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Social relativism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R030-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

People in different societies have very different beliefs and systems of belief. To understand such diversity is a prime task of the student of society. The task is especially pressing when alien beliefs seem obviously mistaken, unreasonable or otherwise peculiar. A popular response is social relativism. Perhaps beliefs which seem mistaken, unreasonable or peculiar viewed from our perspective, are by no means mistaken, unreasonable or peculiar viewed from the perspective of the society in which they occur. Different things are not just thought true (reasonable, natural) in different societies – rather, they are true (reasonable, natural) in different societies. Relativism recognizes diversity and deals with it even-handedly.

Relativism has absurd results. Consider the view that what is true in society A need not be true in society B. So if society A believes in witches while society B does not, there are witches in A but not in B. Relativism regarding truth drives us to different ‘worlds’, one with witches in it and another without. This seems absurd: people who live in different societies do not in any literal sense live in different worlds. The challenge is to do justice to social diversity without falling into absurdities such as this.

Citing this article:
Musgrave, Alan. Social relativism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R030-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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