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Relativists Everywhere

I heard on NPR this afternoon that a majority of Americans (I forget the actual number) believe that "truth is relative." I'm not sure exactly what people mean by that, but one thing I definitely recall from my philosophy schooling is that "realists" about this stuff are universally considered to have "common sense" or "the folk" on their side in these debates. Assuming the report was accurate, though, they don't. That doesn't change the metaphysical truth, but it should change the structure of the debate.

August 13, 2004 | Permalink


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I wonder how talk of 'truth being relative' matches up with the issues philosophers are talking about in the relativism / objectivity debate. There's something that could be called relativism in saying that sea water is good for fishes and bad for humans, but this isn't the kind of relativism that philosophers regard as problematic. That the goodness- and badness-relations hold is an objective fact, so objectivity is maintained. What most philosophers freak out about (and rightly so) is the ontological relativity involved in saying that something exists for me and not for you.

Posted by: Neil Sinhababu | Aug 13, 2004 2:03:02 AM

I don't think it is all too surprising that a majority would now start to consider truth to be realtive. Look what they are having to process: America (the good guy) may have lied to start a war with the bad guy (who was bad, but not bad enough to have WMD or have helped al Qaida). Somewhere "common sense" (which happens to be the title of my blog) breaks down and you disregard absolutes.

Posted by: Nate | Aug 13, 2004 7:39:50 AM

It depends on the question. Some shockingly large percentage believe that the Bible is truth in all its parts. In the everyday world of social interaction common sense becomes more tolerant of differences. It seems that these polls prove nothing more than the confused state of human thought.

Posted by: LowLife | Aug 13, 2004 8:06:34 AM

"Truth is Relative" aka the Peter Pan Theory of Reality (believe hard enough and it will become true): This poll result is consistent with the shift toward personality cult politics in the United States. I can't stand it. (It's why I kicked Atrios off of punditdrome.com -- when most of your posts are mere name calling, it doesn't matter how popular your blog is, you're not contributing anything to the debate.) Matthew hasn't gotten there. Yet. ;^)

Posted by: Scott Ferguson | Aug 13, 2004 8:23:06 AM

Unfortunately, we're going down the slippery slope of semantics here. The average Jane Doe hasn't a clue about distinctions between text and context, reasoned conclusions versus tautological assertions, or common sense versus unquestioned presumption. Until both journalists and political speech writers, themselves, are capable of making such distinctions, there can be no rational, meaningful political or ethical discours.

Posted by: Jim | Aug 13, 2004 8:49:20 AM

I teach an introductory philosophy course in rural South Florida and so might be able to contribute some analysis (quickly, before Hurricane Charley gets here). Almost all my students are evangelical and/or charismatic Christians who believe in the literal truth of the Bible, and almost all believe that truth is relative. I found this contradiction interesting, and looked into it further.

It appears to have two sources. First, my students apply the word "truth" to all of the statements they believe, and don't distinguish between claims of fact and claims of value. They are not encouraged to make such a distinction by the local culture; the local authorities frequently describe obvious value claims as "facts," adding that "you can't argue with facts." "Truth," in my students' dialect, thus winds up meaning something like "my basic orientation to the world, the way I see things, my perspective"-- which would be correctly described as personal, individual, and "relative."

I might add that an article in the journal _Teaching Philosophy_ (apologies to the author, whose name I can't remember) argued that the beginning philosophy students who claim that "truth is relative" are really trying to say something like this: "I don't agree with Mom & Dad any more about a whole lot of things, and I love them, so I don't want to say they're wrong, but I don't want to give up my own point of view either."

The second reason my students believe that truth is relative, however, strikes me as much more pernicious. They have grown up in small, tribal, tightly-knit, highly conformist communities that (needless to say) did not encourage free discussion or debate. In college, they meet for the first time people who do not share their presuppositions, and they begin to get an inkling that the wider world contains many more. They have never been asked to defend their own belief systems before, and, in all honesty, some of their beliefs are quite indefensible. When students in this position say that truth is relative, they are trying to exempt their own belief system from the requirement of rationality. They want to be able to go on believing whatever their local community has decided to believe, even though both argument and evidence are against them. Again, they are encouraged in this by the local authorities, who teach them to devalue reason and (especially) "book learning."

