Ima Relativist

See GoodThing, BadThing, and ItDepends

I'm a relativist at heart, which means I do not think there is an objective method for establishing what is good or bad. Any argument you make for X being good or bad can be countered with a disproving scenario.

The opposite of objective is subjective, not relative. The opposite of relative is absolute.

This does not mean I do not have a moral and ethical system; far from it. What it does mean is that I create my system based on informed choice, realizing that in the end it is my choice.

This is a heavy responsibility. It's far easier to rely on something external like religion or science for one's ethics. After all "because God or gods said" or "science says" sounds better when someone asks you why you believe X. When asked why you believe X, it sounds wimpy to say "because that is what I think is right". Based on what is the next question. Based on what I value. What is that based on? My choice. What is that based on? Don't really know. Probably based on my being human, my culture, my reading, my experience, lots of things.

Science doesn't provide any ethics, it provides explanations. Philosophy provides ethics, and is far less standardized.

User X: That's all well and good, but Relativism is a cop out. It cannot explain anything so therefore says there are no explanations. There are simple truths, we all know. I am myself is one such truth. Where I is a construction of ideas and beliefs, a sentient being, a mistake, a cruel practical joke by a malevolent God or gods, whatever the explanation, if there even is one, the simple truth remains that I am myself, whatever that may be. And if there truly is no explanation, no universal truth, surely to say "there is no truth" is a truth in itself, a universal explanation that contradicts itself by saying there is no universal truth by stating a universal truth. How can one preach the non-existence of truth and yet be so arrogant to assume their truth is the only truth? Relativism is a cop out. It states there is no truth, yet there is every truth. It says everything is different from everything else, which, when you think of it, is glaringly obvious. To state that we all see the world differently and what may seem true to others is not true to all is obvious. To say our perceptions construct reality is false, for our perception feeds and is fed by reality, a reality we create and has been created. We cannot deny some truths, such as we live; we cannot deny that which is proven by stating "there is no truth". Simply because one person disagrees with common belief does not mean their interpretation of reality is correct. To deny that which we know to be true, that which cannot be disproved, is a return to our primeval ancestry, and not an educated look to the future. To deny that our reality is bound by indisputable rules of science is pure lunacy. In a world where theorists and theologians spread words of insanity, the only truth is hard facts, which no man can dispute. Science may be born of theory, but theory can be proven. The relativists need to open their eyes and stop denying existence.

How about "much is relative" instead of EverythingIsRelative? Yes, there are some truths based on certain givens; but especially in the software business, many things appear elusive to absolute statements.


Although I think far more things are relative than people assume, there some ThingsWeAllAgreeOn in the computer field. But, there is still disagreement on the weight of each one.


User X: That's all well and good, but Relativism is a cop out. It cannot explain anything so therefore says there are no explanations.

Relativism is the ultimate in responsibility. The cop out is begging for a source of authority to make it clear for you. You have found that authority in "hard facts" without ever questioning where the justification for such a decision has come from. Axioms do require justification. By what criteria do you decide what is a simple truth? If people disagree on "simple truths", then what? Do you denounce them? Obliterate them?

Relativism explains where your choices ultimately come from - you. It does not tell you how the world was created or if there is a god, etc.

Hm. Assuming relativism, is obliterating people bad and reasoning with them good? Why is one approach better than the other? -- TomCopeland

Why do you think? What form of reasoning should we agree on to come up with the answer? Authority? Tradition? Evolution? Common sense? The greatest good? Might makes right? Will power? Scientific method? Majority vote? And if you can pick method, I would like disagree with that method. Even if we agreed we could come up with different conclusions. That's why being human is hard.
I'm not sure that this page is actually referring to relativism. Relativism is the belief that truth is not absolute; that anyone's beliefs are as good as anyone else's. It's the belief that there is no real world, as such, but only an individual's perception of it. Also, since relativism denies an objective reality, there is little point in debating anything with a relativist. What exactly are you arguing about if there is no truth to the matter? Seems that simply by arguing you are admitting that which you purport to deny - the existence of an external reality.

Now, although I don't subscribe to the whole of classical Objectivist philosophy, there are a couple of base premises, without which any debate is pointless. First: there is a real world, independent of any perception of it. Second: we can know things about the world through rational integration of information gained through our senses. These two premises are, in fact, assumed in any debate about reality. If there's not a real world, why are we debating? If we can't learn about the real world by observing (and experimenting), then what can we know, and how?

