Relatively Speaking

There are philosophers (‘absolutists’) who like to stress truth, objectivity, rationality, and knowledge. Then there are others (‘relativists’) who like to stress contingency, mutability, culture, historicity, situatedness. The first group think that the second group have no standards. The second group are accused of encouraging ‘postmodernism’, or the licentious thinking and bullshitting that goes on in some parts of the humanities. The second group think the first group are conservative and complacent, and that their words simply mark fetishes.

I like to illustrate the way these groups talk past each other with an anecdote of a friend of mine (I apologise to readers of my book Being Good, where I also tell this story). He was present at a high-powered ethics institute which had put on a forum in which representatives of the great religions held a panel. First the Buddhist talked of the ways to calm, the mastery of desire, the path of enlightenment. The panellists all said ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’. Then the Hindu talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release, and they all said ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’. And so on, until the Catholic priest talked of the message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation and the way to life eternal, and they all said ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’. And he thumped the table and shouted: ‘No! It’s not a question of it if works for me! It’s the true word of the living God, and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to Hell!’

And they all said: ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’.

The joke here lies in the mismatch between what the priest intends – a claim to unique authority and truth – and what he is heard as offering, which is one more saying like all the others. Of course that person talks of certainty and truth, says the relativist. That’s just his certainty and truth, made absolute in his eyes, which means no more than: made into a fetish.

Having said this, the relativist need not attack people for putting words like ‘true’ on their doctrines. Of course people do this, because to have a belief and to hold it to be true are the same thing. In the story the priest will not be the only one who seizes on the word ‘true’: a Buddhist holds Buddhist doctrine to be true, and a Hindu holds Hindu doctrine to be true, just as inevitably.

So far the absolutists seem to be on the defensive. The relativists mock them for adding nothing with their big words, or disapprove of them for being insufficiently tolerant of other perspectives and points of view. And toleration is surely a Good Thing. But is the relativist view really so attractive?

Suppose I believe that fox-hunting is cruel and should be banned. And then I come across someone (Genghis, let us call him) who holds that it is not cruel, and should be allowed. We dispute, and perhaps neither of us can convince the other. Suppose now a relativist (Rosie) comes in, and mocks our conversation. ‘You absolutists’, she says, ‘always banging on as if there is just one truth. What you don’t realize is that there is a plurality of truths. It’s true for you that fox-hunting should be banned – but don’t forget that it’s true for Genghis that it should not’

How does Rosie’s contribution help? Indeed, what does it mean? ‘It’s true for me that hunting should be banned’ just means that I believe that hunting should be banned. And the same thing said about Genghis just means that he believes the opposite. But we already knew that: that‘s why we are in disagreement!

Perhaps Rosie is trying to get us to see that there is no real disagreement. But how can that be so? I want people to aim at one outcome, that hunting be banned, and Genghis wants another. At most one of us can succeed, and I want it to be me. Rosie cannot stop us from seeing each other as opponents.

Perhaps Rosie is trying to get us to respect and tolerate each other’s point of view. But why should I respect and tolerate another point of view simply on the grounds that someone else holds it? I already have my suspicions of Genghis: in my book he is perhaps cruel and insensitive, so why should his point of view be ‘tolerated’? And in any case, I should be suspicious of any encouragement to toleration here. The whole point of my position is that hunting should not be tolerated – it should be banned. Tolerating Genghis’s point of view is too near to tolerating Genghis’s hunting, which I am not going to do.

Rosie seems to be skating on thin ice in another way as well. Suppose she gets ruffled by what I have just written: ‘Look’, she says, ‘you must learn that Genghis is a human being like you; respect and toleration of his views and his activities are essential. If you did not fetishize absolute truth you would see that’. I on the other hand say ‘toleration of Genghis is just soggy; it is time to take a stand’. If Rosie thumps the table and says that tolerating Genghis is really good, then isn’t she sounding just like the fetishists she mocked? She has taken the fact that there are no absolute values to justify elevating toleration into an absolute value!

