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Does Humanism lead to relativism?

Relativism: The doctrine that knowledge is relative, not absolute.– Oxford Concise Dictionary


Relativist: Someone who holds that nothing is simply good, but only good for someone or from a certain point of view, holds a relativist view of goodness. Concise Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy


Relativism and Humanism

Few humanists are relativists.  Most humanists have a “realist” view of the truth, based on a respect for observation, experience and scientific method, and base their ethics on universal moral principles. Some flexibility about actual situations and humanist scepticism about the value of dogmatic rules does not make them relativists.  The books and articles on relativism (below) are by members of the Humanist Philosophers’ Group, and intended for non-specialist readers. The list begins with the most accessible arguments.

Stephen Law Into the Lair of the relativist (pdf)


This extract from Stephen Law ’s The Philosophy Gym (2003) is intended for complete newcomers to philosophy, and provides an entertaining way of clearing up some common confusions. It’s introduction to the sort of “post-modern” moral and cultural relativism we sometimes meet in which “true” and “false” boil down a matter of opinion or perspective and all opinions are equally “valid”.

Brendan Larvor Relativism explained


Why do we find so much relativism in the classroom? Brendan Larvor offers some explanations.

Julian Baggini in The Guardian , 14 April 2007


Writing about the real “clash of civilisations”, between “liberal openness” and “the clarity of dogma”, Baggini concluded: “…in the everyday world we can and must distinguish truth and falsity, right and wrong, even if on close examination these terms do not mean what we thought they did.  Science may not be God-like in its objectivity, but it is not just another myth.  Moral values must be questioned, but if discrimination against women, homosexuals or ethnic minorities is wrong here, then it is wrong anywhere else in the world. Truth may not be the simple phenomenon we assume it to be, but falsehoods must be challenged.”

Professor Simon Blackburn’s 2001Humanists UKVoltaire Lecture Does relativism matter?


Simon Blackburn Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed (Allen Lane, 2005)

“There are real standards. We must fight soggy nihilism, scepticism and cynicism. We must not believe that anything goes. We must not believe that all opinion is ideology, that reason is only power, that there is no truth to prevail. Without defences against postmodern irony and cynicism, multiculturalism and relativism, we will all go to hell in a handbasket,” writes Humanist Philosophers’ Group member Simon Blackburn in his recent book.


Dr Dennis Hayes in TES, 16 September 2005, Take a few tips from Socrates

“…Socrates provides a quick refutation of relativism – the popular view, then and now, that all beliefs are equally true. It goes like this. If you accept that what others hold to be true is true, although others hold to be false what you hold to be true, you simultaneously hold what you think to be both true and false. If you chew through the passages slowly, it is the best antidote to the relativism which Roger Scruton described as the “first refuge of a scoundrel” in the discussion of anything of importance.

“In FE it is more likely to be the first refuge of the touchy-feely student or lecturer who respects all views. It may leave everyone feeling good if we flatter their ideas and beliefs and don’t challenge them. But that’s not education – it’s a form of therapy.”

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