Now, the original statement here concerns whether it can objectively be established whether something is good or bad. While it is true that people can come up with arguments for whatever position they hold, this does not imply that a) all arguments are equally valid, or that b) any proposed model will achieve similar real-world results. So, you could say that Communism is good, but I ask: by what measure? In order to defend communism (by which I mean full governmental control of the means of production), you will have to explain how the results of Communism in the real world (mass poverty, mass starvation, mass murder, abuse of power etc.) coincide with a "good" result. But, I think this one is easy: since the results of Communism are bad, Communism itself is bad. You could argue that Communism doesn't cause those things; but I have real-world evidence that it does. You could argue that Communism itself isn't to blame, but the particular implementations of it were. In that case, you need to provide evidence that your particular implementation would solve the problems. You could argue that poverty, starvation, etc. are good things, but in that case you would have to redefine "good" and "bad" in order to eliminate them. Or you would just have to ignore all these problems and revert to your relativism: "Well, I accept that your opinions are as valid as mine."

My point is: no matter what tack you take, there is something meant by "Communism is bad", almost everyone knows what you mean, and, in order to argue against my statement you would have to use words to mean something other than what they mean, or you would have to, at the very least, admit that there are certain implementations of Communism that are bad. This is just due to a fact about the real world: the model of government provided by Communism has had devastating effects on the people within those societies, whatever measure of good and bad you use. Fortunately, most people are not true relativists; I think many people who consider themselves such are confusing having an open mind (allowing external evidence to contradict one's views) with true Relativism (claiming there is no external evidence which could ever contradict one's views.)

-- DaveHoehn

The reductionist view is that "bad" is the word that invokes LaynesLaw.

Obviously, any argument which degenerates into LaynesLaw is pointless. My point is that it is generally accepted that some things are bad. So, yes, there is no deductive way to prove that mass starvation is bad. But it is accepted as bad, regardless of whether you use "common sense" or Utilitarianism's definition, or Objectivism's definition, or Kant's definition, or Marx's definition. For instance, Marx did not argue that Communism is good because it causes mass starvation. He was proposing a model of government which he believed would provide the best results for its citizens. He believed that Communism would actually work to prevent starvation and to enhance the lives of its people. He was just wrong. -- DH

LaynesLaw states that *all* arguments degenerate to debating a word - i.e. all arguments are eventually pointless. You say mass starvation is bad - which it definitely is in some senses, but not others - mass starvation of mosquitos, a warlord exerting influence, someone trying to commit genocide. They may be bad in a different sense, but relative to others, it's a good thing. Everything balances out in the end - i.e. no good happens without a converse bad, and no bad without a converse good (also known as amateur philosopher's law of good and evil conservation). So "communism is bad" would need qualification. Who is it bad for, and who is it good for? I'd argue it was great for the American military-industrial complex.

Okay, then, I deny LaynesLaw. I view LaynesLaw is a degenerate case of arguing. My point is that there is no need to define a base term if any reasonable understanding of how that term is used provides the same result. So, okay, I could have specified that I meant "bad for people," but obviously that's what I meant. I could have specified "mass starvation of people, not mosquitos" but, again, that was obvious from my context. And, I pointed out that the mass starvation of people is bad by any accepted definition of "bad". So, you can feel free to change your definition of "bad" such that mass starvation of people is "good", but we are no longer talking about the same thing. And obviously, if you continually circumvent discussion by demanding terms defined on other terms defined on other terms, and so on, it will be impossible to ever come to a conclusion. My point is that there is a real-world notion of "bad" which has been captured by many different world views in many different ways, and any of them will conclude that the mass starvation of people caused by a Communistic government is bad. I have never heard anyone argue that mass starvation is good, therefore Communism is good. Instead, the arguments are not that Communism, as implemented, produced "good" results, but that there would be some implementation which _would_ achieve good results. And, from what I've seen, people who argue for communism do, indeed, have a very similar idea to mine of what "good" and "bad" are, we just disagree over whether Communism can produce the "good" which we both desire. -- DH

And obviously, if you continually circumvent discussion by demanding terms defined on other terms defined on other terms, and so on, it will be impossible to ever come to a conclusion.

That's the problem at the heart of the human experience. It is also a defense against Socratic attacks. If one side lets the other side define what the words mean, then the other side wins implicitly. (Why else would Gates/Clinton constantly debate what "is" is?) Unless there are base terms defined as absolute, all words really are relative. I see what you are trying to say, but wouldn't it have been better to say "Communism causes mass starvation" - and let people come to their own conclusions?

LaynesLaw isn't a degenerate case of arguing - it's the ultimate destination of all arguments, which is arguably degenerate. . . people don't win arguments - they just end.

