Before I share another travel report with you, I wish to make a rather sociological comment on what could be called philosophical positioning in the social realm. During the last couple of years of Facebook debates on numerous topics, I have noticed that – at least among my acquaintances – it is considered to be a sign of wisdom if one does not take a stance on a given topic. The logic usually goes something like this: The world is so complex and full of variables, there is no way I can determine what is right and wrong, so it is always a good idea to take the middle ground between the prevalent opposing views on the issue. Another, more extreme, variant of this mentality is: In most cases, there is no right and wrong in the world, and whoever thinks otherwise is deluded and extremist. Sounds familiar? Maybe you also think that way. In the following I wish to argue that both variants are not only incorrect, but also far from being morally eligible. In some cases, these relativist positions can even be dangerous, and I will give examples for it.
Taking the middle ground – the compromising relativist
“The truth usually lies somewhere in between” is the often cited justification for a stance that is not determined by one’s own judgement, but by choosing the middle between two opposing views. Now, what is wrong with this? Isn’t there some truth in it? Yes, to the extent that most positions have their flaws that need to be corrected. However, hypothetical flaws are not addressed adequately by preemptively diluting the entire position, and mixing it with 50% of the other side. Should a position have flaws, they have to be addressed specifically, and logically. Making a random compromise does not make a position more logically or morally sound. Why do people do it then? Positioning oneself in the middle is an easy way out to avoid the autonomous application of one’s mind towards a socially agreeable position that pleases everyone a little. However, catering to other people is not the same as catering to reality.
There is no truth – the extreme relativist
Another group of people goes one step further and asserts that all reality is in the eye of the beholder and there is no absolute truth. This perspective in my experience is normally the outcome of the correct observation that everyone has their own set of assumptions and motivations. Because these assumptions and motivations do exist, one could rightfully call them a “reality”. However, it is a subjective reality and not to be mistaken with objective reality. it is nothing but a set of internal convictions which may turn out to be wrong when synchronized with external reality. I may be totally convinced that I am the queen of Middle Earth, that there are fairies living in my garden, that Ms. Angela Merkel is actually an alien or any number of things – that does not make them true.
Complexity and relativism
The relativist should know better though, as he witnesses objective, absolute truth following the if -> then logic every minute. If he drops a cup, it will fall. If he does not work, he won’t earn money. If he does not drink, he will die. And so on. When faced with these simple truths, a vast majority of relativists will be quick to state that they did not mean this reality, but more complex issues. Such as religion, political conflicts, cultural wars and even scientific issues such as climate change or genetic engineering. Truth, they usually say, is not an applicable concept for these issues. In doing so, they compartmentalize reality on the basis of complexity. I argue that they surrender to it. Complexity makes truth more complex, it does not render it obsolete.
On many complex issues, we may not have and maybe never reach a totally waterproof explanation of what is right and wrong, because we are either lacking the necessary knowledge or cognitive ability to put all facts together. Or, we may not agree on what should be the standard for judgement – how do you measure well-being, what constitutes justice? In this case, which really represents the majority of cases, it is of course totally OK and even advisable to not have a clear position (yet) or talk in terms of probabilities, and say so. Or to first raise a discussion on the applicable standard. It is also OK to act as a mediator without an opinion. But I think it is not a viable option to simply assert that no objective judgement can be made, or to choose a 50/50 compromise position as a response to an overstraining complexity.
Subjective and objective reality
As I mentioned earlier, subjective realities exist side by side objective reality. So can’t they be regarded as a benchmark for truth as well, just as objective reality? Only if the issue at hand only concerns the mind of the individual – this is for example the case in all matters of taste. I may find a dish, a dress or a person very appealing while nobody else does, and there is no need to synchronize it with objective reality, because the standard for taste is in my head, not outside. However, for most other matters, the benchmark of reality is outside people’s heads, so I think that subjective reality can rarely be used as a standard in itself.
The dangers of relativism
Now what is the problem with people having their own, subjective standards of reality, why can’t we just leave them be? Because relativist subjectivism has consequences in objective reality, no matter if the latter is denied or not – precisely because it exists. Both the compromising as well as the extreme relativist are a danger for society, because they will condone any action that lies in between the reigning extremes of a given society. The relativist will never take a stance, but always go with the flow in between the positions of his time.
Denying reality may have social advantages for the relativist, but I am yet to come across a case where it is actually benefitting on a different level, or to anyone else. In fact, I can only think of the horrific consequences it has had in the past, ranging from severe matters such as genocide and slavery to (seemingly) minor ones such as technophobia and political correctness.
Whether one asserts that the truth is too difficult to grasp, or there is no truth – Consequences are the same: Because of the lack of relation to reality, both mentalities lead to “floating judgements” which are ultimately determined by others.
The relativist will never check the righteousness of either side, and won’t notice if there is no real diversity of opinions in his country. He will adapt any view which represents the average of convictions that are known to him, no matter what they are. He always lacks a consistent, moral standard that is based on reality, and will contribute to a society slowly shifting towards bad developments without noticing. Looking back at history, we often wonder how horrific things like national socialism could have happened, or how people could drift into the middle ages. Relativism is how it could happen.
The dangers of absolutism
Typically, it is assumed that people with absolute ideas are the most dangerous kind of people, and that having a consistent standard in reality does not make people’s position any more “good”. What if one has a standard, they argue, that is bad such as “all non-believers are animals and can therefore be slaughtered”. Isn’t that even worse than not having an original position and at least going with the mainstream? I argue that this is not the case – not just because these people are a minority, but because they have a clear position that can be proved wrong, based on reality. The relativist on the contrary evades reality and can never be captured – that is the real danger.
Often, some readers will rightly argue, people with bad standards are so stuck with their view that they can’t be convinced otherwise. But even then, they are nothing but an infectious seed, and it is the relativist mass that enables that seed to grow. It is the relativist who helps spread the views of extremist minorities. Of course, this is rarely understood, and single absolutists like Hitler are given all the blame.
Back to Facebook
Now, I have come a very long way from Facebook. How does Facebook even come in here? What I have described is of course not Facebook-specific. But because of its written format, Facebook is a great study ground for the communication patterns of relativists. I have been criticized a number of times for holding an absolutist position which, from my relativistic friends’ perspectives, was called extremist or fanatic. Quite predictably, these attacks were rarely substantiated, but took their main strength from the fact that I was a diverter from mainstream. Accordingly, the tone was often marked by moral outrage or aggression rather than rationality.
While my experiences of this kind are limited to a few conversations, this phenomenon is of course much stronger with people who are in the center of public attention and/or hold more controversial beliefs. These people are typically not attacked for their positions, but for the nature of their positions. Though it is these people that we owe a lot – either because of their original ideas or because of the societal benefit of disproving them.
Holding an absolutist position, substantiating and defending it requires a backbone – it is a much less comfortable way to go than relativism. It can be attacked and disproved, it can make the holder feel very uncomfortable. It is usually a minority position. One should not forget this.
My pledge is – build your own position, defend it and attack other positions which you find flawed using the scientific method – do not criticize absolutism as a philosophy. Relativists are the real problem, and I believe it is time to change the discourse accordingly.