Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Relativism: What Do You Mean By "True?"

Part of the reason that relativism is so frustrating to confront is that it is like punching a blob of jello. The relativist can constantly redefine what she "meant by that," or alternately define truth for herself. This hinges on the relativist's definition of "truth" as a moving target. The most extreme relativists claim that truth is nothing but a personal preference; everyone has their own. Most, however, subscribe to a version of truth that is "constructed" by communities or cultures.

Both these lead to ridiculous ends. Everyone can't have their own personal version of the truth. First, those who have differing (and therefore contradictory) versions of truth would be in direct logical conflict with one another but neither would be capable of calling the other one "wrong." Both could be wrong of course, but it is logically impossible for both to be right. Claiming someone else's truth is wrong is the ultimate No-No for a relativist.

Second, there would be no basis for a minority subset of the culture to question the consensus "truth," even if they disagreed with it. In the cultural consensus version of truth, might makes right. The danger in that philosophical idea should be obvious.

I have already discussed the Correspondence Theory (the orthodox view of truth that has been in place since the dawn of humanity). It is one of several other philosophical definitions of "truth," but it is the only view that does not see truth as some kind of construction. The important issue is that, to the relativist, looking at truth this way is not acceptable. The reason? Accepting this definition of truth leads to absolute (a.k.a. "objective") standards of truth and ethics, and any claim to know a truth like that is considered oppressive by its very existence.

To demonstrate how this works more tangibly, I will let some relativists speak for themselves to demonstrate the lengths to which they will go to avoid sounding oppressive or arrogant. That their claims sometimes descend into silliness is deemed irrelevant because, for them, the instinct to avoid the 'A'- word (Absolutism) or to avoid sounding "judgmental" overrides even the most basic tenets of logic.

The first example comes in several different versions, usually something like this:

"I am pursuing truth just like you are..."
"Always act in the name of truth..."

At first these sound nice -- the pursuit of truth and all -- and they would be if you took it in the sense that truth is an objective thing to be discovered. But when dealing with a relativist you cannot make that assumption. You have to be careful about identifying which definition of "truth" is in play when you converse with a relativist.

Always ask for clarification on which definition of truth we should act upon. The reasons for this are obvious. If one acts in the name of their own personal version of "truth" -- and if everyone else does the same -- the outcomes we strive for can be all over the map. Some will be selfish. Some will be inconsiderate of others, or even downright evil. This is especially true when you are dealing with moral truth. Some could seek to imitate Mother Teresa, while others chose Jeffrey Dahmer. Whose to say which is true, or wrong, or "better" than any other choice?

The same goes for the 'community consensus' version of truth. Some communities (like the Nazis) might pursue the "truth" that the Aryan race is superior to all others, while Flat-Earthers might vote to defund the Navy for safety reasons. It seems like acting on a relativistic truth (one that is defined by a person or his 'community') will lead to chaos while acting in the name of Absolute Truth leads to, well, Truth. The latter is what we call dealing in "reality."

When you attempt to point this out to a relativist, there are two common responses. The first is to chastise you for your know-it-all attitude and the arrogance you display in claiming to know the truth. The second (utilized only by polite relativists) invariably includes some sort of statement about how "we'll just have to agree to disagree."

The first response confuses the fact that the claim to be able to know true things does not imply that one is all-knowing or that one knows any truth exhaustively. Obviously, God himself (the source of objective truth) is the only one who could claim either of these. The second response is simply meant to avoid having to succumb to logic. But "just disagreeing" about a direct logical contradiction does not absolve the relativist from being bound by logic. It's just a cop out.

Another tack relativists like to take is to avoid having to side with the truth is the incessant pursuit of neutrality. I will talk about the "myth of moral neutrality" in my next post but this is the kind of thing you might hear a relativist say:

"Relativity is the best way. Everything is relative."
"The middle ground is the best place to be."

First, the confusion with "relativity" and "relativism" is a common one in which relativists believe that because Einstein's General Relativity Theory implies that "all motion is relative to its frame of reference," this can also be applied to the areas of truth and ethics to conclude that "everything is relative." To this notion, Einstein himself is said to have responded, "Relativity is for physics, not ethics." This is because Einstein was smart enough to know that logical contradictions cannot be true, regardless of the discipline in which someone tries to justify them.

