This entry briefly examines the concept of truth and relativism, several arguments forwarded by relativists, and a few challenges a relativistic philosophy faces.
The view most philosophers defend is that which says truth is conformity or correspondence between our thoughts, views, and opinions, and the world. This is known as the Correspondence Theory of Truth (CT). According to the CT, the truth or falsity of a proposition or belief is determined by its relationship to the part of the world described by the proposition or belief. If the proposition or belief does not correspond with a part of the world it describes then it is false; if it does, then it is true. For example, I look at a table on which there is a mug. I form the belief that there is a mug on the table. However, only if there really is a mug on the table can my belief be true. Why? Because my belief corresponds to the way things really are. Philosopher J.P. Moreland puts it this way,
“Reality makes thoughts true or false. A thought is not made true by someone believing it or by someone being able to determine whether or not it is true. Put differently, evidence allows one to tell whether or not a thought is true, but the relevant fact is what makes it true.”
There is an important linguistic component to a concept of truth given that human beings express their thoughts about the world through language. It is not unheard for some to argue that language and words cannot properly describe or capture reality and that they are useless in this regard. However, an extreme view like this seems to undo itself since to be known it must be described through language. In other words, language can and does describe reality. One should exercise some caution and reflection when it comes to language, but it is not possible to deny that language has at least some way of conveying real truths about the world. There are other issues with trying to undermine language as a communicator of truth. For example, a proponent of such a view essentially uses language within her argument to communicate its conclusion. This is ironic as how can one say language is useless yet at the same time make use of it to convince others of the position?
Does Truth Exist?
Truth, in the correspondence sense of the term, does exist. Some have argued that truth is best understood as axiomatic which in philosophy refers to something that cannot be rationally doubted. Truth is so well-established that philosophers accept it without question. It is axiomatic because any attempt to refute it requires the usage of the axiom in a premise, which means to formulate an argument that attempts to deny that truth exists will assume that truth exists. It is impossible to propose any argument without intending the argument to be true. Truth must exist.
Furthermore, as noted most philosophers accept that truth exists and almost every theory in epistemology (the study of knowledge and justified belief) affirms this in some way. These theories differ on account of how one might be able to justify a proposition or belief, but not on whether or not something can be believed to be true. The only major exception to this is the extreme view of skepticism that questions the possibility of justified knowledge and holds that attaining knowledge of anything is difficult or impossible. But few think this is a reasonable position for the aforementioned reasons.
Relativism is challenging to pin down because it is quite broad. There is moral relativism, namely the view that moral “facts” are invented by individuals and societies. Morality thus differs between them with the result that no two individuals or societies will necessarily agree on what is moral as opposed to what is immoral. Aesthetics and beauty can also also be deemed relative: what one individual finds beautiful in a painting might not be viewed similarly by someone else. There are more examples, but the point is that relativism comes in different types. The type that we are interested in is epistemic relativism, which is the notion that all views are equally valid and that all truth is relative to the individual.
One form of epistemic relativism argues that there is no such thing as truth, which is contradictory and indefensible as we noted above. Another form of relativism is to argue that there is no such thing as “absolute truth.” This latter type does not necessarily deny that truth exists, but rather says that truth is relative to culture, society, and individuals. This observation itself should not be seen as controversial as it constitutes a true report on how things that are perceived to be true are often relative to culture and society. Collective groups of people within different societies believe that they have monopolized truth on certain matters, such as on God, religion, morality, politics, and more. This relativist does not deny that truth exists but rather highlights an important sociological fact about societies and how they see truth.
