Friday, February 1, 2013

Tu quoque: The basic relativist paradox

There is a very basic—and very old—argument against sweeping claims of relativism. What is surprising about the argument is that so many very smart and intellectually sophisticated people (in my experience at least) appear to be simply unaware of its existence. The argument goes like this:

Ahmed: “There are no objective truths. All truths are relative.”

Buhjah: “Is that claim objectively true?”

Ahmed: “?!*!#%%?”

Buhjah’s line of argument here is about as simple as it gets in philosophical argument. Ahmed has made a universal claim about the nature of propositions, namely, that every single one of them cannot be objectively true. As a claim with universal scope it will apply to every proposition uttered by Bujah, Cahthal and Dinesh. But it will also apply to every proposition that Ahmed himself asserts—including the very proposition that asserted it. This gives rise to a reflexive paradox of the same form as the famously invidious Liar Paradox.

Cahthal: “This statement is lie” (or ‘is false’, or ‘is not true’)."

Despite its simplicity (and, dare I say, obviousness), consideration of this basic relativist paradox is absent from an enormous amount of works that one would think should consider it in real and careful detail. Postmodernist discourse, especially in the social sciences, is the most obvious example of breathtakingly swift arguments for universal relativism that evince an extraordinary lack of awareness of the looming paradox. I often find myself tempted to go through such books writing, ‘…and of course all that I have said here applies also to everything I myself am saying…’ at the end of every sentence.

But does Ahmed have a good response to Buhjah’s question that can avoid the paradox? Let’s consider the first obvious response. He might say:


On this footing, Ahmed amends his earlier claim. He replies: “Yes. I did indeed mean it as an objective truth—as a statement about the way the world actually is, as a claim about the status of every proposition ever asserted. But I see now that my initial claim requires modification. What I meant to say is that ‘there are no objective truths apart from this statement. All truths are relative apart from this one.

This is of course a tremendous improvement, and the reflexive paradox is avoided. But it is an improvement in another way as well, for now Ahmed will have to give an account of how it is possible for some sorts of propositions to be objectively true, and others not. What is special about his proposition that makes it, alone, objectively true? Now Ahmed must return to all the arguments he made and beliefs he has that seemed to him to ratify his objectively true statement. Were those arguments and beliefs also objectively true, or not? Do they contain within them reasons that justify his exempting his assertion from its own scope? Or is his response to Buhjah here merely an ad hoc adjustment, that fits poorly into all the reasons he gave for the assertion in the first place?

For instance, if Ahmed liked to ask, “Who are we to claim we know what is objectively true?” every time anyone put forward an assertion, then he will have to think about what answer he has when someone asks him that. Who is Ahmed to claim that he has a special window into the one and only objective truth (namely, that all truths are relative apart from this one)? 

Or suppose Ahmed thought that even very common ‘truths’ about, say, death and furniture could not be objectively true because they were socially constructed. In response to the basic relativist paradox, Ahmed will have to enquire as to whether his beliefs about the ‘society’ that apparently constructs these beliefs are not equally incapable of objective truth. If the actual existence of the furniture in the room is up for grabs, then the existence of any ‘society’ capable of constructing beliefs is surely equally conjectural. And if true claims about death cannot be made, then how can we get any understanding of what ‘society’ is (for it must include all those people we otherwise thought of as dead!)?

Answering these proliferating questions about his own claims and beliefs might prove very difficult, and force Ahmed to confront very difficult issues—such as giving an account of how it is possible for any proposition to be objectively true—that he would really rather avoid. Chances are, after all, that he became a relativist precisely because he didn’t think good answers could be given to these types of questions. 

So instead he might choose the second obvious response:

NO! (Mark I)

On this footing, Ahmed says: “No. My assertion that all truths are relative is itself relative. It has no special status and is, like every other claim, merely relative.”

But in taking this route Ahmed does not avoid the paradox, he merely tries to distract attention away from its application. His response is, effectively, to say that his belief fits (along with everyone else’s) into a larger view of the world where all propositions are incapable of objective truth. For that reason he is no more or less capable of objective truth than anyone else. 

But take another look at the larger worldview that Ahmed posited as the justifying basis for his claim: it is itself relativist. In other words, Ahmed is saying: ‘Presuming my assertion about the world is in fact objectively true as a larger matter, then I can find a place for my statement in that world at a level where it is relatively true. My belief about the world is relativistically true only because in point of fact it is objectively true.’ Ahmed’s response merely reasserts the paradox, even as it tries to distance itself from it.

NO! (Mark II)

There is, however, another version of the 'No' response Ahmed could use where he might better hope to avoid the paradox by avoiding the implicit assertion of the larger objective truth of his worldview. He might say: "No. My assertion was not meant to be objectively true. It is only relativistically true, that is, true to my own views and/or my own community." 

Buhjah might respond: "But is this new proposition about your view being only relativistically true itself objectively true, or only relativistically true?" The paradox looms once more.

But Buhjah might adopt a different line of argument, rather than pursuing the next iteration of the same paradox. For she might say to Ahmed: "So if your claim about 'all truths being relative' is itself only relative, then it does not seek to make a pronouncement on whether it is really (objectively) the case that truths are relative. It is therefore consistent with what you have said that some claims are really, objectively true." In other words, Ahmed adopting this response may be conceding too much for his own liking; for it now turns out that his assertion about truths being relative is consistent with (and therefore no argument against) Buhjah's many assertions about things in the world that are objectively true.


None of this is to say that lots of important relativist claims are necessarily false. (Note also that the paradox only arises as applied to relativism about truth and knowledge; someone can be a moral relativist without any problems from this paradox.) It might turn out that claims about death and furniture are the sorts of things that must all be relative, while grand metaphysical claims about the nature of truth are the sorts of things that can be capable of objective truth. It’s worth mentioning that this is almost the reverse of what Nietzsche thought to be the case; he thought ‘little truths’ were possible, but grand schemes such as Kant’s were more a reflection of their creators than of the way the world actually is. For what it's worth, I myself have some sympathies in this direction.

The basic relativist paradox should not be seen, therefore, as a smack-down destroyer of all relativist positions and arguments. Rather, its proper place is to promote reflection on the type of relativism under question, and its scope. Sophisticated relativist positions are possible—and what makes them sophisticated is precisely that they have developed resources for avoiding the basic relativist paradox.