Arguing against strong relativism

Unit 2 Post 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, the author highlights that the only way to judge whether a statement or an idea is true or not is to analyze it through a conceptual scheme that possess the necessary tools to examine its truthfulness, or the lack of it, respectively. In other words, there is no meaning in judging whether something that is true according to a specific paradigm is true according to a different paradigm, if these paradigms examine different things. An example of this could be to judge whether the law of gravity is true according to anthropology.

To oppose the relativistic view for conceptual schemes about the same field, the author uses as an example our effort to translate a sentence from one language to another. So, let’s suppose that we want 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 paradigm of ENGLISH and false in Zande, relatively to the paradigm of AZANDE. The author refers to the scholar Gottlob Frege who stated that a sentence’s meaning determines “what the universe would look like if it was true”.

If the newly formed sentence in Zande is 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 the claim of strong relativism that the sentence is false in respect to AZANDE, 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 interpreted is by creating a sentence in Zande that has the same meaning relatively to AZANDE as the English sentence has relatively to AZANDE. However, the belief of strong relativism that a statement holds truth only in respect to the conceptual scheme it is connected to deems this effort meaningless. 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 certain and 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, should this person be considered undeniably immoral if they take the life of every person they encounter? For us, of course their action is immoral, however is it logical to consider it objectively immoral? Or could It be that we are just want to impose on this person our moral values, because we consider them superior to theirs?