A common criticism of postmodernism by the misunderstood and its opponents is that postmodernism justifies absolute moral relativism. I.e The claim that any claim is as true or good as any other, thus negating science, religion or any ethics etc.

However Rick Roderick points out in his lecture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hP79SfCfRzo that Foucault's work does not justify Relativism as conservative critics would say.

Furthermore Derrida himself says

"there's not a trace of [relativism] in my writing. Nor of a critique of Reason and the Enlightenment."

This attack seems like a strawman by critics like Jordan Peterson who do not understand postmodernism. So how can one be a postmodernist and still argue against relativism ?

  • 3
    Please remove the reference to bad faith. You are not a mind reader, and if everyone else is wrong about what Postmodernism implies, maybe that's because Postmodernist writers have not been clear. Mar 10, 2022 at 19:21
  • Your definition of moral relativism is quite unusual. A typical definition would involve a belief that different people have different moral standards (descriptive moral relativism) or, one step further, that it's impossible to know whether any of the different moral standards is objectively right. There is an enormous gulf between "I cannot say whether this is objectively true" and "I cannot say whether this is good or bad." The bad faith part is labeling this tendency as some weird, outsider habit. Everyone except the fundamentalists and the dishonest is a moral relativist.
    – Juhasz
    Mar 10, 2022 at 21:19
  • @Juhasz - Both your meanings of "moral relativism" are epistemological ('I cannot know...'), but a common meaning in philosophical definition is the idea that there is no objective truth about whether something is morally right or wrong, what the SEP article describes as the "metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute". Under this type of notion of moral relativism, if someone believed there was an objective moral truth but we had no reliable way of knowing it, they would not be a moral relativist, but rather a moral realist.
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 10, 2022 at 23:00
  • (cont.) And if we are using this definition your statement "Everyone except the fundamentalists and the dishonest is a moral relativist" seems implausible unless you want to label large numbers of non-fundamentalist moral realists as "dishonest" in some sense. The recent 2020 PhilPapers survey of academic philosophers found that 62% accepted or leaned towards moral realism, while only 26% accepted or leaned towards moral anti-realism, for example.
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 10, 2022 at 23:03
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    "Absolute Relativism" sounds odd to me, is this an accepted term? It seems a bit childish. Relativism is sufficient, isn't it?
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 13, 2022 at 13:28

2 Answers 2


Allow me to preface by noting that I dislike the term 'postmodernism', because it seems to be purely negational. I mean, I can't think of any philosophers off hand who call themselves 'postmodernist'; the term seems mainly to be used by people trying to write off any number of different philosophical approaches with a wave of their hand.

But maybe that's just me...

At any rate, the answer to your question is related to what Ken Wilber called the Pre/Trans fallacy (he's using it in a spiritual context, but it works as a general philosophical principle). The Pre/Trans fallacy essentially says that someone with a conventional understanding (in this case a Modernist worldview) will often confuse more sophisticated forms of understanding (reasoning that transcends the conventional worldview) with more primitive forms of understanding (regression to pre-conventional reasoning).

If we take moral relativism as pre-conventional (regressive), then the conventional (modernist) answer to that problem is didactic moral authority. That could mean assertion of religious tenets (e.g., adherence to Christianity or Islam), lionizing social or political institutions (e.g., adherence to democratic, capitalist, or socialist principles), devotion to a particular mode or pattern of thought (e.g., scientism or rationalism)... In short, 'modernism' holds that particular facets of the modern world are 'best' — what the rest of the world should reach for — and as such are naturally immune to questioning or critique. There's a certain smugness to modernist worldviews: a blithe complacency that says: "We've got it all figured out, so let's just keep moving on."

The problem with 'modernist' perspectives is that those with completely incompatible worldviews all have that same smug self-assurance that their worldview is 'best'. Traditional Christianity lines up against New Atheist scientism; different religious groups declare each other evil; conservatives and liberals throw word-bombs at each other. The kinds of thinking that get labelled 'postmodernist' generally call for introspection around this entrenched dogmatism: the idea is that dogmatism itself invariably creates inconsistent and incoherent moral worldviews. To someone enmeshed in a conventional moral worldview this will seem absurd, essentially asking them to believe that 'best' isn't 'best' or that no 'best' exists. But the goal isn't to dismiss 'modernist' worldviews as moral ciphers. The goal is to open up and transcend the implicit dogmatism of 'modernist' worldviews to create better (more consistent, more coherent) moral worldviews.

