Saturday, July 05, 2008

Relativism and truth

I'm continuing my commentary on Stephen Law's essay, Religion and philosophy in schools.

The meat of this essay concerns "relativism". Law notes that a popular objection to the teaching of critical thinking is that critical thinking promotes "relativism". Law quotes several sources who condemn relativism. Melanie Phillips complains specifically about cultural relativism; Marianne Talbot and Allan Bloom condemn truth relativism; Pope Benedict condemns a notion of relativism that entails that one's own ego and desires are the highest goal. The Ministry of Defense complains that moral relativism causes rigid belief systems.

Law is not as vigorous as I would like about directly confronting the vagueness, imprecision and outright contradiction in the critics' condemnation of relativism.

As I've written before, just using the word "relativism" without more specific qualification is vacuous. Everything is relative in some sense. Even a statement of how the universe is under the most rigid notions of metaphysical realism is relative: the truth of the statement is relative to how the world actually is.

Law states blithely that

Some truths are indeed relative. Consider wichitti grubs – those huge larvae eaten live by some aboriginal Australians. Most Westerners find them revolting (certainly, the model Jordan did when she was recently required to eat one on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here). But at least some native Australians consider them delicious.

So what is the truth about wichitti grubs? Are they delicious, or aren’t they? The truth, it seems, is that, unlike the truth about whether wichitti grubs are carbon-based life forms or whether they are found in Australia, there is no objective, mind-independent truth. The truth about the deliciousness of wichitti grubs is relative. For Jordan, that wichitti grubs are delicious is false. For others, it’s true. When it comes to deliciousness, what’s true and false ultimately boils down to subjective opinion or taste.

I don't think Law is sufficiently precise here. I think it's misleading and inaccurate to say, "The truth about the deliciousness of wichitti grubs is relative." It's more precise to say that there is no truth at all about the deliciousness of wichitti grubs; deliciousness is not a property that wichitti grubs can have or lack. Deliciousness describes a relation between wichitti grubs and individual human beings. Deliciousness is relative, not truth.

The statement, "Jordan finds wichitti grubs revolting," is mind-dependent on one level (it's a statement that depends in part on the specific characteristics of Jordan's mind), but it is mind-independent at the truth level: It's true, for everyone, everywhere. If someone believes that Jordan find wichitti grubs delicious, that person is definitely mistaken.

It's often the case that ordinary people make imprecise statements in colloquial, idiomatic speech. If I say, "Wichitti grubs are revolting," everybody knows that I'm expressing my relation to wichitti grubs; I'm not talking about a property of wichitti grubs that is independent of my mind. Likewise, one can interpret Law's statement charitably as, "Some truths describe relations, not properties," in precisely the same sense that truths about the velocity of an object always express a relation to some specific frame of reference. But I object to imprecise, idiomatic usage in formal expository writing such as Law's essay. The reader should not have to employ any charity at all to discover Law's central point.

The claim of "moral relativism", more specifically meta-ethical subjective relativism, is that to be even truth-apt, a moral statement must implicitly or explicitly state a relationship between one or more individuals and some action or other state of affairs. A statement expressing a moral judgment about a state of affairs without relating that state of affairs to some individual(s) is not even false.

Given this framework, it's easy to distinguish between Law's two examples of relativism:

The relativist about morality insists that the truth of moral claims is similarly relative. There’s no objective truth about whether female circumcision, stealing from supermarkets, or even killing an innocent human being, is morally wrong. Rightness and wrongness ultimately also boil down to subjective preference or taste. What’s true for one person or culture may be false for another.

The relativist about religious truth similarly insists that the truth about whether or not Jesus is God is relative. That Jesus is God is true-for-Christians but false-for Muslims. The “truth” about religion is simply whatever the faithful take it to be.

In the first case, it's imprecise to say, "What’s true for one person or culture may be false for another." It would be more precise to say that true statements about morality discuss individuals' opinions and preferences about female circumcision, stealing from supermarkets, or even killing an innocent human being; true moral statements express relations.

In the second case, however, it's simply impossible, even bending over backwards with the utmost charity, to interpret the claim "Jesus is God" (or, more importantly, "The Bible expresses God's moral commandments") as a statement of a relation without completely changing the meaning of the statement.

Consider two statements about John, an orthodox Christian:

S1: John believes that wichitti grubs are disgusting

S2: John believes that Jesus is God

Both statements as a whole -- at the level of describing John's beliefs -- are unobjectionably true. John really does believe that wichitti grubs are disgusting, and John really does believe that Jesus is God.

But both statements contain an embedded predicate:

S1: John believes that wichitti grubs are disgusting

S2: John believes that Jesus is God

In the first case, the embedded predicate, "wichitti grubs are disgusting" is neither true nor false, it is not truth-apt. In the second case, however, the embedded predicate, "Jesus is God" is truth-apt. Jesus either is or is not God. (He's not. Jesus is a fictional character in a book, a character who might or might not be based on one or more real-life people.)

In the first case, it is not possible for John to be mistaken, since the embedded predicate is not truth-apt. In the second case, however, because the embedded predicate is truth-apt, it is possible for John to be mistaken (and indeed he is).

When discussing "relativism" in a social, moral and ethical sense, I think the payoff of speaking very accurately and literally about precisely what we mean and what we mean to defend is very important, and strengthens the argument. It is not truth that is relative, it is that some statements -- notably moral statements -- can be truthful only to the extent that they express or rely on relations.

1 comment:

  1. What about an implied relationship?

    The problem is that there is always a relationship in there somewhere, even if it is not stated outright.

    The statement "Murder is wrong" implies the taking of human life, presumably innocent human life. There is also the implied belief of the person making the statement.

    The statement "Killing John would be wrong" is obviously truth apt because there is a relationship between an action and an individual, but is it it a morally true statement?

    This statement could also be thought to have an implied "I believe" prefix that is not stated. Now that I think about it most moral statements do.

    So maybe there is no truth as to whether killing John is wrong but only a truth about how the person making the statement feels about killing John?

    Overall I like the idea that the relationship is relative not the truth but it seems impractical in everyday use.

    -Mark

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