Wednesday, 7 July 2021

The unsavoury moral implications of relativism

Alan S. Rome has written a refreshing essay in Quillette about modern relativism and absolute truth.

In Defence of Absolute Truth

We live in a time of great anxiety over the role of truth in public life. Media and popular culture are saturated with concerns over “fake news,” alternative facts and conspiracy theories. There is widespread concern over the breakdown of integrity and trust in public figures and experts, the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between true and false claims, and the increasing willingness of predators to prey upon this difficulty. Passions flare, political sides polarise, and neither side seems capable of talking or listening to the other.

It is therefore a great irony that many of those most worried about these developments also deny the possibility of absolute truth, without recognising any connection between the two. Certain assumptions about the relative nature of truth are represented, for instance, by the increasing public focus on “perspective” or “social privilege,” with the assumption that identity or experience drastically limits or determines understanding. Under this assumption, each group possesses its own, or perhaps the whole, truth about matters relating to their lives: “You cannot truly know this because you have not lived it.” Others can accept or reject this truth but they cannot critically engage with it. Analogous attitudes are found in many arenas of social life, especially in the academy. With such attitudes, disagreements cannot be rationally resolved and compromise becomes unlikely.

It is well worth reading the whole thing, not so much because it provides new insights but because it refreshes old ones. We are in considerable danger of being catastrophically damaged by relativism, but as Rome points out -

Apart from the unsavoury moral implications of relativism, it also just cannot be true philosophically. It is perhaps in bad taste to point out that the claim that “all truth is relative” is itself a non-relativist, dogmatic claim. It is self-contradictory and hypocritically exempts itself from its own claim. Indeed, how can one demonstrate that there is no absolute truth? Only through a rational demonstration which presupposes that there are absolute standards of logic and argument that transcend that particular context. Reason would have to destroy itself.


Sam Vega said...

Many thanks - that's an excellent article, well worth the time spent reading it. A great deal of ground is covered, very clearly, and what I really like about it is the tone. Here is a man who doesn't seem to write in order to fill the page, or to gain status with his peers. He seems genuinely concerned, likes humanity, and wants to make things better.

A K Haart said...

Sam - it is good isn't it? He does seem genuinely concerned and the concern is justified. It surprised me to realise while reading it how far the problem has faded from debates where it ought to be a major consideration. As if reason is destroying itself via a general decline in the standard of debate.