Relativism is not one philosophical school or movement, but rather a philosophical stance. It is indeed the stance maintaining that a given claim holds relative to a parameter. The parameter can be dependent or independent. Belong to the first category all those aspects who are part of the "output" of the stance – we have a relative truth, a relative perspective on reality, a belief relative to a factor, a relativistic ethics; belong instead to the category of independent parameters all those aspects that prompt the relativistic stance, such as time, location, upbringing, gender, race, political view, religion, culture, or emotional state.
Varieties of Relativism
Combining the dependent and independent variables, you get dozens of varieties of relativism. You could hold a relativistic stance on truth rooted on your gender, on your upbringing, or on your emotional state; at the same time, your religion may motivate both a relativistic perspective on ethics and metaphysics.
Different relativistic stances may overlap. Sometimes they may agree in strategies for defending the relativistic stance or for formulating it – for instance, a relativistic stance on abortion may be formulated by drawing inspiration from a relativistic stance on belief; in other cases, the relativistic stance may agree on the prescriptions – e.g., one may have a relativistic stance on abortion both for ethical and religious purposes.
Descriptive and Normative Relativism
A relativistic stance can be descriptive or normative. It is descriptive when it is "limited" to demarcating some differences, as when one says that according to some points of view abortion is the right course of action, while it is not according to others. Descriptive relativism does not judge on whether relativism should be maintained with respect to a certain tenet, but rather records that the existence of a variety of positions. In most situations, descriptive relativism is hard to disagree with because humans tend to form different opinions in all sorts of contexts.
Normative relativistic stances are of a more contentious variety than descriptive ones. In these cases the relativism is deemed as the position one should endorse: for instance, a normative relativistic stance on abortion not simply holds that there are different opinions regarding its viability, but also that there should be.
Relativism and Religion
In Western culture, relativism has often been associated with the rejection of a religious perspective. Most religions are founded upon some metaphysical and ethical tenets that cannot be rejected, on pain of being regarded as an infidel. For instance, to hold a relativistic stance on the existence of God or the Holy Spirit is not an option is you want to be a Christian.
Despite appearances, however, it is clear that relativism can play an important part also in religion. Both descriptive and normative relativism can be employed to explain different perspectives on the divine, and religious creeds often leave open a number of matters to their followers; for instance, in Christianity there seems to be no prescription on the affluence or racial profile of the spouse.
Relativism and Skepticism
Although relativism is a stance according to which a certain matter holds relative to some parameter, even a relativist stance is committed to the relative claim that is made. If you hold a normative relativistic stance on abortion for reasons of upbringing and biographical history, you are thereby committed to honor your commitment to accept different positions depending on upbringing and biographical history. In this sense, relativism differs from skepticism, most chiefly from Pyrrhonian skepticism, according to which nothing is certain, not even that nothing is uncertain.
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