Relativism is the view that what is right or wrong and good or bad is not absolute but variable and relative, depending on the person, circumstances, or social situation. The view is as ancient as Protagoras, a leading Greek Sophist of the 5th century BC, and as modern as the scientific approaches of sociology and anthropology.
Many people's understanding of this view is often vague and confused. It is not simply the belief, for example, that what is right depends on the circumstances, because everyone, including the absolutists, agrees that circumstances can make a difference; it is acknowledged that whether it is right for a man to enter a certain house depends upon whether he is the owner, a guest, a police officer with a warrant, or a burglar. Nor is it the belief that what someone thinks is right is relative to his social conditioning, for again anyone can agree that there are causal influences behind what people think is right. Relativism is, rather, the view that what is really right depends solely upon what the individual or the society thinks is right. Because what one thinks will vary with time and place, what is right will also vary accordingly. Relativism is, therefore, a view about the truth status of moral principles, according to which changing and even conflicting moral principles are equally true, so that there is no objective way of justifying any principle as valid for all people and all societies.
The sociological argument for relativism proceeds from the diversity of different cultures. Ruth Benedict, an American anthropologist, suggested, for example, in Patterns of Culture (1934) that the differing and even conflicting moral beliefs and behavior of the North American Indian Kwakiutl, Pueblo, and Dobu cultures provided standards that were sufficient within each culture for its members to evaluate correctly their own individual actions. Thus, relativism does not deprive one of all moral guidance. However, some anthropologists, such as Clyde Kluckhohn and Ralph Linton, have pointed up certain "ethical universals," or cross-cultural similarities, in moral beliefs and practices--such as prohibitions against murder, incest, untruth, and unfair dealing--that are more impressive than the particularities of moral disagreement, which can be interpreted as arising within the more basic framework that the universals provide. Some critics point out, further, that a relativist has no grounds by which to evaluate the social criticism arising within a free or open society, that his view appears in fact to undercut the very idea of social reform.
A second argument for relativism is that of the skeptic who holds that moral utterances are not cognitive statements, verifiable as true or false, but are, instead, emotional expressions of approval or disapproval or are merely prescriptions for action. In this view, variations and conflicts between moral utterances are relative to the varying conditions that occasion such feelings, attitudes, or prescriptions, and there is nothing more to be said. Critics of the skeptical view may observe that classifying moral utterances as emotive expressions does not in itself disqualify them from functioning simultaneously as beliefs with cognitive content. Or again, they may observe that, even if moral utterances are not cognitive, it does not follow that they are related, as the relativist suggests, only to the changeable elements in their background; they may also be related in a special way to needs and wants that are common and essential to human nature and society everywhere and in every age. If so, the criticism continues, these needs can provide good reasons for the justification of some moral utterances over others. The relativist will then have to reply either that human nature has no such common, enduring needs or that, if it does, they cannot be discovered and employed to ground man's moral discourse.
Excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica without permission.