A friend of mine recently said to me, “Even Foucault would agree that shoving a small child into traffic on your way past him in the street for no reason is evil”. This statement is correct in one sense, but it misses an important point about relativism.
Relativism does not involve the claim that all points of view or all moral stances are equally valid. Instead, relativism involves a shift in our understanding of what we are doing when we make moral claims.
Truth-Claims and Speech Acts
First, let’s consider two statements: “It’s snowing outside!” and “Let’s go tobogganing!”.
The first statement, “It’s snowing outside!” says something that could be true or false. The second statement, “Let’s go bowling!” does not. If I say you, “Let’s go tobogganing!” you might agree or disagree, but your agreement or disagreement signals your willingness to join me in an activity, not your belief that what I’ve said is true or false.
Let’s use the term “truth claim” to refer to the first type of statement, “It’s snowing outside!”, and let’s use the term “speech act” for the second type of statement, “Let’s go tobogganing!”. By “speech act”, I mean, a statement that tries to do something, in this case to encourage others towards a particular course of action.
Now let’s consider the statement “It’s time to go tobogganing!”.
This statement has the grammatical form of a truth claim; because it opens with the phrase “It is …”, the statement seems to be making a descriptive claim about some observable conditions, just like the statement “It’s snowing outside!”.
However, there is no such thing as “time to go tobogganing”, at least not in a physically objective sense. Maybe earlier today we agreed to go tobogganing if it started snowing, or maybe we generally like to go tobogganing in snowy weather, but even so, the statement “It’s time to go tobogganing!” aims to spur us to action.
Statements like “It’s time to go tobogganing!” or “This exam is now over” or “This shop is open for business” and so on are a special type of speech act that philosophers call “performative statements”. Performative statements attempt to make something true by speaking it. They function as social acts aimed at producing a particular social reality.
Now, the relativist position on morality is simply this: when we say that something is good or evil, we are not making a truth-claim; instead, we are speaking performatively.
Specifically, whenever I say, “X is good” or “X is evil”, I am working to establish or re-establish a social agreement about X. Saying “X is good” proposes that we shall do X wherever possible and reward others who do X. Likewise, saying “X is evil” proposes that we shall never to do X and to penalize others who do X.
Strictly speaking, then, statements like “charity is good” or “torture is evil” are not truth-claims, even though they look like truth claims because they feature the verb “is”.
The one exception occurs when we use statements about good and evil to describe the established moral commitments of a society or social group. For example, we can say “In India it’s evil to kill a cow” in the same descriptive sense that we can say “In India it’s rude to shake hands with your left hand”.
And of course it’s possible to conflate or run together the two ways of speaking about morals. For example, by saying “it’s wrong to lie” I can be saying both “let’s always tell the truth!” and “my society frowns on lying”. Doing this makes our moral claims appear more forceful through a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that we often perform quite unconsciously.
In any case, the relativist view is that moral claims are speech acts, not truth-claims. This has important consequences. It does not imply that all moral claims are equally valid. It does imply that we humans are responsible for the morality that we create. Theology and metaphysics tell us we are responsible for doing what is good; relativism tells us that we are responsible for deciding what is good. And we carry that responsibility in every moment of every day of our lives.