Any and all Relatavists...I Need a Hand

Hi there.

I’m having a little problem that I’m hoping some relativists can assist with. Essentially, I need to ask a question, and hopefully find a satisfactory answer from a relativist worth his salt.

This isn’t so much a, “This is how I feel, and if you feel differently, lets cyber-argue till someone is left in the crushing grip of reason” type of things. Its more of a straight up, honest question that I’ve had as regards the whole relativistic movement in general–I think it mostly pertains to moral relativism, but it…kind of…sort of…touches on other areas of the idea on the whole.

Before posing said question, I will apologize to any who may have been expecting something juicy; my question is fairly simple. The problem is that I have never seen any concrete, relativist rebuttal against it, and though it was for this reason I figured the entire concept had more or less died, I’ve recently discovered that relativism…at least in my circles…is still alive and well, which naturally brought me back to my initial problem with it, and which by extension, brings me here, with an eager hope of finding some real, live, relativists in the wild. Again–its pretty simple, and something that relativists must naturally be forced to overcome before they even become relativist, but no ones ever gave me anything resembling a satisfactory answer.

Okay, so without further adieu, the problem I’ve always felt was intrinsic in relativism, and the issue that brings me here today, is that of the assertion by relativists that there is no absolute truth, and by extension, no absolute moral truth.

For such assertions undeniably end up sounding like, “yaddayaddayadda, MEANS, that there cannot be any absolute and/or moral truth.” This to me is an absolute statement; which therein lies my problem. How, while believing in relativism, can one then turn about face and start making absolute statements…such as…“I’m right.”, or, “You’re wrong.” Please don’t mistake me…I know some smart folks have believed such things, so I’m not saying there isn’t a…“eloquent,” in the very least…answer to this problem, but regardless, I still would love to hear it. I suppose one could try saying that “There are no truths, except for the fact that are no truths.” If you assert that the only statement to be made in the way of a universal truth is that universal truths don’t exist, I feel you may have settled for a paradox (the only reason I bring this up, is because for some reason I feel like I’ve heard someone try to explain how it makes sense…idk).

So thats more or less it; nothing too fancy. Like I said, I’m more interested in being informed as to how the idea has become popular, than I am in arguing ourselves silly; so when I respond to any argument made in favor of R., please don’t think I’m trying to overcome you intellectually, but simply trying to fill in some gaps, and cover every angle, of a question that my less then advanced mind is less then proficient in comprehending. Thanks in advance for anyone willing to pander to me.
Edit:(sigh)…and yes…I spelled the thread title wrong. Apologies, lol.

The classic phrasing might be Hume’s.

Oh, you were looking for moral relativists. Sorry, I can’t help you, then.

I am a moral relativist. In fact, it was many years ago on this very board where I was argued into becoming a moral relativist from a contrary position. I have not since changed that position. I will happily give a more detailed response later this evening, when I have the chance. For now…

Some relativists say this, but not all. I’d suggest starting with this link and poke around a little bit. There are a lot of nuances to relativisms of various sorts and saying you are a moral relativist doesn’t mean you don’t think there is no absolute truth, because most people distinguish morality from other pursuits.

OK, anyway, I will have a personal reply later.

Well, for one — as already indicated — you’re not properly distinguishing between moral relativism and relativism more generally. Someone could believe in the existence of absolute truth, even of our ability to grasp such a thing, without believing that there are specifically moral absolute truths. Someone already quoted Hume; if he’s right (cf. the naturalistic fallacy) then a system of morality just can’t be entirely based on facts about the world but of necessity is mired in subjective concerns. In rather zygotic form I do think you have an argument that relativistic theories of truth are self-defeating (but that’s another thread).

You might say instead that a moral relativist paints herself into a corner vis-à-vis moral approbation and opprobrium. But one could merely agree that morality, practically speaking, is just the expression of subjective feelings; then “You shouldn’t have murdered John, so you deserve to go to jail” should be translated into something like “I don’t think you should’ve murdered John, and most people agree, so we’ll put you in jail.” Frankly I think it must be kind of hard to genuinely feel this way without weakening your ability to cast blame, but some people manage it pretty well, or else seem to.

