Relativism, Nihilism, and Realism: You Think You’re a Relativist but You’re Not.

If I had a nickel for every time I hear something like “Well, if it’s right for him, who am I to judge?” I’d still be poor. Not because I don’t hear it a lot but because I’d donate all those nickels to charity. Anyway, relativism–the position that values are relative to an individual or culture-is by far the most dominant view among the general population. In fact, back in my pre-philosophical days I too was a relativist. If you were born to a relatively secular or liberal religious household chances are you *think* you’re a relativist too.

Before getting into the problems with this view, I’ll quickly go over some of the (perceived?) virtues of relativism. (a) It promotes a culture of tolerance and avoids/tempers dogmatism and (b) by way of (a) it can reduce conflicts. However, there are two main problems with relativism: (a) no one really believes it when push-comes-to-shove and (b) it’s logically incoherent: instead you must pick either realism (there are objective values) or nihilism (there are no objective values).

EDIT: Some commenters have correctly pointed out that realism and nihilism aren’t the only positions available if you reject relativism. In the interest of simplicity for my non-professional audience I intentionally lumped non-cognitivist positions in with nihilism. So, for those of you familiar with the distinction, please read “nihilism” as including non-cognitivist positions for the purposes of this post. For non-philosophers, if you’d like to learn about the difference I’ve given a brief summary here.

Part 1: There Are No True Relativists
OK, let’s grant the virtues of relativism for the moment. Unfortunately for relativists (i.e., most Westerns) you aren’t really relativists. Take this guy for instance. Is he expressing a valid point of view relative to his culture or is he mistaken in an absolute sense?

Relativism leads to the absurd conclusion that there’s no normative difference between a sadist’s values and a humanitarian’s values. Hey, if tormenting people for fun is perceived as good and right by the sadist, then it’s good. Who are we to judge his values? The relativist might reply, “No, what I mean is you can do what you want so long as you don’t harm other people.” That’s a fine response but you’ve just given up relativism. You’ve just conceded that there is at least one objective moral truth.

Another response might be that people can do what they want so long as it makes them happy (however you define it). Once again you’ve conceded the argument because you’ve committed yourself to the objective value of happiness. I.e., when actions conflict with happiness, we ought to favor happiness; happiness is more important than all other things. You are actually a realist/objectivist.

Again, relativism leads to the unsavory position that the Gestapo and Medicins Sans Frontieres are organizations of equal moral worth. If the Gestapo thinks it’s good and right to “throw the Jew down the well,” then, hey, who are we to judge? Punching someone in the face is no less praiseworthy as giving someone a helping hand. I doubt very much that anyone truly thinks that, beyond personal beliefs and preferences, there are no important differences between the values in the above examples. If you think there are important differences you’re a realist because you just made a judgment about one set of values having more value than another. If you don’t then you’re probably a nihilist. But you aren’t a relativist. More on that later.

Why the Virtues of Relativism Aren’t Virtues
Tolerance, aversion of dogmatism, and reduction of conflicts are not genuine virtues in the face of obvious evil. If we discovered that our neighbors had child slaves most of us do not think it would be virtuous to tolerate the practice. In fact, we should dogmatically oppose it and we should confront those who practice it. In short, most of us think that confronting evil and injustice is virtuous while tolerating it is not. And so, the virtues of relativism are not virtues after all. They are contingent on the objective goodness of the practice in question.

If we think a practice is good or perhaps value neutral then tolerance for diversity appears good. But it’s not relativism that grounds the virtue of tolerance, non-confrontation, etc… It’s our recognition of a practice that brings about some good. And so, the virtuousness of our response is grounded in the fact that we are tolerant of things that are good (or value-neutral) and intolerant of things that are bad. In short, it is the goodness or badness of the act that grounds the virtue of our response to it.

