Relativist Fallacy




Also Known as: The Subjectivist Fallacy


The Relativist Fallacy is committed when a person (or group) rejects a claim by simply asserting that the claim might be true for others but is not for them. This reasoning has the following form:


Premise 1: Claim C is presented.

Premise 2: Person (or group) A asserts that C might be true for others but is not true for them.

Conclusion:  Therefore, A is justified in rejecting C.


In this context, relativism is the view that truth is relative to R (a person, time, culture, place, etc.). This is not the view that claims will be true at different times of the year (“today is Halloween”) or about different people, but the view that a claim could be true for one person (or group) and false for another at the same time. To illustrate, believing that moral truths depend on one’s culture would be a form of relativism. Believing that different cultures profess different moral values would not be relativism.

Often, when people say, “X is true for me” what they really mean is “I believe X” or “X is true about me.” A claim is true about a person if the claim describes the person correctly. For example, “Bill has blue eyes” is true about Bill if Bill has blue eyes.

To make a claim such as “X is true for Bill” is to say that the claim is true for Bill and that it need not be true for others. For example: “1+1=23 is true for Bill” would mean that, for Bill, 1+1 does equal 23, not that he merely believes that 1+1=23. As another example, “the claim that the earth is flat is true for Bill” would mean that the earth really is flat for Bill, not just that he believes it. In that case, Bill would exist in a different reality.

These examples are intentionally silly to show that it should not be assumed that truth is relative to groups or individuals, although beliefs certainly are.

While it might be thought that this fallacy cannot be committed when truth is relative, this is not the case. The fallacy can still be committed provided that the relativity or subjectivity of truth is uncritically assumed in the reasoning.

Some things are uncontroversial in their relativity or subjectivity. For example, if Bill says that the room is too warm and Sally says it is too cold, they can both be right: it feels too warm for Sam and too cold for Sally. As another example, if Ted says that goat milk is delicious and Sandy says that it is yucky, they can both be right: Ted’s subjective experience of goat milk is pleasant while Sandy’s is not. But these are still cases were something is true about someone rather than being true for them.

The relativity or subjectivity of truth is a matter of significant philosophical debate and hence its truth or falsity cannot simply be assumed. For example, moral relativists argue that morality is relative to the culture and moral subjectivists contend that morality is relative to the individuals. But there are good arguments against these views. Aesthetics, the branch of philosophy dealing with arty and beauty, also sees debate over subjectivity and relativity. While it is often assumed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, this subjective view of beauty should not simply be assumed as correct.

As a bad faith tactic, people sometimes pretend to be relativists or subjectivists and then use this fallacy to reject a claim. While the reasoning is the same fallacy, the bad faith element adds an element of deceit. For example, a person might reject a moral criticism of their actions in bad faith by asserting “who is to say what is wrong or right?”


Defense: The main defense against this fallacy is to determine if a reason has been given to accept that the matter at hand is a true case of relative or subjective truth. If not, then the fallacy has been committed if a claim is rejected by a mere appeal to relativism or subjectivism.


Example #1:

Jill: “Look at this, Bill. I read that people who do not get enough exercise tend to be unhealthy.”

Bill: “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me.”


Example #2:

Jill: “I think that so called argument you used to defend your position is terrible. After all, a fallacy hardly counts as an argument. “

Bill: “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me.”


Example #3:

Bill: “Your position results in a contradiction, so I can’t accept it.”

Dave: “Contradictions may be bad in your Eurocentric, oppressive, logical world view, but I don’t think they are bad. Therefore, my position is just fine.”


Example #4:

Sam: “So, you cheated on your wife and stole her credit card to pay for the hotel room. You also got your…I guess mistress…pregnant and made her get an abortion. But, as a legislator, you have been trying to ban abortion. You are a bad person doing bad things.”

Lex: “Who is to say what is good or bad?”

Sam: “Huh, she just texted me to say that your car appears to be on fire and that she is breaking up with you.”

Lex: “Why that evil little b…”

Sam: “Language. Also, who is to say what is good or bad? Oh, another text. It looks like the fire is out.”

Lex: “Good!”

Sam: “Well, it is out because the car is now in your pool.”

Lex: “Bad!”

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More