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Relative correctness


John MacFarlane defends a radical form of truth relativism that makes the truth of assertions relative not only to contexts of utterance but also to contexts of assessment, or perspectives. Making sense of assessment-sensitive truth is a matter of making sense of the normative commitments undertaken by speakers in using assessment sensitive sentences. This paper argues against the possibility of making sense of such a practice. Evans raised a challenge to the coherence of relative truth. A modification of the challenge can be given against MacFarlane’s revised views on assertion. The main objection to the relativist is that rational and earnest speakers are not bound by assessment-relative standards of correctness.

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  1. 1.

    I focus exclusively on MacFarlane’s proposal because he offers, in my view, the clearest and strongest account of the pragmatics of the use of assessment-relative propositions. See MacFarlane (2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2012).

  2. 2.

    I agree with the arguments given by MacFarlane (2007, p. 23), García-Carpintero (2008, pp. 139–41) and Francén (2010) to the effect that non-indexical contextualism only captures the apparent lack of objectivity of statements in the areas of discourse earlier considered at the cost of failing to capture any relevant sense of doxastic disagreement. For more about this problem, see Marques (forthcoming).

  3. 3.

    It is anyway unclear whether the contingency of the future requires that the future be open, as MacFarlane describes it. See Tweedale (2004) and García-Carpintero (2012) for instance.

  4. 4.

    In conversation.

  5. 5.

    In seminars, and in conversation, John MacFarlane has sketched a reply to the challenge that preserves truth as the norm of assertion; it was formulated differently from how I have presented it here, and it is accompanied by a norm for retractions. In his book manuscript, he also suggests that there is a norm for retractions: one must retract a previous assertion as wrong when it is false at one’s current context of assessment. The challenge applies equally to the new account offered by MacFarlane, as can be verified in the rest of this paper.

  6. 6.

    There should be no ambiguity here. “Currently” occurs embedded, and the context of assessment it determines is whatever context the speaker is occupying.

  7. 7.

    This will be, ultimately, the reason why the objection also arises against MacFarlane’s new account of assertion, partially characterized by a retraction norm.

  8. 8.

    Of course, even when we succeed in keeping a promise when we have earnestly formed an intention to do so, to some extent that depends on the “accidental” fact that matters outside our control (and rational expectation when forming the intention) have not interfered. For instance, that we have not accidentally died in the meantime. These matters can be thought of as conditions under which, had they obtained, the ensuing obligation would have simply ceased to exist; or rather conditions that constitute a good excuse, all things considered, not to keep it even though it was still there. But neither alternative is of any help for MacFarlane.

  9. 9.

    These considerations apply to most cases to which MacFarlane has suggested to apply his relativist semantics. The only exception is the case of future contingents; but this is because in that case both the class of histories open when the utterance is made, and the class open when the relevant future comes, are envisaged by the speaker as relevant parameters of evaluation at the context of utterance. That is precisely the case where what is most distinctive of MacFarlane’s brand of relativism (that the truth/correctness of utterances is to be appraised relative to parameters not intended at the context of utterance) does not obtain.

  10. 10.

    That there are no obligations to retract when what are involved are changeable standards of correctness has been recently illustrated with an actual case. There is an ongoing petition to pardon Alan Turing posthumously from the charges of indecency. The justice minister Lord McNally is reported to have replied “A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence”. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd—particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times. (in The Guardian, 7 February 2012). It seems that retrospective assessments in cases like this involve the assessment, not of the assertion, but of the standard of correctness, as suggested by Lord MacNally’s statement. This is in line with Sundell’s (2011) disputes about contextual standards.

  11. 11.

    Can we think of the condition that one changes her gustatory or operatic standards as one whose obtaining would extinguish the obligation, or give us a good excuse not to keep it? That would be for MacFarlane to admit that the only effective obligation we incur in asserting is to say what is true at the context of utterance, and therefore to abandon what is distinctive of his “genuine” brand of relativism.

  12. 12.

    A similar argument appears to be made by Ross and Schroeder in their “Reversibility or Disagreement” (forthcoming).


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Thanks to Manuel García-Carpintero, Sven Rosenkranz, Pedro Santos and Dan Zeman for helpful discussion and feedback on previous versions of this material. Thanks also to an anonymous referee for this journal for very helpful comments and suggestions. The research for this paper was supported by projects Contextualism, Relativism and Practical Conflicts and Disagreement, EuroUnders/0001/2010 (part of the collaborative research project Communication in Contex: of the ESF EUROCORES EuroUnderstanding programme) and Online Companion to Problems of Analytic Philosophy, PTDC/FIL-FIL/121209/2010 (both funded by FCT); The Nature of Assertion: Consequences for Relativism and Fictionalism Code: FFI2010-16049, and PERSPPhilosophy of Perspectival Thouths and Facts, Code: CSD2009-00056 (Spain), and by the AGAUR of the Generalitat de Catalunya (2009SGR-1077).

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Correspondence to Teresa Marques.

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Marques, T. Relative correctness. Philos Stud 167, 361–373 (2014).

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  • Relativism
  • Assertion
  • Commitments
  • Correctness conditions
  • John MacFarlane
  • Gareth Evans