This post is my second effort to crystalize some points of my own personal philosophy. My first post sketched a position on moral philosophy
, where I aligned myself with value pluralism
. I remarked that pluralism is not relativism. That begs the basic question, what is relativism and why is it different? Put simply, relativism is the position that there is no "objective truth". I don't think anyone is actually a relativist
. But I also don't think there is necessarily a singular "objective truth". I think objectivity is the position that ideas can be ordered: some are worse than others
. This doesn't mean there is a "best" idea, since all ideas can be wrong. And if there is a "best idea," it may still not be "true" in an absolute sense, since we are limited by our language and by our vantage point in space and time.
Relativism is a popular position in Post-Modernist (PoMo) cliques, and has repeatedly invaded pop-philosophy subcultures. In the latest Spider Man
installment (Far From Home
), there's a moment where MJ quotes George Orwell:
"The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world." Orwell, Homage to Catalonia. 1936.
She uses this line as a distraction, to divert attention from classmates before they figure out Spider Man's secret identity. But that is all "relativism" can ever be: an attempt to distract, confuse, obfuscate, or derail. In a more complete context, we see that Orwell's words reflect a deep fear that politics and power separate people from truth:
"Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.... This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world."
Whereas PoMo relativism claims that "objective truth" is always a power game, Orwell's version depicts relativism as a threat, associated with surrender or despair.Objectivity is also the idea that nobody has the truth
. There are no fully authoritative institutions or people. Every idea is subject to the sorting process. There is an implied axiom that a good "sorting process" can sift out the worst ideas and incrementally surface better ideas. These "sorting processes" are a combination of epistemology (theory of knowledge or justification) and dialectic or rhetoric.
PoMos like to say that epistemologies are purely cultural, that one isn't better than another. They claim that any sorting process is a merely an exercise in social power structures, that rhetoric is always manipulated by those with "power" in order to sustain their position. Interestingly, PoMos are also the most morally and intellectually certain
factions I've seen. I don't think this is a contradiction for them: if you really think there's no objective truth, and we're all just manipulating words to seize power, then I guess you should just manipulate words and try to seize power. "There is no truth, so stop arguing about it and do what I say!
From my vantage point, the concepts of "objective truth" and "objectivity" as a process are deeply liberating. They neutralize the intellectual authority of powerful institutions. We can judge ideas independently. We decide how much weight to apply to different forms of social authority: expertise, credentials, titles, offices, whatever. "Objectivity" is the individual and collective right to think, challenge, question, assess, and judge for ourselves. "Relativism" ultimately can only deliver authoritarianism.