Why worry about moral relativism?

Lost in the rain

Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and the Moral Life

Part I: Why worry about moral relativism?

The title of this essay, “Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and the Moral Life,” refers to Pontius Pilate’s question to Christ in John’s Gospel.  Of course, it is hard to say what exactly Pilate’s intentions were in raising this question—perhaps it was to absolve himself of any consequences of his actions, perhaps it expresses his skepticism that truth is all that relevant to the deeply pragmatic and compromised political decisions he has to make, including the judicial condemnation and execution of an innocent man, or perhaps it is a deep skepticism that anyone can, as Christ says, “bear witness to the truth.” But however we interpret that scene, one thing is certain: Pilate’s question is a perennial and personal one for all of us; it has not and it will never go away.  It is a question we will inescapably confront, again and again, precisely because, as rational animals—i.e., creatures with an intellect and will who make judgments, assertions, and choices—we cannot avoid seeking what is objectively true. The truth is inescapable for us because even if we try to say that there is no objective truth, we are thereby trying to say something objectively true.  This reality about us, that we seek out and must conform ourselves to the truth in every sphere of human life, is what all forms of relativism, which is the denial of objective truth, attempt to deny.

But why should we worry about relativism?  The answer is simple: because young people often think they have to be relativists.  Certainly students in my classes, especially my classes in moral theory, are often scandalized by the idea of making truth claims.  The tacit assumption they bring into my class is that making moral judgments is a bit presumptuous, illiberal, and worst of all, unkind.  Of course, the intelligibility of these objections to making moral truth claims depend upon very serious moral truth claims of their own—viz., that it is truly bad to be illiberal and unkind, that humility is truly good, that it is truly good to respect one another’s life choices, and so on. I will return to this point later on.  For now, I want us simply to notice the following interesting fact: that the principle reason to adopt moral relativism in the first place, which is the idea that there are no objective truths about what is good or bad in human life, depend upon moral beliefs that are taken to be objectively true.  This self-contradictory stance is the first sign that there is something deeply wrong with moral relativism.

But perhaps the worry is deeper.  Perhaps relativism is worse than just philosophically unserious or insufficiently reflective—perhaps it is positively bad for society and needs to be actively guarded against.  Consider the following remarks from then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his homily to mark the beginning of the conclave that would eventually elect him Pope:

“We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”[i]

Ratzinger’s remarks are a bit cryptic and certainly dark.  Obviously a dictatorship is something we don’t want to be building up unawares!  But why would Ratzinger call relativism a dictatorship?  If relativism is the idea that there is no objective truth such that all opinions are basically on a par, to many ears that sounds pretty democratic and tolerant, the exact opposite of an authoritarian dictatorship!  Moreover, in a liberal, democratic society such as ours, in which we all have an equal right to determine the future course of things, relativism may present itself as the only workable perspective—viz., the only standpoint from which one can be truly liberal and respect others.

A natural response is to say that Ratzinger is getting things backwards.   It isn’t relativism that oppresses us; rather it is the appeal to objective truth that is intrinsically illiberal—the real threat to individual liberty and personal autonomy.  Relativism simply encourages everyone to “speak their own truth,” as Oprah would say, and to live according to their own personal and authentic vision of the good life.

In this talk, I am going to suggest that a truly liberal democratic order—one that preserves true freedom and equality—depends upon mutual recognition of and respect for objective truths, most especially, objective truths about the nature of human beings and human life, and what human beings need in order to live well and flourish together.

To show this, I will first go through a variety of kinds of relativism that one might encounter these days, arguing that each version is both problematic and unappealing.  Along the way I will say a few things about what I think truth is generally, why truth is inescapable for us as rational animals, and why truth is necessary for a proper account of freedom.

  1. Varieties of Relativism
  2. Protagorean or global relativism

Not all relativisms are equal, and some are easier to dismiss than others.  Let us begin with the most vulgar sort, the kind of thing well-meaning people sometimes say but don’t really believe.  This is the sort of relativism that is often attributed to the Sophist Protagoras (a character we know about because of Plato’s discussions of him).  Of course, being called a sophist is not a compliment, so as you can imagine, Plato was not a fan. The idea, roughly, is that there is no such thing as an objective measure of truth independent of us, so there is no way to adjudicate between your own beliefs and anyone else’s.

For example:  Jane says that global temperatures are rising due to greenhouse gas emissions; Jack says that the current warming trends are part of the natural order of things, and that greenhouse gas emissions have made a negligible contribution to the current upward tick.  The relativist comes along and says that there is no truth of the matter either way, because there is no mechanism that could serve as a measure to determine which belief, Jack or Jane’s, is objectively true.

We have to be careful here, because relativism isn’t just disagreement; after all, genuine disagreement depends on the idea that there is some objective truth and thus something to disagree about. Relativism also isn’t the skeptical claim that we cannot be certain about our access to reality—that the evidence is too complicated or tricky. Relativism is the much stronger claim that each belief is equally true or equally good qua belief.  The world is as it appears to you, and the world is at it appears to me.  But this is all that there is and there can be: mere appearances.  Or, if we want to talk about reality, there is your reality and my reality, but we needn’t think these realities will converge upon a single reality independent of our own individual perspectives.

