Relativism Explained

Brendan Larvor , Humanist Philosophers’ Group, 2005 

Relativism holds that no opinion is better than any other opinion.   Taken to its logical conclusion, it destroys the whole enterprise of rational discussion.   If every opinion is as good as any other, then the opinion I come to at the end of a long, informative and rigorous debate is no better than the one I started with—so, what good did the debate do?   Worse, relativism says that the opinion of a world-renowned expert on some topic is no better than that of the least informed person.   Relativism means that anykind of enquiry is pointless, not only scientific and philosophical investigations.   If we take relativism seriously, there can be no point listening to the Still, Small Voice Within, consulting the spirits of our ancestors or reading the Holy Book.   Relativism denies authority to every kind of expert, the shaman and the priest as well as the scientist and the doctor—and the teacher.   According to relativism, the teacher’s professional opinion of a piece of coursework has no more authority than that of the student who wrote it, the older sister who refused to read it or the dog who chewed it.

Fortunately, relativism is philosophically very weak.   If every opinion is as good as any other, there can be nothing especially compelling about the relativist’s opinion.   Therefore, we cannot dissuade the relativist from his view, but neither can he force it upon us.   We can walk away, and nothing he shouts after us need give us pause, because we can always shout back, “That’s just your opinion”.

No-one (except perhaps a few philosophical eccentrics) holds relativism in this full-blooded, corrosive form.   On most topics, everyone thinks that there are facts and that the best opinion is the one that best captures those facts.   What shape is the Earth?   People who thought that it is flat were wrong.   Their opinions were false.   The Earth is almost spherical, except that it bulges a bit at the equator.   The truth is that the Earth is a spheroid.   This truth is true whether anyone believes it or not.

However, on some topics, this robustly objective sense of truth can crumble.   When it comes to spiritual or ethical matters, people find themselves saying things like, “That may be true for you, but it isn’t true for him”.   What does it mean to say that something is ‘true for him’?   It means that he believes it, that it is his opinion.   But it also means that his opinion is as good as any opinion can be, because it expresses the truth—the ‘truth-for-him’.   This works for everyone: my opinion is ‘true-for-me’, yours is ‘true-for-you’, and so on.   Every opinion is ‘true-for-the-person-who-holds-it’ and consequently every opinion is as good as any other.

Why does this happen?   Why do we hear so much ‘true-for-you’, ‘false-for-me’, ‘true-for-him’, ‘false-for-her’ talk around religion and ethics?

The first explanation I want to offer is that in the Western world since the end of the Second World War (if not before), automatic deference to authority has collapsed.   It is, of course, good that deference is no longer automatic; authorities ought to have to justify their privileges.   People are less willing to believe or obey ex cathedra statements and commands than they were.   The outpouring of grief at the death of John Paul II may seem to contradict this—was he not considered infallible in matters of doctrine?   In fact, though John Paul II was greatly loved, he was little obeyed.   Consider, for example, the very low birth-rate in Italy .   Religious leaders may be venerated but their doctrines and instructions are not accepted uncritically.   In Western Europe , at any rate, Kant’s slogan ‘Dare to think!’ is no longer an exhortation; it is more like an expression of the spirit of the age.   Truly obedient Catholics would not ask each other, “What do you think of the new Pope?”, but many do.   Religious authority nowadays, what remains of it, comes up from the people rather than down from God.

Religious leaders are not the only authorities who find their word doubted; there is also a widespread suspicion of scientific and technological expertise.   Didn’t these experts bring us high-rise slums, the dot com bubble, Chernobyl and Turkey Twizzlers?   An expert, in our culture, is often regarded as someone who has willingly exchanged reliable common sense for ivory-tower waffle.   It is also part of our culture that authorities are for sale.   No-one is surprised to find politicians on the take or scientists (or intelligence agents) fixing the results of their enquiries to suit their employers’ requirements.  Bishops, scientists, politicians and experts of every kind are suspected where once they were respected.   This culture of suspicion is a great leveller; we are not all equally well informed, but we are all equally human, fallible and therefore untrustworthy.

My second explanation of the tendency towards relativism is our natural reluctance to give offence.   In theory, it should be possible to criticise a thought without insulting the thinker.   In practice, things are not so straightforward.   My declared opinions on some topic are, simultaneously, a set of statements open to objective evaluation and an expression of my personality.   If my opinions are false, incoherent, inconsistent or bigoted, then perhaps I am credulous, intellectually lazy, irrational or bigoted.   It is, therefore, only natural that people feel attacked when their thoughts are criticised.   Academics protect themselves by distancing themselves from their thoughts as they express them.   They do this with expressions like “Supposing someone were to say that…” or “It could be argued that…”

In other parts of society, it is normal to insist that the thought is part of the thinker, that the belief is part of the believer.   This is especially characteristic of religious attitudes, which is why most people are reluctant to criticise religions.   If I insist that my religious convictions are part of me, then it is impossible for anyone to criticise my religion without seeming to attack me personally.   (This is why public debates between academic atheists and religious apologists so often misfire.   Academics expect everyone to present arguments in an impersonal form, so that they may be debated and criticised without rancour.  Canny religious apologists refuse to do this.   They remind the audience that theirs is a personal faith, so that any criticism of their religion becomes a personal attack.)   Since most people are reluctant to give offence, it is tempting to abandon the whole enterprise of trying to determine on objective grounds which religion, if any, is true.   An easy way to do this is to insist that religious truths are relative to believers.   If you believe it, it’s ‘true-for-you’.

