Every philosopher knows of the “freshman relativist,” quick to assert, dogmatically even, that everything depends on how you look at it, that if one group thinks something then it must be true for them, and at the end of the line, just “wha’ever.” You do not have to own a signed photograph of Michael Gove to loathe and fear this cynical or sceptical character. Yet for a long time the “postmodernist” climate has nurtured this relativist frame of mind. Hidden dark forces mould and skew our beliefs and even our perceptions, to say nothing of our values and tastes. We are each the creation of a particular history and culture, class and gender. There is no reason to expect uniformity, or convergence towards it. Multiplicity and diversity rule, and a good thing they do, too. We should no longer entertain imperial ambitions, blithely supposing that just one ethic, or ideology, or way of life is suitable for everybody, and still less that we have the right to impose it on everybody.
The relativist frame of mind, though, is not a creation of the late twentieth century. It was the target of some of Plato’s most impressive writings. Indeed, Socrates’s celebrated rebuttal, the so-called “peritrope,” has long been a standard weapon in any anti-relativist’s armoury. The idea is to get the relativist to assert his position, claiming, for instance, that what seems true (or false) to anyone therefore is true (or false) for them. We then reply that this claim seems false to us, hence by its own lights it is false for us, and thus we refute it. Although Plato shows Socrates’s opponents being dumbfounded by this turning of the tables, it is hard to believe that such a quick victory ever won many converts.
A better tack is not to try to kill relativism, but to draw its teeth. Relativism thrives when people do not have to shoulder the burden of actually coming to a conclusion. When it is vital to do so, relativism disappears. Before effecting a turn on my bicycle I need to know whether there is traffic bearing down. If I can see and hear that there is, the thought…