Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.
Fallacy in Action
Harry and Bill are two good friends who work in the same building. Every day during their lunch break, Harry and Bill eat together at a local park. Harry notices that Bill never brings fruits or vegetables for lunch. Instead, his meals consist primarily of sugary and high-fat foods, such as candy bars, meatloaf wrapped in bacon, and burgers from a nearby fast-food restaurant. Harry tries to get Bill to join him on his daily walks, but Bill declines because he doesn't feel like he needs to work out. One day, Bill tells Harry that Bill's doctor informed him that he has high cholesterol and body fat. Bill's doctor also told him that he needs to lose weight. Harry then tells Bill that Bill is not going to lower his cholesterol, body fat, or weight by eating unhealthy foods and not exercising. Bill rebuffs Harry and states that while Harry's comments may be true for some people, they are not true for Bill because he has good genes. In this example, Bill has just committed the relativist fallacy.
Definition of the Relativist Fallacy
The relativist fallacy, or subjective fallacy, occurs when an individual states that a claim may be true for some people, but is not true for others. In other words, a statement can be true for one person but at the same time be false for another. The individual asserts that the truth of a claim is relative to person, place, and/or time. Relativist fallacy usually looks something like this:
- Someone makes a claim. In the example above, Harry claims that Bill cannot lose weight if he continues to eat unhealthy foods and not exercise.
- An individual states that the claim is not true for him/her, though it may be true for other individuals. In the example, Bill claims that Harry's statements are not true for him due to his good genes, though the claim is true for others.
- The individual feels like they can accurately reject the claim, similarly to how Bill believes he can reasonably disregard Harry's advice.
The Relativist Fallacy and Objectivity
It is important to note that relativistic fallacy only applies to objective truths, or statements that are true for all people. Research indicates that diet and exercise both play a major role in health. So no matter who you are, if you eat unhealthy foods and do not exercise, it will be virtually impossible for you to improve your health. Though the statement that Harry made about health was directed toward Bill, it is an objective truth that applies to all people. So the relativist fallacy applies.
Supposed Harry had instead made the statement that fast food costs too much for anyone to eat it on a daily basis. Bill responded by saying although Harry may not be able to afford it, Bill can. Is this relativist fallacy? The answer here is no. Harry's statement is entirely subjective. What is considered affordable varies from person to person. For example, a person with a higher salary may have more money to spend on fast food than a person making minimum wage. Likewise, a person with no debt may be able to afford to dine out more than a person who has several credit card payments. Since the statement is subjective, Bill's reasoning is not a relativist fallacy.
The relativist fallacy occurs when someone incorrectly claims that a truth may be correct for some individuals but incorrect for others. Relativist fallacy occurs when a person makes a claim and another person states that the claim is true for some but not true for him or her, which justifies his or her rejection of the claim. Relativistic fallacy only applies to claims that are objective. When subjective claims are made, the relativistic fallacy does not apply.
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