Ah!, see, I find this very interesting. Though my question was, more or less, geared toward moral relativism, I am eager to discover how you personally (at least, I feel this is what you have inferred from your post–correct me if I’m wrong) find that you are a relativist, but are apparently not so in regards to morals. How exactly would one assert relativism, and then combine it some sort of absolute truth, like the existence of intrinsic morals, and form a satisfactory ideology?

I’m slightly relativistic. I dislike the “absolute” relativism of Jake and Dinos Chapman for instance and I think that certain moral precepts can have testable effects. For example, I hold that “indiscriminate murder will lead to fewer self-reports of positive emotions”. Whether positive emotions are good or not in the aggregate is something that I’m not really interested in debating.

I actually agree with Bachmann in that some cultures are better than others. I think the Scandinavian countries social democratic culture leads to less income equality than the US’s individualistic one for instance (though one has to exclude a significant plurality when even referring to “culture”). I don’t think things like art can be quantified, nor do I believe in the concept of human races.

Edit: Oh, I don’t believe in the concept of free will. I still have no problem thinking that people should be isolated from society.

Hm…I feel this is fueling a complete tangent, but you’ve piqued my curiosity. I’ve been hearing this idea alot lately, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to pin anyone down and interrogate them for having it…so you’ve fallen right into my trap.

I for one always took the very concept of race to be not so much an inherent quality, but more so a simple method created by society to label and identify the realities of differences between certain folks, like whites and blacks. Though I would be the last to say that that is all that it is, and that humans have never tried using the concept for their own purposes, but I think its over analyzing it to say that the concept of Race is one that was created simply to put down minorities, and keep power in the hands of the majority, or otherwise powerful. In the same way, I would be confused if someone got angry over why we define different variations of Tiger as such. Many of the varieties we define are the same species–but we do so simply to label observable qualities that differ from one example to the next.

Ha, I hate to be nitpicky, but I don’t think that I can, in good faith, allow you to put the word “believe” in a sentence in which you are describing that you have a lack of individual choice of your own, without making some sort of fuss. I should be appreciative, however, if you would expound more though, before I go putting words in your mouth.

Morality is relative because all moral law fails some test its designed for.

The best of all moral laws (from Kant):

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” (which is a better version of the Golden Rule)

even fails some tests.

Its been over 20 years since I studied the great Kant. Those classes where I did were among the best I ever had. My prof knew his Kant and Aristotle (and loved Hume too).

I think beliefs are the total of our experiences (with some input from our genes) and adding chance to the equation (or developmental noise as Lewontin describes it) does not resolve that problem. I have watched some lectures of Chalmers and I think they’re interesting, but that consciousness is ultimately a property of the brain.

Edit: So what we view as “choices” would be “determined” before the event. Even if we deliberate, we’d ultimately make the same decision, given the same genotype and experiences in any number of repeats (having a qualitatively similar but quantitatively different experience counts as having another experience though, so the repeat is impossible in reality).

Well, developments in biology have revealed that those apparently taxonomic differences are pretty surface (skin and hair phenotype). We may be predisposed to altruism to those that are more like us, but we are also pretty easily fooled in that respect. At any rate, modern studies such as this typically find high levels of contiguity and a greater “within group” variance than “between group” variance: overlapping error bars. Past taxonomy based on phenotype and Platonic thinking* is also shifting thanks to technological advances that allow more accurate lineages.

  • I appreciate contiguity, so was originally going to say I was “relatively relativistic”, but I realised that most of my opinions are completely contrary to that.

Note: this is a highly personal account. I can only apologize in advance if my position does not represent a lot of relativists or if I present something in an otherwise highly idiosyncratic manner.

To me (which all of this is and I am not an authority so even if I omit this qualification, it is implicit), relativism is union of two propositions: judgments are always relative to a system of judging and there is no way to know whether a system of judgment has a privileged position over other systems. If you disagree with either of these or both of these then, in my opinion, you are not a relativist of any stripe whatsoever. Some choose to strengthen the second proposition and say that there is not any privileged system of judgment but that seems too strong for me.

