Boghossian’s Objectivity & A Relativist Refutal
In Defense of Harman
In his book, Fear of Knowledge, Paul Boghossian addresses two types of fact relativists: those who are constructivists in regard to facts and those who view individual facts as being relative to a particular theory (I will refer to these as relativists). The goal of this paper will be to address why both constructivism and relativism, according to Boghossian, are flawed as well as to compare the views to Harman’s argument for moral relativism and determine where he may fit within them.
Individuals who are fact constructivists view all facts as mind-dependent. Furthermore, they think that all facts are established only because humans create them to accommodate their set needs. The method in which these specialized facts are created, according to the fact constructivist, is by accepting a method of talking and/or thinking that provides a description for that fact. For example, people generally accept the existence of oceans as a fact within our method of talking/thinking. This is only because it has been described as being so, though. It is possible for another system, say that of a group that lives isolated within a large desert, to have never found the need to construct this description of an ocean. Without this description, there would be no reason to believe oceans existed or had any sort of properties associated with them. This idea expands to cover facts as a whole by saying that just as in the case of the ocean, facts about the world do not exist until we acquire a way of describing the world first.
Boghossian presents three problems with fact constructivism. First, there is a problem of causation. The concept of fact constructivism makes it appear as though facts that predate humanity were created by humans. For this to be true, the cause of these ancient facts would have to have taken place after their existence. Next, some facts seem to exist for the exact purpose of designating items that exist independently of humanity, which Boghossian addresses by presenting the electron as an example. Electrons work as building blocks that make up a significant portion of all things in existence including the human body. Saying electrons depend on our description of them to exist is like saying ‘electrons depend on our description of them to exist yet must exist in order for us to be present and capable of describing them.’ It seems incoherent to do so. Lastly, fact constructivism presents the possibility for two contradictory facts to be equally true at the same time. It seems perfectly possible for one society to construct the fact P due to their unique set of needs and interests while another constructs the fact ~P due to their unique set of needs and interests. Since these facts are based upon unique needs of those constructing them, which the constructivist views as the root cause of facts, neither can be proven over the other making them equally valid. This leads to a contradiction by asserting it to be equally possible within the same world that (P & ~P) (Boghossian, 38–41).
Next, there are relativists who view facts as being relative to how things are in accordance to a particular theory or worldview. People who take this stance claim that there is nothing that is definitively true but rather all things are true or false relative to the theory held by those constructing the fact in question. All truths are only true in regard to a particular viewpoint, and all viewpoints are equally correct as the truths to enforce them are relative to them and not simply true in and of themselves. The viewpoints that become preferred over others simply do so for pragmatic reasons. This gets around the arguments previously presented against fact constructivism. If nothing is definitively true, then there can not be both P and ~P as neither are true in and of themselves. In this case, it is also such as that oceans may exist independently of humans and may have existed as such far before those who constructed the fact according to a particular viewpoint. However, it would only be true according to that particular viewpoint and not definitively so outside of it. The same can then be applied to electrons. It may be true relative to one view that they must exist independently of us, but it is not definitively so outside of that view.
Boghossian disputes this form of relativism by proposing that it creates an infinite regress. If a fact is only true relative to a theory that is accepted, then it poses the question of how one comes to believe that theory to be true. The only answer to this is that the theory upon which the fact is based is true in accord to another theory that the individual accepts. Using this logic, you enter into a countless loop of similar regresses. A relativist could at no point claim any theory to be objectively true, as that would go against the very idea of fact relativism. With no objective fact the loop would continue without end because each theory can only be true relative to a theory that precedes it. This puts forward the idea that the only way for a fact to show truth to any degree is for it to convey an infinite and inexplicable set of propositions, which in itself is a ridiculous concept according to Boghossian (Boghossian, 54–57).
While this idea of relativism may be most widely associated with Richard Rorty, it can be seen within the work of Gilbert Harman as well. Though Harman’s writing focuses primarily on the idea of moral relativism, the argument on which he relies to do so relates heavily to the idea of relativism explained by Boghossian within Fear of Knowledge.
Harman’s naturalistic argument for moral relativism posits that for morals to be objective, every individual has to have sufficient reason to adhere to the same moral rules regardless of their viewpoint or accepted theories. He proceeds to explain that for someone to have sufficient reason, she must have legitimate reasoning that she can perform which would lead her to act in accordance to what she has sufficient reason to do. Furthermore, he says that in order for someone with sufficient reason to fail to reason in such a way requires that she make a failure in reason that can be empirically observed. Taking that as the first premise of his argument, Harman then adds that there are some people who, due to the norms of their society and the methods by which their group views the world, have differing moral prohibitions. The example presented by Harman is that of a career criminal. A moral objectivist may assume that causing harm to other human beings is universally prohibited. However, a career criminal could belong to a social group that has strong obligations to others within it but not to those outside of it. In that case, it is possible for her to have no sufficient reason to abstain from harming those outside of her social group. This would not be due to an empirical failure in reasoning and instead presents a situation in which two people could arrive at differing outcomes in regard to a moral prohibition and have sufficient reasoning to do so (Harman, 172–173).
While Harman’s argument is only attempting to present evidence for relative morality, it heavily resembles the global relativism previously explained. Both concepts present the idea that facts, whether they be moral as in Harman’s case or in general as in the view presented by Boghossian, are only true relative to the viewpoint or accepted theory of the individual or social group that they are accepted by. In each case it remains possible for two opposing views to be sufficiently reasoned without creating a contradiction as each would only be true in respect to a particular worldview and not in and of themselves. It is possible within Harman’s argument for one person to accept that harming others is morally wrong while another believes the opposite because he is essentially saying that “It is okay to harm others outside of your group according to view X, which the career criminal accepts,” but “It is not okay to harm others outside of your group according to view Y, which many individuals outside of the criminal world accept,” which ties in perfectly with the relativism presented by Boghossian. It is for this reason that Harman’s view of relativism, while not necessarily global, still falls into the description presented by Boghossian for relativism in relation to viewpoint and accepted theory.
In response to Boghossian’s argument against this form of relativism, Harman could simply say that as he is not a global relativist the regress presented does not apply to him. Someone who is a global relativist seems to hit a wall as fact A can only be true in regard to theory A, which is true in regard to theory B, and then it to theory C, and on and on. This presents the issue that no fact is ever whole, but instead only exists based upon a line of previous theories that never ends. Harman escapes this cycle as he is not a global relativist, but instead only views moral facts as relative. In his view, that one has the ideas which form relative moral facts is an objective fact in itself and it is only the moral facts formed in response to those ideas that are relative. Due to this view, the regress can not take place as theory A’s existence in the prior example would be an objective fact and thus have no need to regress into any further basis.
Boghossian, Paul A. Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Harman, Gilbert. “12 Is There a Single True Morality?” Moral Relativism: A Reader, edited by Paul K. Moser & Thomas L. Carson, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 165–184.