The question as to what societies and individuals believe is really objectively true is a different one altogether. It is also where relativism runs into trouble. For example, a stronger relativism denies absolute truth in a number of domains of knowledge such as the moral, scientific, philosophical, and religious domains. A weaker form of relativism accepts that there is absolute truth in some domains of knowledge such as, for example, in the hard sciences. This weaker form might, however, deny absolute truth in the moral, religious, and philosophical spheres. This relativist argues that beliefs and opinions are not absolutely true but are only relatively true. Thus, on one hand, he seeks to relativize truth (i.e. “That’s true for you but not for me” or “All truth is relative”) while at the same time making an objective truth claim about the world. But this is self-defeating. For example, to say that “all truth is relative” is to make an objective truth claim about the world while maintaining that truth is relative. To say that “no beliefs and opinions are absolutely true but are only relatively true” is to essentially argue that some beliefs and opinions are in fact absolutely true and that not all of them are relative. The relativist therefore holds mutually exclusive views that violate the law of non-contradiction that states that two contradictory statements cannot both be true.
Arguments for Relativism
To deny the existence of absolute truth some relativists have proposed arguments. One argument is that what people and societies regard as true is influenced by their cultural settings and milieu. Truth is influenced by those who are in positions of power with some kind of agenda. The conclusion that allegedly follows is that there is no absolute truth. But the problem here is that even if one grants the view that those in positions of power have manipulated others into believing something, it does not follow that what they have been manipulated into believing is not absolutely true. Let’s use an analogy:
Imagine that Jack and Bob are in a pub. Bob is aware that it is raining and snowing outside but Jack doesn’t realize this yet. Suppose Bob gets Jack to believe that it is snowing and raining outside but not in a usual way by simply telling him or getting him to look out of the window. Rather, suppose Bob uses different methods to manipulate Jack into believing that it is raining and snowing outside (perhaps by brainwashing or hypnotizing him). In fact, Bob has a motive for manipulating Jack: he wants Jack to stay in the pub so that he will buy everyone another round of drinks.
What this analogy shows is that Bob has, for selfish motives, manipulated Jack into believing something. But this does not mean that what Jack’s been manipulated into believing is not absolutely true; after all, it really is snowing and raining outside the pub. If we extrapolate this to the larger and more significant stage of government and society, the logic still holds. Even if the government had some hidden agenda it would not necessarily mean that what they have manipulated the population into believing is not absolutely true. Rather, the relativist would have to argue for this position and establish it rather than merely assuming it as an appeal against absolute truth.
A second argument comes from relativism’s reputation of being tolerant and accepting of people who have different views. The problem here is that this claim to tolerance is somewhat disingenuous. The relativist is not nearly as tolerant as she wishes to make herself out to be; for example, she will often dislike ideologies underpinned by religious particularism or any worldviews that do not agree with relativism. These other worldviews she will view as intolerant and/or closed-minded, which means that not even relativists themselves are necessarily tolerant and accepting of all people’s views. But the argument is weak elsewhere because on its own does nothing to establish that any ideology or worldview that is not relativism, independent of how tolerant or intolerant that worldview is, is false. One cannot merely assume that worldviews are true or false depending on their level of tolerance or intolerance. Even if one granted the relativist her view that relativism is more tolerant than all other worldviews, it still would not follow that her view is logical or true.
Relativism also, moreover, has been criticized for itself not being tolerant, despite this being its promoted identity. For example, in denying that many religions and philosophies are true, the relativist is herself making a claim that is exclusive. She is proposing that millions or billions of people are mistaken in their theological and/or philosophical views, but that she herself is correct. The vast majority of religions and philosophies make exclusive truth claims about the world, the supernatural, the afterlife, and the nature of God/s that incompatible and immune to being harmonized with each other. Those relativists who argue that each religion is partly true (e.g. they all lead to the same God or bear testimony to the same divine reality) or that none of them are true are rejecting the central claims and proposed truths of many of these religions, which renders the relativist a particularist herself. This is usually not a problem for most people anyway because they accept that certain beliefs and propositions are exclusively true or false. They do not feel the need to try and harmonize disagreeing worldviews or promote allegedly tolerant alternatives that are geared to make everyone happy. But that is what the relativist is trying to do, and this is why her particularism is a problem for her in its inconsistency.