Friday, November 6, 2009

A Practical Rejection of Conceptual Relativism

In a previous essay, A Practical Rejection of Material Relativism, I demonstrated that nobody actually believes in material relativism. Using simple logic and common, everyday examples, I illustrated that everyone firmly believes that their sensory experience of the world is reliable, and that each person believes that others' sensory experience of the world is identical or largely similar to their own. These premises are simply a matter of common sense and for all functional purposes nobody questions them. However, material relativism is not an especially commonly held form of modern relativism. Conceptual relativism is much more common and, in many ways, far more intellectually and practically dangerous. Generally, when people try to invoke relativism in support of their beliefs or as a tool to dismiss opposing beliefs, it is used in the realms of morality and spirituality. As such, relativism is a set of metaphysical beliefs that has a profound impact on one's worldview, one's everyday actions and one's relationship with God, human beings and the physical universe.

For the purposes of this essay, conceptual relativism is a belief that since you see things one way and I see things another way, perhaps the truth is that both views are equally correct and we are just looking at the universe in different ways. If this is true in the conceptual realm, then perhaps my view that adultery is wrong is true for me, and your view that all consensual sex is perfectly moral and acceptable is true for you. Perhaps Jesus is my Savior and the only way to heaven, but maybe for you, submission to Allah is the way to salvation. Maybe in my world, God created the entire universe 6,000 years ago, but in your world the universe evolved over billions and billions of years. If we actually live in a truly relative universe, then it is entirely possible that your beliefs, my beliefs, and the beliefs of each person are all completely true, because we would indeed be living in quite divergent worlds.

Obviously, there is a vast divergence of beliefs about everything in this world; there are wildly varying economic theories, philosophical models, religious beliefs, social norms, cultural forces, academic values, ethical judgments and so many other things! As such, how does one decide what to believe? Does it matter? If we live in a relative world, then you simply can't be wrong about anything. Since all beliefs are equally true, then it doesn't matter what you believe or don't believe. Obviously, we don't believe that beliefs don't matter. In fact no-one does. Though conceptual relativism has many philosophical flaws and utterly contradicts the evidence of the real world, I need not expound these multitudinous flaws for the same simple reason I advocated in my last essay:

No one actually believes in relativism!

Again, I'm not saying that a person couldn't believe in relativism, I'm just saying that no-one does. On what basis can I make such a claim? The way people act and the things they claim to believe are quite incompatible with relativism. This is especially true in the realms of morality and spirituality. If a person ever disagrees about anything, they have just illustrated that they do not believe in relativism. If a person ever seeks to use logic to prove a point, they cannot possibly be a relativist. If a person ever judges the actions of another, then they clearly believe that what is true for them is true for everyone else as well. Shortly, I will explain why logic and moral judgments refute a belief in relativism, but before that I must briefly touch on semantics to show that people fundamentally agree that concepts are communicable and intelligible.

All people perceive the world in concepts. We also communicate concepts using conceptual labels called "words." Now, sometimes what we mean by certain words is different than what others mean by the same words. For example, you may assume that car means "any moving vehicle", while I might suppose that car means "a four-wheeled vehicle seating no more than 5 people." Given our different understandings of the word "car" we could reach a misunderstanding or even have a disagreement. This is why semantics matter. In order to communicate a concept you have to ensure that your language is understood by the person you are communicating with. Once both people understand what the other person means by the word "car," all misunderstandings and conflicts are easily averted, because both parties understand the detailed concepts being expressed. The very fact that people are capable of meaningful conceptual communication suggests that people don't live in unique and conceptually different worlds. Even though you and I might mean something somewhat different by "car" or "justice" or "faith," once suitably defined we at least would understand the concept expressed by the other. This illustrates the intelligibility and communicability of concepts, as well as the conceptual continuity that exists from one person to another.