My point was there are not two sides on this issue. Almost everyone agrees that mass starvation of people is bad, regardless of how they arrive at that conclusion. There is no need for LaynesLaw when everyone involved in the discussion agrees on the base terms. If you want to come up with your own definition that makes mass starvation of people good, go right ahead. But we're no longer talking about the same thing. And I'm not interested in "winning" arguments. I'm interested in gaining knowledge. If you can reason in such a way as to demonstrate that mass starvation is good, in the way that most people mean good, I would love to hear that argument. -- DH
from above:

LaynesLaw states that *all* arguments degenerate to debating a word - i.e. all arguments are eventually pointless. You say mass starvation is bad - which it definitely is in some senses, but not others - mass starvation of mosquitos, a warlord exerting influence, someone trying to commit genocide. They may be bad in a different sense, but relative to others, it's a good thing. Everything balances out in the end - i.e. no good happens without a converse bad, and no bad without a converse good (also known as amateur philosopher's law of good and evil conservation). So "communism is bad" would need qualification. Who is it bad for, and who is it good for? I'd argue it was great for the American military-industrial complex.

I'll qualify it for you: communism is fucking evil. Does this end the discussion? Oh, well, I'm glad if it does, cause this crap is totally out of place here. Please read WikiMission.

"Out of place"? That's a very relative statement. . . ;) Besides, communism has never actually been tried. . . Maybe "socialism is fucking evil" is what you meant?

I would argue that this is not exactly out of place. Seems to me that the Relativism debate applies to programming as well, should I replace my example? There are good programs and bad programs, no matter how relative your beliefs, or what accepted definition of "good program" and "bad program" you use. -- DH

I'd argue with that too (maybe I'm just argumentative this morning). You might as well say there are "good programming languages" and "bad programming languages". . . . but I think we are rehashing the old "is there anything absolute" argument. Absolutists say yes, relativists say no. . . all I can say is that "even absolutism is relative", and "relativism has some absolutes"

Just because there are contextual issues which must be examined which calling something "good" or "bad" is not the same as saying there is no truth to the matter. Yes, we need to decide what a particular problem which a program (or programming language) is used for. Then we need to determine whether it fulfills its objective. If the program is "a program which calculates the sum of two values", and the program returns incorrect sums, it's a bad program. In fact, that's what we are doing whenever we make a judgment call on whether something is good or bad. For instance, "Communism is bad" isn't meant to be some sort of truth which is detached from the context in which it is examined. It is a statement that, Communism, which purported to be a system of government which has good results, has not, in hindsight, produced good results. And, further, we actually mean something by "good results," and although we have no perfect definition, almost everyone admits that the results were not good. Whether your measure is each individual's happiness, freedom, wealth, knowledge, or any other measure I can think of (including inconsistent concepts such as "overall" happiness, wealth, etc. of society), Communism has, in the real world, diminished these measures. And, even the proponents of Communism admit that. As for good or bad programming languages: a good programming language will be a language that is particularly well suited for some types of problems. However, I argue there is no reason there could not be a "bad" programming language: one that is not particularly well suited for any type of problem. -- DH

Never forget the moral of this piece of history (it's famous on this topic, so if anyone doesn't get it, do some research):

'After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."' (Boswell: Life)

It has been well established in any number of ways that you can't convince someone of something if they just plain refuse to agree. This has nothing to do with absolute truth, whether it exists or not, but everything to do with proving things to other people. To prove things to other people, you need to mutually agree on ground rules. Systems have been developed for reaching mutually-agreed upon "truths" - meaning things that follow from the agreed upon ground rules. Axiomatic mathematics is the strongest such system. Scientific method is another such. Democracy isn't as strong, but is nonetheless handy for the "truth" of e.g. who should be the next leader.

All of these systems have been criticized for not allowing deduction of absolute truth in the face of opposition from people who do not agree on the ground rules (e.g. if they reject all math and science). Some think this proves there is no absolute truth - ironic, note.

Post-modern deconstructionists have a tendency to smugly insist that all "truth", all "reality", is socially constructed because of these issues. Such people have utterly missed the point. Agreement on truth/reality is what is socially constructed (a tautology, considering the definition of "agreement").

There is nothing in that which addresses actual truth or reality. But "I refute it thus": if you believe too strongly in solipsism or other extreme systems, reality in the form of gravity or a speeding bus will kill you, whether you believe in it or not - I can't prove this to someone who chooses to disagree, but ultimately that's their problem, either because their disbelief will kill them or because they're disagreeing aloud but not privately; too much sophistry is dangerous. -- DougMerritt

Axiomatic truth is also an idealized system - one completely inapplicable to social problems. Human endeavors are full of halting problems. There are many things that really are just undecidable. Maybe it degenerates thusly: Sorry, but I just can't buy the "communism is bad" argument. It may have been the implementation instead of theory, it may be that only socialism was tried instead of true communism, it may even be that communism is self-limiting, or that not enough time has passed. It is possible that democracy may in time (d)evolve into an extremely fascist and oppressive system that becomes worse than communism was, thereby invalidating "communism is bad" relative to democracy. If you just can't buy it, I'm sorry for you. Other people can't buy it that there is one proton in the atom of hydrogen. Has anybody actually put his hand on that proton thing? Such people are best ignored and society just moves on. That is an ArgumentByAnalogy fallacy - we aren't talking about science that is testable, we are talking about social structures. Millions of people believe "democracy is bad" - should we just believe them and move on? It is impossible to convince them scientifically or axiomatically.

