Thursday, May 04, 2006

A common student mistake

I know I shouldn't post student sentences when I am grading papers, even without attridbution, because people might feel singled out or publically mocked, but the following sentence from a student essay is such a common mistake that I need to correct it in as public a forum as possible.
The inability to recognize that you are not always right is important in acknowledging that there is no universal truth in morality
Ack. No. In order to say “I was not right”, you have to acknowledge that there is a right and wrong to begin with. It is the relativist who cannot admit that she is wrong, because for the relativist all views are true for the person or group who holds them.

You need to distinguish between relativism and falliblism. Falliblism is just the belief that one can be mistaken about ethics. Relativism is the belief that there is no right and wrong at all except in reference to the person or group who holds this belief.

Why do people keep saying things like this? Is someone else in the academy pushing this illogical message? (Sociology? Anthropology? Continental philosophy?)

BTW, given the incredible amount of time I spend trying to disabuse people at least of naïve forms of relativism, I really resent the endless accusation from the right that all academics are relativists. It is as if they have never been in an ethics classroom or read an elementary ethics text to see how the issue of relativism is treated.

I’m really looking forward to next semester, when I’ll get to spend every day explaining that a theory is not an unconfirmed fact, rather than explaining that a relativist can never admit to being wrong.

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