Sunday, March 21, 2021

William Vallicella On Relativism

A Relativist Cannot Rationally Object to the Imposition of One's Values on Others

(Written 11 September 2016)

"The following argument is sometimes heard. "Because values are relative, it is wrong to impose one's values on others."

But if values are relative, and among my values is the value of instructing others in the right way to live, then surely I am justified in imposing my values on others. What better justification could I have? If values are relative, then there is simply no objective basis for a critique or rejection of the values I happen to hold.  For it to be wrong for me to impose my values, value-imposition would have to be a non-relative dis-value. But this is precisely what is ruled out by the premise 'values are relative.'

Either values are relative or they are not.  If they are relative, then no one can be faulted for living in accordance with his values even if among his values is the value of  imposing one's values on others.  If, on the other hand, values are not relative, then one will be in a position to condemn some forms of value-imposition.  The second alternative, however, is not available to one who affirms the relativity of all values.

Persons who give the above argument are trying to have it both ways at once, and in so doing fall into self-contradiction.  They want the supposed benefits of believing that values are relative -- such supposed benefits as toleration -- while at the same time committing themselves to the contradictory proposition that some values are not relative by their condemnation of value-imposition.

One sees from this how difficult it is for relativists to be logically consistent. A consistent relativist cannot make any such pronouncement as that it is wrong to impose one's values on others; all he can say is that from within his value scheme it is wrong to impose one's values on others. But then he allows the possibility that there are others for whom value-imposition is the right thing to do.

Relativism, whether alethic (about truth) or axiological (about values), is curiously self-vitiating.  To be consistent, the relativist must acquiesce in the relativization of his own position.  For example, the value relativist must admit that is only from within his own value scheme that it is wrong to impose one's value on others.  To which my response will be:  That's nice; but what does that have to do with me?  The relativist can get my attention only if he appeals to non-relative values, value binding on all of us; but if does so, then he contradicts himself."