Against Absolute Relativism

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1st Reflection on Plato’s Republic

After examining the dangers of monism (see on Grand Unity) I will now attempt to unpack and examine how its exact opposite – absolute relativism – can harm an individual’s intellectual growth. To achieve this, I will commence by providing some insight into the workings of this absolute relativism, walk through the threats it presents to dialectic, and finish with a suggestion as to the actions which can be taken to deal with this issue.

Before defining absolute relativism, I should delineate it from its more common and easily dismissed cousin – lazy relativism. Lazy relativism is the intellectual apathy which an individual wears as a shield, a defence mechanism employed when facing a contradictory opinion. Rather than denouncing their opponent as a heretic, a lazy relativist will instead voice the refrain “that’s your opinion.” Such a statement suggests that debate has reached a point where further discussion is impossible, and the intractable issue of opposing ‘sacred objects’ (see on Failed Inquiry) blocks further debate. This lazy relativism is a just the tool of those who would rather avoid conflict and retreat into the shell of the self, as opposed to the crusader who would prefer to denounce their partner in discourse – or when taken to its logical extreme, destroy them.

So if lazy relativism is not the target of this reflection, then what am I attempting to debate? Absolute relativism is a position which takes scepticism to its final endpoint, but it is also more than this. If you accept the sceptic premise of the fallibility of human perception of truth, you can stretch it down into a point of radical scepticism, which suggests that humans cannot comprehend reality and truth. The absolute relativist reaches this point but then transcends the nihilistic abyss by instead affirming truth as relative to the observer. In this model, the truth is what an individual makes of it.

With this mechanism of thinking, absolute relativism destroys coherence in thought, as with absolute relativism we cannot anchor our discussion on any point of reference. If there exists no solid ground from which dialectic operates, then any discussion or any search for meaning collapses at the intellectual level. With this in mind, the tenets of absolute relativism see the abandonment of meaning, and the embrace of visceral emotion and self-satisfied basking in one’s own opinions as the only truth worth attaining, the construction of an echo chamber which hardens heart and soul against external voices.

Even worse than this, absolute relativism destroys the instruments of dialectic. By indicating that the only valid point of reference is one’s own opinion and experience, the absolute relativist breaks humanity down into innumerable bubbles of belief. The language used in each of these bubbles in relative to each mind, and as such any discussion between these thought bubbles is merely meaningless babble between two utterly alien points of reference, incomprehensible to both parties and devoid of actual intellectual exchange (see on Names).

At this point, it is fair to ask the question: what is the difference between relativism and heterodoxy of opinion? Heterodoxy is something that I have defended previously as important to intellectual development, but I think that those striving for growth are fundamentally different to those who embrace the absolute relativist’s position. For a person open to heterodox opinions, a student of dialectic, they see truth as a statue, and opinion as the differing points of view from the different observes of the artwork, each capturing a different snapshot of the truth, filtered through their intellectual lens. Even if we accept the moderate sceptic’s position of the unattainable nature of truth, we can agree that by engaging with the heterodox views we gain a more rounded understanding and that our perception will grow closer to that of truth in the abstract (see on Knowledge). As such I exhort you all not to lapse into self-satisfaction and abandon discourse, but instead to continue through the effort and exertion, ever climbing to the highest peak of true understanding.

Original text

Plato’s Republic

Painting

George Frederic Watts, Chaos, 1875

9 Replies to “Against Absolute Relativism”

  1. My dear anonymous reader and author,

    I’ve looked in on your Foolish Musings from time to time and have found a few things that have piqued my interest. I will endeavor not to be just another internet troll, I will try very hard to do more than cast stones. After all, if I did not think the conversation was worth having, I would just have soon left without a word. But your writing tempts me to respond.

    Many years ago I had a conversation with my brother in which I concluded that he was a relative absolutist. That is, he found a way to see thing in black and white. You know, good and evil, right and wrong. I, on the other hand saw things differently. A clever fellow might expect this much.
    I found it somewhat easy to characterize myself as an absolute relativist. It seemed like a nice counter to my brother’s leanings. In contrast to his ease with moral absolutes, I found those distinctions difficult to embrace. Here is why.

    Setting aside the thoroughly corrupt person, a person whom hatred had consumed his mind, it seemed to me that most people do what they feel is “right”. I will (after a moment) try to illustrate that point and to also touch on the nature of a “thoroughly corrupted” person, as well.
    But first let me talk a bit about the person for whom doing the right thing may seem to others to be doing the absolutely wrong thing.

    For an easy illustration of this point you can easily point to any despot or leader who has the crimes of humanity on his hands. It is easy, I think, to condemn the Hitlers, the Pol Pots, the Stalins and so on, as being terrible men without redemption. I am not an apologist for any of these fellows, but one might try to understand these apparent aberrations as rather more normal than not. All of these men (and I apologize for using only men as examples) were trying to do what they thought was the right thing for their “tribe”. I have to believe that they thought they were doing the right and good thing for the sake of the people who put them in the positions of power that they held. Yet for all the surety that they may have that what they were doing was only for the good of the people, in hindsight, it is apparent that what they actually did was pretty terrible. Whatever they did and whatever they convinced others to do had to have been understood to be a right and good thing, at the time. In hindsight, we may come to a different conclusion. Even contemporary critics found fault in these terrible men. But someone backed them. Someone thought they were doing good and noble work. If right is not a hard and fast thing, is wrong also a slippery thing, too? People, I think do not deliberately do bad things. People generally strive to do the right things…for themselves and for their tribes.

