. . . the prevailing thought of the second decade of the 21st century is not like the mid-to late-20th century. Law, virtue, and a shame culture have risen to prominence in recent years, signaling that moral relativism may be going the way of the buggy whip.
[. . .]
In The New York Times last week, David Brooks argued that while American college campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media.
A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism. One must have some moral criteria for which to decide if someone is worth shaming.
I find the article confused, but in an instructive way. What is dying is not moral relativism but moral fallibilism. And what is on the rise is not moral absolutism but moral dogmatism. People are becoming more dogmatic in their moral commitments. But this is consistent with being a moral relativist. Or so I shall argue. There are two distinction-pairs in play and they 'cut perpendicular' to each other. Absolute-relative is one pair; dogmatic-fallible the other. This makes for four combinations.
A. Dogmatic moral absolutism. Moral values and disvalues and the truths that record them are absolute: not relative to individuals, cultures, historical epochs, social classes, racial or ethnic groups, or any other index. So if slavery is morally wrong, it is wrong period, which implies that it is wrong always and everywhere and for everyone. What makes one dogmatic in one's moral absolutism, however, is the further claim to know these values and truths with certainty, and/or the readiness to act upon them uncompromisingly, by say shouting down opponents.
B. Fallibilistic moral absolutism. Moral values are absolute, but the fallibilist admits that moral judgments are fallible or subject to error. Consider the claim that a pre-natal human being is greater in value than a healthy adult dolphin. An absolutist will hold that this claim, if true, is absolutely true. But if the absolutist is a fallibilist he will admit that he could be wrong about whether it is true. The fallibilist can be expected to tolerate those who disagree while the dogmatist can be expected to be intolerant.
C. Dogmatic moral relativism. Presumably everyone reading this will agree that slavery is a great moral evil. It is a fact, however, that it was not held to be a great evil at all times and in all places. This fact inclines some to maintain that moral values are relative, to historical epochs, say. Suppose Tom is an historical relativist about moral values, but Tim is not any sort of moral relativist. They can both be uncompromisingly committed to opposing slavery even unto shaming and shunning those who think otherwise. This shows, I think, that a moral relativist can be just as dogmatic (non-fallibilist) as a moral absolutist.
I conclude from this that a rise in moral dogmatism should not be confused with a decline in moral relativism. Moral relativism may be on the decline; but this cannot be shown by citing a rise in moral dogmatism.
D. Fallibilistic moral relativism. This is a consistent position. One might hold that that moral values are culturally relative while also holding that one could be wrong about which putative values within one's culture are the binding values within one's culture, or without agreeing how to rank order competing values within one's culture. For example, liberty and equality are both values. Suppose they are not absolute but relative to Western culture. One can still have doubts about whether liberty trumps equality or vice versa. If Tom says that liberty trumps equality, and Tom is a fallibilist, then Tom will be open to arguments to the contrary.
It is important not to confuse the question of the fallibility of our cognitive faculties, including reason in us, with the question whether there is truth. A fallibilist is not a truth-denier. One can be -- it is logically consistent to be -- both a fallibilist and an upholder of (objective) truth. What's more, one ought to be both a fallibilist about some (not all) classes of propositions, and an upholder of the existence of (objective) truth. Indeed, if one is a fallibilist, one who admits that we sometimes go wrong in matters of knowledge and belief, then then one must also admit that we sometimes go right, which is to say that fallibilism presupposes the objectivity of truth.
Just as a fallibilist is not a truth-denier, a truth-affirmer is not an infallibilist or 'dogmatist' in one sense of this word. To maintain that there is objective truth is not to maintain that one is in possession of it. One of the sources of the view that truth is subjective or relative is aversion to dogmatic people and dogmatic claims.
But if you reject the objectivity of truth on the basis of an aversion to dogmatic people and claims, then you are not thinking clearly.
