Why Relativism sticks in my Craw

My philosophical views are unstable.  I am constantly examining, developing, and changing the way in which I understand the world.  My allegiances shift.  Not long ago I would probably have described myself as a moral realist, now I am more inclined to call myself an existentialist/someone who likes whatever Heidegger was talking about.  Given the instability of my beliefs, I find it somewhat surprising that I have remained mostly steadfast in my opposition to relativism (a school of thought that, in my experience, seems to be somewhat prevalent in today’s North American society).

In this post I am not aiming to comprehensively examine the philosophical framework of relativists.  I do have a fairly strong background in moral philosophy (for an undergraduate), but I have read very little relativistic philosophy.  To be fair though, I believe most people who identify as relativists that I’ve met probably have less philosophical background on the subject then I do.  This post is in response to those people I have encountered, as opposed to relativist philosophers.

I think that the reason I have such difficulty with relativist thinking is because of the way that they interpret humility.  I wrote my undergraduate thesis on humility – I think that humility is an integral aspect of the pursuit of knowledge.  It is important that we are open to the ideas of others and do not close ourselves off from what they have to say.  Relativists seem to be great champions of humility; they often argue that we should not judge the beliefs of others from our own framework.  However, the way that they are interpreting humility is significantly different from the way that I am thinking of it.
Humility as I define it is a progressive activity.  You are humble so that you are able to process more of the world.  You should avoid arrogance so that you are more receptive to experience.  I think of what we believe as a continuously developing process, and by engaging in critical discussion both you and the person you are talking to can develop and strengthen your understandings.
Relativism, in contrast, seems to treat beliefs as static and irresolvable.  In several discussions I’ve had in the past I’ve received variations of the following comment, “that may be true from your framework, but not from theirs” (usually on the topic of religion).  The basic conclusion of this line of thinking seems to be that cross-framework conversation and critique is pointless.
I am not committed to the idea that there is a single “truth” of which we should all be trying to gain an understanding.  I admit to the possibility that “truth” may not be absolute but instead variable between individuals.  I strongly believe though that belief development is a positive activity – it is more valuable to engage in conversation with those who disagree with us then those who agree.  Conversation is how we find the flaws in our beliefs and how we develop our ideas.   We probably won’t come to consensus, but we should not refrain from disagreement and argument because we won’t reach consensus.  The activity itself seems valuable to me, not arrogant.
Thank you for reading,
Ryan Workman

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