Second, this common tactic among relativists -- to claim neutrality and always strive to avoid "taking sides" no matter how heinous or outrageous either of the poles may be. This inevitably leads to ridiculous ends.

For instance, if I say it is true that the Earth revolves around the Sun, while someone else says the Earth does not revolve around the Sun, what is the middle ground? The fact is that one of the claims is true, and one is false. There is no other option. In truth (no pun intended), the relativist resorts to the cover of "neutrality" because she doesn't want to allow for objective moral truth. Here is an actual example of how this kind of claim plays out:
Me: [The middle ground is not the best place to be] when the "middle ground" allows for a contradiction. Basic logic tells us there is a "Law of the Excluded Middle" that we just can't get around.

Relativist: ... the middle ground isn't always ideal. However, more often than not, staying closer to the middle rather than extremes will create a better result.

Me: But you said, "the middle ground is the best place to be." Your response to my comment says: "the middle ground isn't always ideal."
Most relativists say this kind of thing all the time, not seeming to realize that The Law of the Excluded Middle makes the middle ground a logical impossibility! In fairness, this particular relativist did reword her statement to say: "... Often, the middle ground is the best place to be." This has a completely different meaning than the original of course (and in fairness, this particular relativist did admit as much), but relativism is notorious for seeking middle ground when there is none. Again, I will address this in the next post.

But now, my favorite relativist claim, offered here as a "maxim" to live by ...

"There are no absolutes; everything has an exception."

For those who may not be familiar with the term, a "self-refuting" statement is one that cannot be true because it contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. For instance, if I were to claim, "I cannot write in the English language," the claim is self-refuting because I wrote it in the English language. This maxim suffers the same fate because it makes the absolute claim that there are no absolutes (none, zero, nada) while at the same time making yet another absolute claim in saying that everything has exceptions. Don't worry, it gets worse ...
Me: This maxim is a self-refuting statement ... which means that there are, in fact, absolutes ...

Relativist: Self refuting? Not at all. If you read the whole thing (which I can't believe you didn't...poor reading comprehension on your part), you would see that I allow for exceptions to the "no absolutes" rule; i.e. some things are absolute. Not many though. And the goal of a maxim is to find a rule to live by which applies more often than not. It won't always I said, everything has an exception. Good try, but you fail in your attempt to 'one-up' me. In your rush to try and out-intellect me, you end up looking petty and jealous (emphases mine).

Me: Again, the maxim says: "There are no absolutes, everything has an exception," while your response to my comment says, "some things are absolute, not many though." Do you not see this is a contradiction? The contradiction arises because the maxim is self-refuting (and therefore false).

Relativist: It isn't a contradiction if you read the entire maxim. You keep quoting part of the whole, but leaving out an important piece. To paraphrase my maxim: "Everything has an exception, including this; there are a few exceptions to the rule that there are no exceptions. Therefore, some things do not have exceptions, they are absolute."
Got it? Is it possible to construct a more convoluted explanation than this in an attempt to cover up a simple logical contradiction? These are the ends to which relativism forces you to retreat in order to defend it. Let me break this one down ...

"There are no absolutes …" "No" means none, zero, nada, which makes this phrase an absolute claim. When this absolute claim is applied to itself, it is a contradiction, thereby rendering this phrase “self-refuting.”

"Everything has an exception …" The word "everything" also makes this an absolute claim which also makes it self-refuting and meaningless.

Combining two self-refuting phrases into a "maxim" does not a coherent statement make. But there is an easier way to re-phrase this maxim. It goes something like this: "There are absolutes."

See how easy that is? Why is it so hard for the relativist to just say it that way? And, as an aside, what about the nasty remarks that go along with it (i.e. "poor reading comprehension on your part," "petty and jealous" etc.) from a relativist who claims to abhor judgmentalism?


To be fair, if you look at this relativist's explanation, there is an admission that there are absolutes; he just can't bring himself to say so directly. It has to be couched in a convoluted triple negative flurry of "exceptions." This particular relativist also goes on to declare that he "is not bothered by our disagreement" but wonders about someone like me who will "push and push and push to make others agree with them." The arrogance thing, you know.

