Pluralism - the theory of relativity

April 24, 2017
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By Elishama |


Continued from my previous article, Objective Truth is the New Hate Speech, pluralism is the first of four "Cardinal Virtues of Secularism" discussed here.

Pluralism is the doctrine that holds reality to be either unknowable or to have multiple forms (i.e. pluriform). If unknowable then all claims as to its nature and meaning are equally valid insofar as they are all unverifiable opinion. If pluriform then reality cannot be reduced to either one or two ultimate forms but is made up of many mutually irreducible ways of being. This outlook leads in ethics to the claim that there are many independent sources of “value.” In religion it assumes that all beliefs are equally valid. Culturally it emphasizes heterogeneity over hegemony. “Diversity” is a popular buzzword used to describe this mentality. It is treated as a self-evident good and something to be strived for. Politically this has established itself in the West as ideological “multiculturalism”.

Pluralism as an observable fact is obviously true. There are many different belief systems and ethical opinions out there. No one would deny that. Pluralism as a philosophical conclusion from this fact is not as obviously true. Just because there are differences of belief or opinion does not mean that all beliefs or opinions are equally true. In fact they cannot be. Opinions and beliefs that diametrically oppose each other (e.g. God exists vs. God does not exist; moral norms are absolute vs. moral norms are relative; the world is round vs. the world is flat) cannot both be true if they are speaking categorically of the same thing.

Ravi Zacharias, a Christian apologist of Indian Hindu background, observed:
“One of the most fallacious ideas ever spawned in Western attitudes toward truth is the oft-repeated pronouncement that exclusionary claims to truth are a Western way of thinking. The East, it is implied, accepts all religions as equally true. This is patently false. Every religion, without exception, has some foundational beliefs that are categorically nonnegotiable and exclude everything to the contrary. You see, truth by definition is exclusive. If truth were all-inclusive, nothing would be false. And if nothing were false, what would be the meaning of true? Furthermore, if nothing were false, would it be true to say that everything is false? It quickly becomes evident that nonsense would follow. “Even Buddhism, which is often held up as being the example of ‘religious tolerance,’ is not exempt from dogmatism. Buddhists forget or downplay the fact that Buddha was born a Hindu and rejected some of the fundamental precepts of Hinduism. Buddha’s own statement was that truth mattered more than conformity. What, therefore, takes place in popular thought is a reflection of the way culture has been engineered to deal with truth issues.” (“Living an Apologetic Life,” Just Thinking, October 2003)
“Pluralism,” in its popular contemporary usage is simply a euphemism for relativism and subjectivism.

Relativism and subjectivism are not new: Protagoras, the Greek sophist (c. 500 B.C), maintained that the individual was the standard of truth. Plato cited him as saying, "man is the measure of all things." Consequently, any given thing "is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you" (Cratylus, 386a). Shakespeare quoted 16th century French essayist Montaigne to similar effect: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2).

Relativism says truth is not fixed by any outside (objective) reality but determined by one’s own (subjective) perception of it. Thus it holds that truth is not discovered but invented. Truth is not unchanging but ever changing.

This, of course, is self-contradicting. The contradiction lies in the fact that the subjectivist claims that truth really, objectively, is subjective; the one unchanging truth is that all truth is ever changing. The one discovered universal truth is that truth is not discovered or universal but manufactured by the individual or culture.

Let us critique relativism using some of the common cliches or slogans associated with it.

That's True For You But Not For Me

On the surface relativism sounds relaxed and easygoing – accepting of all viewpoints. But relativism has one absolute: This I know to be true, all truth is relative (a universal claim that there are no universal claims, and so self-falsifying.) On this point it is dogmatic and rejects out-of-hand any contrary claim.

One can ask someone who recites “true for you but not for me” that if my absolutist view is only true for me why isn't his relativist view only true for him? Does he want me to adopt his view? (Self-excepting fallacy: He is applying the statement to everyone but himself). If his position is true then why argue it? The most he can do is present it. And if others shrug their shoulders and ignore it they are only giving it the acknowledgment his claim implies it deserves. It’s true for him but not for them.

This view is based on a failure to distinguish between the subjectivity of our judgments and the objectivity of truth. The subjective aspect of truth lies in the claim a person makes about the veracity of his judgment. The objective aspect lies in the agreement between his judgment and the reality he is judging. The objective aspect is the primary one. The truth of a statement resides in its correlation to reality not in its relation to the individual judging it.

In an essay on “Truth” philosopher Mortimer Adler writes:
“But the ancient controversy in which Socrates engages with the sophists of his day, who were willing to regard as true whatever anyone wished to think, seems to differ not at all from Freud's quarrel with those whom he calls intellectual nihilists. They are the persons who say there is no such thing as truth or that it is only the product of our own needs and desires. They make it 'absolutely immaterial,' Freud writes, 'what views we accept. All of them are equally true and false. And no one has a right to accuse anyone else of error.' ... If all opinions are equally true or false, then why, Aristotle asks, does not the denier of truth walk 'into a well or over a precipice' instead of avoiding such things. 'If it were really a matter of indifference what we believed,' Freud similarly argues, 'then we might just as well build our bridges of cardboard as of stone, or inject a tenth of a gramme of morphia into a patient instead of a hundredth, or take tear-gas as a narcotic instead of ether. But,' he adds, 'the intellectual anarchists themselves would strongly repudiate such practical applications of their claim.”

