What’s Wrong with Relativism

Lewis Vaughn

In that vast, peculiar terrain known as postmodernist thought, there are several deep holes. One of them has swallowed up some academics, a lot of New Agers, and—apparently—a whole generation of college students. Philosophers call it “relativism.” In its most radical form it’s the doctrine that truth depends—not on the way things are—but solely on what someone believes, or on what someone’s society or culture believes, or on a particular “conceptual scheme.” Truth, in other words, is relative.

And, many would ask, what’s wrong with that? Who could deny that this kind of relativism is true after considering the pluralism of perspectives in the world, the multiplicity of views, the fact of disagreement? Who could look in the fractured mirror and think there’s any such thing as objective truth? One way that the world is? Those who have fallen in the hole cry out: Let us now free ourselves from the old bugaboo of objective truth.

The trouble is, there’s a lot wrong with this radical relativism (which I’ll call simply relativism from here on). It is philosophically untenable. Even more striking is the fact that we seldom hear exactly what the problems are. This, despite how easily relativism can be shown to be unfounded.

What’s more, it matters. Whether one adopts a relativist view matters, for example, in morality. According to social relativism, what’s true is whatever one’s society says is true. If a society agrees that something is true, it’s true. This means that, if during World War II the German people agreed with the Nazis that the Jews should be exterminated, then the Holocaust was justified. The Nazis were just doing what society said was right. And if a society says an act is right, it’s right—even if another society disagrees. To embrace social relativism is to reject the notion of universal human rights. It is no surprise that among nations, the most vocal proponents of social relativism have been the most flagrant violators of human rights.

Relativism can also profoundly affect someone’s view of reality. One concern, for example, is relativism’s connection with pseudoscience. Basically, for someone who accepts one of the common forms of relativism just mentioned, there is no such thing as pseudoscience in the normal sense. We generally think of pseudoscience as a belief or endeavor that pretends, or aspires to be, objectively correct but fails in some fundamental way. But the relativist says that there is no such thing as being objectively correct, for there is no such thing as objective truth. So there is no pseudoscience. There is just a variety of views that happen to be equally true. The relativist must regard any belief—including those labeled pseudoscientific by pointy-headed objec-tivists—as true, provided it is sincerely believed by an individual or society or is properly based on a conceptual scheme.

Being a pointy-headed objectivist, I think that there is such a thing as pseudoscience. I also recognize that relativism isn’t necessary for the existence of pseudoscience. People can have pseudoscientific beliefs without accepting relativism. But relativism does seem to make acquiring pseudoscientific beliefs much easier. For, generally, relativism implies that any sincerely held belief will do. Whether the belief has any appropriate connection to the way things are is a misguided concern of those burdened by the fantasy of objective truth. (Just how much relativism has contributed to the rise of pseudoscience lately is hard to say. Some would say plenty.) For the relativist who thinks that truth is relative to individuals, for example, acquiring true beliefs is a cinch. For him, if he sincerely believes that the Earth is 6,000 years, the Earth is 6,000 years old. And he need not be concerned for one moment that others may disagree and have reasons for disagreeing. He need not worry about the possibility that there is a way the world is that doesn’t happen to fit with his belief. Should he investigate his belief? What’s to investigate? He sincerely believes that the Earth is a certain young age. And so it is. Case closed.

What’s the problem here? Let’s examine each type of relativism in turn.

SUBJECTIVISM

The notion that truth is relative to individuals is a subjectivist view of truth. Truth is subjective (a matter of what a person believes) not objective (a matter of how the world is). If you believe something to be the case, then it is. The subjectivist would say, as many New Agers have, “This is my truth, and that’s your truth.”

