if the other is correct.

The second conventional pluralist approach is heuristic, and is often motivated by our epistemic limitations. For instance, in science it makes sense to let opposed research programmes coexist because we don’t know for sure which of them will be successful and in what area of application. But this does not mean that all of them will turn out to be equally good.

Relativism, in turn, also comes in many shapes and sizes, and several of them don’t imply normative relativism. Take, as an example, metaethical relativism or descriptive relativism in moral philosophy.

Metaethical relativism states that there are no objective or absolute morals. Instead, right and wrong are relative to individuals or societies. Even if metaethical relativism would be true, that wouldn’t mean that people have to tolerate actions that conflict with their moral views. It only means that there are no objective grounds for condemning something as wrong. But that does not exclude subjective or intersubjective grounds for such judgements.

Descriptive relativism in ethics – and in many other fields – is trivially true. It merely points out that, when it comes to moral questions, there is disagreement to be found. People have different values and conceptions of right and wrong. But from this descriptive fact one cannot derive normative clams as good old Hume has taught us. And this includes those normative claims that comprise normative relativism.

Now, let me be the first one to admit that in some cases normative relativism doesn’t lead to destructive results. In matters of taste or aesthetic judgement, normative relativism might be just fine. After all, some love spicy food whereas others can’t stand it. There seem to be no problems with cases like these.

And true enough, it is at least possible to subscribe to normative relativism even in the more problematic situations considered here – at least to the extent the laws of one’s country allows. But this comes with a price. When there is no way evaluate conflicting stances, unhealthy dogmatism thrives and arbitrariness reigns.

References

Baghramian, Maria & Carter, J. Adam (2018). “Relativism” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/relativism/

Gowans, Chris (2018). “Moral Relativism” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/

Hume, David (2007). An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Peter Millican (ed.), 1748, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Published by Ilmari Hirvonen

PhD student at University of Helsinki working on philosophy of pseudoscience. Dabbling in some philosophy of religion in spare time.

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