John D. Caputo has recently made the fashionably outlandish claim that "what modern philosophers call 'pure' reason . . . is a white male Euro-Christian construction." Making this claim, Caputo purports to be saying something that is true. Moreover, his making of the claim in public is presumably for the purpose of convincing us that it is true. If so, he presupposes truth, in which case truth cannot be a social construct, as I said in my critique. A commenter responded:
To say that Caputo "presupposes truth" is not to say that he presupposes some sort of absolutist notion of truth. Why is the latter a necessary condition for the activity of "trying to convince"?
The short answer is that there is no notion of truth other than the absolutist notion. Truth is absolute by its very nature. The phrase 'relative truth' names a confusion. I won't go over this ground again, having trod it before. But there is a wrinkle, and that is what I want to explore in this entry. Is absolute truth the same as objective truth? Perhaps not. It might be like this. If there is truth, then it is the same for all cognizers: it is intersubjectively binding on all. It is in this sense objective. It does not vary from person to person, social class to social class, historical epoch to historical epoch, race to race, etc. But how can we be sure that truth in this objective sense is not a mere transcendental presupposition of intelligible discourse and rational debate? If truth is a mere transcendental presupposition, then it is not absolute. For what 'absolute' means is: not relative to or dependent on anything at all. Of course, if truth is absolute, it follows that it is objective in the sense of intersubjectively binding on all. But there is a logical gap in the converse. If truth is objective, it does not straightaway follow that it is absolute. For it might be transcendentally relative: relative to beings like us who cannot think or judge or speak intelligibly without presupposing truth. It might be transcendentally realtive while remaining the same for all in such a way as to exclude as meaningless such phrases as 'proletarian truth,' bourgeois truth,' 'Protestant truth,' 'Catholic truth,' 'White man's truth,' 'black female's truth,' and other similalry nonsensical constructions.
I will return to the objective-absolute distinction near the end of this entry.
While there may be a problem in showing that truth is more than a transcendental presupposition, and thus absolute, it is fairly easy to show that truth is objective. And so it is easy to show that Caputo presupposes objective truth when he makes his fashionably outlandish PoMo claims.
But what do I mean when I say that truth is objective? I mean that there is a total way things are, and that this total way things are does not depend on the beliefs, desires, wishes, hopes, etc. of finite rational beings like ourselves, whether human or extraterrestrial or angelic. So what I mean by 'Truth is objective' is close to what John Searle means by external realism.
According to John Searle, "external realism [ER] is the thesis that there is a way that things are that is independent of all representations of how things are." (The Construction of Social Reality, p. 182) Is it possible to prove this attractive thesis? And how would the proof go?
We will recall G. E. Moore's attempt to prove the external world by waving his hands. His idea was that it is a plain fact, as anyone can see, that his hands exist, and so it straightaway follows that external objects in space exist. This sounds more like a joke than a philosophical argument. Or if not a joke, then clear proof, not of the external world, but that Moore did not understand the issue. But let's leave Moore to one side for the space of this post. See my aptly entitled Moore category for more on Moore.
The realism issue really has nothing to do with spatially external objects. There unproblematically are such objects whatever their ultimate ontological status. Note also that ER can be true even if there are no spatially external objects. ER is simply the claim that there is a way things are independent of us: it says nothing specifically about spatial individuals.
As Searle interprets it, ER sets forth a condition on the intelligibility of discourse and thought rather than a truth condition of discourse and thought:
There are conditions on the intelligibility of discourse . . . that are not like paradigmatic cases of truth conditions. In the normal understanding of discourse we take these conditions for granted; and unless we took them for granted, we could not understand utterances the way we do . . . . (181)
Among these conditions on intelligibility is ER. It is a necessary presupposition of a large chunk of thought and discourse. What Searle is doing is giving a transcendental argument for ER. He takes it as given that a sentence like 'Mt Everest has ice and snow near the summit' is intelligible. He then inquires into what must be presupposed for it to be intelligible. For the sentence to be true, Mt. Everest must exist, and it must have ice and snow near the summit. But for the sentence to be intelligible, it is not necessary that Mt. Everest exist, or if it does exist that it have ice and snow near the summit. What is necessary is that ER be true: that there be a way things are independent of human representations. If the mountain exists, then that is (part of) the way things are, and if it does not exist, that too is (part of) the way things are. The way things are, then, is not a truth condition of any such statement as 'Mt Everest has ice and snow near the summit.' It is a condition of the intelligibility of such statements and their negations. So even if every statement asserting or implying the existence of a physical object is false, and there is no spatially external world, it is still the case that ER is true. For it is still the case that there is a way things are independent of human representations. The way things are would include the nonexistence of a spatially external world.
