Here is a common sense view about truth. There is an external world that is the shared object of our experience and it is some ways but not others. To say the world is a certain way is just to say that it has some properties and lacks others. This is the standard issue common sense metaphysical view. As we are parts of the world, the way the world is includes all of the various ways we are as individual subjects. Your experience is every bit as much a part of the world as anyone’s
What we believe or what we assert with a claim is true when it corresponds to the way the world is. True beliefs and claims are true because they represent the way the world way it is. A false belief or claim is just one that fails to do so. This is how we understand the notion of truth in the everyday mundane and uncontroversial cases like when we say “It’s true that Nichols is Mayor of Seattle in 2006” or “It’s true that the Space Needle is taller than any sailboat on Lake Union.” So far, I’m just trying to describe how we use the terms “true” and “false” in ordinary discourse. What I’m going to do now is examine a few ways of understanding what people might mean when they say things like “that might be true for you, but it is not true for me.”
As a Claim about Belief
The most plausible interpretation of claims like this is that talk of something being “true for a person” just means that it is believed by that person. To believe something is just to take it to be true. So perhaps when a person says “P might be true for you but it is not true for me,” all they mean to say is that perhaps you believe that P, but I don’t believe that P. But people believing incompatible things presents no challenge to the common sense metaphysic of a shared world or our commonsense understanding of truth.
The common sense picture does require that if two people believe things that are genuinely inconsistent, then one of them must be hold a false belief. There is no guarantee that we can figure out which belief is true and which is false. But as the common sense view does posit a shared world, the possibility of distinguishing the truth in some cases may be open. We can examine our shared world more closely, share our observations, and think critically about whether our world really does correspond to this belief or that. Science, in this manner, seems to have made a good deal of progress in understanding a few things about our world. Science does not answer genuinely ethical questions, of course. But the lack of shared purely empirical evidence for or against ethical claims does not mean that we have no reasons to consider at all when evaluating ethical claims for truth. Ethicists formulate and evaluate arguments in support of ethical claims all the time. It’s what they do. So understanding talk of things being true for some people but not for others as really just meaning that some people believe this and other don’t makes this kind of talk intelligible. But it also invites us to inquire into the truth of the matter by examining what reasons are available and it presents no special obstacles to discovering that someone’s belief really is true or really is false.
As a Conversation Stopper
Yet when people talk about things being true for some and not for others, this talk is often intended to cut off debate. But why would anyone want to stop a conversation about ethical issues. Morality matters a great deal to us. People make huge personal sacrifices for what they think is right. As much as doing good and avoiding wrong matters to us personally, you would think conversations about morality would draw enthusiastic participation. But in fact the very passion and conviction with which moral beliefs are held probably does more to explain why people are reluctant to talk about ethical issues. People are used to only seeing ethical issues discussed in the context of heated emotional conflict. In fact, through cultural phenomena like cable TV political pundits, the heated rhetoric of special interest politics, and the ever present impassioned expressions of evangelical religious conviction, we are trained to only see ethical issues discussed in a context of emotional conflict. Well nobody likes emotionally heated conflicts. So, people just avoid conversations about ethical issues (except perhaps when they are confident that they are in the a-men choir). While conversations about ethical issues can be very unpleasant, they don’t have to be. The conversations philosophers have about ethics can be difficult, but they are typically not emotionally unpleasant. To the contrary, they are emotionally pleasant on account of being interesting. The standing habits ordinary folks in our culture have of talking about ethics in unpleasant ways doesn’t generalize. It’s just a bad habit. I say it is a bad habit because it’s a habit that generally discourages folks from learning anything new about ethical matters. The people who aren’t driven from conversation make it into something personal and combative rather than collegial and informative. When people go to battle in defense of a cherished belief, they are not typically open to understanding and learning new things.
