Regular readers will recognize frequent commentor and foil Luis Dias, who today offers us his defense of relativism. As the Staford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, “Although relativistic lines of thought often lead to very implausible conclusions, there is something seductive about them…”
I know dear reader that just by reading the title you will raise your eyebrows in irritated frustration. How could one possibly defend a position like this? How could one defend nihilism, moral relativism and other most vile depravities that mankind’s ever produced? I can already smell your growing ennui over the stubborn usual liberal idiocies…Well I’ll be glad to try, not to dissuade your absolutist beliefs, but at least to give you the tools to properly judge Relativism and its merits apart from the usual caricatures. So please indulge me, I’ll try to be as brief and as clear as I can be.
I propose to go directly to the juice here and try not to derail too much. Relativism is so false, you will shout, due to the following obvious undeniable truths:
- A philosophy that states that the Truth is there is no Truth is nonsensical, and self-contradictory;
- A philosophy that states morality is not objective is equivalent to have morality as a “fad”, neither right or wrong, but just whatever people in a given time feel “right”, and in such a situation “rape” could even be considered a “good thing”;
These criticisms may sound robust enough to end the conversation, until you actually ponder for a moment and try to judge the alternative with the same scalp, the same rigor. Once you start doing this, you see the cracks opening, an entire edifice shattering before your eyes. The alternative I am talking about is the Absolute or Objective truth, which is a Truth that is “independent” of the human mind, that is absolutely true irrespectively of any other thing. Intuitively you’d guess this is a much more robust philosophy. Things are either Right or Wrong with a capital, and it’s merely our fault for not getting it, after all Errare Humanum Est and all that.
That’s where the problem lies, that’s where the cracks open. We have to ask ourselves this simple question: is there any Truth about the World that we can be 100% sure of? Aren’t all truths either conjured by ourselves or plain hearsay? Isn’t everything we can utter just a conjecture hinged upon other conjectures? Is an absolutist philosopher capable of producing the Absolute Truth about anything at all (other than tautologies, that is)? . You may think it rather easy to come up with at least a proposition of the sort (you may even try the Descartian one, for the sake of Tradition you may be so enamorated with), but even in those we can also easily inject the poison of doubt and ambiguity. Cogito Ergo Sum is filled with assumptions about how the world works which are accepted without questioning. What if we question them? What is left of this absolute truth but ashes?
My position is that this Truth hasn’t been established at all. Mr. Briggs will tell you that there are some Objective Truths that we “just know” intuitively with our “gut,” and that the “null hypothesis” is that these truths exists; those who are sceptical of these are welcome to try to prove they do not. To me this is not only a terrible cop out, but it brings huge problems. To a Socratian inquisition “how do you know this to be true then?” such people will just irritatedly answer “I just KNOW ok? Get out of my lawn!”. Sorry, not a good enough. What if my gut tells me a different story than your gut? What then: will you simply deny my gut’s “authority” over yours? You can see the deluge of silliness that comes from assuming we have such a direct connection with the Truth stemming from these simple questions. Why is this important, you’ll probably ask. Men and women may not know when they actually stumble upon absolute truths, but they exist nevertheless, don’t they?
But if you have no tools to assess when you know when we stumble upon those truths, how do you know they even do? More importantly, if you cannot know an absolute truth, what makes you any way different from a relativist? From the omniscient point of view, you are just as cluelessly wandering around silly pseudo-truths as the perverted are. The only difference is that the latter aren’t blinded by some righteous posturing on the issue.
But that’s not…”What about morality!,” you will cry. If Relativism were “true”, wouldn’t we be rapists and criminals? Wouldn’t it be possible to create a moral rule where you could just do whatever you wanted to anyone else? Well dear reader, if that is an empirical test to an hypothesis, then clearly Relativism wins. Even an absolutist people like the Hebrews raped, tortured, killed, genocided lots of others and not against, but in the name of their god as the most just thing to do. IOW, what you consider the Relativism’s worst nightmare were it to be “true” already happened lots of times in History. Absolutism didn’t stop it from happening, it actually condoned it all. Slavery was deemed ok. Beating children was deemed moral. Eating beef is still deemed awesome and juicy instead of barbaric like it will be in a hundred years (my prediction!).
Absolutism is, ironically, more relativist than Relativism itself, for it does not even recognize its temporality, and like in an Orwellian nightmare, is always insisting that Eurasia was always and will always be a good thing to bomb (we just didn’t know it before, and will probably forget it in the future, my bad).
Why now, you are just being beyond silly
No, I am not. Ponder, what is worse. A philosophy that accepts the fragility and limited point of view of its wisdom and knowledge, or a philosophy that really thinks there is an ultimate point of view of absolute wisdom worthy of being in possession of? A philosophy that is humble enough to understand the temporality of its judgements, or a philosophy that arrogantly judges everything around it with a scent of the intemporal forever, always forgetting how in the past other absolutists judged with the same arrogance but with wildly different moralities?
Last but not least, the so-called inconsistency. It’s a myth friends. No Relativist will claim to absolutely know there are no absolutes. Please give us more credit than that. It’s very easy to understand: we are claiming we cannot see how one can possibly assert anything absolutely. We are not saying that no one could ever do such a thing. Such a statement is a strawman. Bury it, leave it alone. We do not absolutely know there are no absolutes. We, like Poincaré, simply do not care about that hypothesis. We simply require none of it, we can live without all of those absolutist requirements. We live in the Sea of Limitations, the Valley of Finitude, the Mountains of Humility. We have the gall to say we ought to be humbler. And so can you.
I’ll be ready to further these thoughts and more in the comments below. Fire away, friends.