Dying goats and flying dogs: Troubles with relativism

Tweens and teens, however strong and resilient they may be as individuals, are collectively a vulnerable bunch. We hear a lot about how they’re susceptible to social exclusion, peer pressure, mental illness and drug addiction. Less often reported is their susceptibility to relativism: the belief that “knowledge consists not of facts but of opinions, freely chosen… and accordingly not open to challenge.”

Deanna Kuhn, a respected scholar in the field of education for thinking, suggests that relativism is as pernicious as it is commonplace. Lacking the tools to discriminate among competing knowledge claims on the basis of evidence and argument, adolescents “typically fall into ‘a poisoned well of doubt’”, she says, “and they fall hard and deep.” And evidence suggests that hoisting oneself out of the well requires a lot more effort than falling into its depths. In this post I’ll highlight some troubles with relativism, in hopes that you’ll come to see (if you don’t see already) why scrambling out of the well of relativism is worth all the effort it takes.

Relativism leads to absurdity.

Allowing for anything to be true lands us in a world of absurdities akin to Alice’s Wonderland. By way of illustration, let me share two examples from philosophically-flavoured middle school enquiries.

The first example is actually one I’ve blogged about previously. A small group of students was investigating the question: ‘Can you kill a goat by staring at it?’, and jotting down reasons for and against. Among their reasons against the possibility, the students mentioned ‘myth?’ and ‘seems impossible’, suggesting at least a degree of scepticism. In another column, however, the students produced a longer list of reasons in favour of the possibility, including ‘psychic’, ‘magic’, and ‘George Clooney did’ (referring to the movie The Men Who Stare At Goats.) In their post-activity reflections, the students all drew highly credulous conclusions that supported paranormal claims — conclusions like “mind over matter” and “if you believe something, you can make it happen”. One of the students went so far as to write: “I have learnt that there was no answer to the question, it was what people believed in.”

The notion that facts are relative to one’s beliefs may have a certain cachet, particularly in middle school, but accepting this notion will sooner or later require us to swallow patent falsehoods and arrant nonsense.

This is how irrational we get if we succumb to relativism. Cartoon by Mischa Richter.

A second example comes from a video of an entirely student-run discussion among Years 6 and 7 students. Partway through the class, the students begin to explore the question of whether being right should be subordinate to being kind. Most students agree that it should. Only one student dissents, saying:

    If Summer and I are in an argument, and she’s saying that dogs can fly, I’ll be like: ‘No, dogs can’t fly,’ which is correct. [Should] I just be like: ‘OK, actually, yeah, dogs can fly’, just because I’m being nice to her – or should I be standing for what I believe in?

Summer responds in a way that reveals her epistemological relativism.1 She says:

    If I was in an argument with you, say, and you kept putting my argument down, saying, ‘Nope, you’re wrong; nope, you’re wrong,” we wouldn’t be able to get anywhere. But being kind would be like saying: ‘OK, I’ve got all your arguments’, and compromising. And if you’re just putting down the other person’s argument and thinking you’re right, you won’t be able to hear.

At this point, the first student protests: “How would you compromise? Be like, ‘Oh, dogs can sometimes fly’?”

The class laughs at how outlandish this sounds. But none of the other students seems willing to abandon their commitment to relativism. One counters:

    What Summer’s trying to say is that instead of saying “I’m right; dogs cannot fly,” maybe you should say: ‘OK, well, I still don’t believe this; but maybe you can believe that dogs can fly, even though don’t believe it.

I suppose we can all agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion in the sense that they can’t be prevented from thinking whatever they want — but as philosopher Patrick Stokes has said, this doesn’t mean that everyone is entitled to have their views treated as serious candidates for the truth.

Photo by Julia Christe


Relativism is self-refuting.

Nothing is so absurd as self-contradiction, and a close look at relativism reveals an untenable paradox at its heart. In his paper about the internal contradictions of relativism, philosopher Paul Boghossian dissects relativist claims with reference to a vivid example: an enquiry into the origin of Native American populations. According to the well-confirmed scientific archeological account, he reports,

    humans first entered the Americas from Asia, crossing the Bering Strait over 10,000 years ago. By contrast, some Native American creation accounts hold that native peoples have lived in the Americas ever since their ancestors first emerged onto the surface of the earth from a subterranean world of spirits.

Boghossian remarks that many archeologists, torn between their commitment to science and their appreciation for native culture, adopt a relativist position that regards science as “just one more belief system” which is no truer than the creationist accounts. His paper makes clear how thoroughly self-refuting the relativist position is. Where two perspectival accounts contradict each other, they cannot both be true, he says, “on pain of utter unintelligibility”. And while it’s easy to see how this applies to the conflicting scientific and creationist accounts, it’s easy to miss how it applies to relativism itself.

Here’s the key. There is another perspective on reality: an alternative to relativism — let’s call it evaluativism — according to which certain claims or explanations are truer than others. A thoroughgoing relativist would have to admit that this alternative perspective is just as true as the relativist perspective: an admission that would shatter the very foundations of relativism (its central tenet being that relativism is the only true perspective).

It is this double-bind — this irreconcilable position of relativism simultaneously asserting and forsaking itself — that signals its intellectual bankruptcy.

If the examples above are anything to go by, our kids will be needing some serious help in clambering out of the poisoned well.

Shall we throw them a rope?


1 In this response, Summer also confounds ‘information-seeking dialogue’ and ‘negotiation dialogue’ (see Douglas Walton’s normative dialogue types).


This is the second in a series of posts about epistemological understanding, published in the lead-up to World Philosophy Day 2018. Return to the beginning of the series, or read on with Tolerance Gone Rogue: More troubles with Relativism.


The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

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