Forrest Cameranesi: Geek of all Trades

Against Relativism

Relativism

I am against relativism. That is to say, I am against any opinion that implies that there are no universally correct answers to any kind of questions, whether those questions be descriptive (asking "what is?", "what is real?", "what is true?") or prescriptive (asking "what ought to be?", "what is moral?", "what is good?").

In short, I am against supposing that there are any such things as unanswerable questions.

In terms of moral relativism, there are three different senses of the term "relativism" discussed in the field of ethics, and only one of them is pertinent here.

Though philosophers do not usually give them names, I think we could usefully distinguish between a similar three different senses of ontological relativism, or relativism about what is real.

Both of these second types of relativism that I am against hold that the closest thing possible to an opinion being universally correct is its being the consensus opinion of some group collectively. According to such a view, agreeing with whatever beliefs about the world the group collectively holds is as close to correct as one can be about reality; and agreeing with whatever intentions about people's behavior the group collectively holds is as close to correct as one can be about morality. This group-relative sense of "correct" is where the term "relativism" comes from.

But just making judgements that vary by circumstances or context is not relativism, and I am definitely not against that. That view is sometimes called "situationism" in the context of judgements about morality, and usually just taken for granted in the context of judgements about reality. The opposite of that view is the proper referent of the term "absolutism", even though that term is frequently misused to mean the opposite of relativism, which is better termed "universalism". Absolutism holds that some judgements are correct not only regardless of anybody's opinions, but regardless of the details of the context or circumstances, and I am definitely not arguing for that here, only against relativism.


I object to relativism thus defined on pragmatic grounds, as explained previously in my essay on commensurablism. If such relativism is true, then by its nature it cannot be known to be true, because to know it to be true we would need some means of universally evaluating claims, so as to justifiably ruling all such claims to be false. But the inability to make such universal evaluations is precisely what such a relativistic position claims; at most, the relativist can express their opinion that relativism is true, but to be consistent, must agree to disagree with anyone whose opinion differs about that. In the absence of such a means of universal evaluation, it nevertheless remains an open possibility that nothing is objectively real, or that nothing is objectively moral. But we could only ever assume such an opinion as baselessly as relativism would hold every other opinion to be held.

In the strictest sense, I agree that there might not be anything real or moral at all. But all we could do in that case is one of two things. We could either baselessly assume that there is nothing real or moral at all, and stop there, simply giving up any hope of ever finding out if we were wrong in that baseless assumption. Or else, instead, we could baselessly assume that there is something real and something moral – as there certainly inevitably seems to be, since even if you deny their universality some things will still look true or false to you and feel good or bad to you – and then proceed with the long hard work of figuring out what seems most likely to be real and moral, by attending closely and thoroughly to those seemings, those experiences.

But note that I am not saying to take any particular answer on faith, neither to questions of what is real nor to questions of what is moral. I am saying only to trust that there are some answers or others to be found to all such questions, even if we haven't found them yet. I am not even saying that any such answers definitely will ever be found. I'm not saying that success in the endeavor of inquiry is guaranteed, just to always assume that it is possible rather than (just as baselessly) assuming that it is impossible.

I am only saying that we stand a much better chance of getting closer to finding answers, if anything like that should turn out to be possible, if we try to find them, proceeding as though we assume that there is something to be found, than if we just assume that there is not, and don't even try.

In the remainder of this essay I will argue that a variety of other philosophical views are effectively tantamount to relativism of one sort or another. First, I will argue that solipsism and egotism (the views that only oneself exists or that only oneself is of moral importance, respectively) are tantamount to relativism about reality and morality, respectively; and that supposed nihilism about either reality or morality is tantamount to either solipsism or egotism, respectively. Then I will argue argue that subjective forms of idealism, in either a descriptive or prescriptive sense, are likewise tantamount to relativism about reality or morality.

Against Solipsism and Egotism

Relativism faces the challenge of answering where to draw the line around the group whose collective opinion matters. Is it the whole known world? One's nation? Some smaller group? The most extreme forms of relativism about reality and morality, respectively, are called solipsism and egotism. They answer that it is the smallest group possible, the group of one, the individual, to which reality and morality are both relative.

That is to say, they hold respectively that there is nothing real or moral beyond oneself. The moral variant of this, egotism, holds that only oneself matters, morally speaking. The ontological variant of it, solipsism, holds that only oneself even exists to begin with. Any further apparent reality or morality that one might find seeming to exist is, on such an account, merely a projection of one's own perceptions and desires. While they do not usually self-identify as a form of relativism, I hold that these positions are still tantamount to relativism inasmuch as they deny the possibility of anybody in a disagreement being universally correct.

The solipsist may deny that there is really anybody in disagreement at all, but will nevertheless find no traction in convincing what he thinks to be a figment of his imagination who seems to disagree with him that they are not real and so that their take on what else is or isn't real doesn't matter, especially if that supposed figment of his imagination is himself also a solipsist and so thinks that the first person is the actual figment of the imagination. The egotist, likewise, will find no route to moral agreement with someone whom he explicitly thinks is of no moral consideration, especially if that other person is also an egoist and thinks likewise of the first person.

I hold also that ontological and moral nihilisms, which respectively deny that anything is real or moral at all, are in practice tantamount to solipsism and egotism, and so also forms of relativism. I am only aware of one notable person sincerely holding the view that there is nothing actually real, the Presocratic philosopher Gorgias, who reportedly claimed "nothing exists". The view that nothing is actually moral, on the other hand, seems quite common, held by much more recent philosophers such as J.L. Mackie and Richard Joyce.

