Relativism is the perspective that truth and morals are relative to societies and individuals; there are no absolute truths and morals that are true for all people of all times. Relativism is the opposite of absolutism which asserts that there are universal truths and morals that are true for all people at all times.
Relativists argue that morality and truth are social constructs. Societies or individuals determine what is right and wrong for them, but their standards are not based in God or any universal standard. Something is wrong or right, just or unjust based on what a particular society or person decides.
Relativists often point to differing ethical standards of various ethnic groups and tribes around the world in support of their view. For example, some groups in history condone polygamy while others only tolerate monogamy. Critics of relativism point out, though, that there are common ethical standards that can be found in all cultures. For example, there are no societies where being a traitor is considered a good thing. Also, there are no societies where killing a member of one’s ethnic group for sport would be considered okay.
Since relativists believe that truth and morals are social constructions, relativists are often against one culture imposing its value system upon another culture. For example, the imposition of Christianity upon Native Americans by the European settlers is often looked at as wrong by relativists. Critics of relativism point out that if relativism is accepted, then no society has a right to tell another society that they are wrong even if the other society condones slavery or domestic abuse. Interestingly, one could be a relativist in some matters and a non-relativist in others. For example, one could declare relativism in regard to sexual conduct and expression but be a non-relativist when it came to the issue of slavery.
The first notable relativist was the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras who declared, “Man is the measure of all things.” In today’s postmodern world, relativist views are common.