For Searle, then, external realism (ER) is a transcendental condition of the intelligibility of large portions of public discourse. He is aware that to have shown this is not to have shown that ER is true. (194) Speaking as we do, we are committed to its being true, but that is not to say that it is true. That there is a way things are independent of human representations is presupposed by the intelligibility of much of what we think or say, but it doesn't follow that it is true.
Why not? Because its truth is conditional upon the fact that our thought and speech is intelligible. If ER is true, then it is true whether or not human representations and their intelligibility exist. But if ER is argued to transcendentally as a condition of intelligibility, then ER's truth is conditional upon the existence of human beings and their representations. So we cannot say that ER is true, but only that we must presuppose it to be true. This is not to say that without us it would be false, but what without us it would be neither true nor false.
Is Searle's position satisfactory? I'm not sure. I want to be able to say that ER is true simpliciter, or true unconditionally (i.e., not conditional upon the fact of the intelligibility of our discourse.)
But does my desire to be able to say that ER is true unconditionally make sense? Maybe not. We cannot not presuppose that there is a way things are assuming that we continue to think and talk as before. But is there a way things are? Yes, it might be said, in the only sense in which it would make sense to assert it, namely, as a presupposition of our thought and talk. That is, what we as rational beings must presuppose as being the case IS the case. The 'possibility' that it not be the case is unmeaning. No sort of wedge can be driven between the presupposing and the being. But this seems to land us in a form of transcendental idealism.
A fascinating labyrinth, this. Collateral reading: Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, section 44 (c), Die Seinsart der Wahrheit und die Wahrheitsvoraussetzung.
The main thing, however, is that Caputo presupposes objective truth when he makes his ridiculous PeeCee assertions.
Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno is exasperating but exciting. Although as sloppy as one expects Continental thinkers to be, he is nonetheless a force to be reckoned with, a serious man who is seriously grappling with ultimates at the outer limits of intelligibility. Derrida I dismiss as a bullshitter; indeed, to cop a line from John Searle, he is someone who "gives bullshit a bad name." But I can't dismiss Adorno. I confess to being partial to the Germans. They are nothing if not serious, and I'm a serious man. Among the French there is an excess of façade and frippery. But now let's get to work — like good Germans.
Suppose we focus on just part of one of Adorno's serpentine sentences. This is from Negative Dialektik (Suhrkamp, p. 354):
Dass das Unveraenderliche Wahrheit sei und das Bewegte, Vergaengliche Schein, die Gleichgueltigkeit von Zeitlichem und ewigen Ideen gegeneinander, ist nicht laenger zu behaupten . . . .
Adorno is telling us that
It can no longer be asserted that the true is the unchangeable while the mobile and mutable is mere appearance, or that eternal Ideas and the temporal realm are indifferent to each other . . . .
So what is our man saying? He is saying that after Auschwitz — where 'Auschwitz' collects all the genocidal and totalitarian horrors of the Third Reich — one can no longer take Platonism seriously, or the people's Platonism either, Christianity. And indeed most traditional philosophy, consisting as it does, in Whitehead's phrase, of a series of footnotes to Plato. The old metaphysics is dead, the metaphysics according to which Being itself has a positive and hence affirmable character. An experience has refuted the old metaphysics, the experience of Auschwitz.