The fact is that my students will be ostracized by their local communities (it's called "disfellowshipping") if they disagree in any point with their community's creed. It is a public, brutal shaming, and any human who could avoid it, would. If this sheds any light on the "relativism" of the American public (or, perhaps, the persistence of "creation science" and other follies), I would be glad.

Posted by: charpressler | Aug 13, 2004 9:40:25 AM

Maybe the "truth is relative" is a recognition that humans, smaller than the universe, and certainly any (hypothetical) divinity, have a limited grasp of truth, or reality at best, and that we ought to have some humility in insisting on our truth.

Posted by: Mr. Bill | Aug 13, 2004 10:56:59 AM

I am also a philosophy professor, and I have spent quite a bit of time analyzing my students' seemingly contradictory relativism. Charpressler above makes some insightful comments, ones that hadn't occurred to me, but that strike me as accounting for a good part of the problem. We shouldn't discount the impact of psychological and personal factors on our beliefs.

My own analysis has focused on other factors. I personally believe that philosophical ideas do enter into the public realm over a period of years, and that when certain intellectuals began pushing relativistic ideas (Richard Rorty in the U.S. and Lyotard in Europe, not to mention countless theorists in other more radical fields), and in general writing and teaching as if the truth were hopelessly contested and impossible in principle to discover, and ultimately aesthetic, their arguments did not stay put in the closed circles of academia where they were properly understood (and at least in philosophy generally disputed). These ideas appear to have spread to the public schools and beyond, and seemingly into pseudo-neutral journalism, where they are hopelessly distorted. The idea that people have different opinions about things has been confused with the idea that there is not one truth about things. (Hey...not all opinions are equally correct when we are dealing with a matter of "fact") The idea that we (to be moral) we should respect each others' right to express our views has become confused with the idea that we should understand that each of us is equally correct...at least, for ourselves. (Thus, this truth is right for "me.") Even, as pointed out above, when they are contradictory! Thus, you get students who believe strongly in the Christian faith, but who also proclaim themselves relativists about everything, including religion! Jesus was God, for me, but for my fellow Muslim student I respect that this is not the TRUTH (not NOT PERCEIVED OF as the truth). Of course, if there is a Christian God, then he really exists and not relatively so...he will be an empirical test that will make one of us right and the other one of us wrong. It is hard, however, to get students to see the difference.

In my judgment, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the past, students had different belief systems. That is why I think this is the effect of decades (if not a century, if you begin with Nietzsche) of encroaching intellectual postmodernism. Also, I do not believe this is true only of young, unformed students. I hear more and more postmodernism in the wider sphere, including among religious fundmamentalists, where logic will tell you it should not be.

To take another case, my students have very interesting beliefs about ethics. My students (who are demographically not representative of the entire U.S. student body) are strongly opposed to intervening in other countries on ethical grounds. They are generally speaking "cultural relativists," in other words. They think that it is morally incorrect for us to impose our views on other countries, even when they are doing morally heinous things, such as female circumcision or genocide. This is because "who are we to say we're right?," which has become confused with, "who's to say that there is a right or wrong?" They do not see that there is a difference between saying that the U.S. is generally morally correct in its principles and actions and thus has the right to impose its morality on others, which they obviously doubt, and saying that there is no morality at all other than what each culture believes it to be and this there is never a moral reason to intervene in any country for any reason. Hey, if there is no right and wrong, then WE can never be wrong, either, no matter WHAT we do.

