Our topic this week is relativism. “Is it all Just Relative?” we ask. Clearly some things are relative. Tastes in food or matters of etiquette, for example. If I like single malt scotch and you don’t, there’s no basis for saying that one of us is right and the other is wrong about how good it tastes. Taste is just relative to our individual taste buds. Same thing seems true of etiquette – except that etiquette is relative to cultures or subcultures rather than to individual people. I’m told that in some cultures, a gentle burp after a meal is a polite way of expressing satisfaction. Not in mine. But again, there isn’t any basis for saying that one culture has it right and the other has it wrong. Our question is whether everything – including truth, knowledge, and morality – is like matters of taste or etiquette?
At first blush, that seems like a pretty straight-forward and easy question. It seems pretty clear that some things are not relative. It’s hard to feel much intuitive pull in the idea that truth is relative. Clearly, believing something to be true, doesn’t make it true. Certainly there's a sense in which if I believe something to be true, then it is "true for me." But to say that something is true for me really is just to say that I believe it. It is not to say that it is flat-out true. Just because we take there to be a distinction between believing true and actually being true, relativism about truth seems pretty hard to make out.
The same might seem to go for morality -- though here making a case against relativism seems a little harder. I think Hitler was a really bad man. And I think that's not just a matter of opinion, that's a matter of cold hard fact. And I like to think that the fact that he and his Nazi followers thought it was a morally good thing to slaughter the Jews, didn't make it so. Not for me and not for them either.
Still, as little intuitive pull as relativism about truth seems to have, there are people who take relativism, especially moral relativism to be both obvious and obviously true. Partly due to the influence of thinkers like Rorty and Derrida, even relativism about truth and knowledge is something of the rage in certain circles of academia. And with respect to the intuitive pull of moral relativism, scratch any 17 year old college freshman, for example, and you’ll get a reflex moral relativism, according to which each of us has his own moral code, and nobody is really entitled to question anybody else’s moral code. Moreover, if you believe Pope Benedict, relativism is just about everywhere. Not only does he see relativism everywhere, he decries it as the main enemy of the Church and laments that Western civilization is being destroyed by “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Of course, sometimes people’s commitment to a controversial doctrine is more in word than in deed. Lots of people may think that they (and others) are relativists. Some people may even talk like relativists. But when push comes to shove, it may be that they don’t act like relativists. Ask yourself what your supposedly secular, post-modern relativist actually does when faced with the reality of female genital mutilation or the criminalization of homosexuality in certain African countries? Do they just shrug their shoulders in indifference and say “well, that’s how they do things over there? ” I bet that that's not at all what they would do. Most of them would feel some degree of moral outrage or disgust.
Now most arguments for relativism begin by observing that some cultures endorse things like female genital mutilation, while other cultures prohibit such things. But the argument can’t end there. The relativist has to show not only that there are diverse moral outlooks but that they are all “equally valid” and that “disputes” between them can’t be rationally adjudicated. And you might think that the very fact that we express moral outrage over female genital mutilation in other cultures shows that we don’t regard all moral systems as equally valid, even if we say we do. In practice, we regard some systems as superior to others, as closer to the moral truth of the matter.
Of course, one kind of relativist will insist that regarding our own moral system (or our belief system more broadly) as superior to another is little better than a form of intolerant arrogance or cultural imperialism. But against the line of reasoning I am trying out now that observation misses a point. The point is that on the face of it, we don’t regard differences in moral systems as on a par with differences in taste or rules of etiquette. In these domains, we may indeed say “to each his own,” “live and let live” and leave it at that. But when it comes to weighty moral matters, we certainly behave as if there’s a right and wrong of the matter. Or so it seems, anyway. It is certainly true that we may or may not be certain where the truth lies in a particular case. But when we doubt that we know the truth, we don’t ipso facto doubt that there is a truth to be found out, somehow or other. That’s why we engage in further argument and investigation in the face of disagreement. If we didn’t believe that there was a truth out there to be known, the absolutist will say, argument and investigation would simply lose their point. The conclusion is supposed to be that the bare fact that we greet moral disagreements with arguments, rather than with automatic acceptance or indifference, shows that we aren’t really relativists after all.
But a not so small voice inside me thinks that the last line of argument just went by much too fast. Why, the not so small voice plaintively asks, can’t a relativist rationally prefer that others share his or her moral outlook? If she does rationally prefer such a thing, then that bare optional preference itself would give her a reason to invite further argument in the face of apparent disagreement. And there’s no reason, the not so small voice says, that she can’t coherently both have such a preference and believe that there is no absolute truth of the matter where things like morality are concerned.
Consider an analogy with matters of taste. I offer you a sip of what I take to be a very fine pinot noir. You don’t like it. Perhaps you find it disgusting. What do I do? Shrug my shoulders? I could, but I am not required to do so. Cause I might believe that I could, by giving you the right experiences, educate your palate into the glories of fine pinot. I might believe this even if I also believed there were no absolute, taste bud independent facts about the taste of pinot. How might I do this re-education of your palate? Well, by offering you the functional equivalent of further arguments and evidence. That is, I’ll get you to taste it again, perhaps after having gotten you to taste several inferior varieties. Perhaps, in the end, with the right arrangement of vinoic arguments, as it were, I could bring it about that your tastes and my tastes converge.
Now why on earth would I bother to do such a thing, especially if there are no objective facts about taste? Well, perhaps partly because I simply don’t like to drink alone and partly because its fine pinots that I love to drink. That is, because I want to keep drinking pinot and I want company in the drinking of them, I try to bring you around to my way of tasting.
Couldn’t an analog of the same story be told about moral arguments? I prefer company in my way of valuing the world. In the face of disagreement, it’s not so much that I try to get you to see the truth. Rather, I try to bring you around to my way of valuing. I offer you up what I take to be a compelling version of how the world is to be valued and try to lead you into adopting that version as your own. I can have perfectly good reasons for that attempt. It need not be a form of arrogance. And it need not presuppose that there are objective matters of fact about what things are really and truly valuable independently of our valuing.
Who knows if this is the right way of thinking about relativism, disagreement, and argument. But I’m sure our guest, Paul Boghossian, author of Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, can help us straighten this all out. Paul tends to give no quarter to relativism, while I feel its pull quite strongly – at least in the realm of morality. So it should be an interesting conversation.