But if it can no longer be asserted that that the true is the immutable, then it once could be asserted. And indeed, by 'assert' is intended assert with truth or at least justification. Note the ambiguity of 'assertible' as between capable of being asserted and worth of being asserted. And make a meta-note of how a broadly analytic thinker like me pedantically points out something like this whereas your typical Continental head would find my procedure boorish or somehow gauche. "How low class of you to be so careful and precise!"
But I digress. My point, again, is that if a proposition can no longer be asserted and believed, then it once could be asserted and believed. But if a metaphysical proposition was once true or believed with justification, then it is now true or believable with justification. For a metaphysical assertion is necessarily true if true at all. The structure of being cannot be contingent upon our contingent experiences, even experiences as shattering as that of the Nazi horror. (It is telling of course that Adorno, good man of the Left that he is, does not mention the Stalinist horrors which were known since 1956 — but that is a separate post.)
What I am objecting to is Adorno's apparent historical relativism. By this I mean the view that truth itself is historically conditioned and thus capable of being different in different historical epochs. Metaphysical conceptions are of course historically variable, but not their objects, the structures of being. Adorno is doing the the Continental Shuffle, sliding from the epistemic/doxastic to the ontic and back again. That views of truth are historically conditioned is trivial and scarcely in need of being pointed out; but that truth itself is historically conditioned is incoherent.
More fundamentally, what I am objecting to is Adorno's lack of any argument for his view that historical experience can refute a metaphysical thesis and his lack of consideration of the sort of (obvious) objection I am now raising.
The Continental 'trope' or 'move' — such-and-such can no longer be believed --ought to be defended or dropped. Why, for example, should it no longer be possible to believe in God after the horrendous events of the 20th century when people believed in God at the time of the Lisbon earthquake and the time of the Bubonic plague? What is so special about these 20th century horrors? The fact of evil may well rule out the existence of God, or more generally, the affirmability of Being. But if it does, this is surely no recent development.
I still read your blog conscientiously, but sometimes stare at your words in ignorant awe.
I have a question for you this morning which may be of interest. In a recent conversation with someone who described himself as a "gay" Christian (or is it a Christian "gay" ?), I gave reasons for observing that "gay Christian" is an oxymoron. My interlocutor said I must not be judgmental and justified his position by the saying, “You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, it does not exist.” I made no headway with my argument that a belief in moral relativism is incompatible with a belief in God. If God is the incontestable ground of moral absolutes, it seems to me you can't have one without the other. Am I on the right track ?
Thank you for reading. Several points in response.
1. Can one be a Christian and a homosexual? I don't see why not, as long as one does not practice one's homosexuality. So I don't see that 'gay Christian' is an oxymoron. (AsI am using 'practice,' a homosexual man who succumbs to temptation and has sexual intercourse with a man on an occasion or two, while believing it to be immoral, is not practicing his homosexuality. The occasional exercise of a disposition does not constitute a practice.)
2. To be judgmental is to be hypercritical, captious, cavilling, fault-finding, etc. One ought to avoid being judgmental. But it is a mistake to confuse making moral judgments with being judgmental. I condemn the behavior of Ponzi-schemers like Bernie Madoff. That is a moral judgment. (And if you refuse to condemn it, I condemn your refusal to condemn.) But it would be an egregious misuse of language to say that I am being judgmental in issuing either condemnation.
3. If your friend thinks it is wrong to make moral judgments, ask him whether he thinks it is morally wrong. If he says yes, then point out that he has just made a moral judgment; he has made the moral judgment that making moral judgments is morally wrong.
4. Then ask him whether (a) he is OK with contradicting himself, or (b) makes an exception for the meta assertion that making moral judgments is morally wrong, or (c) thinks that both the meta judgment and first-order moral judgments (e.g., sodomy is morally wrong) are all morally wrong. (C) is a logically consistent position, although rejectable for other reasons.
5. He might of course say that 'must not' in 'must not be judgmental' is not to be construed morally, but in some other way. Press him on how it is to be construed.
