Saturday, October 06, 2007

Relative Truth and Disagreement

Consider sophisticated moral relativism. Say Anne's idealized self would conclude that abortion is wrong, whereas Bob's would not. So 'Abortion is wrong' is true for Anne but not for Bob. Do they disagree? They would not if they meant different things by 'abortion is wrong' (e.g. 'abortion is wrong to me'). They would just be talking past each other, as if Anne were to say "I like icecream," and Bob replied "No I don't!"

So, to preserve genuine disagreement, they must be expressing one and the same proposition. That much is shared and universal. What's relative is the truth (not the meaning) of what's said. Anne and Bob are both talking about the proposition that abortion is wrong, but the truth of the matter differs between them. (This seems crazy if truth is meant to correspond to worldly facts - how could facts be relative? But it makes more sense if we see truth as an epistemic construct.)

How are we then to understand the truth predicate? Jack points out to me that problems arise when we ask Bob to assess Anne's assertion that "'Abortion is wrong' is true." If 'true' in Anne's mouth means true-for-Anne, then it hardly seems that Bob can dispute her claim. It really is true-for-Anne that abortion is wrong, after all. But note that the problem again lies in attributing merely semantic relativity. We should instead insist that Anne and Bob mean exactly the same thing by 'true'. They just assess it differently. Bob correctly judges that Anne spoke falsely. Anne correctly judges that she spoke truly. They're both right, and they also genuinely disagree with each other -- a disagreement that will persist even upon semantic ascent. True?


  1. Richard,

    Should Anne('s idealized self) think that Bob's idealized self is rational in judging and believing that abortion is not wrong?

  2. Yes. Is that enough to cause problems, do you think?

  3. If we are willing to go this far, wouldn't taking the extra step to some form of prescriptivism make everything more tidy by allowing us to lose that "strange" version of truth that's used here and still keep all the cognitive and rational aspects of ethic?

  4. Richard, sounds to me like you are advancing the sort of relativism that John MacFarlane has argued for (see here).

    His interest is not in moral relativism, rather in giving a general framework for making sense of how relativisms in general might not have severely counter-intuitive results. One such would be the sort of infallibility concern you've previously expressed. Another, the fact that people with different propositional attitudes toward the same proposition don't seem to be disagreeing on some forms of relativism, as you say.

    In brief, MacFarlane sets up a framework on which a relativistic concept is contextual, but instead of taking in context-of-use as determinative of the truth of sentences in which it appears, these concepts take in context-of-evaluation as determinative of the truth of sentences in which they appear. For instance, John and Sally read the sentence "Apples are delicious." This sentence includes a relativistic term "delicious". Accordingly, when evaluated by John is comes out true (he likes apples) and when evaluted by Sally it comes out false (she hates them). Why are they disagreeing? Because there is no context-of-evaluation C such that were John and Sally both deploying C, they would both be right (in making their divergent judgments about the deliciousness of apples).


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