A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep or taste not the Pyrean spring
These shallow draughts intoxicate the brain
But drinking deeply sobers us again

------Alexander Pope

One of the hard sayings of classical logic is that truth is “objective”--in particular that it is not relative to persons or to cultures. Many people find this view not only implausible but offensive, particularly when it is held as regards disputed questions in theology and ethics. Here are some objections to the notion of objective truth and ways in which a true Philosopher may respond:

Objection 1: If I assert a proposition, P, and you disagree then, in saying that P is objectively true, not just true-for-me (while not-P is true-for-you) then I am saying that you are wrong: this is a put-down and really rude. We should all try to get along and avoid provoking arguments.

Response:  It’s alright to be wrong! We all have lots of false beliefs—sometimes we learn better, sometimes we don’t. We should all seek Truth as an ideal, but in this life we will never be completely successful. A true Philosopher does not take things personally. He knows that in the company of educated ladies and gentlemen disagreement and argument are not ways of bullying people, putting them down, or making power plays, but aspects of a cooperative intellectual enterprise in which we engage for enjoyment, to become clear about our own beliefs, to test them against objections and, through dialogue, to come closer to the Truth. Of course, in the company of twerps, a true Philosopher is wise enough to keep his mouth shut.

Objection 2:  When it comes to disputed questions, in ethics and religion especially, there is a lot of disagreement—who’s to say what is true? I remember in high school English we sometimes got to write essay questions and papers on these issues and the teacher said, “There are no right answers.”

Response: Disputed questions are questions where people on both sides may both have good reason for their beliefs and smart, educated people who’ve done all their homework may still disagree. No one can say who’s right because both sides can make rationally compelling cases for their opposing views. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a truth of the matter: it just means that we don’t know what it is. Truth and justification are two separate things—and people can have justified false beliefs. Your high school English teacher was just trying to say that you weren’t going to be graded on the truth or falsity of your conclusions but rather on how well you defended them.

Objection:  Different people have very different preferences: some like chocolate, some like vanilla. Different people have different lifestyles and what works for one person may not work for another.

Response:  The doctrine of objective truth does not deny this but says, Mary likes chocolate, John likes vanilla. So? When Mary says "I like chocolate" and John says "I like chocolate" they are not saying the same thing: they're making different statements, one of which is true and the other of which is false. (See "Saying the Same Thing")

Objection:  Different cultures have different beliefs and customs. We shouldn’t regard them as inferior because they disagree with us, blame them for practices that are embedded in their culture, or try to impose our beliefs and customs on them.

Response: This opens a whole can of worms so let’s sort out the issues:

(1) Members of other cultures may hold beliefs that differ from ours. Native peoples in South America, for example, may have beliefs about the medicinal properties of rain forest plants that we do not hold. We should check out these beliefs: if they are true, we can learn from them. Members of other cultures may also have mistaken beliefs on a variety of matters about which we hold true beliefs: if so they can learn from us.

(2) Different cultures have different customs and rules of etiquette: in some cultures it is polite to burp after a meal to show you really enjoyed it, in others people run around naked, in still others ladies may not wear white shoes until Memorial Day or after Labor Day. So? The believer in objective truth is not committed to holding that after-dinner burpers should impose this practice on others or that Californians ought to be set straight about appropriate seasonal attire.

(3) Practices that are morally right in one society may be morally wrong or dysfunctional in another. Attempting to impose our own standards on other cultures may be disruptive and damaging. For example, polygamy is embedded in certain traditional African cultures and works well given the structure of the societies in which it is customary: a good time is had by all. It probably wouldn’t be mutually gratifying in contemporary America.

Again, this doesn’t undermine the objective notion of truth because we can certainly say, without committing ourselves to the view that truth is relative to cultures, that in all cultures where certain conditions obtain, polygamy is most conducive to overall human happiness and therefore morally ok while where other conditions obtain, it is not. This is no more threatening to the objective notion of truth than to note that water is sometimes liquid and sometimes solid: in temperatures above 32 degrees under normal atmospheric conditions water is liquid always  liquid whereas below 32 degrees under normal atmospheric conditions it is always solid.

(4) In some countries human rights violations, including “disappearings” of political dissidents, torture, “ethnic cleansing” and other forms of gross ethnic and racial discrimination, and practices like female genital mutilation, all of which are conducive to human misery, are the cultural norm.

Cases like these represent the most compelling reason to reject cultural relativism.