6. Is moral relativism compatible with theism? No. If the God of the Christian faith exists, then there are absolute (objective) moral truths. This is quite clear if you reflect on the nature of the Christian God. It is not clear, however, that the arrow of entailment runs in the opposite direction. A Christian could affirm that it does, but he needn't. Either way, moral relativism and theism are logically inconsistent.
7. A further point. When your friend 'went relativistic' on you, there was nothing unusual about that. Alethic and moral relativism in most people are not thought-through positions, but simply ways of avoiding further discussion and the hard thinking necessary to get clear on these matters. It is a form of 'psychic insulation': "You can't teach me anything, because it's all relative."
8. A final point. That there are moral absolutes leaves open what they are. While moral relativism is easily dismissed, especially if one is a theist, it is considerably less easy to say what the moral absolutes are, even if one is a theist. So there is no call to be dogmatic. One can, and I think ought to, combine anti-relativism with fallibilism.
But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.
— Umberto Eco
The world is a play of phenomena, an enigmatic play of appearances beneath which there is no reality. Harmless in itself, the world is made terrible by us when we make the mad attempt to lay bare an underlying truth it fails to possess. Part of Eco's thought, I take it, is that those who seek the world's underlying truth fool themselves into thinking that they have found it, and having convinced themselves that they are now in possession of it, feel entitled and perhaps even obligated to impose it on others for their own good. But these others, naturally, resist the imposition and react violently. Hence the pursuit of the truth leads to contention and bloodshed. Better to live and let live and admit that there is a variety of perspectives, a diversity of interpretations, but no God's Eye perspective and no final interpretation, let alone an uninterpreted reality in itself, a true world hidden by the world of appearances. The world is interpretation all the way down. Being has no bottom.
The line of thought is seductive but incoherent. If the world is an enigma, then it is true that it is an enigma. If it is harmless, then it is true that it harmless. If it is made terrible by our attempt to interpret it, then it is true that it is made terrible by our attempt to interpret it. If our attempt is mad, then it is true that our attempt is mad. And if it has no underlying truth, then it is true that it has no underlying truth.
If that is the truth, then there is after all an underlying truth and the world cannot be a play of relativities, of shifting perspectives, of mere interpretations. If the world is such-and-such, then it is, and doesn't merely seem.
Prowling the Web for material on Nietzsche and the genetic fallacy, I stumbled across this passage from Merold Westphal, "Nietzsche as a Theological Resource," Modern Theology 13:2 (April 1997), p. 218: Perspectivism need not be presented as an absolute truth; it can be presented as an account of how reality looks from where one is situated. It does not thereby cease to be of value. The account of the game given by the winning coach cannot claim to be THE truth about the game: other accounts must be taken into account, including those from the losing coach, the players, the referees,.... But that does not mean that we do not listen with attention to what the winning coach has to say about the game. Perspectivism is the proposition P: All truths are perspectival. Either (P) applies to itself or it does not. If the former, then one must conclude that (P) is itself perspectivally true. Call this perspectivized perspectivism (PP). If the latter, if (P) is not taken to apply to itself, then (P) is nonperspectivally true. Westphal mentions, but does not take, this tack, so I shall ignore it here. His position appears to be perspectivized perspectivism. Unfortunately, his example shows that he does not understand it. He confuses (PP) with a quite different doctrine that could be called alethic partialism.
What the latter says is that the whole truth about a subject cannot be captured from any one perspective. Take a quart of 10 W 30 motor oil. From the perspective of a salesman at an auto parts store, it is a commodity from the sale of which he expects to make a profit. From the perspective of a motorist, it is a crankcase lubricant. From the perspective of a chemist, the oil's viscosity and other such attributes are salient. From the perspective of an eco-enthusiast, it is a potential pollutant of the ground water. And so on. But note that these partial truths add up to the whole truth about the oil. (By a 'partial truth' I do not mean a truth that is only partially true, but a truth that is wholly true, but captures only a part of the reality of what it is about.)
