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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

I have a query about objectivism versus relativism. I’m studying philosophy, and my lecturer says that I cannot take a relativistic standpoint in my arguments because relativism is a lazy philosophical paradigm to use. By this it is meant that if everything was relative, there would be no need for moral debate, etc. But surely objectivism is an imperialistic paradigm to superimpose upon a situation, because its foundations are Judeo-Christian. And isn’t ethics evolutionary? If so, how could there justifiably be objective moral grounds? Our very sense of morality is in flux.

P. Difford
by Email

Dear P,

Your lecturer has encountered lazy relativists, I have no doubt, for they are a common breed among students, many of whom would rather let everybody believe what they like than have to think about who is right. And yet, put to the test, none of them is a relativist: If the teacher were to give them an ‘F,’ they would protest at the injustice.

But objectivists – to use your term – can also be lazy if they merely assume that they themselves are right. You are not lazy because you have given arguments for your position, so I will stir myself to reply to them.

This is a tricky business, to be sure. Relativism is a doctrine that can apply across the board, not just in ethics. Thus, somebody could believe that truth itself is relative, meaning, in effect, that people holding contradictory beliefs could both be right. In other words, to believe that something is true is the same as for it to be true; hence, there is no such thing as a false belief. But this immediately escalates to the absurd, for then would not both the relativist and the objectivist be right? They hold opposite views; but if relativism is true, then both of those views would be correct so long as they are maintained or believed.

But that is not the end of it: It seems that relativism must also be false. For relativism is equivalent to the assertion that objectivism is false. But, according to relativism, objectivism is just as true as relativism since the objectivist believes it. Therefore, if relativism is true, then relativism is false. That, my friend, is a paradox; it is usually taken as a sign that the hypothesis is false.

An alternative route to the same conclusion is to point out that for relativists even to maintain their own position amounts to a contradiction, since they are asserting it to be true. But this means they are denying its opposite. Hence they implicitly subscribe to a notion of truth that is contrary to their thesis – truth as an absolute, truth in the sense of something that can withstand beliefs to the contrary.

But perhaps all that I have said amounts to an ignoratio elenchi, since you do not claim to be opposed to truth itself in a non-relativist sense, but only to objective moral truth. So what you are suggesting is that it is (‘objectively’) true that morality does not consist of (‘objectively’) true propositions. Such an hypothesis is not objectionable in form; it is as unexceptionable as asserting that Zeus and Hera do not exist (but other things do). Morality, then, according to you is a kind of mythology, or else a kind of custom.

You present two arguments. One is that morality evolves. So maybe it was OK, even obligatory to sacrifice the first newborn a few thousand years ago, but it isn’t OK anymore. But I reply: Was it really ever OK to do that? Something can be a prevailing practice – even today – and yet be wrong, yes? Or do you believe that there is nothing whatsoever for the lone individual to stand up for in the face of the tide? I submit that what you call ‘evolution,’ we might better label ‘reform.’ Alternatively, we could say that what is evolving is not morality, but our understanding of it.

Since a thoroughgoing relativism regarding truth has been rejected, can we not simply analogize the moral situation to that of non-moral truth? In science one can observe an ‘evolution,’ if you will. But it is not that the Earth went from being flat to being round, but only that our beliefs altered – is it not so? – and, presumably, in the direction of truth. (Although note: I am not insisting on any historical inevitability in the direction of greater knowledge, either in science or morality. Sometimes we regress. Nevertheless, the truth remains what it is.)

Your other argument I find more intriguing: the idea that our religious heritage has something to do with our sense of the objectivity of morality. (I ignore your reference to ‘Judeo- Christian,’ since I encountered exactly the same sort of ‘imperialism’ with Euthyphro, a priest of the ancient Greek gods.) In a world of multiple and contradictory beliefs about morality, a God who lays down the Law can seem to settle the matter. But, of course, that settles nothing, since beliefs about God vary as much as beliefs about morality. With this you would agree, perhaps. But I consider a belief in God to be a manifestation of a belief in moral truth. You and I differ, I think, as to which is the cart and which the horse.

Simply put, then, I see the task before us as trying to determine what is true: about God, about the universe, about how to live. My preferred method is dialectic. Thank you for indulging this penchant of mine.

Yours as ever,


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