    We as Americans often think what we are good and noble people, and that what we do is the right thing. But the evidence is that we regularly do things that people around the world think is pretty terrible, too. Is America then like Germany or Cambodia or the Soviet Union? I’d venture to say that in some eyes we really are the devil. How can this be? We are so good! Yet, we do things that people in distant places find meddlesome and repugnant.

    It is all quite relative then, that what is thought to be right and good can also be wrong and bad.
    So let me talk about the thoroughly corrupted. People are born with their personalities largely informed. The environment in which they are raised has surprisingly little impact on a personality. Sociopaths occur with no rhyme or reason. It is not the environment that makes one cruel and careless. These are things we are born with. We often do not like to confront this ugly truth. But sometimes people are just terrible. There is almost nothing a loving home can do to change the outcome of a person who possesses the nature of a sociopath. The evidence for this is pretty clear. You can do the most superficial research and come to this conclusion. It does not require a lot of intellectual rigor to arrive at this notion. Though rigorous research will tell you the same thing. Do not assume that all people who are sociopaths are terrible people. Sociopathy can manifest itself across a broad spectrum of behavior. Like most things I life, this is not a black and white issue. However, sociopaths (and psychopaths) can become terrible people. When the traits of sociopathy are most pronounced, there is a distinct lack of empathy and caring for the experience of other people. It is then that the mind becomes corrupted (relative to the behavior of most of the rest of us and to our thinking). Yet, I will tell this this much, a sociopath does not see the world as we might. A sociopath sees most of us with puzzlement. We appear weak and little more than prey. From a perspective of a sociopath, we are the odd ones.

    A world of nice people is not a panacea for all the evils in the world. Oddly, we seem to need a mixture of nice people (sheeple) and not so nice people (wolves). Neither is necessarily good or evil. Both seem to be necessary in some measure. So in this scenario, there is no right or wrong, not good or evil, and no black or white. There is this crazy-tweed of greys, everywhere.
    I (an atheist) was talking to a friend and colleague about morality. He is a devout evangelical. One day, in a fit of pique, he asked me what I believe in. I was happy to say that I believed in nothing. How could this be?! He was suitably horrified. Well, I explained that if one were to consider the nature of the universe, there is vast space between stars and that the presence of matter is very rare, nearly nothing at all. In this view the universe is mostly made up of a lot of nothing. Nothing is far more common than something.

    We see the world around us. We’ve constructed an idea of what that world is. It may be right, but it may be wrong. We are limited by our perception. What we know of the world is limited by what our senses can tell us. But the world is very different to an ant or a bat or a dog. But the worlds of an ant and a bat and a dog are all equally right. The perspective is different. It is after all relative.

    I’d dare say that it was absolutely relative.

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    1. Kim,

      Thank you for your comment, and I hope that you are enjoying reading the blog.
      I must say that I think it is interesting that after 2500 years the arguments of Gorgias still are so persuasive, having found adherents in the modern schools of post-structuralism and post-modernism.

      I am sure that in the same way, the Upanishads gave me a greater appreciation of monism that when I get to reading Foucault and Derrida that they will be able to challenge and improve my understanding greatly. Unfortunately, the outline I have received from Protagoras and Gorgias is largely incomplete due to the fragmentary nature of the Sophist’s works.

      I would posit a few points in response to your comment. Firstly, I would suggest that if one adopts a relativist worldview, then it must be applied thoroughly, there cannot be any mild-mannered interpretation of relativity. If we accept ‘man as the measure of all things’ – as Protagoras puts it – then, as you have correctly identified, one mans good is another mans evil. However, if that is your position, a ‘thoroughly corrupted persons’ cannot exist, for there is no objective measure by which to determine them as corrupt. Amongst a gang of psychopath’s virtue could well be defined as cruelty, strength and avarice. Thus, to split the human population into those who can ‘use’ relativity and those who are beyond the pale of its scope – tyrants, murderers, rapists and fiends – presupposes some objective measure for ethics, existing outside an individual’s worldview, relativism’s antithesis.

      Secondly, your point about individuals not intentionally doing wrong is easily accommodated within the non-relativistic worldview. In fact, it was by the mouth of Socrates that Plato had his teacher spar with Thrasymachus over this very point. Plato identified that people only do what they think is good for themselves – but in reality, if their knowledge of what is good is flawed, they end up doing more harm to themselves, their friends and family. Take the Republics example of a Tyrant – a man draped in all the material wealth, power and pleasure but unable to quench their desires, and constantly afraid of the force used to oppress being turned back upon themselves.
      With this in mind, if a person seeks to do good for themselves and their tribe, but without knowledge of what is good for themselves, they risk the double-edged blade of action. Think of every historical example where violence, war and coercion have backfired – resulting in the actor’s death, suffering and misery. I have previously argued that, as flawed beings, we must act without perfect knowledge – but to discard inquiry after capital T ‘Truth’ as our only guide for good action strikes me as somewhat self-defeating. Either we must accept that intention is not enough to mark an act as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ or we will need to jettison the outcomes of action as a guide. In the latter case the Tyrant who purges their own population, crushes their citizen’s spirit and gobbles up the fruits of the land only to be ripped to pieces by the mob in revolt was doing good all along.