The important aspect to avoid the trivial paradox (if nothing is absolute is “nothing is absolute” absolute?) is the first proposition. Relativism is not a system of judgment. Relativism cannot answer questions like, “Is X true?” or “Is Y moral?” or make ascriptions that would otherwise constitute an answer to those kinds of questions. Relativism is a description of a system of judgment which has those qualities, but not a system of judgment itself. Since it can’t make any judgment, it certainly can’t make the particular judgment that “X is absolute” and the paradox is avoided. (It comes up again later.)

I tend to take an axiomatic view of most things, though this is based only on an analogy. That is, to render some judgment, we will attempt to make our system explicit in order to make the judgment (to justify an ascription). That is, if I am going to argue that “killing people is wrong except in cases of self-defense” then I should be prepared to describe the principles which allow that deduction. These principles stand in for the total system of judgment which is at least partly implicit if not impossible to completely enumerate. (I think it is totally impossible to enumerate. But nothing in particular I am going to say depends on this.)

These somewhat ad hoc systems of judgment get us through most everything. Sometimes, though, we are asked to render judgment on systems of judgment. If you are an absolutist of some sort, the important problem here is, “How do I avoid begging the question?” If you are a relativist, then you have no problem, because the judgment in question is based on some other system of judgment which is capable of judging systems of judgments (a meta-system) and it just answers the question. In this meta-system, you could easily suppose that your own particular system (the one in question, not the meta-system) is best. This doesn’t beg the question because the system isn’t proving itself the best. Thus you could be a “relative absolutist” without contradiction: you think you have the best system, and you can present arguments for it, even though you hold that the system which made the judgment isn’t the best, and so on, up the chain, for however you wish to meta meta meta.

Under the account I’ve given, then, any particular relativist could answer “If nothing is absolute is ‘nothing is absolute’ absolute?” either “Yes” or “No” and—hopefully—be prepared to defend their answer with a series of assumptions and logical derivations. Since the absolutist already rules out such a hierarchy of systems they usually have trouble understanding how a relativist could possibly answer this question at all: they have nowhere to run when such questions rear their ugly heads.

But again—relativism doesn’t make the judgments. It is a description of the way someone might attempt to render judgments. Some might be moral relativists—say, a moral subjectivist (a better position than cultural relativism IMO)—without going whole hog and asserting epistemological relativism. If you’re going to jump from system of judgment to system of judgment then this implicitly assumes the move is valid in the first place and then we’ll call you a relativist… about whatever you’re judging.

This jumping is not just a sort of boring technical point. It is implicit in understanding counterfactuals. That is, it allows us to render judgments in cases that are different than things are. For example, “If you thought X, then I agree Y would be justified/true/moral/blah.” What allows this deduction? Not logical manipulation as these don’t have the requisite semantics. Only a relativistic jump allows us to make this kind of maneuver. But if you don’t believe relativism is valid, what makes this kind of counterfactual sensible? —I think absolutism has this really huge problem.

I mean, think about it. “If we called ‘North’ ‘South’—” ; But we don’t. ; “Yes, but if we did…” ; But that doesn’t make sense. North is North, and South is South. This is just the way things are.

“If one-time wealth transfers are morally permissible—” ; But they’re not. “Yes, but if they were, then…” ; But they’re not, and once you allow a contradiction, everything follows. ; “I know, but just work with me here…”

Dealing with these cases implicitly assumes that jumping from a system of judgment to another is a valid move. It also implicitly assumes that we have the requisite semantics to understand the question, and apply our assumptions in that system. So we have assumed that judgments are relative to the system in question. We’ve gotten halfway to relativism just by considering counterfactuals.

Then the only proposition which remains in question is that there is no way to know that we are in a privileged system of judgment. I regret I just accept this as true without justification. I’ve never been able to support the alternative proposition in any particular case, and I’ve never been convinced by anyone else’s support of the alternative. In my opinion, Loeb’s theorem highly motivates the need for this, given the discussion of counterfactuals, but it is not a direct proof or otherwise substantial. It’s just persuasive to me.

As Connor Oberst put it: “But if you swear that there’s no truth, and who cares, how come you say it, like you’re right?” (YouTube link).