One obstacle people face in breaking the bad habit of talking about ethics only in emotionally unpleasant ways is that people tend to self identify with their passionately held convictions. Many people have this tendency. In this situation an argument against one’s cherished moral belief may feel like an argument against one’s self. But a person is not the conclusion of an argument. The conclusion of an argument is a statement that expresses a thought. A thought that might be entertained, or doubted, believed or disbelieved by any number of people. Personally, as a philosopher, it’s really not a big deal to me whether someone holds this opinion or that. People believe all sorts of crazy things and I tend to like them anyway. However, I often find that I have very little patience for the people who are reluctant to examine the reasons for and against holding a belief.
Doing ethics will be uncomfortable for anyone who brings the emotional baggage of identifying with his beliefs to the conversation. So, lose that baggage if you have it. The only other choice is to just avoid doing ethics. Lots of people do make that choice. But this way of buying the comfort and security of not having to examine your own beliefs comes at the price of perpetuating ignorance (in yourself and others that might learn from you). This practice combines the intellectual vices of closed mindedness and incuriosity and it contributes to a great many of the worlds injustices.
As an Expression of Ethical Subjectivism
Sometimes the saying “what’s true for you isn’t true for me” is intended to stop conversation by implying that there is no fact of the matter to discover. If there is no fact of the matter, then clearly we are just wasting time debating the issue. The view that there are no ethical facts is not a relativistic view. The view that there are no ethical truths is variously called ethical subjectivism, nihilism or ethical skepticism. Now here is something peculiar: when folks try to cut off debate by saying something like “that may be true for some but it isn’t true for others,” they often intend this to be a way of saying “look you are both right”. But the subjectivist view that there are no ethical truths doesn’t make both parties in an ethical debate always right, it makes both parties always wrong. In a debate about an ethical issue, one party is arguing that some claim P is an ethical fact while another is arguing that not P is an ethical truth. Subjectivism does not dissolve the debate, it just interjects a third position saying that neither P nor not P is an ethical truth. This, ironically, is a way of entering the debate, not a way to shut it down. And once the debate is entered, we need to see some reasons for thinking subjectivism is right.
As the View that Ethical Truths are Relational
Some sentences just don’t make sense by themselves because they are incomplete. Consider “John us taller.” Perhaps in the right context, the missing details will be understood and the intended complete thought will be successfully conveyed. In a context where two people are standing back to back to compare their heights, “John is taller” can successfully convey the complete thought that John is taller than Joe. Perhaps ethical truths are like this. Perhaps “abortion is wrong” by itself just doesn’t express a complete thought that can be understood as true or false. But we can express a complete thought that can be true or false by adding some details as in “Abortion is wrong relative to evangelical Christians.” This view is ethical relativism. Relativism in ethics is just the view that ethical expressions like “is wrong” don’t express ethical properties had by actions, but rather express relations between actions and individuals or groups. This view is intelligible. And it does allow for the various parties to a dispute about an ethical matter to each be right. So this view works as a means of shutting down debate. To the minds of many, allowing for all parties to be right is adequate reason for adopting ethical relativism. But this strikes me as clearly disastrous. Ethical relativism makes the Nazi sympathizer just as right in holding that the holocaust was a good thing as the holocaust survivor is in holding that the holocaust was a bad thing.
As a Fractured World Metaphysic
It clear that people had better not understand truth in the ordinary way with no qualifications when they say that ethical claims are true for some by not for others for the simple reason that the world can’t both be some way and not be that very way. Perhaps we could maintain that things can be true for one person but not for another by taking the individuals in questions to live in their own distinct worlds. If I live in my world and you live in your distinct world, then it can be true for me that abortion is wrong and not true for you that abortion is wrong. My world could have the property of abortion being wrong while yours lacks it. But to go for this view is to abandon our ordinary commonsense metaphysical view and deny that there is a world that is the shared object of our experience. If there is no shared object of experience, then there is nothing for me to learn from your experience or you to learn from mine. Worse yet, if we live in distinct worlds, then the very possibility of communication is jeopardized. What could I possibly hope to understand about your experience if our experiences have no common ground what-so-ever. Maintaining relativism about truth by adopting a fractured metaphysics of many worlds is, intellectually, a bottomless pit. There is just nowhere to go from there.