I told the students in my two logic classes that I assume they are all moral relativists and don't know it. Moral relativism is the air they breathe, the water they swim in. Today's adolescents are subjectivists. You can hear it in the way they interact, in the questions they ask, in their suspicions and in their beliefs. This is sad and troubling, since subjectivism is illogical, hence irrational (where "irrational" follows from "illogical").
I shared this with my students before teaching the section in Chapter Two of Lewis Vaughn's The Power of Critical Thinking (Oxford), called "Obstacles to Critical Thinking." When I teach Vaughn on the following, I sense the resistance and incomprehension, the unfamiliarity and incredulity, of many of my students.
- Everyone has a worldview. "A worldview is a philosophy of life, a set of fundamental ideas that helps us make sense of a wide range of important issues in life." "Even the rejection of all worldviews is a worldview." (Vaughn, 49)
- "Subjective relativism" (SR) is a worldview. SR is "the idea that truth depends on what someone believes." (50) Someone who utters sentences such as "This is my truth, and that's your truth," or "This statement is true for me," is a subjective relativist. (Ib.) To say such things is to commit "the subjectivist fallacy." (Ib.) This is the idea that truth depends not on the way things are, but on what persons believe. "Truth, in other words, is relative to persons." (Ib.) On SR "truth is a matter of what a person believes - not a matter of how the world is." (Ib.) If you think dogs can fly, then it is "true for you" that dogs can fly. If I believe dogs cannot fly, then it is false for me that dogs can fly.
- Logic, in philosophy, is unconcerned about what people believe. The concern is whether determining whether statements are true or false. A "statement" is a sentence that describes a state of affairs. If a particular state of affairs obtains, then the statement is "true." If the state of affairs does not obtain, then the statement is "false." Consider, for example, this statement: The lights in this room are on. As referring to room I am now typing in, this statement is either true or false; i.e., the condition of the lights now being on either obtains or does not obtain. If it does obtain, then the statement is true. And if the statement is true, it is true for everybody. When I speak such words to my students, I sometimes feel like I've committed the unforgivable sin. Nonetheless, in logic, such is the nature of truth, in critical thinking. And this is what all philosophers are after.
- Vaughn writes: "Most philosophers see the situation this way: We use critical thinking to find out whether statement is true or false - objectively true or false. Objective truth is about the world, about the way the world is regardless of what we may believe about it. To put it differently, there is a way the world is, and our beliefs to not make it. The world is the way it is, regardless of how we feel about it." (Ib.) So what if a person believes the statement The earth is flat is true? Simply put, they are wrong, since the statement The earth is flat is false.
- I think some of my students, perhaps many, feel such talk is arrogant and marginalizing. How dare we tell someone else that they are wrong! Another way of putting this, in the vocabulary of the subjective relativist, is that we should not "impose our views" on others who think differently. My response to this is: Logic, aka "critical thinking," is fully unconcerned about the beliefs of other people. It's sole concern is about "the truth about states of affairs." (Ib.) And if a "state of affairs" does not obtain, it obtains for no one.
- Vaughn agrees that some objecgtive truths are about subjects states of affairs. It might be true, for example, that right now the statement I am feeling pain obtains for you. If it obtains for you, this does not mean it obtains for me. But note this. The statement X now feels pain, if true, is true for everybody, everywhere. It is an objective truth that describes X's subjective experience of pain. "The claim that you are feeling pain right now is an objective truth about your subjective state." Or, consider this. "You may like ice cream, but someone else may not. Your liking ice cream is then relative to you. But the truth about these states of affairs is not relative." (Vaughn, 50, emphasis mine) It is very hard for students to grasp this and agree with it, for at least two reasons: a) it does involve abstract thinking; and 2) many of them are solid, unthinking subjective relativists, and so any talk of objective truths is not the air they breathe. When it comes to logic they are, using another metaphor, "fish out of water."
- Vaughn points out two problems with SR: a) If we could make a statement true just by believing it to be true, we would be infallible. we could not be in error about anything. But "personal infallibility is, of course, absurd; and 2) SR is self-defeating. "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." (Ib., 51) SR, then, is akin to believing in "square circles" and "married bachelors."
- When it comes to "social relativism," the same criticisms apply. Social relativism claims that "individuals aren't infallible, but societies are. The beliefs of whole societies cannot be mistaken. But this notion of societal infallibility is no more plausible than the idea of individual infallibility. Is it plausible that not society has ever been wrong about anything...?" (Ib.)
- Finally, logic is also unconcerned with how people came to believe what they believe. To think that how people came to believe what they believe has relevance to the truth or falsity of their beliefs is to commit "the genetic fallacy." (See Vaughn, 177) Example: "You only believe in Christianity becuse you were raised in a Christian family. If you were raised in India by a Hindu family you would be a Hindu." Probably, that is true. But this sociological truth, from logic's POV, has absolutely no bearing on the truth of one's beliefs. I engage in a mighty struggle in my philosophy classes to explicate this.