Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Subjectivist Fallacy


The text I use to teach my MCCC Logic classes is The Power of Critical Thinking, by Lewis Vaughn. After using Hurley's classic logic text for ten years, I'm mostly glad I switched to Vaughn. One reason is the way he introduces the "subjectivist fallacy." (Ch. 2)

Have you ever heard someone say, "This is my truth and that's your truth." "Or: "This statement is true for you but false for me." In logic the truth of a claim does not depend on what a person thinks. As Vaughn says, "your believing that something is true does not make it true."

The idea that truth depends of what individual persons believe is called "subjective relativism." To use this idea to support a claim is to commit the "subjectivist fallacy." Here is the idea that "truth" depends on what persons believe. Truth is seen as relative to persons. If you believe dogs can fly then that is "true for you." If I believe dogs cannot fly then that is "true for me." Instead of truth being a matter of how the world is, it becomes a matter of what a person believes. That is false, says Vaughn, for two reasons.

First, if truth was a function of what individuals believe, then persons would be infallible. "We could not possibly be in error about anything that we sincerely believed... [But] Personal infallibility is, of course, absurd, and this possibility seems to weigh heavily against subjective relativism." (51)

Secondly, and this is arguably its biggest problem, subjective relativism is self-defeating. Vaughn writes: "It defeats itself because its truth implies its falsity. The relativist says, "All truth is relative." If this statement is objectively true, then it refutes itself because if it is objectively true that "All truth is relative," then the statement itself is an example of an objective truth. So if "All truth is relative" is objectively true, it is objectively false." (51)

Vaughn defines "objective truth" and "objective falsehood" as being about the way the world is or is not "regardless of what we may believe about it. To put it differently, there is a way the world is, and our beliefs do not make it. The world is the way it is, regardless of how we feel about it." (50)

"Social relativism" suffers the same self-contradictory fate as subjective relativism. Social relativism, says Vaughn, seems more friendly because it appears egalitarian. This is the view that truth is relative to societies. Because we want to respect all societies as equal, social relativism is attractive. But, like subjective relativism, if social relativism is true then "the beliefs of whole societies cannot be mistaken."

Surely that is absurd, since societies not only can be but are often mistaken. For example, parts of the world practice female genital mutilation. One wants to say: this practice is wrong. But a social relativist position could not say this.

Further, like subjective relativism, social relativism is self-defeating. "The claim that "All truth is relative to societies" is self-defeating because if it is objectively true, then it is an example of an objective truth - and that means that the claim is objectively false." (52)

One way I've seen people commit the social relativist fallacy is by pointing out the sociological fact that "If you were born in India you'd be a Hindu," as a way of debunking my exclusivist Christian worldview. One reasons that persons are culturally conditioned regarding of their religious beliefs.

But this way of reasoning is self-defeating. If we are culturally conditioned concerning our beliefs, then the social relativist is culturally conditioned to believe that all persons are culturally conditioned concerning their beliefs. If the cultural relativist was born in India he would not think this way. As Paul Copan says, "If we are culturally conditioned regarding our religious beliefs, then why should the religious pluralist think his view is less arbitrary or conditioned than the exclusivist’s?"