But this view has some odd implications that render it highly implausible. First, if we could make a statement true just by believing it, we would be infallible. We couldn’t possibly be in error. For the mere holding of a belief would guarantee its truth. We could never be mistaken about where we parked the car. We could never make an error in math when we did our taxes. Second, if we each made our own truth, disagreeing with one another would be pointless. We disagree with others when we think that they’re mistaken. But according to subjectivism, no one would be mistaken. No one could possibly be wrong. In disagreements over any issue, it seems appropriate for one person to try to persuade another that he is mistaken. But subjectivism implies that this is always a pointless exercise.

Third, because subjectivism holds that every belief is equally true, it undermines itself in a strange way. If subjectivism is true, then the belief that it is false would be just as true as the belief that it is true. As philosopher Harvey Siegal puts it, “If opinions conflict about the truth of [subjectivism], then the [subjectivist] must acknowledge the truth of the opinion that the doctrine is false. Thus, if it is true, then (as long as there is one who holds that it is false) it is false.”‘

In light of all this, it seems that truth is not made by our personal beliefs.

SOCIAL RELATIVISM

As already noted, the view that truth is constructed not by the individual but by one’s society is social relativism. Truth is relative not to an individual’s beliefs but to society’s beliefs. So something can be true for Americans, but false for the Vietnamese. True for freethinkers, but false for scientologists. The problem is, social relativism also runs afoul of infallibility. According to social relativism, individuals aren’t infallible, but societies are. People can be mistaken about what their societies believe, but the beliefs of whole societies cannot be mistaken. If your society believes that something is true, it is. But this notion of societal infallibility is no more plausible than the idea of individual infallibility. Is it really the case that no society has ever been wrong about anything? Not about the causes of disease or the number of planets in the solar system or the burning of witches or the enslaving of another race?

Social infallibility has another weird ramification. It seems to be the case that it’s at least possible that we can disagree with our own society and still be right. But according to social relativism, this can never happen. Society is infallible, and we simply could not disagree with it and still be right. If your society said that something was true, and you disagreed, your claim would be false. Thus, social reformers in any society would always be wrong. Even social reformers who wanted to convince their objectivist society to believe in social relativism would be hopelessly wrong.

Social relativism is also as much an equalizer of beliefs as subjectivism is. If truth is socially constructed, then every society’s belief is as true as every other’s. If so, then a society’s belief is true—and so is another society’s belief that the opposite is true. This too is implausible.

It also means that no one could legitimately criticize another society. If a society is doing what it believes is right, then it’s right. The social relativist would be forced to admit that every massacre, every ethnic cleansing, and every holocaust in history was justified—if the respective society believed it was doing the right thing. How can you legitimately criticize any society for doing the right thing?

Then there’s this difficulty: What do individuals disagree about when they disagree? Social relativism implies that whenever individuals disagree about the truth of a proposition, what they’re really disagreeing about is whether society believes it. After all, what’s true is whatever society says is true. So if we’re members of the same society, when we argue about whether a drug will cure cancer or kill the patient, we’re just disagreeing about what society believes is the case. If we want to resolve a dispute about comets and asteroids, we need only to ask Gallup to poll our society. If we want to settle once and for all whether God exists, or assisted suicide is moral, or there’s a fly in your soup, we can simply ask everyone what they think.

Obviously we can do no such thing. But let’s say that truth is made by society. Would it then be easy to discover what the truth was? Not really. The problem is that we each don’t belong to just one society—but many. And there is no fact of the matter regarding which is our “right” society. Each of us exists in a complicated mix of many societies—racial, political, religious, geographical, you name it. So if society makes truth, which society is making it?

CONCEPTUAL RELATIVISM

Some relativists have said that truth is relative not to individuals or societies but to conceptual schemes. A conceptual scheme is a set of concepts for classifying things into meaningful groups. These relativists say that our conceptual scheme doesn’t just enable us to “see” things in a particular way—it creates our world. And different conceptual schemes make different worlds. So there is no one way the world is.

