Everyday Relativism

Anti-relativists often worry that relativism deprives us of the means to take moral positions. I think the opposite is true: relativism helps us to work more effectively towards our own moral goals. We can see this by considering the emotional relativism that most of us practice every day.

In modern societies people are encouraged to learn, as a basic life skill, to distinguish between their own feelings and those of others. Something that makes me happy might make another person sad or angry, for instance.

We use this distinction often to prevent conflicts or to help resolve them. It’s invaluable in intimate and familial relationships, for example, to move from thinking “who is right and who is wrong?” to “how can we resolve both parties feelings in a way that is satisfying to everyone, to the greatest extent possible?”. One shifts from an argument to a negotiation. One important advantage of negotiating over arguing is that a successful negotiation does not require consensus on what is true or even on what is right, only an agreement about what to do. Both parties can remain different.

We can extend the same logic to deeper forms of relativism.Moral relativism, for instance, recognizes that what appears to one person or group as good can appear to another as neutral or evil, and eschews seeking some underlying truth of the matter in favour of a negotiated agreement over how to proceed together in practice.

Obviously, practicing relativism about morals is more challenging than practicing relativism about feelings, but the same principles can apply.

What thoughts do you have?

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