Relativistic Thinking

Relativistic Thinking. Psychology Fanatic article header image

I’m not an expert on philosophy. And this article is not meant to talk about the intricate details of relativism. However, when it comes to wellness, this topic matters. Our inability to think beyond our tidy little creations of right and wrong, creates gross misunderstanding, ugly biases, and limits knowledge. Relativistic thinking doesn’t rely on absolute truths. Relativity suggests that most truth, if not all truths, rely on the context of the particular individual or culture holding the beliefs. 

Whether you are a scientist, a lawyer, or activist, rigidity of thought destroys healthy openness, confining thought to blind ignorance. Relativistic thinking, because of its impact on wellness, has a place in psychology, pushing the boundaries of our understanding beyond the simple right and wrongs, opening our minds to a universe that is much larger than we previously could even contemplate.

Key Definition:

Relativistic Thinking refers to the biased thinking belonging to a particular individual or culture happen. In relativism, the philosophy is there are no absolute truths, only versions of truth colored by the context of the individual or culture.

Radical Relativistic Thinking 

There is a brand of radical relativism which paradoxically takes on a form of absolutism. Those that argue against relativistic thinking often cite examples of this radical relativistic thinking stirring fear that all morality and ethics will be lost.

Radical relativism holds that their are no standard of ethics. We hear it all the time. “I don’t like it, but they can do what they want.” The radicalization of the concept creates a world devoid of personal responsibility with a built in excuse for dodging responsibility. This belief creates an absolute—there are ‘no’ standards, therefore, we can judge no body.

Many fear this radical mindset of no judgement, and condemn relativistic thinking in all its forms. Oddly, they respond to relativistic thinking with their own brand of absolutism.

Values and Moralistic Relatism

Rushworth M. Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethic, wrote, “what’s coming, unfortunately, may be a resurgent morality of relativism, in which core values fall into cynical disrepute and cold-blooded self-will finally drives out all vestiges of honesty, love, fairness, responsibility, and respect” (2009).

This radical form of relativistic thought is “precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda” (Kakutani, 2018).

Albert Ellis believed that absolute truth didn’t exist, not because there were no absolutes but “because we also always view so-called reality in a prejudiced, subjective way.”

Ellis, however, didn’t hold to the radical view that rules and laws were therefor invalid. He argues, “absolute reality may not exist-or at least, as Kant pointed out, we cannot absolutely prove it. But social reality-the idea that we are humans who live with other humans and had better establish some laws and rules which will probably help us to live more successfully with them-does seem to exist and can be seen with some degree of probability. But not certainty!” (2007).

Fundamental Truths

Certainly, I believe there are some truths. However, the older I get, the more research I examine, the more truths that I held in my younger years bow in honor to the arrival of new possibilities, and, perhaps, deeper understanding. If I stubbornly embraced the paucity of knowledge that I held at nineteen, I would never experience the richness of wisdom that is now available.

Many truths I found are not moral imperatives of good and bad. But many truths are formed through associating a cause to the subsequent consequence. If you do this, then that will happen. So, we learn, studying is good because it leads to better grades. Or, “being kind to my wife, creates a happier marriage.” These associations between cause and effect are truths that I can embrace and apply to the betterment of my life.

The cause and effect truths applied to the community are a little more complex. Some truths benefit one population and hurt others. These are the policies that must be debated, examined, and compromised. We can’t take our personal ‘truth’ and force it on our neighbors, just because it works for us.

Some, however, cling so tightly to their childhood beliefs that their life time of experiences live in service to what they what they already believed.

Good and Evil

Absolutes such as good and evil signal short-cuts in thinking—a cognitive heuristic. We often label events, people, and behaviors as either good or evil without pausing for a moment to examine what it is that makes the event, person, or behavior ‘good’ or ‘evil.’

Carl Gustav Jung expands on the concept of good and evil. He wrote, “we must beware of thinking of good and evil as absolute opposites. The criterion of ethical action can no longer consist in the simple view that good has the force of a categorical imperative, while so-called evil can resolutely be shunned” (1961).

​Jung continues, “in practical terms, this means that good and evil are no longer so self-evident. We have to realize that each represents a judgment.” Jung understood that our judgements can never be perfect. It is a condition of our finite minds.” He explains that because of  “the fallibility of all human judgment, we cannot believe that we will always judge rightly.”

Jung warns that “the ethical problem is affected by this principle only to the extent that we become somewhat uncertain about moral evaluations. Nevertheless we have to make ethical decisions. The relativity of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ by no means signifies that these categories are invalid, or do not exist” (1961).

 Relativistic Thinking is a Tool

Understanding the benefits of relativistic thinking is not suggesting that we drop all rules of behavior. Working together as citizens of the world, nation, city, and any organization requires standards.

Erich Fromm says that without morals and ethics, we lose sight of important societal goals. “We may not always know what serves this end, we may disagree about the function of this or that ideal in terms of human development, but this is no reason for a relativism which says that we cannot know what furthers life or what blocks it” (2013).