Morality is another conceptual area that quickly reveals the practical impossibilities of conceptual relativism. If morality is completely relative, then for each individual there exists a different moral code. If you believe that murder is okay, and I believe that murder is always wrong, then in a truly relative universe both of our views are equally correct and true. However, in every civilized nation in the world there is a form of law; these laws (at least technically) apply equally to all citizens. When a drug dealer is convicted for trafficking illegal substances, nobody asks him whether dealing drugs is wrong for him. Likewise, when a murderer is convicted for his crime, the justice system does not concern itself with the murderer's moral stance on murder. In a relativistic world, it is only reasonable to punish people for actions which are wrong. And, actions are only wrong if the transgressors believe them to be wrong. Therefore, proper justice would mean that only those murderers who violate their own moral code be subject to the conditions of law, and those murderers who did nothing wrong (since murder is not wrong in their world) should not be punished. Quite obviously, no-one actually believes in complete moral relativity. In fact, when any person accuses another of wrongdoing, they are implicitly stating, "The action that you just committed is intrinsically wrong, and it is equally wrong for all people."

Additionally, we also don't believe in partially relative morality. Many modern moral theorists suggest that morality is just a social construction. Namely, that whatever a society as a whole considers to be right and wrong is treated as right or wrong. However, nobody actually acts in accordance with such a theory. If the social construct theory of morality were followed, then one could only be held accountable for crimes if his own society had determined such actions were wrong. However, if stealing is a morally-acceptable behavior in Tanzania, and a Tanzanian thief steals from America, we would have no legitimate basis for imprisoning him, since he committed no wrong. Therefore, whenever a country tries a foreigner for a violation of local laws that differ from the foreigner's laws, such a country is declaring morality to be universal, at least in some sense. Likewise, if morality is a partially relative manner, then no person has any basis to morally object to the World War II Holocaust. Even though genocide may be wrong in our societies, in Germany, society had agreed that exterminating Jews was a good and necessary thing. Since we don't believe that their actions were morally right, we also don't accept the claim that each society has their own separate, but equally true, moral code.

Additionally, logic itself is incompatible with conceptual relativism. One of the most fundamental laws of logic is the Law of Non-Contradiction. Simply stated, if something is true, then its opposite cannot also be true. For example, if God exists, then it is not logically possible that God also does not exist. Likewise, if my car is red, it is logically impossible for it to be non-red. For this reason, logic clearly reveals that we do not live in a relativistic world. For the sake of the argument, let us suppose that you believe that coffee is the world's only beverage, but you are a relativist, so you only believe that fact concerning your own world (World A). Now, suppose that another person believes that tea is the only beverage, and that it exists as the only drink in his own world (World B) and all other worlds. If relativity is true, then both beliefs must be true, which leaves us with the following conundrum. In World B, tea is the only drink. No problem so far. However, in World A coffee is the only drink and tea is the only drink. This is logically impossible. If coffee is the only drink in World A, then it is necessarily true that no other drinks exist in World A. However, tea exists. Additionally, if tea is the only drink in World A, then it is necessarily true that no other drinks exist in World A. But, coffee exists. The Law of Non-Contradiction means only one of those premises can be true. Therefore, conceptually relativism is logically impossible. This also means that anyone who accepts or uses logic does not really believe in relativism.

Therefore, by common everyday use of words, moral judgments and the use of logic, we have clearly shown several things. First, from semantics we learn it is clear that all people believe that concepts are understandable, communicable and contiguous from one person's world to the next. Secondly, based on moral judgments, we see that people believe that at least some concepts are equally true for all people. Third, concurrence over the laws of logic illustrates that all people believe that some concepts are correct and many are incorrect. All of these practical beliefs are quite incompatible with relativism. Therefore, we can summarize these three points in the common belief that all people live in the same conceptual world, where every concept that is true is true for all people, and every concept that is false, is false for all people.

Though we have only established that people believe some concepts are equally true for all people, I believe that it can reasonably shown that is true for all categories of concepts. To establish that fully would require a very comprehensive paper, which exhaustively examines every possible category of concepts. Obviously, that is beyond the scope of this essay, but I will give a short example to illustrate what I mean. Most Christians believe that Jesus is only way to heaven, and most Muslims believe that submission to Allah is the only path to salvation. Obviously, these are exclusive claims, and followers of each religion are convinced that their conception is correct and that everyone else is either wrong, deceived or confused. Therefore, even though there is disagreement over which concept is correct, every honest person will admit that he believes that his conception is correct and that everyone who holds an opposing conception is wrong. This illustrates that (in the field of religion) every person believes that concepts are universally true or false, and that they are not different from person to person. In a similar manner, I am certain that in whatever conceptual field you examine you will find a similar mindset. Those who are convinced of a concept are also convinced that it is true for all people.