      Thus we turn to the final point, the doctrine of Gorgias: that nothing truly exists. I would point out firstly that the statement that “I believe in nothing” is still a profession of faith. I will be generous and assume that you are not adhering to the completely nihilist doctrine that nothing possibly exists – in that our sense perceptions and the world we inhabit is nothing more than an illusion draped over the void. If you are a follower of that school, then I would find it odd that you would bother trying to convince anyone of anything – as thought itself is merely an illusion. I think it more likely that you are a follower of the atomistic, epicurean and utilitarian families of thought – stripping the cosmos of metaphysical absolutes and seeking fleeting pleasure in an otherwise meaningless world. To this ‘universe is your canvas’ philosophy I would make the same arguments that I have marshalled in my reflection ‘On Materialism’: Why continue to live and risk pain when you could destroy yourself in a flash of ecstasy? Surely the risks of a long life, filled with dubious fortunes and likely suffering, make such a decision relatively easy. The ‘sheeple’ and ‘wolves’ end up diseased, fragile and finally rotting in the ground together – perhaps the only way to win at such a life is a quick exit.

      Thanks again for the well thought out post and commentary and I hope that you keep reading the blog into the future! I very much salute the spirit in which you are reading ideas and concepts which oppose your worldview – in my mind the only possible avenue of growth. I will be releasing a capstone reflection on the pre-Socratic philosophers in the next two weeks or so (still many books to read) and look forward to hearing from you again.

      Regards,

      Tim

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  2. A brief reply, if I may.

    I think that it is easy to make broad assertions and perhaps even broader inferences from a scant amount of evidence. (Please, know that I am not accusing you of having done either of these things.) But it is well and truly possible that an atheist can be moral and perhaps more moral than a believer in any of the gods. My old colleague who was horrified by my belief in “nothing” claimed (erroneously) that without a god to hold one accountable all acts would be effectively immoral. My morality is informed by many things. My understanding of “thoroughly corrupted” person is based on my understanding of morality. I would suppose my motivation for my morality may be questioned by theists, but the effect of that morality is (I hope) unimpeachable.

    So it is not from nothing that I base my world view. I know that I am a product of my place and time. Or should I say, my “timespace”. (There is a subtle not to Neil deGrasse Tyson!)

    But look, whether I believe in “nothing” and if I maintain my sense of morality in the face of all this “nothingness”, it is not at all inconsistent. Quite to the contrary, I think it is a rather nice tapestry, or perhaps it is an even nicer “tweed”.

    I hope you have good days and that you are rewarded by happy visitors to your website. I have decided not to create a similar presence because I felt that what I had to say would find few enthusiastic readers. I hope that am not terribly ego-centric. My philosophy is partly informed by ideas I learned from Hindu. I hope to shed my ego and get off the wheel of rebirth. Once and done!

    That is my hope.

    But this is a pleasant place. My incarnation is good. I have been amply rewarded with a good life, better than I had any reason to expect.

    I was happy to chance upon your website. You have done a pretty good job of it.

    Kim

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    1. Kim,

      Thank you again for your reply and kind words.

      I would like to add for clarification that I am not a religious person – something I think you may have taken me for. It was, in fact, the dissatisfaction of dogmatic answers which drove me to create the site and write these reflections in the first place. I started as an Atheist – disgusted by what I saw as hypocrisy in religion – but have shifted to an agnostic disposition as I have read more broadly.

      If you read my reflection: Doubts, I tried to convey some of the angst I feel in the face of denying dogma but at the same time affirming value. For me the question is not: can person X be good (or moral, right, ethical etc.) but rather – can goodness exist? Without a metaphysical reference, I think it is impossible to derive anything other than physical values from nature. Atomistic materialism cannot tell you if an action is good, only the mechanics of how an action occurred. Similarly, nihilism cannot liberate you from the oppressive laws and custom – only strip your existence of meaning.

      For me, the struggle is how we can reject the customs, dogma and prejudices of our culture but retain universal value? Without metaphysical value, it is impossible to develop meaning from physical reality alone. The uncomfortable conclusion I have reached is that our minds – accidental concoctions of the blind churning soup of evolution – are nothing more than input/output machines, our consciousness an illusion of free will and choice. Even the act of despair would appear not tragic but in itself a pathetic meaningless display of narcissism. The only true code in this system would be the law of the jungle – the driver which lies at the heart of every biological organism, proceeding at any cost to ensure the propagation of their genetic material.

      I highly recommend if you are interested in deepening your understanding you should write – I find that it helps me put my mind in order, perhaps a ‘consolation of philosophy’?

      Thanks again for stopping by,

      Regards,

      Tim

      Like

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