The relativism in moral relativism

We probably all know what moral relativism says about morality, but what does it say about the relative, i.e. about relations?

The verbal seal of relativism is the “for me” or “for you”, sc. “it’s true for me” or “that’s what’s good for them“. As an account of relation, this one was old by the time Aristotle got to it. But when we try to understand the relation in light of what we mean by moral relativism, we see that the relation is something that is for another while lacking a basis outside that other, since the relativist wants to deny the idea that there is any basis for the moral while it still has existence to him. As St. Thomas would put it, relations taken formally are to or for something without being in something.

This “no basis” character of relations helps to explain a great number of puzzles about relation:

1.) Reference to the non-existent. Many logical puzzles (the present king of France or Pegasus is winged, say) involve reference to the non-existent. While we can’t assume we will be able to solve the logical puzzles, one element in the solution could be provided by seeing that beliefs and ideas are relations, and relations need not be in something that exists.

2.) The problem of creation. To be created is clearly a relation, but God creates beings, i.e. substances. So is creation a relation or a substance? One solution is to notice that creation is not opposed to substance as accident is.

3.) The Trinity. Father, Son, and Spirit-who-Proceeds are all relations. But it seems that if these relations are real, we need three substances (polytheism) and if they are not real, then we have modalism or Unitarianism. But relation is not in a substance. There is a parallel between trinitarianism and (one sort of) relativism, sc. one that said it was in the very nature of persons that morality was relative. In this case, morality would be one in nature (sc. human) and yet be also a multitude of real relations that were not merely modally distinct.

4.) The algebra problem in math. Modern math seems to differ from the ancient because the latter stresses concrete quantities and finds relations among them (the parts of a triangle, the ratio of two lines) while modern mathematics seems to want a pure relation that transcends the difference in quantities. This might express a tendency in relation towards its own formal independence from a foundation or basis.



  1. Paul said,

    September 10, 2015 at 3:46 am

    Isn’t the problem given in (2) an equivocal use of the word “creation?”. If we distinguish among “the work or operation of creating each substance,” “the individual substances that have been created,” and “the relation of these substances to the Creator,” then what part of the question remains?

    • September 10, 2015 at 9:12 am

      That distinction works fine as an account of change, i.e. when some action is performed on some being. But creation differs from change in that it does not allow for the existence of some being apart from the creative action.

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