I used to utterly despise moral relativism (and to a certain extent, I still do). However, time and experience has blunted my fury on the subject. At a certain level, a relativistic (this has nothing to do with Einstein) viewpoint is useful and worth considering, if only briefly. Let me explain.
I recently watched a movie called Ip Man 2. It was a martial arts movie set in, and filmed (I believe) in China or Hong Kong. The hero of the movie was a martial arts master named Ip Man. In the end, he has a match with a Western Boxer who was white and from England, and basically the epitome of an arrogant jerk. Indeed, the way the westerners were portrayed in the film might warrant charges of racist bias against Caucasians perpetuated by the Chinese producers. I’ve noticed that kind of trend in a number of Chinese films. Anyway, I don’t want to get sidetracked. The thing to remember is that it was a Chinese movie and it portrayed the white antagonist as almost a caricature of an arrogant jerk.
Compare this to Rocky IV (an old movie) where Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) fights Ivan Draggo (Dolf Lungren). Rocky is, of course, portrayed as the noble hero. Ivan Draggo is portrayed as almost a caricature of the “Russian bad guy.” Same phenomenon as in Ip Man 2, except in this case, we (the U.S.) are the ones guilty. So, if you look at this relativistically, both countries portray their foreign adversaries similarly … as evil bad guys, basically. So, on first blush, it appears that evil, at least, is relative; it depends on the perception of the sufferer, or perhaps, better yet, the perceptual position of the sufferer.
But that’s only on first blush. As a whole, it is a lackluster moral theory. If I punch you in the nose, that might feel good for me, but painful for you. How does such an analysis help? What’s missing is an analysis of the itty-bitty details … the facts, if you will. Relativism is only really helpful at a purely emotional level.
Another example. I read somewhere that the Japanese still think the United States was the aggressor in WWII. Basically, in a war between country A and country B, country A will likely regard country B as evil, and vice versa. But as I said, then there are the details. Take Isis, for example. They seem to be willing to plumb depths of evil we balk at: crucifixion, drowning, burning alive men, women, and even children. In such a situation, Relativism only tells us that Isis hates us, and we hate them. Not particularly profound.
So, what is to be done with this insight?
Emotions don’t occur in a vacuum. They are based on information … facts if you will. The true relativist will permit different facts to influence different sides in a conflict. In such a situation, the relativist will say the facts used by country A are true for it, and the facts of country B are true for it. There is no objective truth in the situation. Although it is true that both sides will behave as if that is the case, that does not mean that that is really the case. Some of the facts on either side may be wrong. Others may be shared by both sides. Others may be partially true. What is important, is that “truth” determines the value of the facts and is a separate concept. What is relativized is the information or knowledge of the facts, not the truth of them. The truth stands alone, objectively. Either country A invaded country B three days before or it didn’t. While country A and country B have the right to claim their own knowledge of a conflict, they don’t have the right to claim their own truth of it.