Returning to some earlier questions this essay posed: Does it matter what one believes? How does one decide what to believe? How can one determine which beliefs are accurate and which are not? Is it possible to determine which religions are correct and which are not? What is truth? These questions are quite complex and sufficiently deep enough to warrant another essay. As such, a future essay will explore various issues related to how we know what we know, and how we can determine if it is accurate.

What then has been established? From the previous essay, A Practical Rejection of Material Relativism, we established that all people trust their sensory experience of the world and that all people believe that others experience the same real world. In this essay, it is clear that all people also believe that not only do we live in the same physical world, but we also live in the same conceptual world. The fact that we live in the same conceptual world means that whatever is true for me is also true for you, since conceptual truth is absolute and constant. Where beliefs conflict or contradict one another, at least one of the of the beliefs is flawed and erroneous. This means that we all believe that, "What's true about the world for me is also true about the world for you because we live in the same real world, even if we disagree over certain concepts."


  1. 'The way people act and the things they claim to believe are quite incompatible with relativism.'

    You're forgetting Thomas Aquinas.

    For years he was a stupid realist who thought he could prove things with idiotic, badly articulated logic.

    Fortunately, before he died, he realized that he had been an idiot and he started burning his books.

    The idiots around him were upset, but he told them that compared to infused contemplation, everything he wrote ought to be burned with dust and straw.

    Mysticism is one of the many missing links in your stab at epistemology.

  2. 'In a previous essay, A Practical Rejection of Material Relativism, I demonstrated that nobody actually believes in material relativism.'

    Was that what you did? Because to me it looked like you demonstrated that you hadn't read Plato.

  3. I think equating the law with morality in any way is a mistake.

    Justice is in heaven, the law is on earth. The two never meet.

  4. @Anonymous: That I disagree with Plato does not mean I have not read him. While questions of epistemology are vital, that is not what this essay covers. If you have a specific argument against my reasoning, feel free to raise it. Simply saying that Plato disagrees with me proves nothing.

    @Talleyrand: I don't equate law with morality. The two are separate and often even in direct opposition. My point was simply that even accusing someone else of moral wrongdoing necessarily implies that one does not believe in moral relativism.

    Additionally, I doubt that you really mean to say that heaven an earth never meet. Even supposing that justice is in heafven and the law is on earth, you'd have to show that they don't meet for there to be an established necessary distinction between the two.

  5. There are so many holes in this post. . .

    Just as an example:

    "If a person ever disagrees about anything, they have just illustrated that they do not believe in relativism."

    This ignores the fact that we are genetically shaped to compete, and that an individual who readily agrees with others about anything displays themselves to be socially inferior. The "truth" of the matter is irrelevant: people benefit by disagreeing with one another. Imagine, for instance, that the sky is blue, but people benefit from acting as though the sky is red. Even if everybody in the world claims the sky is red, that does not necessarily make it so, nor does it even mean anybody truly believes the sky is red. All it proves is a benefit to acting as though the sky is red.

  6. @Anonymous: There are so many holes in your argument. Where to begin.

    First, your comment begs the question: since you hold the view that people benefit from disagreeing, are you just disagreeing because you allegedly benefit from disagreeing, or are you disagreeing because you actually hold a different opinion? It's hard to take your post seriously when your criteria for discrediting my view on relativism simultaneously discredits your critique of my view on relativism.

    Secondly, it has not been established that we are, as you claim, "genetically shaped to compete." Unless you can provide some sound evidence for that, I will have to disagree with such a premise.

    Lastly, even if the "truth" of the matter is irrelevant, that still doesn't mean that it doesn't exist and that it isn't an objective truth. All you're saying is "let's not talk about what truth is and whether we can know it, since truth is ultimately irrelevant."

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