I believe the Greek philosopher that I most closely align my views regarding life and the universe is Protagroas. Protagoras’ famous declaration that “man is the measure of all things” is arguably the original source from which all appeals to relativism have been made even to this day. First we will discuss Protagoras’ views to get a better understanding of them and then we will briefly discuss how his differ from mine. Finally, I will provide specific ways in which Protagoras’ views have had a lasting impact on mine.
Protagoras believed that human beings are responsible for measuring the truthfulness of reality, that is, we are the final judges as to what we may count as being the case and what as being not the case. Furthermore, he believes that there is no objective external reality where truth resides, but rather, to an extent, truth is defined by us primarily. Those who claim to know the truth do not, for this is what he has to say about wise people, “[they] can change the appearances—the man who in any where bad things both appear and are for one of us, works a change and makes good things appear and be for him” (166d). In other words, Protagoras is saying that the wise man, or “expert”, is simply making things appear to be “better” but not necessarily “truer”.
Before we go on any further, let us define what we mean by moral relativism. Moral relativism,
“most often is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments it no absolute, but relative to some group of persons.” (Stanford Encyclopedia)
To get a better understanding of this definition, we can focus on James Rachels’ ideas about this very matter. Rachels argues that moral relativism originates from the idea that since different cultures have different views about what is right and wrong, that morality itself is also relative. For example, Eskimos may turn their back to the survival of their kids and elderly if the survival of the tribe depends on it. On the other hand, other cultures such as ours would view this as being not only downright wrong but horrific. Do we say that Eskimos are wrong in killing their young? Rachels attempted to demonstrate that even though different cultures can have different views about rightness and wrongness, it does not necessarily follow from this observation that morality itself is relative. With that said, there are several important things that one can learn from moral relativism.
Relating Protagoras’ views about relativism to my life I have noticed the following things. In the course of time people, including myself, tend to develop their own sense of values and what they find to be right and wrong. These things are not easily changed since we also tend to have pretty strong emotions to them. For example, there are many people who might think that abortions may be objectively wrong and inherently evil. To try to convince someone that there may be nothing inherently evil about abortion can be a formidable task especially when dealing with such a sensitive topic. Let us now turn to arguments against moral relativism by focusing on the alleged basic universal rights people have.
There are only a few aspects of Protagoras’ “man is a measure” doctrine that conflicts with mine. Although Protagoras does not explicitly state the following, I believe that his views lend itself to the implication. Namely, that mathematical and logical truths can also be said to be relative. Although I think certain things in the world such as the fact that there are no objective truths, at least as they apply to moral, philosophical, and political knowledge, I do believe that objective truths exist as they apply to mathematical and logical truths.
Ultimately, I find Protagoras’ defense of moral relativism to be more convincing account of reality, as much as I prefer to believe in an objective and universal reality. The reason being is simple. The relativists’ argument originates from the observation that different cultures have different moral set of values, that is, one may notice that in culture A an act X is considered moral and right whereas in culture B, act X is considered immoral and wrong. Hence, one might argue, there is no such thing as an objective truth in morality, that what is right or wrong is simply based on opinion.
Protagoras’ philosophy has left a significant impact on me, as now I find myself questioning just about everything that comes my way. I have learned the importance of having a skeptical and cautious mind, but at the same time to maintain a very keen ear to those who claim to have knowledge about certain things. I believe this is the right way of living in the world, namely, by examining everything thoroughly and understanding what is being said. I believe it is only through an inquisitive and cautious mind can we ever obtain wisdom about life and those things that we care about most.
Plato. Theatetus. Penguin Classics (1987)
Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages; 5 edition (2006)
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Moral Relativism.