True For You

Kwasi Wiredu -- ``Mischief and Cruelty
would make a pretty cool album title.
This will make sense later in the post.''
Here's an idea that is perennially popular with undergraduates and perennially unpopular with professional philosophers: truth is relative; what is true for me may not be true for you; two logically incompatible perspectives may be just as good as each other, from the point of truth or accuracy. Call this vague idea `relativism' The classic philosophical formulation of relativism comes from Protagoras of Abdera, who famously said ``Man is the measure of all things; of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.'' The idea here being that in some deep and interesting sense what is true depends on what we take to be true, or on decisions we make, or on facts about how we represent things. While there is much work to be done in making this idea clear, I am going to assume that yinz know roughly what I have in mind. And while there are plenty of arguments about relativism, I am going to focus on an ethical debate.

As a way into the ethical argument for relativism I have in mind, here's a passage from one philosopher who has defended relativism, Kwasi Wiredu, who ends one of his essays on the matter as such:
The concept of absolute truth appears to have a tendency to facilitate dogmatism and fanaticism which lead, in religion and politics, to authoritarianism and, more generally, to oppression. I do not say this is a necessary consequence of that conception. Indeed, if human beings were always consistent, the doctrine of absolute truth should, as suggested earlier, lead to total scepticism rather than to dogmatism. Besides, it is not here suggested that all advocates of the idea in question are dogmatic or fanatical. It is a fact, nevertheless, that in matters of truth and falsity, drastic persecution is hardly conceivable without pretensions to absolute truth on the part of the persecutors. It is difficult to think that men could imprison and even kill their fellow men for doctrinal differences with a free conscience if they understood clearly that, in doing so, they were acting simply on their own fallible opinions. It is a totally different thing when people believe that they are in the service of absolute truth, particularly if they imagine that the destiny of a nation, or even, perhaps, of the whole of mankind, is in question. There is no end to the mischief and cruelty of which they are capable. Yet, translated into the terms of my theory, such assertions as `The Truth will prevail'; and `The Truth is on our side', amount to no more than `Our opinions will prevail' or `My opinions are on my side'.
Wiredu is far from alone in this emphasis on the tolerant ethical implications of relativism. For instance, some of the classic relativists, like Zhuangzi or Montaigne, seems to be primarily motivated by the thought that relativism is a natural accompaniment of a humble, tolerant, live-and-let-live attitude. Even philosophers whose relativism seems to be motivated by somewhat abstruse considerations of language or logic often have something like this lurking in the background. See, for instance, this short essay on Carnap's voluntarism, and I think it is telling that the penultimate chapter of the highly rewarding recent book on relativism, Assessment Sensitivity by John MacFarlane, is an argument in favour of relativism about `ought' judgements.

Zhuangzi -- ``The only absolute truth is that
this painting of me is really pretty badass.''
But why think that relativism entails a humble, tolerant, live-and-let-live attitude? Here are reasons to think it doesn't (both discussed by Timothy Williamson, if I recall correctly, here). (1): `humility' only makes sense, or is only motivated, with a robust notion of mind- or culture-independent truth. One can be humble only by acknowledging that there's a real possibility that one is entirely wrong, that one's efforts to get at the truth have failed. Most ways of formulating relativistic views end up undermining this, by rendering people infallible, or inevitably epistemically faultless, about at least some propositions. (2) relativists are not taking their own position fully seriously when they act as if any particular moral attitude follows from it. Sure, it follows for you -- but why should it follow for somebody else? For them, perhaps, the ethical corollary of relativism is totalitarian conformism! Of course, as relativists will point out, accepting relativism does not mean `anything goes'; but if one takes advantage of this in defending relativism one will just be introducing non-relativistic, absolutist, elements into one's philosophy.

I think these are fair challenges, and somebody who wishes to defend the ethical corollary of relativism must take them seriously. And in fact many do -- both Wiredu and MacFarlane, for instance, have things to say to both of these challenges. The goal of their responses is to show that one could be justified in taking a kind of humble or fallibilist attitude even as a relativist, and usually a bit of bullet biting goes on with objection (2). But one thing I do not often see said in this literature, and which strikes me as strange because from conversation I suspect it is very often the most salient reason that relativists believe the ethical corollary, is the following empirical psychological claim: accepting relativism causes one to become more humble, tolerant, and likely to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude. The exact mechanism behind this causal relationship may remain opaque: the point is just that there is a causal relationship between adopting this philosophical belief and one's behaviour, and this is somewhat distinct from that behaviour being justified in light of relativism. Humble, tolerant, live-and-let-live attitudes are a causal, not logical, consequence of relativism. Part of my reason for quoting the Wiredu passage at length, in fact, was that it is one of the few places where I think this widely held causal claim is laid out plainly.

