True for Me but Not for You?

This talk was given by Michael Gorman (Catholic University) at the University of Maryland (ASY 2309) on November 17, 2016 from 7:30PM to 8:30PM.

What is relativism?

Employed in everyday language, relativism is sometimes encountered as simply the banal statement that different people have different beliefs. This is no relativism in any interesting sense.

Actual relativism rejects the notion that disagreement is possible. Assuming this is coherent, why is this a popular idea?

Relativism about what?

The radical version of relativism, is total. The belief that there exists no truth. This is a niche belief that most do not hold, because it’s self-contradictory.

Most relativism is partial. That perhaps politics is relative, but mathematics is not. This is not necessary self-contradictory, but this form comes in different flavors. One may take certain domains as relative and others as not.

Moral relativism, the position that morality is relative, is commonly espoused.

Moral relativism

Moral relativists hold that moral truths are relative. They hold that it’s futile to argue or attempt to convince others regarding morality because they are not objective.

Gorman holds that while many claim moral relativism, they do not sincerely believe the doctrine. They use the language and speak of morality as relative, while simultaneously acting as moral absolutists.

He gives a parable whereby a person named Rocky is stoning another person Nick. He does so because he believes fornication is immoral and Nick should be punished. The supposed relativist Ella begs Rocky to stop because she claims “morality is relative and what is wrong for you might not be wrong for Nick i.e. fornication.”

Gorman identifies this as self-undermining. Rocky could quip that what’s right for him, stoning Nick, may not be right for her if relativism were true. Ella’s goal to prevent harm towards Nick is at odds with her tool of argument namely relativism. She doesn’t actually believe in relativism.

Therefore, she should use different tools. She could distinguish between making an ethical claim and forcing someone to conform to that. There is a distinction between moral obligations and coercive force to meet those obligations. Moral obligations is the realm of ethics, but coercive force is the purview of politics.

This is a confusion many get into. They make ethical claims, but others interpret that as calls to political or coercive action. Politics introduces possibility of force, ethics doesn’t always. If we take the position of “love the sinner hate the sin,” we need not resort to relativism.

Relativism outside morality

Sometimes relativism occurs with regard to is and not only ought. Often this is brought up with in religions. Some claim God exists for me, but not for you. Gorman claims there is no need for this relativism either.

Gorman claims people resort to this relativism to prevent appearing religiously intolerant. However, disagreement about the nature of God is not incompatible with religious freedom.

Others use relativism in religion as an attempt to bolster what Gorman calls “feelings management.” They believe in God not because God exists, but because of the positive benefit belief in spirituality has for there life. Gorman argues that religion is more than just pleasure-seeking.