Almost anyone who teaches college philosophy classes will tell you that various forms of relativism are all the rage these days. Whatever philosophical questions you might ask – What is good? What is true? What is beauty? – the answer for many students will be a shrug of the shoulders and the blasé refrain, “Whatever you believe is true for you.” I call this shoulder-shrugging relativism.
My purpose here isn’t to evaluate the truth of shoulder-shrugging relativism or whether accepting relativism would make us irrational (I touched on these issues in my post, “The Irrationality of Moral Relativism”). Instead I want to look at shoulder-shrugging relativism as a symptom of a larger cultural apathy toward philosophy.
Philosophy Has Fallen on Hard Times
Philosophy and the humanities more generally are not doing so well these days. Philosophy departments are being defunded or threatened with closure. Most people don’t really know what philosophy is or why anyone would want to learn about it.
Why is this? The most obvious answer is that most people think they don’t need philosophy. Many people seem to be content with unquestioned dogmatism or shoulder-shrugging relativism, but philosophy is needed when you’re somewhere between dogmatism and relativism, when you think there might be an answer but you’re not sure what it is or what it would look like.
The Dogmatism of Modern Euthyphros
My favorite of Plato’s dialogues is the Euthyphro, where Socrates subjects an unsuspecting Euthyphro to his brand of examination. Euthyphro is a priest who is dogmatically certain about things nobody has any business being certain about. Plato skillfully exploits the comedy of the situation in which Euthyphro is so sure he’s right that he doesn’t understand Socrates’s questions. Euthyphro might as well say – as many people in our culture seem to say – “I believe it because I believe it, and that’s as much as I’m going to think about it.”
Our modern Euthyphros find philosophy just as obnoxious as Euthyphro did. And no wonder: if you’re already pretty well convinced that you’re right about politics, religion, ethics, reality, knowledge, and so forth, genuine philosophical inquiry is going to look strange, if not insane or even offensive. (Note: “genuine philosophical inquiry.” Modern Euthyphros sometimes think they’re doing philosophy when they use the argumentative tools of philosophy in their pursuit of dogmatic hubris, especially in internet comments sections. Sadly this even happens occasionally in academic philosophy, where we ought to know better).
Relativism as Dogmatism
On the other hand there are varieties of relativism such as moral relativism (whatever an individual or culture says is right is right for them), relativism about happiness (whatever you believe is happiness is happiness for you), and breezy fideism (whatever you believe about religious matters is true for you just because you feel like believing it).
These sorts of views are at first blush remarkably open and egalitarian. You get to think whatever you want! Nobody can judge you! But the problem is that thoroughgoing relativists also lose the ability to judge themselves or think carefully about their own views. Relativism is dogmatic in two senses: it is itself a view that seems to have poor reasons in its favor, but it also leads to the dogmatic assurance that whatever you believe is right just because you believe it.
The Evasion of Thinking and the Shallowness of Modern Life
Dogmatism and relativism encourage shallow thinking that evades the real work of the intellect. They are the philosophical attitudes that have given shape to the shallowness of modern life, at least in countries like the United States (other countries may be different). Whether these attitudes are the symptoms or the cause of our modern shallowness, I can’t say. Maybe they’re mutually reinforcing. Maybe it’s all a side effect of the rise of liberalism in early modern political theory.
However we got here, modern life, greatly exacerbated by the internet, is a shallow place indeed. Our political discourse consists of sound bites, flame wars, and Donald Trump, who many have dubbed a walking internet comments section. Our religious discourse seems to consist of megachurch pastors preaching oddities like the prosperity gospel and wooly-headed discussions of New Age spirituality sponsored by Lululemon. Even our hobbies have to be shallow. It’s not enough to read good books, you must read lots of them and the ones everyone else is talking about. You can’t just go for a walk in your neighborhood and think about life, you have to buy expensive gear and Instragram a carefully orchestrated hike in a hip outdoor recreation area.
Is it any wonder that philosophy, an activity that so thoroughly works against our modern shallowness, is in trouble?
Why We Think We Don’t Need Philosophy
Why would you need philosophy if you’re convinced that you’re right or that there’s no more to say about what you believe than that you believe it? Who has time for philosophy when you've got to post those pictures of your dog’s birthday party on Facebook?
As an attempt at an answer, I’d like to focus on happiness, although a similar case could be made about issues like morality, politics, and religion.
Typically modern relativist views of happiness tell us that happiness is whatever you think it is. If you think a happy life consists of counting the number of occurrences of the letter “w” in Kanye West’s Tweets, then that is a happy life. If you think being a Neo-Nazi will make you happy, then being a Neo-Nazi will make you happy. A dogmatic view might tell you to do whatever some leader or tradition tells you to. If your church says that happiness requires belief in its tenets, then you’d better believe it. If being a happy American requires the pursuit of wealth and fame, then you’d better pursue those things.
Why We Need Philosophy
We’ve all had the experience of being wrong about happiness - you thought eating three pieces of pie would make you happy, but it gives you a stomachache (maybe that's just me?). So it's weird that we continue to hold our opinions sacrosanct. This experience ought to initiate questioning.
Here’s the question that neither dogmatism nor relativism can answer: how should you go about deciding what you think happiness is? Dogmatism simply says: this view is right. This ought to leave a curious human asking, “Yes, but how do I know that’s right?” Relativism says: it’s whatever you think. This ought to lead a curious human to ask, “Okay, but how do I know what I should think? How do I decide what to think?”
“Whatever you want” or “whatever you think” is where a reflective human being begins inquiry about a happy life, whereas our modern shallowness often insists that the work ends there. The shallow versions of dogmatism and relativism give absolutely no guidance whatsoever; they offer no resources with which one might eventually come to an intellectually satisfying answer about happiness. No wonder modern people are so anxious: we spend our lives pursuing ideals of happiness that we not only do not examine but have no idea how to examine.
Some ancient views, like that of Aristotle or early Buddhism, give more robust theories of what real happiness is. I think there’s a lot to learn from these views, but my point here is to motivate the type of thinking that leads one to engage with ancient and modern views in a distinctively philosophical way, that is, with neither dogmatic deference nor willowy relativism. Happiness need not be what Aristotelians or Buddhists says it is, but neither is it something you should decide on a whim.
We still need philosophy because we already have philosophical views about things like happiness, truth, knowledge, meaning, value, and so forth. As the philosopher Mary Midgley puts it in her paper, "Philosophical Plumbing," philosophy is like plumbing: most of the time we can afford to ignore what’s going on under the floorboards of our minds, but occasionally things get backed up and we need to think carefully, for instance, during life crises, when confronted with the death of loved ones, or even in moments of quiet reflection.
We don’t all have to be full time plumbers or philosophers, but a few basic skills are useful for everybody; having some Drain-O or a list of logical fallacies on hand is always a good idea. As human beings with complex philosophical systems undergirding our deepest aspirations and values, the prevailing shallowness of modern life leaves us mentally malnourished and unable to engage in careful reflection about what kinds of lives we want to live.
Even worse, it cuts us off from deep contemplation of life, the universe, and everything; such contemplation is not only fun, it constitutes one of the joyous mysteries of what it is to be human (see my post, “Three Uses of Philosophy”). So, not only are we wrong about not needing philosophy, the shallowness of modern life means that we need it now more than ever.