If the italicised claim is true then it would help answer (1) and (2) in the following quasi-consequentialist manners. On (1): what was valuable in humility was not after all its logical coherence but the sort of behaviours it induces and the effect of those behaviours on one's peers. People who are humble are willing to listen to opposing points of view, do not become judgemental or condemnatory with those who differ, and are willing to revise their beliefs in the face of contrary evidence -- and such people are more pleasant to be around than those who behave in the contrary manner. If the italicised claim is true then accepting relativism makes one's peers more pleasant in just these ways, even if the ideal of humility itself is somewhat hard to make sense of for a relativist. On (2): while it does not logically follow that relativists will be more humble, tolerant, and likely to take a live-and-let-live attitude; in fact they do so, and once again it is after all actual moral behaviour that is significant.

Montaigne -- `` I was a cultural relativist, which
means that when I wore this collar it is not 
because I thought that the sartorial norms of my 
society are objectively superior and  I had 
some absolute aesthetic duty, but rather that 
I really did  just want to dress this way.''
To offer anything like these arguments depends on a very instrumentalist or consequentialist ethic of belief that a lot of philosophers would balk at. But then again I take it that anybody who offers the ethical motivation for relativism has already taken at least some steps down this road. And whether or not any of this moves one depends on believing that humility (etc) is pleasant and to be encouraged, an assumption which if the relativist tried to defend it may end up generating objections like (2). There is, as ever, more work to be done.

Further, all this was conditional on the italicised claim being true. I know of no argument to the effect that it is. Investigating the italicised claim seems ripe for the kind of sociological or social psychological investigation which experimental philosophers are now undertaking. It would be difficult, mind you! Any takers?

In advance of any evidence -- would I bet on the italicised causal claim? Tell truth, I would not. If anything, I suspect a causal arrow in the other direction. Relativism is a plausible take on how one might encode tolerant (etc) attitudes into one's metaphysics or epistemology, and I suspect that very often philosophical positions are expressions of underlying personality. But even though I'd bet against it, I still think it worth investigating. I think it is what attracts a lot of our undergraduates, and others who we too quickly dismiss, to relativism; it is not so obviously wrong; and if it is true, the consequentialist argument for relativism is suddenly viable.

(Montaigne's relativism may actually have been somewhat different in nature from the `alethic' -- relativism about truth -- focus of Zhuangzi, Wiredu, and MacFarlane; all of whom have differences from each other, and all of whom (including Montaigne) are offering a notion of relativism that may be thought of as different from the kind of conceptual-scheme relativism that Carnap offered. I tend to prefer highlighting similarities rather than differences though, so I've included them all here. I think relativism is a somewhat unfairly maligned doctrine so I wanted to do a post discussing it. When I was thinking about famous relativists for this post I thought of those named, plus Nelson Goodman and Alaine Locke. Now I look at it this is oddly gendered -- who are some famous women relativist philosophers I should know about?)


  1. Some women philosophers who work on relativism (but aren't necessarily relativists):

    Maria Baghrahmian
    I think she considers herself a pluralist rather than a relativist, but she works on both.

    Michele Moody-Adams
    I haven't read any of her work but my colleague Robin recommends her book Fieldwork in Familiar Places, where I'm told she criticises the anthropological evidence for moral relativism.

    Helen Longino
    I'm not sure if she embraces the label 'relativism' at any point - in what I've read she calls her view 'contextualist empiricism' - but it seems like relativism to me.

    Vicki Spencer
    Actually I don't know if she works on relativism as a rule, but she at least deserves an honourable mention because she works on humility and tolerance and pluralism and all of the other cool things. She visited our project recently and the book she's working on now sounds really, really cool and probably right up your alley, but I can't find anything about it online just now and am wary about trying to reconstruct how she described it... But look out for it I guess? I'm pretty sure you'd dig it.

    Delia Graff Fara
    Jason Stanley has argued that her view in Shifting Sands is a kind of relativism, so maybe her?

    What would you recommend if I wanted to read Wiredu on relativism?

    1. Thanks Natalie!

      I think for Wiredu the texts I would recommend are: (1) Truth as Opinion, (2) Truth and an African Language, and (3) Truth: A Dialogue. Of these I'd say that (1) states his view most comprehensively, (2) has the most interestingly novel argumentation, and (3) is the best read. It may therefore tell you something about my general philosophical personality that I recommend (3) most of all! I can send you (or any interested party) pdfs of any and all of these.

      (Also: true facts, I have literally only just now got the joke in ``Shifting Sands''.)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

How I Am A Marxist

On Not Believing In One's Work

Arguments in Philosophy