Rosie has to avoid that contradiction. So perhaps she needs to say that she has her truth (tolerating Genghis is good) and I have mine (tolerating Genghis is bad) and that’s the end of it. But that sounds like bowing out of the conversation, leaving Genghis and I to go on arguing exactly as before. In practice, Rosie’s intervention hasn’t helped at all. She hasn’t made foxes, or those who hunt them, look one jot more or less likeable. Her intervention seems just to have been a distraction.

Perhaps Rosie wanted to stop the conversation: she is like someone asking ‘Will you two just stop bickering?’ This can be a good thing to say. Some conversations are pointless. If you and I are in an art gallery, and I say Rembrandt is better than Vermeer and you say Vermeer is better than Rembrandt, and we start bickering about it, the best advice may well be that we stop. Perhaps we can agree to differ, because nothing practical hangs on our different taste. It is not as if we have enough money to buy just one, and I want it to be one and you want it to be the other (on the other hand, it does not follow that our conversation is useless. We might be forcing each other to look closer and see things we would otherwise have missed, or to reconsider what we find valuable about art in general).

But however it may be in the art gallery, in moral issues we often cannot agree to differ. Agreeing to differ with Genghis is in effect agreeing to tolerate fox-hunting, and my whole stance was against that. Moral issues are frequently ones where we want to coordinate, and where we are finding what to forbid and what to allow. Naturally, the burden falls on those who want to forbid: in liberal societies, freedom is the default. But this cannot be a carte blanche for any kind of behaviour, however sickening or distressful or damaging. It is just not true that anything goes. So conversation has to go on about what to allow and what to forbid. Again, Rosie is not helping: she seems just to be a distraction.

So why do people like to chip in with remarks like ‘it’s all relative’ or ‘I suppose it depends on your point of view’? What you say of course depends on your point of view, and whether another person agrees with it depends on their point of view. But the phrase is dangerous, and can be misleading. The spatial metaphor of points of view might be taken to imply that all points of view are equally ‘valid’. After all, there is no one place from which it is right to look at the Eiffel tower, and indeed no one place that is better than another, except for one purpose or another. But when it comes to our commitments, we cannot think this. If I believe that O.J. Simpson murdered his wife, then I cannot at the same time hold that the point of view that he did not, is equally good. It follows from my belief that anyone who holds he did not murder his wife is wrong. They may be excusable, but they are out of touch or misled or thinking wishfully. It is only if I do not hold a belief at all, but am just indulging in an idle play of fancy, that I can admit that an inconsistent fancy is equally good. If I like fancying Henry VIII to have been a disguised Indian, I am not in opposition to someone who enjoys fancying him to have been a Chinese. But that’s just the difference between fiction, where the brakes are off, and history, where they are on.

Relativists are more apt to stay away from mundane historical truth. Relativism really grips us when we are talking of contested moral issues, although it also rears its head when we think of difficult theoretical issues. In these cases we are more apt to think that ‘there is no fact of the matter’. Some philosophers think that this is true in such areas, and that our commitments are better seen as taking up stances or attitudes, rather than believing in strict and literal truths. But to have a stance is to stand somewhere, and in practical matters just as in history, that means being set to disagree with those who stand somewhere else.

If relativism, then, is just a distraction, is it a valuable one or a dangerous one? I think it all depends. Sometimes we need reminding of alternative ways of thinking, alternative practices and ways of life, from which we can learn and which we have no reason to condemn. We need to appreciate our differences. Hence, in academic circles, relativism has often been associated with the expansion of literature and history to include alternatives that went unnoticed in previous times. That is excellent. But sometimes we need reminding that there is time to draw a line and take a stand, and that alternative ways of looking at things can be corrupt, ignorant, superstitious, wishful, out of touch, or plain evil. It is a moral issue, whether we tolerate and learn or regret and oppose. Rosie the relativist may do well to highlight that decision. But she does not do well to suggest that it always falls out the one way.

Simon Blackburn is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge.

This article was originally published in the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal, Think. It has a web site here.

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