Protagoras v. Abdera / Gem.v.J.de Ribera - Protagoras of Abdera /Painting by Ribera -Branch: Ethics

Approach: Relativism

“Man is the measure of all things”

Protagoras was born in Abdera, in northeast Greece. He would spend much of his life traveling, lecturing to anyone who could afford him. He would eventually travel to Athens and become the advisor to the ruler Pericles. A man who was a self proclaimed sophist, Protagoras would put forth several ideas that expanded on the loose doctrine of sophism. These ideas would expand to all areas of human nature and would partially be supported by later anthropological studies. Although he admits to being a sophist, Protagoras is often remembered more as a pre-Socratic philosopher who gave us the rather bold idea that man is the measure of all things.

Sophism rejected the idea of objective truth. Protagoras expanded on this and began examining the essence of human nature and how it would relate to such abstract notions such as justice, virtue and wisdom. Having little to no interest in philosophical speculation about the substance of the cosmos or the existence of gods, Protagoras place humans at the forefront of his philosophical inquest. By observing the sophists arguing amongst each other, each possessing different arguments yet each believing themselves to be correct, Protagoras concluded that truth was very much a matter of opinion. The worth or value of an idea is determined entirely by the person that holds it. There exists no universal measure with which we can compare ideas and accurately determine their worth, ideas and their value are of a subjective nature, changing just as quickly as a man changes his mind

“Many things prevent knowledge, including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life” -Protagoras

There are some rather important implications to this idea of relativism. If knowledge and truth is subjective, then that would seem to suggest that ethical and moral behavior is also relative. And Protagoras again took this leap. The philosopher believed that nothing was inherently good or bad. Something is only ethical or right if a person or society judges it to be so. Actions such as murder, theft, even rape are immoral actions simply because our society judges it to be so. And if we take the time to deeply consider this idea, we are cast into a very dark place where all good and evil becomes equally accessible, morally defensible if you have the right, or wrong, mindset.

This point of ethical relativism would partially gain support from modern anthropological findings. Cultures from across the globe, scattered through time, have practiced behaviors that we would now consider unthinkable. Evidence of incest, torture, even cannibalism have been found in ancient cultures, all while being accepted as a cultural norm. Moral relativism can be seen in recent history of countries we might consider “modern”. The United States of America was a nation that supported slavery, a practice that is almost universally condemned by modern society. Prostitution and sexual harassment were once considered regular cultural practices. It is only with the passing of time that our understanding of what is ethical has changed.

Statue of Socrates

Socrates strongly disagreed with the ideas proposed by Protagoras

This idea of moral and ethical behavior being determined by culture is the basis of the theory “cultural relativism”. And at this point we must make an important distinction between the two parts of the idea of cultural relativism. The first is the idea that what is acceptable or morally good in one culture may be unacceptable or morally bad in another culture. This is an empirical fact that has been demonstrated by thousands of years of human history. The other part is the idea that there exists no “absolute” standards with which to judge an action. All behavior is judged by the society that practices it; there is no such thing as “right” and “wrong” outside of the current societal climate. It is this exact notion that Socrates would spend much of his life combating.

When Protagoras states that “man is the measure of all things” he concludes that all knowledge, virtue, or wisdom is determined by the the man or society that holds those beliefs. On a warm summer day in Athens, a man from Sweden will visit and comment that the climate is hot. A man from Egypt will visit and comment that it is so cold. And yet, both of them are right. This type of thinking was common within the legal and political system of ancient Greece. Our modern legal system similarly deals in compromise, exceptions and reasonable doubts. There are no absolutes. The conclusion that Protagoras, as well as the sophists, drew was that there is nothing that is either right or wrong, but thinking it will make it so. There exists only man and the judgments that we cast on ourselves.