Epistemological relativists will refer to "different ways of knowing" and claim the equal validity of the knowledge obtained from radically different epistemologies.  I would like to point out that there is a distinction between truth and opinion.  People are entitled to their own opinions.  But in our discourse about reality, our claims are either true or false.  NOTE:  there is no true only from my standpoint or true only from your standpoint--we call this sort of thing "opinion" not truth.  I may think chocolate is a superior flavor of ice cream, but this is a matter of opinion.  I would not submit it as a fundamental truth.   I would not expect others to agree with my opinion.  But if I say that the earth is made of marshmallow, this is a statement about reality and the truth value of the statement can be determined to be false.  Or if I say that jumping off a 100 story building without a parachute or other protection to the concrete below will not result in the least injury because gravity is not real, again, this is a statement about reality and the truth value of the statement can be shown to be false.  The earth was once thought to be flat, but overwhelming evidence has shown that ships don't sail off the edge into the void--the earth is round.  Truth is not relative. You can believe that tigers are harmless herbivores, but the truth value of your belief will become apparent if you encounter a hungry tiger in the wild.
Postmodernist Relativism draws upon universal skepticism, which even Russell conceded can not be refuted, but then, Russell saw universal or radical skepticism as a "barren" philosophy. Of course nothing can be known with 100% certainty. We could all be the victims of Descartes' evil genie, but it's irrelevant--how would we ever know? Should we be paralyzed by uncertainty or abandon any notions of true and false because 100% certainty can never be attained? What we see is a representation of reality, as constructed from sensory data and interpreted by the brain. The brain's model of the world is an analogue to reality, and it is a sufficiently accurate approximation for us to know that some things work and some things don't. Postmodernists like Feyerabend have said that science is just another form of social discourse, and that since scientific theories are in principle subject to revision, "anything goes." What facile nonsense. Even a child understands that though there may be more than one way to swim, there are definitely wrong ways to swim, and the difference can mean life and death. From the viewpoint of radical skepticism and its permutations, relativism and postmodernism, the entire epistemological enterprise is meaningless. If all methodologies are simply forms of social discourse and if all truths are equally true, then the term "truth" ceases to have any useful meaning. Truth is however not whatever we wish it to be. Carl Sagan goes over this particular fallacy in some depth in "The Demon-haunted World." I would recommend his book as a treatise on critical thinking.

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Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on July 8, 2012 at 10:40am

Nice analogy, Wyatt-

Even a child understands that though there may be more than one way to swim, there are definitely wrong ways to swim, and the difference can mean life and death.

Comment by annet on July 8, 2012 at 10:30am

You've probably seen it but in The Moral Landscape and in a TED talk, Sam Harris uses the litmus test of human suffering and well being to discredit moral relativism and argues that science can answer moral questions. 


..... Because such answers exist, moral relativism is simply false—and comes at increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.



Comment by Edward Teach on July 8, 2012 at 10:14am

Thanks Glen. Good feedback.

I had actually considered the animal behavior stuff. The culture for behavioral norms in many animals also shifts and changes, so I will agree that morality is not uniquely human. Behavioral norms that improve a species survival evolve with changes in environment (eg. a new predator is introduced). The success of said "morality" will be determined over time, based on whether or not the behaviors increase the survival rate of the animals in question.

For humans, we have what seems to be an innate sense that fairness and empathy are desirable traits. These are definitely not innate. Feral children do not exhibit either tendency (in fact the polar opposite). As an individual and perhaps collectively we can agree that fairness and empathy are behaviors we desire, but this desire is only a preference and has no external measure for validity. We might say that out species thrives best when cooperating, but cooperation can be voluntary or forced. 

All cultures of humans have not come to the conclusion that fairness and empathy are desirable traits. Nietzsche postulated that our version of morality came about as a result of human enslavement. Slaves and their children survived by developing the traits of being humble, forgiving, generous, and empathetic. Historically, individuals (and animals) who exhibit offensive behaviors such as greed, violence, and grandiosity have often been found at the top of the human pecking order.

I prefer a fair and empathetic moral code. But objectively speaking, I think traits we abhor could be argued effectively. You could argue that violent behavior will ultimately result in self destruction of our species. But, a culture developed and maintained through violence by the dominant members of our species, wherein every human is required to behave within the narrow parameters of behavior determined by the State, might also prevent our self destruction. The latter is certainly not my preference.

I just can't imagine a truly objective litmus for morality. I would prefer a world of fairness and empathy, but I imagine, so would the wolf, monkey, or dog at the bottom of their respective pecking orders.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on July 8, 2012 at 9:31am

Edward Teach, thought your purpose answer was excellent. But I think you are wrong here. First it is not unique. Social rules emerge in mammals through evolution. We call these rules morality. (There is a trend in which animal behaviorists uncover more and more of us in them. Recently the endowment effect for humans/chimps in which an aquired possesion becomes more valuable to the possesor than it was before acquisition.)

Shifting and changing does not invalidate the notion that our general community is superior to nazi morality or christian morality. We can apply external litmus you have mentioned and determine rationally how ours is superior to theirs. Ours elevates the individual as opposed to the fascist state or cult.

Comment by Edward Teach on July 8, 2012 at 7:34am

As unsavory as it is, I think moral relativism is accurate. Morality is a uniquely human construct that shifts and changes with time. I like morality determined through external litmuses such as fairness and empathy, but even this moral code is more a preference than a truth.

Comment by Loren Miller on July 8, 2012 at 6:18am

I've thrown this out a few times here and there.  One more time won't hurt:

You have a right to your own opinions, but you do not have a right to your own facts.
-- Daniel Patrick Moynahan

Comment by annet on July 7, 2012 at 11:28pm

Yes indeed. Relativism can sometimes be useful in the non-physical sciences. But even then I'm not a fan of the post modern rambling it often includes.  Tim Minchin sums it up:

"What made you such a fan of science?
I was educated at art college in Western Australia in the 1990s, where relativism was sort of a given. My problem with relativism - the idea that there is no absolute truth - is that, in the end, you have to say so what? It doesn't matter that you can't prove that we're not the dream of a genie because it's functionally uninteresting. I get frustrated that it's culturally acceptable to place opinion on a pedestal that doesn't seem to relate to information. Science is a structure in place to stop people imposing personality onto the pursuit of knowledge. Pragmatically, it's the best system. Nothing else predicts anything, or generates anything. ........" 

Comment by Frankie Dapper on July 7, 2012 at 11:14pm

Wyatt, a proponent of  relativism will concede the distinction you make but will protest nonetheless; reality is not clear and unambiguous at the fumdamental quantum level. And claims to objective reality are misguided.

I am no lover of relativism, especially moral relativism. I wonder if the notion of reality is a human construct similar to purpose and meaning and derived of our need to make the universe intelligible.

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