Who’s Afraid of “Relativism”?

Richard Beck is doing some interesting work over at Experimental Theology right now regarding the metaphysical grounding of ethical truths. Basically, he’s making the argument that all of our ethical reasoning (and, I think it could be argued, reasoning in general) requires “metaphysical” (or “axiomatic”) truths. I.e., truths that we take as given, or, as Plantinga might say, “properly basic.”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time making this argument in the philosophy course I’m teaching. The basic idea is this — regarding religion, morality, knowledge, and so on: at some point, we hit a brick wall. We can reason and reason and reason all the way down to try to understand the most rational course of action, or what we can know about how we ought to act. However, at the bottom of all of our reasoning is what I call the “brick wall” — the thing that stops us from being able to reason anymore, where we simply must take certain truths about the world for granted. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these truths are beyond rational evaluation; only that there is little that evidence or reason can provide when attempting to evaluate those claims about how the world really is. Thus, the brick wall.

Anyway, Beck writes of Euclidean geometry as an example of a system that begins with “self-evident” truths, from which reason can depart to determine other truths:

First, the entire logical system cannot get to work without axioms provided as inputs, as fuel for the logical machine. This illustrates something that I argue holds in exactly the same way for ethical and moral reasoning: Reason alone is not enough. Reason is just an analytical, logical, computational capacity. Reason can suss out fallacies and help you weigh options, but reason can’t tell you what is right or wrong independently of how you value various goods when they come into conflict. In the same way that reason without axioms can’t lead you to a geometrical truth, reason alone cannot tell you what is right or wrong independently of values. Reason is just a computational tool, but it’s a tool that needs raw materials to work with.

Two things. First, I think his point that reason is basically a “computational” function is an incredible image. We ought to trust that reason (in its purer, logical forms) can give us access to certain truths — but it can only do so within a system that has given rules about what the world is already like. Further, humans cannot be purely rational creatures — in fact, that’s undesirable! Second, Beck’s paragraph here brought to mind James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?, where Smith addresses the notion that the concept of “relativism” may not be as scary as some Christians have been led to believe. To say relativism is at least partially true, for Smith, is to say that our rationality is contingent on claims about the world that we have taken to be true outside of the realm of rationality.

Embracing contingency does not entail embracing ‘liberalism’: in fact, to the contrary, it is when we deny our contingency that we are thereby licensed to deny our dependence and hence assume the position where we are arbitrators of truth. We then spurn our dependence on tradition and assume a stance of ‘objective’ knowledge whereby we can dismiss aspects of Scripture and Christian orthodoxy as benighted and unenlightened. (35)

We all “take” the world to be a certain way, prior to our use of reason to determine other truths about the world. The problem is when we assume that our use of reason is what got us to how we “take” the world to be in the first place.