The term “social construction” and its cousin “cultural construction” get casually tossed around a lot these days. Sometimes it’s used negatively, as a pejorative way of referring to those damn relativistic lefties. Sometimes it’s used approvingly, as a potted rejection of someone else’s position by saying, “Oh, that’s just your truth.” Either way, there’s almost always a sloppiness that tends to equate belief in social construction with relativism–especially the dreaded moral relativism. And that’s simply not the case. What follows are cribnotes on why truth is indeed socially constructed, but why relativism does not follow from it.
The real meaning of social construction is linguistic. What it means, in a nutshell, is that we could all agree tomorrow to call the sky red instead of blue, and that would not cause any problem for us. Now, this wouldn’t change in isolation. Lots of other adjustments would have to be made in order to start calling blue things red and red things blue (or some third color, in which case lather rinse repeat). So while this would be a logistical nightmare, it is still potentially possible. Adjust language in the right way by shifting enough terms, and we can go on as we did before without anyone being the wiser. By consensus, we have now changed the truth from “The sky is blue” to “The sky is red.” That is social construction.
But, you may say, the real truth hasn’t changed at all! What real truth? “The sky is still blue!” you say. No, it’s not. The sky was blue yesterday, and today it isn’t. Truths can only be expressed in mutually intelligible terms, and if you want to be left behind still calling the sky blue, you can, but now it’s you who is wrong. Social construction is not about reality, it’s about words. We don’t choose our reality, but we do choose our words–collectively.
The tricky part comes when people don’t agree on the truth. If some people say the sky is blue and some people say the sky is red, now you have to do the work of figuring out why they disagree. Maybe they just have different words for the same color. Maybe one group of people has different cones in their eyes that actually make the sky look like a different color. All of these things can be experimentally tested, because truths have to fit together with one another. If both groups agree that the wavelength of blue/red light is 475nm, then clearly it’s the same color, and there’s just terminological confusion (unless they don’t agree on numbers either, but you get the idea). If one group says the sky is blue and 475nm, and the other group says the sky is red and 730nm, then science has got some work to do in order to decide which of them is totally wrong. Naturally, the two groups have to agree to the rules of science and agree to abide by the results and agree on what abiding by the results means…but at the end of the day, cultural construction is not some free-for-all. It’s just the contract we make in order to be able to agree on anything.
On the other hand, it also means that there’s very little meaning in being right by yourself. If you think the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm (which it is), and everyone else thinks it’s 730nm (which it isn’t), you have two options. You can try to convince people that you’re right, marshaling the evidence and arguments to do so, or you can sit quietly and wait for vindication beyond the grave when someone else figures out how wrong everyone has been. But what if they never do? I’m afraid you’re stuck. You can’t be said to have been right because no one will be around to say it. Truth is linguistic, which means that unless there later comes to be a consensus that you were right, you weren’t. That’s not relativism, that’s just how the game is played.
Contrariwise, even if the entire world believes that the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm, there’s nothing to say that at some point in the distant future we won’t be proven oh so wrong and people will look back on us and say, “What fools they were!” In exchange for the pain of truth requiring some kind of social consensus, you get the pleasure of being able to doubt anything anyone says due to the possibility, however distant, of it being overturned in the future. And so the lumbering human process of truthseeking rolls along.
I began with the most objective and “scientific” examples because things get far muddier when it comes to morality and valuation in general. If there is no scientific fact to discover, as people generally assume when it comes to ethics, does that mean that morality really is relativistic? You don’t really need to answer that question, because it comes out in the wash. Social practices will inevitably spit out moral systems, which will argue with one another and end up settling on some set of values. We don’t know for sure whether a particular moral system is correct–but how is this different from science? Because, you might say, the methodology is totally different! You don’t conduct experiments to test moral hypotheses! (Unless you’re one of those analytic philosophers, that is.) That’s true. But just because there’s a different adjudication process doesn’t mean that it’s somehow more relativistic. Rather, it means that morality is only as morally relativistic as we say it is. If everyone in the world were to agree that morality is absolute, then it might as well be, because who’s going to disagree?
Admittedly, that’s not a very satisfying answer when it comes to morality, but it gives some hint of how empty absolute relativism is. At the bottom, you have to agree on some purported absolutes just to get along in the world. Most of them won’t be moral laws, but there’s no intrinsic prohibition on them being absolutes–at least, not according to social construction. All social construction dictates, rather, is that the limits of what we term the “absolute” stop at what we collectively agree to be true, because how could we possibly get more absolute than that?