But this really just counts for general treatments of truth, as has been pointed out. Myself, I’m not a moral relativist nor an objectivist (or perhaps universalist is the proper term here); I consider the faculty of making moral judgements to be similar to the faculty of making grammatical judgements: there is no absolute sense in which a sentence is ‘grammatically correct’, such a judgement is entirely contingent on the language system that is being used. Alternative language systems are perfectly feasible; there is no position of ‘grammatical objectivism’ which states that there are eternal truths about grammatical correctness that we attempt to discover through language-building. But it’s also not the case that all grammars stand on equal footing: most of them would probably be so unwieldy as to make communication effectively impossible, so the system would be pointless. A similar argument can be drawn up for moral systems: a lot of them would probably be destructive – a culture that advocated ruthless baby-killing would not be around for long, and its moral system would vanish along with it.

Furthermore, just as there’s evidence for a kind of ‘universal grammar’, i.e. a fundamental structure that is similar across different cultures and probably hardwired genetically, such a thing may exist regarding morality, as well. This is Mikhail’s theory of universal moral grammar (pdf) (or see here for a podcast of him explaining the idea). According to this idea, our moral judgements don’t derive from any grand overarching rule (which seems reasonable, as any such rule consistent with people’s actual judgements has yet to be found – see for instance the famous trolley problems, where people often end up judging against their own previously stated principles), just like there’s no universal rule for grammar (all rules there have some exceptions), but rather, there’s a basic, evolved, hard-wired set of heuristics and rules-of-thumb, from which ultimately our moral judgements derive.

Here’s one way to approach your question: we have to presume absence until presence can be proved. So, if you say “I am standing in a room,” I will assume there’s not a purple elephant in that room. You may prove to me that there is a purple elephant in the room, but I will presume there isn’t one until you do so.

So, when a relativist says “there are no truths,” they are saying “we are still in the sate of presuming absence of truths because none have been proved.”

A favorite paper of mine on relativism: Death and Furniture: the rhetoric, politics and theology of bottom line arguments against relativism (PDF).


Hm…ok. Well I think one thing that I’m becoming confused by is your use of the term, “systems of judgement.” Could you provide a concrete example of where you derive and how you create different “systems of judgment,” and furthermore how such “systems of judgement” might actually look, be it a relativist system or a universalist?

Though, again, you’ll prob. need to inform me more of what constitutes these systems before I can render a better opinion, I, at first look, feel that this sort of theory is more of a philosophical “dodge” as opposed to an actual refutation of a method of thinking that would be asserted by absolutists. For even if you wish to say that a different system is more proper to reason by, then what exactly are you using to say that this alternate system is better then the one, say, I may be using.

How can this statement be made and asserted though, if they are dually admitting it is not possible to reach a state of knowing?

I’m afraid I may continually sound like a broken record, but it seems many descriptions of relativism seem to give excellent attempts in explaining how truth either cannot be known or doesn’t exist, but then always seems to conclude their feelings with some sort of absolute statement. I’m getting the feeling that putting relativist though into a different, “system of judgement,” could render a reasonable explanation that that system is able to overcome any other.

I think the OP is making a sort of ontological argument for truth itself. I…actually sort of agree, but I see why others don’t.

But they don’t need to make that dual admission. Consider the Hume quote I led off with: he merely notes that some new relation or affirmation is being introduced, that no reason is given for how the ‘ought’ is suddenly and surprisingly derived from an ‘is’ – and pretty much limits himself to mentioning the lack of an explanation.

Rand Rover’s quote likewise stops short; neither of 'em goes on to flatly rule out the possibility, they both just note we don’t yet have something to work with. Until a satisfying answer is supplied, what difference does it make if one secretly believes no such answer can be supplied and the other doesn’t? Won’t they reason identically regardless?

Which is not actually true, except for very small number of philosophies. He, or you, or many other people might not follow it that logic, or might ignore it, but the people who came up with it have a very good idea of why the “is” becomes and “ought”.

Assuming, of course, that they are true about the first part at all. And of course, I’ve yet to see the relativist who actually lives or thinks that way.

Pick any assertion which allows you to make a judgement about something and you have a system of judgment. For instance, “Killing is bad.” Now you can judge people’s actions: if they killed someone, that was bad.

If you wished to say it, you’d have to find a way to judge it. How are you going to do that if you’re an absolutist and there’s only one system? I guess you’ll just beg the question.