Show

Is It All Relative?

Week of: 
Sunday, March 20, 2011
What is it: 

We've all heard a disenchanted teenager claim that everything is relative and that there is no absolute morality or truth.  Of course, there seems to be something wrong with that; isn't the relativity of everything then an absolute?  Relativism has appeared throughout philosophy since the ancient Greek Sophists.  Proponents of relativism argue that some central element of thought, experience, evaluation, or even reality is somehow relative to something else.  Does that mean that we merely obey a code that has no inherent value?  John and Ken avoid absolutes with Paul Boghossian from New York University, author of Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism.

Listening Notes: 

Is everything relative? We know that things like taste in food and matters of etiquette are relative. But what about things like truth, knowledge, and morality? Are there absolute normative truths? John and Ken are joined by Paul Boghossian to tackle the question of moral relativism vs. moral absolutism in this episode of Philosophy Talk.

John starts the show by claiming that morality is not relative at all – there is an absolute moral truth. If we argue about morality, we can’t be relativists, because it shows we believe that things are objectively either right or wrong. Ken then asks, what if there was a relativist who acknowledged that there was no absolute moral truth, but just preferred that others agreed with him about morality, and argued for this reason? Ken acknowledges the complexity of the issue, and the two invite Dr. Paul Boghossian to join the conversation. 

John asks Paul why he thinks relativism has become so popular, and Paul presents an analysis of it as a reaction against the colonialist idea of cultural superiority. But when faced with moral atrocities, relativists have a problem, for they criticize the act by appealing to absolute morality. Ken disagrees, arguing that relativists admit certain things are right or wrong for different circumstances, and can still criticize moral codes different from their own - but Paul responds that this characterization of relativism sounds very similar to absolutism. Paul says absolutists also believe different things are right or wrong for different circumstances. However, there is still an absolute fact of the matter. Ken says the difference is that a relativist acknowledges there is no transcendent moral authority to settle moral disputes. He says man will always try and project his own beliefs onto others, just because that’s human nature. Paul points out that an absolutist can still accept that it’s human nature for man to ceaselessly disagree about morality, and in fact claim that man does this in an effort to arrive at the absolute truth.

  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 44:48): Ian Scholes discusses the war on science and the misuse of when applied to social and cultural issues.

Paul Boghossian, Silver Professor of Philosophy, New York University

Get Philosophy Talk

Radio

Sunday at 10am, PST, KALW, 91.7 FM, Local Public Radio, San Francisco

Podcast

Individual Downloads  via CdBaby or Itunes.  Multipacks and The Complete Philosophy Talk via Iamplify

John Perry and Ken Taylor

Continue the Conversation

Sidebar Menu

Upcoming Shows

  • September 7 : Neuroscience and the Law
    Recent advances in neuroscience have revealed that certain neurological disorders, like a brain tumor, can cause an otherwise normal person to...
  • September 14 : Babies and the Birth of Morality
    Doing the right thing is often an extremely difficult task. Yet psychological research indicates that infants as young as 21 months old have a crude...
  • September 21 : Machiavelli
    Niccolò Machiavelli is best known for arguing that people in power should use deception, force, and manipulation if those tactics are necessary to...
  • September 28 : Second-Guessing Ourselves
    We like to think of ourselves as self-aware, reflective beings, but psychological studies demonstrate that we’re usually overconfident in the...
  • October 12 : Corporations and the Future of Democracy
    The US prides itself on the strength of its democratic institutions and considers itself a leader in the promotion of democratic values around the...

Support Philosophy Talk

DONATE TODAY

Philosophy Talk relies on the support of listeners like you to stay on the air and online. Any contribution, large or small, helps us produce intelligent, reflective radio that questions everything, including our most deeply-held beliefs about science, morality, culture, and the human condition. Make your tax-deductible contribution now through Stanford University's secure online donation page. Thank you for your support, and thank you for thinking!