This second motive operates at the level of societies as well as individuals.   It seems arrogant and rude to announce that an entire society is plain wrong about the nature of the universe or the duties we owe each other.   Our imperialist ancestors forced European manners, dress, languages and laws on their colonies around the world, and the results were never entirely happy.   We are naturally cautious of making the same mistake.   This proper caution is reinforced by the methods used in the humanities and social sciences, and this brings me to my third motive.   Science is supposed to be objective, which means that scientists should try not to allow their personal idiosyncrasies or cultural backgrounds to influence their work.   What does this mean for social science?   If a social scientist studies people who believe that every night a demon on the underside of the Earth eats the sun and gives birth to a new, different sun the next morning, does the social scientist have to set aside scientific astronomy?   After all, scientific astronomy is part of our cultural background.   Similarly, historians try to understand the past ‘inits own terms’.   To do that, historians have to reconstruct the mental lives of people who lived long ago, and this requires them to take seriously opinions that at first glance seem quaint or peculiar.   We cannot understand why some people were burned as witches unless we are prepared to share the minds of folk who believed in witches (and everything that goes with that belief, such as magic, demons and trial by ordeal).   In social science and history alike, then, it seems at first glance that to study people objectively we have to set aside our own convictions.

If I am right, the tendency to relativism arises from three decent motives that teachers try to foster in their students: independence of mind, politeness and objectivity.   I wish to argue now that these three decent motives need not drive us to relativism.   In fact, relativism works against these decent motives.   First, we can be critical of our leaders and authorities without falling into the complete cynicism of the person who refuses to believe anything that they say.   It is proper to require experts to demonstrate their expertise and authorities to show us their credentials, and it is a proper use of our independent intelligence to judge whom to trust.   Indeed, if we value independent thought, we should resist absolute cynicism because it is the easy, unthinking option.   The cynic who refuses to respect anyone else’s opinion for fear of being hoodwinked has given up on thinking critically.   Schools and universities nowadays encourage students to think critically, and most teachers have known students who adopt a world-weary, blanket cynicism in an attempt to avoid the hard and risky work of critical thinking.  Relativist ‘true-for-me, false-for-you’ talk helps such shirkers.   After all, what is the point of critical thinking if “it’s all just somebody’s opinion”?

The second motive was politeness.   When teaching religious studies or ethics, it is natural to worry about giving offence.   But it is a shallow politeness that refuses to contradict someone else’s convictions.   The opinions we most respect are the ones we bother to argue over.   To say, “that may be true-for-you but it’s false-for-me” is to say that your opinion makes no difference.   It means, “I can allow you to enjoy your convictions as a personal, relative ‘truth-for-you’ because I think them so primitive,childish or silly that they are nothing to me”.   No-one who is really worried about climate change says, “Global warming may be false-for-you, but it’s true-for-me”.   Besides, there are other, less patronisingways to avoid unpleasantness.   We can agree to differ on a question without having to pretend that the question is somehow not real.   Exploring different ethical, political and religious viewpoints in class is an opportunity to teach the art of discussing serious issues without falling out.   As I mentioned, there are simple phrases that help to do this, that teachers could pass on to students.   Critical thinking is a social activity.   It includes the art of giving criticism without giving offence and taking criticism without taking umbrage.   Of course, if students are to do this among themselves it is probably best for the teacher’s own convictions to remain unspoken.

The third motive for relativism was objectivity in the human sciences and humanities.   This does not require us to abandon our convictions; it only requires us to suspend them temporarily while we think our way into some else’s perspective.   Trying to be objective makes sense only if there is a common truth to pursue, independent of anyone’s opinion.   Besides, the people under study may know something that we do not.   The relativism of one ‘truth-for-us’ and a separate ‘truth-for-them’ prevents people in different cultures from learning from each other.   Sometimes, students are tempted by moral relativism, because they do not want to see one society imposing its values on another.   “What is ‘wrong-for-us’”, they say, “is not necessarily ‘wrong-for-them’”.   But we can avoid imperialism without embracing moral relativism.   We can affirm that some practices (such as slavery and torture) are wrong (for everybody) and insist that imposing our values by force is also immoral.

There can only ever be one truth.   Independence of mind, politeness and objectivity are the virtues that we, and our students, need in order to look for it.   Relativist ‘true-for-you/false-for-me’ talk undermines these virtues.   Let us banish it from the classroom without delay!

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