Written and Narrated by:
Deni Elliott, Ph.D., M.A.
Department of Journalism & Media Studies
College of Arts and Sciences
The University of South Florida at St. Petersburg
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do. We’ve all heard that advice. If we’re talking about following the age-old Italian practice of eating salad after the main course, doing as the Romans do is fine. But, if some present-day Romans want to resurrect the ancient Roman practice of damnatio ad bestias, in which criminals and other deviants were fed to the lions, it would be irrational to follow that cruel practice just because it’s what the Romans, at one time, did.
Relativism is the belief that all it takes to make some potentially harmful act ‘right’ is the individual’s or group’s claim that it is ‘right.’ You can tell that someone is being a relativist when you hear, “Who am I to judge?” or “I can’t tell another person what’s right for her.” When people say it’s not okay to judge someone else, or judge a specific culture’s practice by outside standards, they are practicing Relativism. And, they’re generally not thinking very deeply about what that means.
There is more than one right way to live one’s life. That’s where Relativists are on the right track. Tolerance is indeed a virtue. But, we can allow for a wide range of ethically permitted behaviors and still agree that some actions are wrong – that’s to say, ethically prohibited. The problem of being a relativist, if the relativists are consistent, is that they can NEVER make moral judgments about another person’s or group’s actions. And human beings just don’t function that way.
It’s human nature to protect ourselves and our loved ones from being caused harm. How would you respond if someone stole your sister’s smart phone? Broke into your house? Or even held you prisoner just because they wanted to? It’s unlikely that you would uphold that person’s right to do what he felt was right for him. So we all make moral judgments, but the problem is that we often do it inconsistently.
A gunman opening fire in a movie theater? That’s simply wrong. Terrorists blowing up school buildings on the other side of the world? Awful. Immoral. It’s wrong to cause innocent people pain and death, regardless of mental illness or the point that the terrorists are trying to make.
Different cultures can have different customs such as when it’s proper to serve the salad course or how to honor religious beliefs. But when we move into the realm of ethics, we have to follow some universal rules like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Typically, when people make relativistic claims, it’s likely that they’re actually promoting Pluralism and not Relativism. Whereas Relativism is tolerance to a fault, Pluralism is tolerance at its best. Pluralists believe that everyone should have the freedom to live their lives as they see fit, just as long as they don’t cross the boundary of causing unjustified harm to other people. A Pluralist embraces diversity and respects all cultures, traditions, and religious beliefs, but would stop short of condoning extremist actions done in their name. So, live and let live is a fine philosophy, as long as it’s accompanied by clear judgments that causing unjustified harm is simply wrong – for everyone.”