forest and two paths

Relativism: is it self-refuting

Section I: Introduction

So I stumbled on a Q & A video from Lizzieanswers. One of the questions asked Lizzie to share her thoughts on Relativism. She was asked at 5:15 of the video, why she did not believe in relativism and what was philosophically wrong with it? She answers that relativism is self-refuting. Is she correct? Perhaps relativism is not a truth claim at all, but rather a critique of how humanity comes to know the truth.

In the media and in society, you hear people say all the time, you do you or who am I to judge another’s belief. In fact, I used to be the same way. I embraced moral relativism in my undergrad philosophy courses. My chief reason was that different societies accepted different practices. Most people argue that murder is universally wrong. Yet there are tribes that practice ritualistic cannibalism. I had assumed that differences in morals across cultures meant that there was no objective moral truth. In those same courses, I wrestled with philosophers, who stood for objective truth.

Section II: What is Relativism?

Before I can explain whether Moral Relativism is true or false, I have to break down what relativism is. It turns out that relativism is much more nuanced then it first appears.

A. Global relativism

Global relativism is captured by the oft-repeated slogan “all is relative”. The claim is that all beliefs, regardless of their subject matter, are true only relative to a framework or parameter. This type of relativism first appeared in Plato. Greek philosophers liked to write as if they were having a debate with someone else. They create a pseudonym to represent an argument that they don’t agree with. Plato created this guy named Protagoras. He argued that all truth depended on the belief of individuals. Plato, being the smart individual that he is, pointed out that if all truth is relative to the individual then nothing is true. Protagoras cannot establish the truth of his claim. (Baghramian, Maria and Carter, J. Adam, "Relativism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/relativism/.)

B: Local relativism

Relativists have attempted to avoid Plato’s critique by still holding on to objective truth in certain areas. For example, they may wish to say that claims based on sensory information are still objectively true. Modern relativists typically target a self-contained area. For example, a modern relativist might say that the area of morals is relative to the individual. Being relativist about a certain area makes you a local relativist. As a local relativist, your arguments are not logically inconsistent. For example, the statement, all moral claims are relative to an individual, is not itself a moral claim. Thus it is not self-refuting. This statement can be defended objectively.

Section III: Arguments in favor

So why might someone want to be a relativist? I know for myself I was guided by the principle of tolerance. As the world gets smaller, you get to connect with some pretty awesome people. Yet these people may have a different belief system or a different set of values from you. Out of respect for them, you may be reluctant to think that their viewpoint is wrong. Thus out of respect, you may think, hey, maybe we are both correct. We just have a different framework.

Yet, does tolerance require us to accept all people’s opinions as correct? Perhaps we can respect each other without acknowledging all views as correct. Otherwise, why bother having disagreements at all.

Section IV Arguments against

A. Self refuting

Anytime relativism is brought up, the self-refuting argument is always mentioned. In fact, Lizzy makes the same argument in her video. The idea is that if all truth is relative, then the claim is not objective, but is also relative. If it is relative, then I don’t need to accept it. If it is absolute, then there are claims that are objective and not all truth is relative. Thus relativism is false. This argument works against global relativism.

In some cases, Local relativism may also fall into the trap of being self-refuting. Local relativism relies on frameworks. If local relativism tries to justify one framework over another, it runs into the same problem. So If you are a local relativist, you must either conclude that relativism is false or conclude that no framework is absolutely right.

B. The Other Problem with Local Relativism

Now, maybe you are fine with concluding that no framework is morally superior. Yet such a conclusion has philosophical implications. One of my favorite questions to study is why do we believe what we believe or what justification do we have for our beliefs. Yet if relativism is true, there would be no reason to ask these questions. The ability to provide good reasons depends on conceptual ties to a higher truth.

Disagreements are a part of human nature. When you and I disagree, we usually believe that the other is incorrect. We use assertions to persuade the other of our viewpoint. Relativism ignores this fundamental truth.

Relativism attempts to be tolerant of other cultures. Yet, what would happen if I was from two very different cultural backgrounds? I would have to choose the one I thought was correct. Relativism offers me no guiding principle. I will have to make an arbitrary choice.

Conclusion

If you know anything about me, you know that I love deep philosophical conversations. I love debating moral theology. Connecting with people different from you gives you a chance to rearticulate what you believe. It does not require you to abandon the pursuit of truth and declare everything is arbitrary. Yet, relativism requires exactly that. Otherwise, relativism becomes self-refuting.