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A question of relativism

To explore the concept of relativism (SEAL theme 2, ‘Learning to be together’).

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To explore the concept of relativism (SEAL theme 2, ‘Learning to be together’).

Preparation and materials

  • You could ask a student to be the reader.


  1. It’s not usually hard to know what is the right thing to do, but sometimes it can become complicated. A good example, used by philosophers to demonstrate moral problems, is the following.

    Reader:  A runaway train is heading towards a junction. On its present vector, it will hit a group of people. If the rail-workers throw a switch, the train will be diverted and will only hit one person. However, although the workers will have saved the lives of many people, they will have to accept the fact that they took an active role in killing the one person on the other line.

    Leader:  The ‘trolley problem’, as it is known, is a good example of situations where there is no one right thing to do. This problem was acted out in the third Matrix film, where Neo had to decide whether to allow Trinity to die while he was able to save a group of people.
  2. Such dilemmas have been exacerbated in recent years by the growth of multiculturalism. Existing attitudes and ways of life have been challenged by similarly long-standing traditions from people more recently arrived in the community. A good example is halal meat.

    In parts of the West, many animals that are reared for food are kept in cheap, confined, sometimes dirty conditions, and killed with a stunning electric shock followed by a bolt gun to the brain. This process has nothing to do with religion – the New Testament for example is very light on matters concerning the slaughter of livestock – but is to do with profit. The method is the most economically viable, while at the same time is not so inhuman as to offend public sentiment (though lapses are common).
  3. Muslims, however, ideally eat only halal meat. Halal (‘permitted’) meat is produced by a single cut to the throat, severing the jugular vein. This has two perceived advantages: Muslims are forbidden by the Qur’an to consume blood, and a single cut to the throat in this way allows the blood to be drained. Second, this method aims to cause an instant loss of consciousness in the animal, allowing for a kinder death than in western slaughterhouses. (Jews eat kosher meat, which is killed in a similar manner, as they too are forbidden from eating blood.)

    Yet not all scientists and veterinarians agree. The UK Farm Welfare Council has called for the method to be banned, since it effectively causes the animal to bleed to death.
  4. This dilemma – should halal meat be allowed – will not be answered any time soon. What is important is that it be seen as only a small part of inter-community relations. Both traditionally western and Islamic meat is produced with a goal of limiting suffering to the animal. What unites different cultures is a common humanity and decency. The stories of unsolvable moral dilemmas only underlie the fact that all cultures try to do the right thing. There is much we can learn from each other, and much we can work together on.

Time for reflection

What would you do if you were faced with the question of allowing a group of people to die, or actively causing the death of just one person?

Are there areas of your life where you hold different attitudes from your friends? How do you manage that difference?


May we strive for understanding.

May we strive together for good.

May we work together for acceptance.

May we hold together for the good of all.



‘Together we stand’ by David Houston

‘We all stand together’ by Paul McCartney

Publication date: January 2010   (Vol.12 No.1)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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