That and if you get enough people together, the mass hallucination is strong enough to alter reality itself. . . but then we get into philosophy and "far out" stuff. . .

The only real truth about social structures is that power wins over truth - unless the truth *is* power, but that's always relative. . . ;) -- LayneThomas

1. You admit that there are objective criteria with which to judge whether Communism, as implemented, is bad. 2. You admit that it is possible that democracy is bad. 3. Even if democracy degenerates into something bad, this is not an argument against Communism being bad; I was not simply making the claim that "communism is worse than democracy". 4. Your statements are simply arguing that it may be hard to determine the truth of the matter (i.e. which models are good), not that there is none. 5. Finally, regardless of whether it is "possible to convince someone" of a particular statement, that is not the measure of whether something is empirically testable. We may not convince someone who is unwilling to be convinced regardless of the evidence, but the real-world evidence provided by the results of Communism (as implemented) is strong evidence nonetheless. And, claims such as "maybe over time Communism as implemented will work" or "maybe over time democracy as implemented will fail" are not evidence, but speculation. You might as well argue against Physics, because "maybe over time physical laws will change." Just because something is logically possible does not make it probable. -- DH [Note: the argument against objective social truth makes the assumption that "social truth" is relative, and then uses that assumption to prove itself. Yet, there is a real world, and a good social model will take into account the real world. Models which try to deny the real world will not end up in good results, just as flawed science will not. And those which properly account for the real world will end up in good results, regardless of the objections of the relativist. And, regardless of speculation about how a model's results may or may not change over time, if a system produces good results for a significant period of time, then it is up to those who would deny it to offer the evidence against it.]

I agree with what you are saying - with some caveats: 1. - I admit no such thing in general, only with specific context. "Bad" is probably the most ambiguous term available. It's like patterns - it needs a context element. Communism is probably "bad" in certain contexts, but not in others. I would agree that communism is bad in the mass starvation context, but not bad in other contexts. My only point there was that "communism is bad" is too simplistic, it needs qualification 2. Yes, depending upon context. 3. My point was that "bad" is still going to be relative to other political theories - "political theory X is bad" can't be viewed in isolation because it must be compared to the other possibilities. If "communism is bad", what is "oppressive dictatorship" - it's worse(I'm assuming) - you could make the argument that all political theories are bad because there will always be something wrong with them. 4. Indeed, very very hard - not NP-hard, or even halting-problem hard, but "a god would need to tell us"-hard, because you won't find an unbiased observer to validate any of the theories, and the model's implementation(and therefore testability) is influenced by it's connection to other political theories. . . like dictatorships claiming it is bad. 5. The "real world" argument is nice in theory, but the "real world" is very abstract. People live by artificial laws and physical laws. Obviously we don't know how to change the physical laws, but we change the artificial laws all the time. Suppose one of the artificial laws that could prevent a democracy from failing was "the commander-in-chief must forfeit all assets before declaring any war" - it's an arbitrary law based on a model that can't be tested in isolation.

Even "simple" things like saying "dividing by zero causes your program to crash" - seems true, usually is, but it's not always. A good exception handler, or a special VM that treats divides by zero as infinity, etc could all invalidate that claim. I might be going out on a limb here when I say "all truths have caveats and relativism is the notion that some caveats are equally large as the truth" Just so we are clear here though - I'm not a relativist, I'm a pragmatist. Absolute anything scares me - including the idea that absolutely everything is relative. Even worse is when I hear people trying to claim absolutes when it comes to politics and civil rights. . . that always goes very very wrong. Except when it doesn't?
There are no absolutes! Are you sure? Absolutely! the concept of NoAbsolutes? is a self-defeating argument. -- BrucePennington

There are always SOME absolutes, so-called "relativity" defines absolutes...but they are always the ones you would expect to change relatively. Example: AlbertEinstein proved that the speed of light is the same no matter how fast you go...but space and time change to accommodate this.

See EverythingIsRelativeStrangeLoop.
See also: EverythingIsRelative, MostHolyWarsTiedToPsychology
CategorySubjectivityAndRelativism

EditText of this page (last edited February 13, 2010) or FindPage with title or text search