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Is relativism such a big worry? As philosophers, we usually get pretty worked up about it. We berate students who appeal to it (at least I do), we try to extinguish it wherever it can be found. All well and good, but is it such a big problem? Well, yes and no.

To the extent that so many people just rattle off “oh, that’s just relative” the answer is yes, because they usually have no idea what they mean. But there is a sense in which the answer is “no”, because the point of relativism is, ultimately, trivial and we all agree on it.

What do I mean? Let’s take the case of moral relativism (there are several varieties of relativism). Relativism stipulates that some action X is relative to something Y. Now, this Y can vary a great deal! This is the usual trouble, which we all know and hate so dearly. Nevertheless, relativism qua relativism (i.s. relativism simpliciter) is trivial. This is so, given that every moral claim genuinely is relative to something Y. Fill in the blank: to culture, to society, to nature, to subjective thoughts, to the will of God… The list can continue. The point is perhaps rather simple and perhaps rather unenlightening, but all moral truths are, trivially, dependent upon some other fact. The difficult disagreement is not whether they are relative, but rather relative to what? That, therefore, is why simply saying that something is relative is a trivial truth.

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