'Postmodernist' work isn't going to suggest that it does't matter whether one adheres to Christianity, Islam, scientism, socialism, Libertarianism, or etc. It will suggest that there's value in each of these postures, as well as internal inconsistencies and incoherences. By looking at (and revising) the latter we reduce conflict and deepen the values we get from each worldview.


To understand how post-modernism can avoid absolute relativism in ethics, one has to understand what post-modern philosophy considers to have been established. Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, showed the limits to the old Aquinas method of trying to ground philosophy in reason. There were two movements in reaction to this which sought an alternative method to ground philosophy. The analytic tradition attempted to base philosophy on mathematics, logic and the hard sciences. The Continental tradition attempted to base philosophy on perception, linguistics, and the modern sciences of philosophy and sociology.

Both movements failed. The analytics ran up against the Munchausen Trilemma, which showed that none of our beliefs are justifiable, the limits of empiricism, in that we cannot ever know what is true (therefore we can never have either justified or true beliefs), the inability to do analytics in any language (see Two Dogmas of Empiricism), the limitations of reason –based knowledge (Godel’s incompleteness theorem), and the plurality of logic (with multiple logics, any choice one uses to reason with – is unjustified).

The Continental movement produced two main sub-movements, phenomenology and Structuralism. Phenomenology failed when phenomenologists could not agree on basic observations between themselves. Structuralism sought to discover essential features of our universe by finding common structures in language, institutions, and other fields of study. Structuralism was initially very successful, until they turned their analytic methods on structuralism itself, and discovered that the structures they thought they were discovering in the world, were actually intrinsic assumptions within structuralist methodology. I.E. – the structuralism misadventure revealed NOT features of the world, But features of human thought: we can often only see what our assumptions project onto what we think of as data. This discovery was the birth of post-modernism.

Subsequent psychology has shown that we are highly subject to rationalizing something we wish were true (see Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, where system 2 often just rationalizes what System 1 decides). And sociology has shown that societies tend to reinforce the viewpoints of those that are powerful and thrive in that society (see the state capture by Robber Barons in the late 1800s).
So, what post modernists consider to be established, is that none of: reasoning, societal consensus, or even facts or methodologies to explore our world are “objective” or trustworthy. All can be rationalization tools for some hidden agenda.

How does all this apply to morality? All societies have oppressed and oppressor groups. And societies will, generally, create institutions to reinforce the oppression, and “moral” rationalizations to continue it. With facts, logics, and definitions of terms potentially subject to rationalizations, it is not actually possible to evaluate the claims of oppressed peoples vs. oppressor peoples, as the facts, definitions, and even logic are all suspect. Post-modernists therefore do not assert absolute subjectivity, but instead assert PLURALITY of moral POVs, with no clear method to resolving their disputes.

Post-modernists propose to accept the moral narrative of the oppressed rather than that of the oppressors, because this is harm minimizing. The oppressed may WANT to oppress in their turn, but as a practical matter, no societal overturn movement has the power to create the sort of harm that powerful oppressors have. Therefore taking the side of the disadvantaged is almost always morally more optimum.
Note this entire moral argument implicitly references the potential for an actual objective morality. But objective morality is unknown, and all our actual moral reference frames are subjective with intrinsic bias. Post Modernism asks people to act morally despite our uncertain world.

There are other and plausibly more valid critiques of post modernism. Post modernists tend to lean toward rationalism, rather than pragmatism. This leads to a neglect of the pragmatic defenses of reasoning, empiricism, and a peer dialog over “reasoning, societal consensus, facts and methodologies to explore our world” as highly useful, even if they are not always 100% true. Accept these concepts pragmatically, and then dialog and debate over moral claims becomes possible, rather than abandoning dialog and justification.

And the Post Modernist claim that the “oppressed” have no power and cannot therefore do any oppressing themselves – is simply false. Every individual has some power in a societal context, and can cause harm to others. No matter what degree of oppression they may also be subject to. This critique would reduce the often limitless endorsement that PoMos frequently extend to the formerly oppressed -- ignoring and dismissing the harms that the oppressed themselves create with their own hostilities.

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