But please notice that if I am trying to get the relativist to agree with anything, it is not me. It is with basic logic and the inevitable conclusions of the relativist's own statements!

This is what makes relativism so frustrating to deal with, but deal with it we must. Relativism is more than just a trivial game of semantics. It is foolishness that turns deadly when moral truth is at stake. That will be the topic next time ...

[For the record, the discussion above is only meant to highlight some variations of the arguments I have personally run across from self-professing relativists. I have intentionally avoided identifying where or when I was confronted with these comments because it is the ideas that I find maddening. These kinds of things have been said by all kinds of different relativists on many different occasions. These are just specific examples that have stuck in my mind.]


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  3. A few points in response:

    1) I went out of my way to not identify the sources of my quotes. In fact, you are wrong to say “the only words I quote are [your] own.” Two of the quotes were from a conversation I had over 3 years ago (that I will NEVER forget) with a moral relativist “animal rights” lady about how gorillas were no different than humans. She was the defender of “relativity” and the one who thought I was the most arrogant human being on earth because I made a case for human exceptionalism. Another was a quote from an atheist commenter on another blog I contribute to in a discussion about abortion. The problem is that some of the views you are espousing are not unique. I hear this kind of stuff all the time.

    You keep referring to "self-professing" relativists. That, at least in reference to myself, is blatantly untrue - and considering the only words you quote are my own, it seems as if you are only referring to me. I have stated explicitly to you the fact that I am not a relativist in the way you define it. You are free to disagree, but don't refer to me as “self-professing”

    2) As for “self-professing,” I stand by that statement for those I was quoting, including you. I can cut and paste the comments if you’d like, but the whole reason I entered a discussion with you the first time was because I was (frankly) shocked to hear you defend “[your] version of moral relativism.” If you defend moral relativism -- whether you try to define it differently for yourself or not -- I consider that to be “self-professing.” It most certainly is not “blatantly untrue.” Actually, that was the point of the post -- that the definition of relativism is always a moving target.

    ”But know that its unfortunate that you ignore the further conversations we had on the subject, and instead pick out bits and pieces which you can disagree with. For example, with the "triple negative" thing, the wording is how it is because I enjoy wordplay and brevity. You don't have to like it; that's irrelevant. But you understood what I meant...your statement that "there is another way to say it...there are absolutes" (paraphrase), shows that you do know what I meant, and just don't like how I said it. Is that really such a big issue? ”

    3) As for the “triple negative” thing. Read it for yourself. Again, it is cut and pasted from your own comment elsewhere. I also “enjoy wordplay and brevity,” but seriously … words mean things. When the negatives all cancel themselves out, what you are left with is: “There are absolutes.” That’s all I ever said. I’m (honestly) not sure if you’re kidding about your affinity for brevity when you compare your statement to my summary of your statement.

    Also, you seem offended that I don’t admit that I knew what you meant. Not true. Maybe you missed it but I said in the post, “To be fair, if you look at this relativist's explanation, there is an admission that there are absolutes; he just can't bring himself to say so directly.” I also stand by that.

    4) I have said time and time again that I have no interest in “fighting” about differences of opinion that you and I may hold personally. That’s why I have kept names out of it and made no reference to where the quotes came from (you did that). That issue is irrelevant. As I said in the post, relativists don’t seem to realize that their real fight is with logic itself, not me -- and that is a big issue when we’re talking about defending the truth of the matter.

    Finally, I don’t delete comments from my blog unless they are offensive, out of line, or not serious about discussing things (i.e. a troll who is wasting my time). I don’t consider your comment to be anywhere near any of those things, but if you want to delete them yourself, that is your option.

    Cheers …

  4. A good rhetorical move on the Relativity Theory front may be to note that Relativity Theory is built on the principle that the laws of nature are exactly the same in every reference frame--they are invariant. This is the opposite of what relativists say about ethics.

  5. If I'm not mistaken, Einstein didn't like the label "Relativity Theory" and instead wanted it referred to as the "Theory of Invariance."

    Good point, Alexander. Thanks for bringing it up.


Though I do not moderate comments, I reserve the right to delete any comment that I deem inappropriate. You don't have to agree with me, but I don't tolerate abusive or objectionable language of any kind.