I argue that these forms of nihilism are respectively tantamount to solipsism and egotism, and so to relativism, because even though the nihilist will nominally deny that anything is real or moral, even in a relative sense, one cannot help but act as though something is real and something is moral, even if only implicitly the things that seem real and moral to oneself, as though a solipsist and egotist. Only someone who somehow did nothing at all, which as I will elaborate in later essays would be tantamount to not existing at all, could possibly sincerely think that nothing at all is either real or moral. At most, they could misunderstand what is meant by those words, and deny whatever they incorrectly take them to mean.

Against Subjective Idealism

There are other somewhat different views that I consider just as tantamount to relativism: views that hold not collective beliefs and intentions, but rather collective perceptions and desires, to be the definition of reality and morality. I will elaborate further on this distinction between belief and perception, and between intention and desire, in my later essay on language, but for now we may briefly sum it up as the difference between thoughts and feelings: beliefs and intentions are the things that one would honestly say are respectively true or good, while perceptions and desires are the things that can't help but seem respectively true or good. Those kinds of views that hold perception to be reality and desire to be morality can both be termed "idealism", in slightly different senses of the word.

The usual sense of the term "idealism" used in philosophy is a ontological position, about the nature of reality. In this kind of idealism, reality is held to consist entirely of the things that people perceive, and the only sense in which anything is universally real is the sense in which it is part of everyone's perceptions, or at least mostly everyone, with anyone perceiving differently held to be out of touch with reality. This type of view was most famously promoted by George Berkeley, who summed it up in the quote "to be is to be perceived".

I am actually very close to agreeing with this point of view, as I will elaborate later in this essay. But in this usual form it is ultimately subjective not only in that phenomenalist sense (with which I agree) but also in a relativist sense, inasmuch as it cannot affirm that some answers to questions about what is real are universally correct, making it ultimately tantamount to ontological relativism. It denies that there is any universal reality, holding that there are only subjective perceptions, with agreement between those perceptions the closest thing to universality possible.

Another more colloquial sense of the term "idealism" contrasts with a normative sense of "materialism", which holds that things like wealth, survival, and reproduction are the things of ultimate value, the highest of goods, irrespective of the pleasure or pain brought about in the pursuit of them; much like the above sense of idealism contrasts with ontological materialism, which holds that there exists something more to the physical, observable things in the world than their observable properties.

While the ontological kind of idealism might be summed up very roughly as "life is a dream" and denies the existence of material reality, this moral sense of idealism instead exhorts one to "live your dreams", asserting that morality lies in the fulfilment of desires, in people getting whatever it is that they subjectively want, rather than in the universal realization of any particular material conditions. The closest thing to universal morality possible on such an account is then the fulfilment of things desired by everyone, or at least mostly everyone, with anyone desiring differently held to be out of touch with morality.

I am once again very close to agreeing with this point of view, but once again, any concept of morality that comes out of it is relative to the subjects doing the desiring, so it cannot affirm that some answers to questions about what is moral are universally correct, making it ultimately tantamount to moral relativism. It denies that there is any universal morality, holding that there are only subjective desires, with agreement between those desires the closest thing to universality possible.

Objectivism vs Subjectivism

Where I come very close to agreeing with idealism, in both of the senses described above, is in holding that experience is the ultimate arbiter of judgement on both reality and morality. But rather than the perceptions and desires that underlie those views, which can contradict from person to person because they are constructed in the different minds of different people, I propose instead attending to the more fundamental underlying experiences that give rise to those perceptions and desires, free from the interpretation of the mind undergoing them, and so unbiased by any such interpretations.

In psychology, a distinction is made between perceptions, which are interpreted by the mind, and sensations, which are the raw experiences that get interpreted into perceptions, things such as colors of light and pitches of sound, as opposed to images or words. I make a similar distinction between desires, being the things that are interpreted by the mind, and what I call appetites, which are the raw experiences underlying them, things such as the feeling of pain or hunger, as opposed to wanting to do or have something.

That absence of bias is the core meaning of universality, in the sense opposed to relativism and all these views that entail it. Beliefs and intentions, desires and perceptions, can all conflict with each other, so choosing some over others introduces bias. But pure uninterpreted experiences, sensations and appetites, cannot inherently conflict – they only call for some model that properly accounts for all of them, which may be difficult to do elegantly, but can always be done somehow or another, at worst through some patchwork of smaller ad-hoc models.

I propose the construction of models of reality and morality that are consistent with all such experiences, whatever complicated models may be necessary to account for all of them, and regardless of the agreement of those models with anyone's thoughts or feelings on the matter, only accounting for their experiences. An old parable nicely illustrates the principle I mean to employ here, wherein three blind men each feel different parts of an elephant (the trunk, a leg, the tail), and each concludes that he is feeling something different (a snake, a tree, a rope). All three of them are wrong about what they perceive, but the truth of the matter, that they are feeling parts of an elephant, is consistent with what all three of them sense, even though the perceptions they draw from those sensations are mutually contradictory.

I propose always proceeding on the assumption that some such model is possible to construct, for questions about morality just as much as questions about reality, even if we don't know what that model will be just yet; that assumption being the same one described at the start of this essay, that there is something real, something moral, simply because to assume otherwise would just be to give up for no reason.

There always remains the possibility that we will fail to construct such models that can consistently account for all experiences, but we can never be sure that we have conclusively failed, rather than having just not succeeded yet. The only choice is between continuing to try despite the possibility of maybe never succeeding, or else giving up – embracing relativism – and definitely never succeeding.


Continue to the next essay, Against Dogmatism.