Some thoughts on relativism, part 1: Does relativism mean everything is equal?

One claim often made to argue against the thesis that there are no absolutes and nothing is independent of one’s own personal opinions is that it would imply that everything is therefore equally valid and nothing is preferable to anything else. I shall in this article examine this claim and explain why I think it fails.

  1. An overview and formulation

An objective (absolute) truth claim: A proposition P whose truth value is independent of whatever belief or feeling a subject S may have about P.

A truth claim or proposition is subjective (relative) if and only if it is not objective.

The issue here can be thought of as whether the two are best thought of as binary, which treats all such dependencies and beliefs equally, or as on a spectrum or scale where they come in degrees like the following:

• A proposition P is subjective to the extent that it’s truth value is a free variable, free to be determined by one’s opinion of P and objective to the extent that one position is more rational than another given the beliefs one holds.

• A proposition P is subjective to the extent that it is free to cohere with whatever beliefs a subject S may hold and objective to the extent that one position is more coherent than another.

• A proposition P is subjective to the extent that any opinion on P is equally useful and objective to the extent that some models are more useful than others.

• A proposition P is subjective to the extent that a subject S’s opinion on P is irrelevant to other subjects and objective to the extent that a rational community of subjects would agree on an opinion about P.

2. A review and some counterexamples

The claim being made and discussed here is as follows:

If there is no absolute truth, then it is equally rational to assent to any view.

This (binary -ist, as I will call it from here on) claim depends on the theories listed above that postulate a spectrum (hereafter the non-binary models) being incoherent. I argue that they are not and provide some examples of them that are quite coherent.

The following propositions form a triad:

  1. If P, then Q.
  2. P
  3. Q

A rational subject has the following options when choosing a “worldview” from those propositions:

  1. Proposition 1 (P1) + proposition 2 (P2) + Q
  2. P1 + not-P2 + Q
  3. P1 + not-P2 + not-Q
  4. Not-P1 + P2 + Q
  5. Not-P1 + not-P2 + Q
  6. Not-P1 + not-P2 + not-Q
  7. Not-P1 + P2 + not-Q

So if a subject S is evaluating the 7 worldviews listed on their acceptance of Q, then it is, on the basis of the other 2 propositions, more rational for S to assent to Q than not-Q, since there are 4 that accept Q and 3 that don’t.

Therefore, we have an example of a belief where non-binary model 1 is applicable, and some similar examples could be constructed for the other 3, such as:

• A subject S who assents to P because it coheres with X, Y, and Z, while Q coheres better with P than not-Q, in which case Q is more coherent than not-Q, even if it is possible for not -Q to be coherent is some cases.

• A proposition P that is useful in contexts X, Y, and Z, and is the most useful model available.

• A subject S who holds an opinion A considered only personal and another opinion B agreed by S’s community to be in the community’s best interests.

3. Conclusion

Contrary to what is often claimed, rejection of absolutism does not mean that one must accept every worldview as equal. It doesn’t mean accepting the opinions of a flat-earther or gravity -denier or neo-Nazi as being equally as reasonable as the common sense opinion on these things. It definitely doesn’t make one a nihilist who holds that there are no grounds for morality and discourse.

In the next post in this series, I plan to address the common objection that relativism is self-refuting and incoherent. Then I plan to discuss this issue in more detail.


One thought on “Some thoughts on relativism, part 1: Does relativism mean everything is equal?

  1. I agree with you but I think you prove too little. Just because all views might not be equal that does not mean a relativist view of truth is at all palatable.

    And just to be clear are you defending a relativist view of everything? So it can be true for Galileo that the earth revolves around the sun but it can be false for Martin Luther? And they both can correct?

    Or are you limiting your views to moral relativism?

    With respect to moral relativism I have argued that the moral relativism can only lead to arbitrary moral beliefs. That is beliefs that do not have good reasons to support them.

    I explain that there are 3 sorts of “good reasons” to hold a belief. 1) we have a theorectically (evidential) rational reason to believe something. 2) we have a pragmaticly rational reason to believe something or 3) we have a logical reason to believe something.

    I think all good reasons to believe something fall into one of these three camps. But I am open to hearing other possibilities.

    In this blog I mainly argue the first and second catagory do not apply to moral relativist beliefs.

    And then in this blog I argue the third catagory is too weak to put any real constraint on beliefs to make them non-arbitrary.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.


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