But So Many Disagree, Relativism Must Be True


This is confusing the difficulty of discovering truth with the impossibility of finding it. It confuses the absoluteness of truth with the tentative knowledge we often have of it. No one is denying that truth can be elusive. No one said truth is easily known without effort, conflict, and possible error. The challenge is to struggle to discover it.

Likewise, the fact that individuals and cultures have differed as to whether particular actions are right or wrong does not make right and wrong subjective. The Aztecs believed human sacrifices right, Jews thought it wrong. This divergence does not mean it was okay for the Aztecs to sacrifice innocent people any more than it makes it right for the Southern slave owner to treat vulnerable human beings as property. What is culturally relative is opinions about what is right and wrong, not right and wrong itself.

Yet even opinions as to right and wrong are not wholly relative. No culture has ever existed which taught a totally different set of values. For example, honesty, justice, courage, wisdom, self-control were never all thought to be evil, and lying, theft, murder, cowardice, and selfishness were never all thought to be good. Disagreement is not over the existence of right or wrong, nor over the goodness of courage and badness of cowardice, but over what constitute right and wrong and what entails courage and cowardice. Moral principles are generally agreed upon (i.e. are transcultural), it is the particular content and application of these principles that causes disagreement and confusion.

Your Values Are Right For You But Not For Me

When someone told the great British essayist Dr. Samuel Johnson that one of his dinner guests believed that morality was a sham, Dr. Johnson responded, "Why, sir, if he really believes there is no distinction between virtue and vice, let us count our spoons before he leaves!"

Moral subjectivism has been conditioned into us by use of terms like “personal values” instead of terms like “moral laws” or “ethical principles.” The very word “law” suggests something more definite and objective. We do not speak of “subjective laws.”

Many people who claim to be relativists are not consistently so. We simply cannot function without a common moral standard of existence.

Paul Copan tells a story he claims true:
Throughout a course a student challenged one of his professors by claiming all morality is relative and so one cannot judge others by one's own standard. What is right for you is not necessarily wrong for me & vice versa. At end of the course the student handed in the final exam for which he had studied well. When his mark came in, instead of the “A” he expected there was an “F”. Shocked & infuriated he stormed into the professor’s office demanding an explanation. "This is unfair!" he exclaimed. "Did you say unfair?" responded the professor, "By who's moral standard, yours or mine?"
It has been said that a person tends to stop being liberal when it is his toes being stepped on. The same holds true of the relativist. Willis Player’s comment on “liberals” can be equally applied to relativists: “A liberal is a person whose interests aren't at stake at the moment.”

Do Whatever You Want So Long As You Don't Hurt Anyone

This is a common approach to the dilemma of pluralistic moral views. It has an air of legitimacy about it because it sounds similar to the most basic and commonsensical principle of morality, what is in fact the first precept of 'natural law' philosophy: “Do good and avoid evil.” However, as it stands the first proposition is erroneous and the second too ambiguous.

The first proposition, to “do whatever you want,” is a very subjective and selfish guideline. It is not the same thing as saying “Do good” or “Do what is right.” Doing “what you want” takes as its primary reference point one’s internal subjective disposition and desires. Doing what is “good” or “right” takes as its primary reference point an external objective criteria by which you judge the moral propriety of actions arising from internal dispositions and desires. What I “want” may sometimes coincide with what is “good” or “right” but not necessarily.

The second proposition, so long as you “don’t hurt anyone” is too ambiguous. What makes "hurting someone" an absolute value if all values are relative? It seems like an arbitrary sneaking in of an absolute moral principle where before all was said to be relative. Can one demonstrate its absolute character? And if one can then moral relativism is proven false.

Does the "not hurting anyone" norm have any exceptions (such as in cases of self-defense or law enforcement)? If it does what principle determines the exceptions? Is this like a personal game where one makes up his own rules and then makes exceptions to his rules? Why must I play the game by another person’s rules?

Also, elaborate on what exactly is meant by "hurt"? Is it being used narrowly here to mean only bodily injury? Or does it include emotional or psychological injury as well? Does it include injury to one's own or another person's moral character or reputation? Does it include harm done to one's own or another's spiritual life or soul? These types of injuries can often have profounder consequences than many physical injuries. If it includes all these then I can more willingly accept it since it encompasses a more complete understanding of human nature and its well-being. Unfortunately, used as a cliche such an understanding is rarely considered and I suspect not intended.


photo credit: Templestream Gump Meme - And then, for no particular reason, bad was good & good was bad via photopin (license)

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