What importance does the understanding of tolerance play for a relativist?

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kateanswers eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Relativism- be it cultural, moral, or otherwise- holds that there are no absolute truths and statements and behaviors must be evaluated in their own right. For example, there is a thought problem many philosophers turn to when discussing relativism: Was Adolf Hitler an evil man? Most people would say yes, Adolf Hitler ordered many heinous acts to be committed, and was a hateful man. But what if he truly believed that the killing of Jewish, Romani, and gay/lesbian people was the right thing to do? A moral relativist would have to say that because Hitler believed it was the right thing to do, we have to respect his decisions. 

Relativism is tricky when it comes to tolerance because it removes the ability to make value judgments and consider the real moral or ethical quality of a statement, belief, or action. A relativist must be tolerant of even the most outrageous practices if the person committing such acts believes themselves to be acting on what is right. 

While relativism demands tolerance, tolerance does not necessarily demand relativism. It is possible to tolerate many things we disagree with or disapprove of without giving them validity. For example, a Roman Catholic might disapprove of the idea of same-gender marriage, but be tolerant of it. A relativist Roman Catholic would essentially give up their right to an opinion on the matter, so there is no question of whether or not they would have to tolerate same-gender marriage. This brings up an entirely new philosophical dilemma- how far can we go in being tolerant before we become complicit in immoral action?