When we wisely use relativistic thinking as a tool we don’t leave “everything up in the air all the time,” Kidder declares. However, he adds “there is nothing that is in principle closed to discussion” (2009).

We live in a frightening time. Perhaps, the internet has taken hold of our ability to logical think and discuss alternatives. We draw lines of self-righteous moral imperatives, and desire to force them on our neighbors. When a judge, congress representative, or television personality expresses a view contrary to a popular moral law or desired standard, they receive death threats and are harassed. This is the type of behavior that destroys society.

​Kidder reminds, “a living tradition is never a program for automatic moral judgments. It is always in a continuous process of reinterpretation and reappropriation” (2009).

Accepting Differences With Relativism

Relativistic thinking helps us examine differences, helping to loosen subjective conclusions, in hopes of finding common ground that benefits the group rather than blindly march to a moral imperative. Paul Kurtz suggests that “perhaps a better term to use in not relativism, but relatedness, for ethical principles, rules, values, and virtues.” He suggests that truths don’t exist in some abstract realm, “but their very content and meaning is related to human desires and satisfactions” (1997).

Relativistic thinking is a tool we use. We understand that our reality is created through the lens which we view it. We must purposely engage in openness to see things through the eyes of others. Moreover, we neither blindly enforce moral imperatives or uniformly reject all principles in absolute relativistic tolerance. And then, we should work toward a practical commitment to “the common good that is necessary to assure the integrity of a community” (1985).

We certainly don’t have all the answers. We never will. However,wWe know somethings are bad for the community, such as poverty, intimidation, and isolation. People that ruthlessly kill, steal and harm others hurt our sense of safety and destroy the wellness of the community and individuals within those communities.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote “if we refused to take seriously the reality available here and now because it isn’t the absolute truth, we would surely regret that decision in short order. Even though reality can only be seen through distorting glasses, it is better to make do with what one can comprehend, rather than disdain it because it falls short of perfection” (2009, location 1,316).

Development of Reasoning

Reasoning and critical thought develops in stages. Children need the moral imperatives of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to protect them before they are able to logically examine information in a more complex fashion.

William G. Perry (1913-1998) an educational psychologist suggested that this development occurs in nine stages. The first three relying mostly on a dualistic ‘right and wrong’ concrete view of the world, the next three stages include “a more cognitively complex perspective in which knowledge and values are relativistic and contextual.” And finally, during the last phases of development the thinker reaches “a mature level of commitment within a relativistic world, regarding important decisions, such as relationships, ethics, career, and religion, and accompanying clear personal identity” (Hood & Deopere, 2004).

The later stages of thinking are similar to postformal reasoning or dialectical thinking.

These advanced forms of thinking  require three elements:

  1. ​The realization of the non-absolute, relativistic nature of knowledge;
  2. an acceptance of contradiction;
  3. the integration of contradiction into an overriding whole (Yan & Arlin, 2005).

Basically mature thought requires that we travel through relativistic thinking in a path of development. At some point, heathy decision making requires judgement that integrates relativism into an overriding whole.

A Few Final Words

The striking conclusion to research on relativistic thinking is that it commonly is used as an absolute, just as the moral imperatives it is used to argue against. Many people create the “don’t judge” imperative, thinking they, citing relativism as the foundation for this rule. Yet, it is just another case of absolutism.

We can’t get around it. We must think. Then we must evaluate. and finally, we must slow down and consider multiple view points. Not just as a practice to entertain our minds but to lead to practical judgements of the most “effective means, ends, instruments, tools, and activities to produce an outcome” (1997). Even these conclusions are not final. They remain subject to the “continuous process of reinterpretation and reappropriation” (2009).

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Bellah, Robert N.; Madsen, Richard; Sullivan, William M.; Swidler, Ann,; Tipton, Steven M. Tipton (1985). Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. University of California Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2009). The Evolving Self: Psychology for the Third Millennium. HarperCollins e-books; Reprint edition

Ellis, Albert (1985/2007). Overcoming Resistance. Springer Publishing Company; 2nd edition.

Fromm, Erich (1941/2013), Escape from Freedom.  Open Road Media; Owl Book ed edition

Hood, A., & Deopere, D. (2004). The Relationship of Cognitive Development to Age, When Education and Intelligence Are Controlled For.Journal of Adult Development,9(3), 229-234. DOI: 10.1023/A:1016008311414

Jung, Carl (1961/2011). Memories, Dreams, Reflections.  ‎ Vintage; Reissue edition

Michiko Kakutani (2018). The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. Crown.

Kidder, Rushworth, M. (2009). How Good People Make Tough Choices. Harper Perennial; Revised, Updated ed. edition

Kurtz, Paul, (1997). The Courage to Become: The Virtues of Humanism.  Praeger

Yan, B., & Arlin, P. (2005). Nonabsolute/relativistic thinking: A common factor underlying models of postformal reasoning?. Journal of Adult Development, 2(4), 223-240. DOI: 10.1007/BF02251038

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