Novelist Tom Robbins neatly summed up relativism this way: “Whether a man is a criminal or a public servant is purely a matter of perspective” (in Another Roadside Attraction). Criminality, we are told, is not a matter of violating fixed moral codes, and servanthood can be defined in multiple ways. So the same person can be considered as a malevolent criminal or as a benevolent public servant by different people, depending on your perspective. But who is this man really? That’s not a question we may ask.
But are all perspectives equally valid? Is there no objective fixed point from which to take our references?
W.T.Stace explains the dilemma this way. He asks us to suppose someone says:
“We believe that the earth is globular, but there was an age and a culture in which it was believed that the earth is flat. Therefore the earth is globular now in our culture, but it was flat in that age and culture.” Everyone would recognize that this argument is ridiculous. But the logic of it is exactly the same as that of the argument:
“We believe that head hunting is a moral evil, but there is a culture in the South Seas in which it is believed that it is a very fine thing. Therefore head hunting is bad in our culture and good in that culture.” (Quoted by William Gairdner: The Book of Absolutes, p.36).
But head hunting is not to be evaluated at the flip of a cultural coin: heads its right, tails its wrong. Consider the same logic at work in another issue. Tragically there have been times and cultures that believed that human slavery was morally right. We do not believe so today in our culture. Is that just a matter of different perspectives? Was slavery morally right there and then whereas it is absolutely wrong here and now? By no means! It is wrong now and it always was.
Only the most hardened relativist will deny that transatlantic commercial slavery is absolutely wrong. But they still want to hold onto their relativism to allow other immoral actions to avoid the close scrutiny that comes from comparing with fixed moral standards. Though, mysteriously, such standards tend to reappear when the relativist is on the receiving end of the immoral behaviour. Most academic relativists believe that it was absolutely wrong of that other author to plagiarize their findings and publish a successful book claiming the ideas as his own!