Who’s afraid of relativism?

In recent years, relativism has had a particularly bad press. Often chided along with what some call postmodernism, relativism is held responsible for certain politicians’ complacent ignorance or bullshitting. While I’m not alone in thinking that this scapegoating is due to a severe misunderstanding of relativism, even those who should know better join the choir of condemnation:

“The advance of relativism – the notion that truth is relative to each individual’s standpoint – reached what might be seen as a new low with the recent claim by Donald Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway that there are such things as “alternative facts”. (She went so far as to cite a non-existent “Bowling Green massacre” to justify Trump’s refugee travel ban, something she later described as a “misspeak”.)” Joe Humphrey’s paraphrasing Timothy Williamson in the Irish Times, 5.7. 2017

If this is what Williamson thinks, he confuses relativism with extreme subjectivism. But I don’t want to dismiss this view too easily. The worry behind this accusation is real. If people do think that truth is relative to each individual’s standpoint, then “anything goes”. You can claim anything and there are no grounds for me to correct you. If this is truth, there is no truth. The word is a meaningless appeal. However, I don’t think that the politicians in question believe in anything as sophisticated as relativism. Following up on some intriguing discussions about the notion of “alternative facts”, I believe that the strategy is (1) to lie by (2) appealing to an (invented) set of states of affairs that supposedly has been ignored. Conway did not assume that she was in the possession of her own subjective truth; quite the contrary. Everyone would have seen what she claimed to be the truth, had they cared to look at the right time in the right way. If I am right, her strategy depends on a shared notion of truth. In other words, I guess that Williamson and Conway roughly start out from the same understanding of truth. To bring in relativism or postmodernism is not helpful when trying to understand the strategy of politicians.

By introducing the term “alternative facts” Conway reminds us of the fact (!) that we pick out truths relative to our interests. I think we are right to be afraid of certain politicians. But why are we afraid of relativism? We have to accept that truth, knowledge or morality are relative to a standard. Relativism is the view that there is more than one such standard.* This makes perfect sense. That 2 plus 2 equals 4 is not true absolutely. Arguably, this truth requires the agreement on a certain arithmetic system. I think that arithmetic and other standards evolve relative to certain interests. Of course, we might disagree about the details of how to spell out such an understanding of relativism. But it is hard to see what makes us so afraid of it.

Perhaps an answer can be given by looking at how relativism evolved historically. If you look at early modern or medieval discussions of truth, knowledge and morality, there is often a distinction between divine and human concepts. Divine knowledge is perfect; human knowledge is partial and fallible. Divine knowledge sets an absolute standard against which human failure is measured. If you look at discussions in and around Locke, for instance, especially his agnosticism about real essences and divine natural law, divine knowledge is still assumed but it loses the status of a standard for us. What we’re left with is human knowledge, in all its mediocrity and fallibility. Hume goes further and no longer even appeals to the divine as a remote standard. Our claims to knowledge are seen as rooted in custom. Now if the divine does no longer serve as an absolute measure, human claims to knowledge, truth and morality are merely one possible standard. There is no absolute standard available. Nominal essences or customs are relative to the human condition: our biological make-up and our interests. The focus on human capacities, irrespective of the divine, is a growing issue, going hand in hand with an idea of relativism.  The “loss” of the absolute is thus owing to a different understanding of theological claims about divine standards. Human knowledge is relative in that it is no longer measured against divine knowledge. If this is correct, relativism emerged (also) as a result of a dissociation of divine and human standards. Why would we be afraid of that?

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* I’m following Martin Kusch’s definition in his proposal for the ERC project on the Emergence of Relativism“It is not easy to give a neutral definition of “relativism”: defenders and critics disagree over the question of what the relativist is committed to. Roughly put, the relativist regarding a given domain (e.g. epistemology) insists that judgments or beliefs in this domain are true or false, justified or unjustified, only relative to  systems of standards. For the relativist there is more than one such system, and there is no neutral way of adjudicating between them. Some relativists go further and claim that all such systems are equally valid.”