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Motivations for Relativism as a Solution to Disagreements

  • Steven D. Hales

There are five basic ways to resolve disagreements: keep arguing until capitulation, compromise, locate an ambiguity or contextual factors, accept Pyrrhonian skepticism, and adopt relativism. Relativism is perhaps the most radical and least popular solution to a disagreement, and its defenders generally think the best motivator for relativism is to be found in disputes over predicates of personal taste. I argue that taste predicates do not adequately motivate relativism over the other possible solutions, and argue that relativism looks like the most promising approach when disputants cannot even agree on the meta-evidence for a contested proposition.

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1 James William, Pragmatism, a New Name For Some Old Ways of Thinking (New York: Longman, Green, and Co. 1907) 4345.

2 Kölbel Max, ‘“True” as Ambiguous’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 77:2. (2008), 359384.

3 Sosa Ernest, A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Sosa Ernest, Reflective Knowledge: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

4 John MacFarlane, ‘Varieties of Disagreement’, forthcoming, draft, 2009.

5 Mates Benson, The Skeptic Way, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 89.

6 Ibid., 5.

7 A somewhat similar approach is dialethic logic. Unlike relativism, which regulates contradictions by allowing p and not-p to both be true so long as they are in different perspectives, dialethism forgoes perspectives and embraces true contradictions straight up. Relativism is compatible with classical logic (I argue in Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006) that a suitable relativist logic is a monotonic extension of ordinary modal logic), but dialethism explicitly is not. It is also debatable whether dialethism allows disagreement. For some discussion of this latter point, see Priest Graham, In Contradiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed. 2006.), §20.4. I think it is clear that dialethism is more controversial than relativism and that whatever else might said for it, irreconcilable differences alone will not motivate it over relativism.

8 Lewis David, On the Plurality of Worlds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 212213.

9 Rovane Carol, ‘Relativism Requires Alternatives, Not Disagreement or Relative Truth’ in Hales Steven D. (ed.), A Companion to Relativism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011); Boghossian Paul, ‘Three Kinds of Relativism’ in Hales Steven D. (ed.), A Companion to Relativism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

10 MacFarlane John, ‘Relativism and Disagreement’, Philosophical Studies 132 (2007), 29.

11 McGinn Colin, The Problem of Consciousness (Blackwell, Oxford, 1991).

12 Wright Crispin, ‘Intuitionism, Realism, Relativism, and Rhubarb’ in Greenough Patrick, & Lynch Michael P (eds), Truth and Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 41.

13 Kölbel Max, ‘Faultless Disagreement’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 104:1 (2004), 53.

14 Op. cit. note 10, 39.

15 Op. cit. note 11, 58–9, cf. Euthyphro 7b–c.

16 Op. cit. note 8, 17.

17 For a recent critical study and meta-analysis, see Rhodes Gillian, ‘The Evolutionary Psychology of Facial Beauty’, Annual Review of Psychology 57:1 (2006), 199226.

18 Although there is also evidence that characteristic preferences are evolutionary spandrels related to information processing. See Ibid., 7.18–7.19.

19 Kim Jaegwon, Philosophy of Mind (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.), 4.

20 Ancestors of this paper were presented at the Institute of Philosophy in the School of Advanced Studies at the University of London, the 6th Conference of the Spanish Society for Analytic Philosophy, and the University of Western Michigan. Many thanks for the constructive comments at those venues. Completion of this work has been granted by Spanish Government (Ministerio de Economía y Competividad), Research Projects FFI2008-01205. Puntos de Vista. Una Investigación Filosófica and FFI2011-24549. Puntos de vista y estructuras temporales.

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