If you read my first blog post, you may have noticed a common theme that I kept prattling on about. I kept mentioning the word “truth”. Why would I keep bringing that up? Why is it so important to me? Can anyone ever know what truth is? Why should I care? I think these are all valid and reasonable questions that deserve, beg even, to be answered.
Please keep in mind as I delve into this and other topics that I am not a professional philosopher by any stretch of the imagination. I do believe that we are all, of necessity, philosophers in some manner. Everyone has some form of philosophy that we abide by and evaluate other ideas and philosophies. The evaluation of philosophies and living our lives by them, by definition, makes us all philosophers. Many people, myself included, call these life philosophies “Word Views”. I must at this juncture point out that just as dribbling a basketball, by definition, makes one a basketball player but does not necessitate any skill; using philosophy does not make anyone inherently a skilled philosopher. Just because we use it, does not mean we use it well.
Here, then is my effort to be as skilled as I can be in this philosophical issue of truth. Now to acknowledge my bias and preconceived ideas to keep them at the forefront of my mind, I admit that I have always dismissed postmodernism and its moral relativistic leanings outright. I have rarely heard the concepts spoken of with anything other than derision when talking of the philosophical concept due to its circular nature. While the philosophy itself can be derided, many of my friends have said something akin to “well that may be true for you” or “there is no such thing as absolute truth”. So where does this disconnect come from?
Generally at this point I would launch into a diatribe about how intellectually lazy it is to make an absolute statement about there being no absolutes, but this time I wanted to, instead of attacking something I don’t agree with to stroke my ego, make an effort to understand why so many intelligent people have such divergent views on this very important topic. Why do we disagree about truth and its possibility?
Before we continue, we should make sure we are on the same page with our vocabulary. When I say relativism I could mean anything from Einstein, to language, to morals, but I am probably not talking about your cousin (relative –sorry, bad joke). One great resource that I have found for defining philosophical concepts is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (EoP). While sometimes a bit dense, it can be helpful to use as a standard for philosophy concepts and vocabulary. Based on that website and a synthesis of other sources I would define relativism as the belief that morals, truth and their justification are not absolute. Rather they are relative to different people or groups of people. There are many more facets than that, and like most beliefs or philosophies individuals who espouse them lie upon a continuum, but for the sake of discussion, when I say moral relativism this is what I am referring to. This is the metaethical moral relativism perspective.
The Stanford EoP gives a great example of this in their description. They say that in an issue such as polygamy it may be “morally wrong” relative to one society and not to another. That judgment itself may be justified in one society and not in another. Proponents then generally say that since there is no rational way to resolve the differences the justifications are relative to societies and people rather than absolute. There are moralities rather than one single morality.
On the EoP Moral Relativism page it has a quote that is a much more eloquent form of a statement that I have already made: “Moral relativism has the unusual distinction—both within philosophy and outside it—of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.” As it happens, I had just read a paper entitled “Moral Relativism Explained” by Gilbert Harman of Princeton who was an author mentioned in the article as a prominent defender of Moral Relativism.
When I read Harman’s paper I was exposed to several new ideas that I had never considered because I dismissed relativism outright. It was very enlightening seeing what a prominent proponent of the idea had to say. He says, very openly, that he does “not suppose that these considerations will be persuasive to those who do not already accept it.” I found that statement to be very insightful about our society in how we take in new information. He was right in my regards, anyway. While it did not convince me, it produced in me a respect for the people who espouse the point of view that I was lacking before. If interested, I would suggest that you read the article with a goal of understanding him rather than proving him right or wrong.
Harman states, “The main reason to believe there is not a single true morality is that there are major diﬀerences in the moralities that people accept and these diﬀerences to not seem to rest of (sic) actual diﬀerences in situation or disagreements about the facts.” What I understand him to be saying as a moral relativist is that when people evaluate an idea or event they do not disagree on what happened or the facts, but, rather, whether it was moral or not. Since there appears to him to be “no objective way of settling these disagreements” this lends to an argument in favor of moral relativism.
I do not have time in this blog to summarize his whole paper, but I would encourage you to read it if you are interested. As I said, I gained a new respect and understanding for individuals who espouse this belief, but, as Harman thought, I was not convinced. I want to spend the rest of this entry discussing why I do think there is truth out there and why it is such a valuable pursuit. I want to be clear that I realize that I am including multiple different facets in this argument. I know that postmodernism, moral relativism, and the belief in no absolutes are not the same thing, but I do see a lot of overlap in how truth is viewed so I am including them together for brevity. As always, if you take issue with this please let me know.
Taken to its most extreme conclusions, relativism can say that no opinion is better than any other. That argument, to quote Douglas Adams out of context, “disappears in a puff of logic”. Relativism, like all views, seems to operate under some preconceptions. A big one I picked up by Harman was that objective judgment seems to determine truth. That is, since we cannot objectively state that something is wrong or right and that other societies or people may disagree this leads to the conclusion that there must not be universal morality. This to me seems to be assuming knowledge outside the problem. In other words he is making what he must believe to be an objective statement about an issue that no one can make objective statements about a problem. While he does allow for the “possibility of certain moral universals just as there seem to be linguistic universals” he clearly believes that many of our judgments are subjective, and as a result not valid.
Taking this argument to its extreme again, why do we even address Nazi Germany as morally wrong if it is simply a societal morality? We cannot make moral statements about that because we are not objective (Harman addresses this when he says, “One can reject the idea that there is a single true morality, yet still have or participate in a morality (or moralities)”. Harman says, “In trying to think about moral relativism, it is useful to keep in mind the many diﬀerences in the moralities that people accept and live by.” I would say it another way. “In trying to think about moral relativism, it is useful to keep in mind the many diﬀerences in what people consider to be moral.” I think there are very few people who would say, while watching this this Video about a nanny abusing a child that what that woman is doing to the baby is simply her morality. I think most people would consider it to be wrong. I think it is very easy to believe in the absence of an absolute moral truth until we are exposed to something that we believe is wronged. How often do I consider myself to be wronged every day by other drivers, by students, by coworkers etc?
Now, I must admit that I, as a Christian, also assume prior knowledge and take myself out of the issue. I believe that God has said what is morally right and thereby removed the need for objective judgment to determine reality. The interpretation of what God has said can be divisive and difficult so this must also be taken with a grain of salt. I know that this may not be considered rational by many of the people reading this but I am either wrong or I am right. If I believe in this God and you do not, either I am wrong, you are wrong, or somehow, we are both wrong. Those are our options when dealing with truth and that is why I think it is so valuable to search for it.
Before you think that you must either be a moral relativist or a theist I would send you to this article. No one would accuse the British Humanist Society of theism yet they have some very striking, and I believe, compelling arguments against relativism. The article outlines the author’s perspective on relativism and the three motives that he believes have caused the rise of it in our society. The article concludes with this statement: “There can only ever be one truth. Independence of mind, politeness and objectivity are the virtues that we, and our students, need in order to look for it.”
To truly address this issue and say more than virtually nothing about it, I would have to write a book. This only the tip of the iceberg but I hope it gives you something to think about. I hope that I have explained why I believe truth is a valuable thing to search for and why I think it exists. I hope that I have honestly represented both sides of the issue; especially that side with which I happen to disagree. Finally I hope that this will open us up for more respectful dialogue in our search for truth.