“A critique on strong relativism and its connection to moral relativism”, Nikolaos Paramythiotis, Unit 2 Assignment 3

In section 9.6 of “Thinking it through”, Edison J. Trickett constructs an argument against strong relativism, according to which a statement holds truth only relatively to the conceptual scheme it is connected to.

To begin with, he highlights that an idea that is true according to one conceptual scheme could not be true according to another when these schemes have to do with different things. Therefore, the latter scheme would have nothing to do with the idea expressed and the statement’s truth could not be examined through it, as in the example of different sciences.

As it comes to conceptual schemes in the same field, to oppose the strong relativism view, the author uses as an example of our effort to translate a sentence from the English language to the language Zande, which are connected to the paradigms of English and Azande, respectively. According to strong relativism, there could be a sentence that is true in English relatively to the former paradigm and false in Zande, relatively to the latter. The author refers to Frege, according to which a sentence’s meaning determines “what the universe would look like if it was true”. Therefore, for the sentence in Zande that emerges to be considered an accurate translation of the original English sentence, the sentence in Zande, by definition needs to be true in respect to Azande as the English sentence is true in respect to English. Yet, this contradicts our original claim, that the sentence is false in respect to Azande as strong relativism would argue, because it is impossible for the sentence to be simultaneously true and false in respect to Azande, so strong relativism seems self-contradictory.

Another way in which Frege’s definition could be used is by creating a sentence in Zande that has the same meaning relatively to Azande as the English sentence has relatively to Azande. However, this is meaningless, as by the definition of strong relativism, a statement holds truth only in respect to the conceptual scheme it is connected to. Without first actually constructing the sentence in Zande, it is impossible to know the relation of the English sentence to Azande. Also, people speaking Zande could not understand what the meaning of the sentence is relatively to English or relatively to Azande, because this should be explained with terms and ideas outside their own conceptual scheme. Therefore, for the sentence to be translated without altering the meaning, the truth of the sentence must be undeniable, something that opposes the idea that strong relativism is based upon.

A question that has to do with moral relativism and came to me during the discussions we had on Thursday is the following:

Imagine a person that:

  1. Has no interest in questions of philosophical or moral nature.
  2. Has no religious beliefs that could constrain his or her behavior.
  3. Lives outside a society, so they have no reason to demonstrate “socially acceptable” behavior.
  4. Lives in a theoretical remote place that does not belong to a certain country, so that they are obliged to follow its laws (it could be easier to imagine the situation taking place in the past, where there were many regions not really belonging to a certain empire, kingdom, city-state etc.).

Then how could you convince this person that for example they shouldn’t take the life of any individual they encounter? Also, should they be considered immoral for committing this action? Can moral relativism be contradicted the same way that cognitive relativism is contradicted by Trickett?

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