Part 2: The Logical Invalidity of Relativism and Why You Must Be Either a Realist or a Nihilist
Argument 1: The Multiplicity of Things

Let’s get the ball rolling with a little Plato…

Now if a man believes in the existence of beautiful things, but not of Beauty itself, and cannot follow a guide who would lead him to a knowledge of it, is he not living in a dream. Consider: does not dreaming, whether one is awake or asleep, consist in mistaking a semblance for the reality it resembles?
I should certainly call that dreaming.
Contrast with him the man who holds that there is such thing as Beauty itself and can discern that essence as well as the things that partake of its character without ever confusing the one with the other—is he a dreamer or living in a waking state?
He is very much awake.
So may we say that he knows, while the other has only a belief in appearances; and might we call their states of mind knowledge and belief? RepublicV. 476

Ok, there’s a bunch of stuff going on here that I’ll possibly address in a later post but for now I just want to focus on one idea. How is it that someone can say of many particularthings, actions, or events that they are good/bad/just/unjust/beautiful/ugly, etc… if he isn’t referring to one objective standard? That is, by indicating that several particulars are good then they must share the property of goodness just as all red things must share the property of redness. 

For example, when someone says x was good, y was good and z was good, all these things (are perceived to) share the quality of goodness. And so goodness must be one objective thing, not many things. There is one concept of goodness and particular acts or events can partake, to varying degrees, in goodness. (Note: some philosophers contest this view suggesting that there are only particulars but let’s roll with it for now. It’s not the only argument against relativism.)

The simple response is to say, yes but people might disagree over what goodness/rightness/justice is. That is, they might have different beliefs about what those normative concepts contain.
First of all, the fact that people disagree over something isn’t evidence that there’s no objective truth about it. For example, just because people might disagree over whether Sweet Baby Jesus created the universe or whether it was Indra (those are the only possible choices) doesn’t mean that there’s no right answer to the question. (Indra did it)
Disagreement only is evidence for three possibilities: (a) one person is right while the other is wrong; (b) both people are wrong; (c) there is no right or wrong answer. You can’t just jump to (c) from the fact that there is disagreement over something. You must also consider that (a) and (b) might be true.

Argument 1: “True”–You Keep Using That Word But I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

The fact is, relativists often express their position in the following mantra “If Bob thinks X is good then it’s true that X is good for Bob.” In short, each individual (or culture) is the arbiter of value. Let’s see why this argument doesn’t work…
I covered the first reason to reject the relativist argument in the first section. Relativism means we can make no judgments between the most evil and the most benevolent actions. Let’s assume for the moment that it’s true that we can’t make such objective judgments. There’s no way to distinguish between what we perceive as benevolent and evil actions. Let’s try a different argument.

Another reason to reject the relativist mantra is that just because someone believessomething is good for them doesn’t make it so. If you can’t think of at least a few times you believed something was good for you but at a later date realized it was a mistake, either you are still an infant or you’re lying. Scientifical fact from test tubes and beakers: People can be mistaken about what is or isn’t good for them and so just because a person believes something is good doesn’t make it so.

Here the relativist can reply, OK so maybe people can be wrong about what’s good, bad, right, or wrong for them but it doesn’t follow that there is some objective good, bad, right, wrong for everyone. The person that got it wrong just got it wrong relative to them.
Let’s use logicalization to address this counter-reply:

Again, at the heart of relativism is the idea that believing something makes it so. Thus, believing that abortion is wrong makes it truethat abortion is wrong (for that person or culture). But this is to misunderstand the notion of truth. When we say that something is true we mean that it’s true regardless of your beliefs. For example, if someone believes that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq their belief has no bearing on the truth of the proposition. The proposition “there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq” is either true or false regardless of what anyone believes because the truth value of propositions depends on states of affairs in the world not on our beliefs about states of affairs. It can’t be both true and false. It must be one or the other.

Person A says “I believe abortion is wrong (in circumstance C), therefore it’s wrong.” They say the proposition “abortion is wrong” is true.
Person B says “I believe abortion isn’twrong (in circumstance C), therefore it isn’twrong.” They say the proposition “abortion is wrong” is false.