Philosophers who are relativists have dealt with this moral conundrum not by suggesting we abandon the idea of helping others abroad in times of genocide (if they think it's right, then it is right, for THEM), but by saying that we can do whatever we want, including intervening in foreign countries to save lives threatened by genocide, if it's what we want to do. We CAN fight for our principles as hard as we want...we simply cannot say that they are metaphysically justified. This is actually more in the spirit of relativism more, as relativism does not say that you should respect anyone for anything...it says that anything goes as long as you believe it, including intervention, imposition of moral ideal, whatever. You can't use RELATIVISM to oppose U.S. action anywhere! But that's another hard point to make to students.

In any case, relativism does require abandoning the idea of metaphysical justification of moral principles, including the principles that have supported the Enlightenment and its liberalism. This is why liberal philosophers in Europe such as Habermas pointed out several decades ago that although postmodern theorists are overwhelmingly politically liberal or radical in their own politics, their philosophical views ultimately promote conservatism. Doesn't this seem to be coming true? I disagreed with Habermas 10 years ago, now I think he's terribly prescient.

One reason for this trend might be that relativism leads few students (or journalists, seemingly, or perhaps anyone)to trust those with a special claim to knowledge, those who are highly educated or are experts in a field or who are particularly wise of knowledgeable, anymore, which was one of the intentions of some of the postmodernists, such as the identity theorists. This is liberatory, in a sense, because of course "elites" can be wrong and often were wrong in the past, but it also leaves us with no particular set of persons to trust over any other, and so each viewpoint is "equal," and students and others often feel free to choose their viewpoints based on their personal biases, their aesthetic preferences, or whatever. The most prejudiced and angry parts of their souls, the self-centered parts, whatever. So what starts out as a left-wing move on the part of some, to reject the "hegemony" of those in intellectual or political power, leads to the ascendancy of populism and conservatism. Intellectuals should take their ideas more seriously--there is a real world out there.

Posted by: Lisa SG | Aug 13, 2004 12:19:27 PM

I always think it's unfair that realists and Platonists are taken to have "common sense" or "the people" on their side, when really they only have the majority of philosophers on their side. In my area (philosophy of math) they always say that it's hard to convince people that the number three is not an object that exists, whereas I think it's actually hard for ordinary people to even make sense of a number as an object.

Posted by: Kenny Easwaran | Aug 13, 2004 1:52:45 PM

Interesting remarks, and I agree with Kenny (that was my original point at least) -- the Platonists have gotten themselves up to some unfair misrepresentations of public opinion.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Aug 13, 2004 3:45:46 PM

I helped out a friend teaching one class of his philosophy summer school this year and he warned before I went in that they -- all high school age -- were all pretty thorough-going relativists.

He warned me because he'd found teaching them moral and ethical pretty hard because nearly every thought experiment or 'intuition pump' he threw at them with respect to some theoretical position or another fell on deaf relativist ears.

Seems to me this is a relatively recent trend. I'd be surprised if the intake at a similar summer school 10 or 15 years ago would have been the same.

Posted by: Matt McGrattan | Aug 13, 2004 8:25:10 PM

On the populism of Platonists, I think Arthur Fine's distinction is useful. It's not that the realism/anti-realism debate is a war between common sense and various nabobs trying to deny the obvious: there's a natural orientation ("natural ontological attidude") toward the world where we affirm all the obvious facts and such, and two ways to explain this orientation: various anti-realist stories about what it means to say there are electrons, or, pounding one's fist on the table and saying "Really!". Realists seem to take this second option to not really be a move at all. Some anti-realists would say that quite a bit is being done here, i.e. setting up various metaphysical mytologies that get us into lots of trouble. I suspect that people's predilection for the acceptance or rejection of the "Really!" move can probably fluctuate as a result of various cultural, political, and social factors.

Posted by: kw | Aug 13, 2004 11:16:06 PM

I think that if you actually investigated it, and pressed people, pretty few cultural/linguistic communities would turn out actually accepting anything like a correspondence theory of truth.

Posted by: spacetoast | Aug 13, 2004 11:30:25 PM

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