This view is famously self-refuting. Suppose that you go to study under Protagoras, and he tells you all about relativism.  Why is he telling you this?  Presumably he is trying to teach you something he believes is true.  If he did not think it was true, why would he assert it and try to get you to believe it?  It is obvious that, whether he admits it or not, Protagoras thinks that relativism is true, and not simply for him.  And he has to think this, otherwise believing in, asserting, and teaching relativism to his students are pointless and absurd exercises.  Protagoras’s theory is self-refuting, because its content is at odds with the nature and purpose of theorizing and teaching in general: putting something forward as true, as something that other right thinking people ought to believe.

To defend these claims I should say more about truth in general and how it relates to judgment, assertion, and belief.  But first, let me say something about what I (following Aquinas) think truth is.  Traditionally, philosophers have thought of truth as the way things are, so truth is related to being.  Propositions—the judgeable contents of judgments, assertions and beliefs, like ‘it is raining now in Anchorage Alaska’—are either true or false.  So, it either is the case or is not the case that ‘it is raining now in Anchorage.’  I don’t know, and so I don’t have a belief about it either way, but the way things are right now in Anchorage is going to settle whether anybody’s belief is good or bad.

Now, Aquinas thinks that truth is not simply the way things are but the way things are in relation to the intellect.[ii]  The intellect, or the capacity for knowledge and understanding, relates one to being by way of truth.  A judgment or belief is good or bad if it is true, and for it to be true is to relate the person to reality in the proper way.  For instance, to know that there is a podium here is to be related to the podium in a certain way.  As Aquinas says, it is an adequatio between the intellect and the thing (res).

So, to believe some proposition, p, just is to take p to be true; to assert something is to say that this is the way you take things to be.  Aquinas would agree with the Harvard philosopher Richard Moran, who argues that belief is transparent to the truth.[iii]  That is, from the first-person perspective, I treat the question of my belief about p as equivalent to the question of the truth of p.  This means that if I am deliberating about whether to believe that it is raining in Anchorage, I am deliberating about whether it is true that it is raining in Anchorage, is to deliberate about whether it is actually the case that it is raining in Anchorage. When I am trying to make up my mind about what to believe, I am trying to figure out the truth—the activity of theoretical deliberation is unintelligible without reference to the truth.

To see how close the connection is between belief, truth, and reality, consider the following scenario.  Imagine someone thinking to himself, as he looks out the window, that it’s raining, and then conjoining this with the thought that he doesn’t believe that it’s raining.  This doesn’t seem possible.  For this reason, Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that, “if there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely,’ it would not have any significant first-person present indicative.”[iv]  The reason for this is that to believe something is to have settled the question for oneself about the way things are.  Of course, I may be wrong.  But to believe something is to make a claim that can in principle be correct or incorrect, and the measure here is truth, the way things are, or reality itself. From the first person perspective, the commitment to something beyond my own psychology is unavoidable.  To believe and to judge is to transcend one’s own perspective, it is to put oneself in relation to things and to be held accountable to things beyond one’s self.

For this reason, Aquinas says that truth is that towards which the intellect tends by it nature, and that it is through intellect that we are open to reality.  For Aquinas, truth is a relation between two terms, reality (res, things or beings) and intellect, our capacity to judge or know. I think we can think of truth in this sense as something along the lines of a constitutive principle, one that both defines and measures the activity of the intellect.  That is, truth, as the constitutive aim of belief or judgment, both defines a belief as what it is—it is an aiming at truth—and it provides a measure of whether the belief is good or bad, because it is a good belief if it is true and a bad belief if it is false.  As thinkers, believers, and asserters, we cannot escape truth.  We are naturally and inescapably oriented towards truth in virtue of having an intellect in the first place—in virtue of being rational animals. We cannot turn our backs against the truth without thereby rejecting what we are.

Let us return now to global relativism.  According to global relativism, everyone’s beliefs are true in a private sense.  But now we can see that the idea of a private truth, of one’s own personal authentic truth, is nonsense.  To make a judgment, form a belief, or to assert something is to do something essentially public; even if I never share my belief with anyone else, it still has an essentially public character, because belief makes a claim about the way things are independently of my perspective upon them. In judging, asserting, or believing, I am holding myself accountable to the world, to reality, which is a publicly accessible thing.  Therefore, if you say you believe that there is no objective truth, no way that things really are, this amounts to saying that you don’t believe in belief.  But of course, to say that you believe that there is no belief is to have a belief and to take that belief about belief to be true.  There is no way to escape a commitment to truth; as rational animals, it is part of our nature.

This brings us back around to the ultimately self-defeating nature of global relativism.  The relativist cannot help but assert his relativism, and in so doing, he cannot help but take it to be true for more than just himself. The relativist cannot escape what he is: a creature with intellect, by nature oriented to the truth.

Tomorrow: Partial relativism and skepticism

[i] http://www.vatican.va/gpII/documents/homily-pro-eligendo-pontifice_20050418_en.html

[ii] ST I Q16

[iii] Richard Moran, Authority and Estrangment, Princeton University Press, 2001

[iv] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. By G.E.M. Anscombe, Pearson, 1973.

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

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