Alethic partialism sounds reasonable. But that is not what the perspectivized perspectivist is saying. What he is saying is that every truth is merely perspectivally true, and that this thesis itself is true only from his, and perhaps some (but not all) other, perspectives. Unfortunately, this allows a nonperspectivist such as your humble correspondent to say: "Fine! Truth is perspectival for you, Fritz, but for me it is absolute, and one of my absolute truths is that you are mistaken in your theory of truth." Clearly, the perspectivized perspectivist is in an uncomfortable position here. He wants to say something that is binding on all, but he cannot given the self-limiting nature of his position, a self-limitation demanded by logical consistency.
Pace Westphal, perspectivism is not "an account of how reality looks from where one is situated," but an account of the nature of truth, an account that implies that there is no reality. For truth is the truth of reality. A truth-bearer (a belief, say) is true just in case it corresponds to what is the case independently of anyone's beliefs, desires, or interests. To speak of truth as perspectival is to dissolve reality along with truth. From this one can see how obtuse Westphal's account of perspectivism his. He fails to grasp its radicality. And failing to grasp its radicality, he fails to appreciate its utter incoherence.
I am sitting by a pond with a child. The child says, "Look, there are three ducks." I say, "No, there are two ducks, one female, the other male, and a decoy."
The point is that a decoy duck is not a duck, but a piece of wood shaped and painted to appear (to a duck) like a duck so as to entice ducks into range of the hunters' shotguns. Since a decoy duck is not a duck, 'decoy' in 'decoy duck' does not function in the way 'male' and 'female' function in 'male duck' and 'female duck,' respectively. A male duck is a duck and a female duck is a duck. But a decoy duck is not a duck.
'Decoy' is an alienans adjective unlike 'male' and 'female' which are specifying adjectives. 'Decoy' shifts or alienates the sense of 'duck' rather than adding a specification to it. The same goes for 'roasted' in 'We are having roasted duck for dinner.' A roasted duck is not a duck but the cooked carcass of a duck. Getting hungry?
Theodor Adorno is exasperating but exciting. Although as sloppy as one expects Continental thinkers to be, he is nonetheless a force to be reckoned with, a serious man who is seriously grappling with ultimates at the outer limits of intelligibility. Derrida I dismiss as a bullshitter, indeed, to cop a line from John Searle, as someone who "gives bullshit a bad name." But I can't dismiss Adorno. I confess to being partial to the Germans. They are nothing if not serious, and I'm a serious man. Among the French there is an excess of facade and frippery. But now let's get to work — like good Germans.
Richard Rorty's writings put me off for several reasons, not the least of which is the way he distorts issues and definitions for his own benefit. The man is obviously a relativist as anyone can see, but he doesn't want to accept that label. So what does he do? He redefines the term so that it applies to no one:
"Relativism" is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called "relativists" are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.
[. . .]
So the real issue is not between people who think that one view is as good as another and people who do not. It is between those think our culture, or purposes, or intuitions, cannot be supported except conversationally, and people who still hope for other sorts of support. (Consequences of Pragmatism, U. of Minnesota Press, 1982, pp. 166-167.)
This post floats the suggestion that deflationism about truth is inconsistent with relativism about truth. Not that one should be a deflationist. But it would be interesting if deflationism entailed the nonrelativity of truth.
There is a sense in which deflationary theories of truth deny the very existence of truth. For what these theories deny is that anything of a unitary and substantial nature corresponds to the predicate 'true' or 'is true.' To get a feel for the issue, start with the platitude that some of the things people say are true and some of the things people say are not true. People who say that Hitler died by his own hand in the Spring of 1945 say something true, while those who say that no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz say something that is not true. Given the platitude that there are truths and untruths, classically-inclined philosophers will inquire: What is it that all and only the truths have in common in virtue of which they are truths? What is truth? What is the property of being-true?
The following argument is sometimes heard. "Because values are relative, it is wrong to impose one's values on others."
But if values are relative, and among my values is the value of instructing others in the right way to live, then surely I am justified in imposing my values on others. What better justification could I have? If values are relative, then there is simply no objective basis for a critique or rejection of the values I happen to hold. For it to be wrong for me to impose my values, value-imposition would have to be a nonrelative disvalue. But this is precisely what is ruled out by the premise 'values are relative.'