The most basic rule of logic is the law of non-contradiction: that something cannot both be true and false at the same time. Relativism leads us to violate the most fundamental rule of logic. It makes it so a proposition can both true and false at the same time. Under relativism “abortion is wrong” is both true and false.
Accepting relativism means we have to reject the most basic rule of logic and this is not a good outcome. It means you can’t even communicate because everything is both true and false. Squares both do and do not have 4 corners; Circles both are and are not squares; I both exist and don’t exist at the same time; I both will and will not meet you for lunch. My car both is and is not a car. Those jeans both make your butt look fat and not fat. Nothing makes any sense. All meaning is drained from language. This is the logical cost of accepting relativism.

The relativist can reply. No! No! No! You don’t understand! What I mean is “abortion is wrong” is true for me! (Me! Me! Me! Everything revolves around me! Even truth and falsity). But this is to completely abandon what we mean by true and false. Nobody takes seriously the person who says “the earth is flat is true for me!”. To such a person we simply say that they are confusing belief for factual knowledge. They believethat the earth is flat but this doesn’t make it true. And they certainly don’t knowthat the earth is flat. There is a fact about the universe that the earth either is flat or it isn’t. It can’t be both—regardless of how hard you believe and regardless of what you read in “The Secret”…

To summarize: An assertion cannot both be true and false (law of non-contradiction). Relativism violates the law of non-contradiction because some people will say of a moral statement that it is true while others will say it’s false. There are two alternative: (a) both are wrong and there is no moral truth at all, just preferences (i.e., some form of nihilism is true); (b) one is right and the other is wrong (i.e., some form of realism is true).

Realism or Nihilism: Pick One but You Can’t Be a Relativist
We want language to have meaning so we must abandon relativism. Our two choices are realism or nihilism. Realism (in its many flavors) is the position that we can make objective judgments about some values being better than others. Contrary to what simplistic caricatures would have us believe, realism doesn’t necessarily commit you to hard and fast rules. 
Realism can be very coarse grained. It might say that for certain situations there is no one right answer there are several but there are also wrong answers. If you think that there are some situations where there is fact about what’s good or right or that there can be wrong answers, you are a realist. Maybe you think it’s wrong to kill a bunch of innocent civilians for drawing cartoons of a person who lived in the 7th century. If you think it’s wrong, and not just a belief that it’s wrong but are willing to say it’s wrong for anyone to do, then you’re a realist.
If you don’t think there are any objective moral facts or values then you can never say one set of values is better than another. As a nihilist you can’t say that making one decision over another matters (from an objective point of view) because there are no values and so there’s no reason to prefer one outcome over another. People might have personal preferences but we can never objectively evaluate their preferences. The person who chooses to spend their life counting blades of grass has a life no less meaningful than the person who cures cancer.

What you can’t be is a relativist. Either there are objective moral facts and/or values or there aren’t. It’s one or the other. It can’t be both. People can have beliefs/preferences about what’s good/right/bad/wrong but this doesn’t tell us anything about the objective state of affairs. If you’re a realist, people can have mistaken beliefs about what’s good/right/bad/wrong. If you’re a nihilist, people only have preferences and preferences can’t be “true” or “false” any more than my preference for strawberry ice cream is true or false.

6 thoughts on “Relativism, Nihilism, and Realism: You Think You’re a Relativist but You’re Not.

  1. May I ask, is there a way to somehow take a middle ground on whether the universe is or is not defined by objective truths? I'm having trouble wrapping this idea around my head. What are your thoughts about this?


  2. Hi Eric,Thanks for your question. The best prospects for such a view would be some variation of what's called 'constructivism' as well as views called 'quasi-realism'. I'd recommend checking out the work of Allan Gibbard and Simon Blackburn. Searching these views and philosophers in SEP, Internet encyclopedia of philosophy, and wikipedia are good places to begin.


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