According to conceptual relativism, we can sometimes be mistaken about how we classify something in our conceptual scheme, so we’re not infallible. And whether a person’s classifying is a mistake is determined, at least in part, by some input from the world. But even though the world puts constraints on the truth, the world does not uniquely determine the truth. Conceptual schemes determine the truth (or “truths”). Like a mold for molten metal, our conceptual schemes determine the way our world is. This is the case even though the world has some properties that aren’t affected by the conceptual scheme, just as the metal has some properties that aren’t affected by the mold. Truth is relative then to conceptual schemes because conceptual schemes make worlds.

A crucial notion for conceptual relativism is that the same proposition can be true in one conceptual scheme and false in another. But, of course, this is not logically possible. The same proposition cannot be both true and false. If propositions have different truth values, then they’re different propositions.

You can also view the problem like this. According to conceptual relativism, conceptual schemes create different worlds, and the language of each conceptual scheme refers to the unique world made by that conceptual scheme. But if the language of each conceptual scheme refers to a different world, then the languages of two different conceptual schemes cannot possibly share any meanings. The languages are about different worlds. And no translation is possible. So there can never be one sentence that means the same thing in two different conceptual schemes—much less true in one conceptual scheme and false in another.

As all this suggests, sharing a common world is essential for communication and translation. But if we really do inhabit different worlds, how can we possibly communicate with one another—as we believe we can? How can we possibly translate one language into another—as we believe we do? As philosopher Roger Trigg says,

The result of granting that “the world” or “reality” cannot be conceived as independent of all conceptual schemes is that there is no reason to suppose that what the peoples of very different communities see as the world is similar in any way.

Unfortunately, however, this supposition is absolutely neces-sary before any translation or comparison between languages of different societies can take place. Without it, the situation would be like one where the inhabitants of two planets which differed fundamentally in their nature met each other and tried to communicate. So few things (if any) would be mat-ters of common experience that their respective languages would hardly ever run parallel?

Conceptual relativism, then, makes no sense. The world—and truth—must not be manufactured by conceptual schemes.

THE FINAL BLOW

All these problems for relativism are small compared to this one: It’s self-defeating. In all its forms, relativism defeats itself because its truth implies its falsity. The relativist says “All truth is relative.” If this statement is objectively true, then it refutes itself. For if it is objectively true that “All truth is relative,” then the statement is itself an example of an objective truth. So if “All truth is relative” is objectively true, it is objectively false.

To get around this problem, the relativist might claim that the statement “All truth is relative” is not objectively true but is relatively true—that is, true relative to him, or his society, or his conceptual scheme. But this just means that the relativist thinks relativism is true. He thus provides no objective evidence for accepting relativism. He provides none because he doesn’t believe there is such a thing as objective evidence. If we are to accept the relativist’s notion of truth and abandon our normal understanding of truth, he must provide something better than self-refutations or non-evidence.

So what the relativist faces is this. If he says that his theory is objectively true, he defeats himself by showing that it can’t be objectively true. If he says that his theory is only relatively true, he defeats himself by providing no evidence for it. The dilemma is inescapable. To defend relativism objectively is to give it up; to defend relativism relativistically is not to defend it at all.

The upshot of all this is that truth is not relative to individuals, societies, or conceptual schemes. Belief is often relative to these things, but that doesn’t mean that truth is. There is, after all, such a thing as objective truth. That is, there is a way the world is. This fact can be annoying to those who believe that wishing makes it so. It also can make the practice of honest inquiry harder—and more rewarding.

 


 

Notes

  1. Harvey Siegel, Relativism Refuted (Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel Publishing, 1987), p. 5.
  2. Roger Trigg, Reason and Commitment (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 15-16.

Lewis Vaughn

Lewis Vaughn is Executive Editor of FREE INQUIRY.


In that vast, peculiar terrain known as postmodernist thought, there are several deep holes. One of them has swallowed up some academics, a lot of New Agers, and—apparently—a whole generation of college students. Philosophers call it “relativism.” In its most radical form it’s the doctrine that truth depends—not on the way things are—but solely on …

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