Either values are relative or they are not. If they are relative then no one can be faulted for living in accordance with his values even if among his values is the value of imposing one's values on others. If, on the other hand, values are not relative, then one will be in a position to condemn some forms of value-imposition. The second alternative, however, is not available to one who affirms the relativity of all values.
Persons who give the above argument are trying to have it both ways at once, and in so doing fall into self-contradiction. They want the supposed benefits of believing that values are relative -- such benefits as toleration -- while at the same time committing themselves to the contradictory proposition that some values are not relative by their condemnation of value-imposition.
One sees from this how difficult it is for relativists to be consistent. A consistent relativist cannot make any such pronouncement as that it is wrong to impose one's values on others; all he can say is that from within his value-scheme it is wrong to impose one's values on others. But then he allows the possibility that there others for whom value-imposition is the right thing to do.
Michael Krausz, "Relativism and Beyond" in Relativism, Suffering and Beyond, eds. Bilimoria and Mohanty (Oxford, 1997), pp. 97-98:
The classical 'self-refuting' argument against relativism runs roughly along the following lines. If relativism is true then the thesis of relativism itself must be relatively true. It would be contradictory to affirm that relativism is true in an absolute sense. But while one could affirm that relativism is true in a relative sense, the counter-argument goes, to say that relativism is only relatively true has no general force. In order for the thesis to have general force it should include itself and should be presumed to be absolutely true. But that, again, would be contradictory.
In response . . . one might observe that there is no reason to rule out of court any non-general thesis of relativism. That is, the claim that the thesis of relativism is a thesis embraced locally does not itself show that it has no content or is not locally defensible. Local knowledge is knowledge nonetheless. Rather along lines suggested by Nelson Goodman, the aim of justifying local claims, including the thesis of relativism itself, need not be the establishment of of a general or a universal or an absolutist claim but may well be in the name of unpacking local understanding.
In an earlier piece I argued that one can be both an absolutist about the nature of truth while being a fallibilist about the knowledge of truth. But a reader demands to know why we should accept that truth by its very nature is absolute. One reason is that the doctrine that truth is non-absolute (relative) is self-refuting. Herewith, a first installment.
The alethic relativist holds that truth (Gr. aletheia) is relative. Some call this cognitive relativism to distinguish it from ethical and other types of relativism. I prefer to avoid this terminology because it tends to conflate truth and knowledge, which are obviously distinct. (If S knows that p, then p is true; but a proposition can be true without being known by any (finite) mind.) To be relative, of course, is to be relative to something. Among candidate relata are individuals, social groups, cultures, conceptual frameworks, historical epochs, zoological species, and others besides. Thus there are different types of alethic relativism depending on the parameter or index to which truth is said to be relative. This being understood, there will be no harm in speaking simply of truth as relative.
There is much popular confusion concerning the topic of relativism. One fallacy I exposed earlier, namely, the mistake of thinking that Einstein's Theory of Relativity implies either moral relativism or relativism about truth. Even more widespread, perhaps, is the notion that one who opposes relativism about truth must be a dogmatist. But there are two distinctions here and they must not be confused. One is the distinction between relativism and nonrelativism, and the other is the distinction between fallibilism and dogmatism. The first distinction has to do with the nature of truth, while the second pertains to the knowledge of truth.
British (Catholic) historian Paul Johnson in his wonderful Modern Times attributes relativism's rise to Einstein! So does Einstein's latest biographer.
There are two questions that must be distinguished. The first is whether Einstein's Theory of Relativity entails either moral or cognitive (alethic) relativism. The second question is whether Einstein's revolutionary contributions to physics, via their misinterpretation by journalists and other shallow people (am I being unfair?), contributed to an atmosphere in which people would be more likely to embrace moral and cognitive relativism. The first question belongs to the philosophy of science, the second to the sociology of belief. The questions are plainly distinct.