Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Relativism ad absurdum

In response to my comments on his relativism post, my dad had this to say:

If you're right about relativists' thinking that objective aesthetic judgments are too self-centered, it certainly shows up a contradiction, because they're being equally self-centered, as you point out, in dictating relativism. I think their attitude comes from a desire on liberals' part to believe that they represent all that is nice and good and peaceful and all-accepting. (As Dylan said in 1964, "I'm liberal, to a degree/ I want everybody to be free/ But if you think I'm gonna let Barry Goldwater move in next door, marry my daughter/ You must be crazy.") They're blind to the passive aggression in that stance. And it flummoxes them when you point out that relativism must admit its opposite as a possible "take".

Fortunately, though, we're beating a dead horse. Postmodernism has been on its way out for a decade, and before long college students will be reviling their pomo professors as hidebound reactionaries and demanding to know why that crap has been shoved down their throats.

Another commenter added this, which I think is very problematic:
I guess I am a person who accepts the complexity of life, attitudes, points of view, beliefs. I hate the destruction of war and struggle against the oppressive patriarchal system we are all victims of - men and women. I am suspicious of "purism" and abhor labels.

So, as you describe it, I might be considered a "relativist," even though the term seems to cause me some discomfort.

It seems to me that that's just not getting at what "relativism" really means. By the same token, I don't see what my dad's support of affirmative action even if it's counter to his self-interest has to do with relativism.

The opposite of relativism is not "being selfish" or "being close-minded" or "not taking unfamiliar viewpoints into account" or "disrespecting other cultures."

In fact, the very fact that I do think it's vital to understand foreign cultures and appreciate the views of people who disagree with me is why I can't be a relativist. Relativism, taken seriously, is incompatible with the idea that someone in the United States should stop and think, "Hey, maybe certain values that are unpopular here but are prevalent in other countries are actually better than mine." If relativism is true, then the only value that matters is adhering to the values that are internal to your own culture/community (whether that's your country, locality, religion, etc.)

I'm not the first person to point this out: if you adhere to that principle, then you can't recognize the goodness of a society making transformative moral progress. And that means that the theory shouldn't count Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King, Jr. as great Americans. After all, they were deviating from the prevailing values of their time and culture, so by the standards of relativism, weren't they acting wrongly? That's why I consider relativism "wrong" in both senses of the word: not just incorrect but also evil.

And I know that some people will think, "Oh, he's making a straw-man argument by just attacking a really extreme version of 'relativism' that's not what most relativists actually believe." Well, I know there are millions of people who would call themselves relativists but disagree with the conclusion that it's impossible for a society to make radical moral progress. But I simply think they're being internally inconsistent and should resolve the inconsistency in favor of making judgments based on standards that are universal/objective rather than local/relative.



Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

To me, cultural relativism means acknowledging and welcoming the entire range of human cultures as contributors to an evolving world civilization (which is why I connected affirmative action to cultural relativism). When it descends into belittling and rejecting the Western contribution, it becomes absolutism. Both of those outlooks respond to a perceived excessive Anglo-Saxon or Western influence in the world; one is liberal and the other is radical. It's a matter of proportion.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Cultural relativism isn't just "acknowledging" and "welcoming." It's the position that the truth is only relative to particular cultures.

I welcome plenty of diverse cultures, and I certainly acknowledge them. I just think we should judge them according to fixed standards, not variable standards that are relative to the very culture we're judging.

John Althouse Cohen said...

On further reflection, I should have done a better job of clarifying the definition of relativism earlier on, probably in the first post. Maybe I'll post an update later on the homepage.

For now, here's how Simon Blackburn draws the distinction (this is from the article of his that I linked to in the first relativism post):

But toleration, which is often, although not always, a good thing, is not the same as relativism, which is never a good thing; and it is vital to understand the difference. In the intellectual world, toleration is the disposition to fight opinion only with opinion: in other words, to protect freedom of speech, and to confront divergence of opinion with open critical reflection rather than suppression or force. ...

Toleration gives us the dictum attributed to Voltaire, that I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Relativism, by contrast, chips away at our right to disapprove of what anybody says. Relativism names a loose cluster of attitudes, but the central message is that there are no asymmetries of reason and knowledge, objectivity and truth. ... There are only different views, each true "for" those who hold them. Relativism in this sense goes beyond counselling that we must try to understand those whose opinions are different. It is not only that we must try to understand them, but also that we must recognize a symmetry of standing. Their opinions "deserve the same respect" as our own. So, ... we may have western values, but they have others; we have a western view of the universe, they have theirs; we have western science, they have traditional science; and so on.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I think it depends on the cultural item in question. If a culture forces clitorectomies upon girls, that's absolutely wrong. If a culture prohibits meat on Fridays, that's a relative value. Which may mean that relativism becomes less valid as the ethical issue becomes more serious.

TMink said...

I am encouraged that both people you list as examples claimed their moral authority and direction from a Higher source.

They were calling America into obedience of Christian principles. In doing so, they blessed our country.

Great post, though I am sure I took something unintended from it.


John Althouse Cohen said...

Trey: The post is just about whether relativisim is a correct or incorrect theory. I think we both agree that it's incorrect. Once that's settled, it's a wide-open question what moral principles are correct.

I obviously share the basic moral principles of MLK and Tubman. Yet I don't share their religion. Their moral beliefs don't really depend on religion; religion was just a useful tool for accomplishing good real-world results. The fact that MLK had Christian beliefs that I disagree with doesn't at all devalue his greatness in my eyes. I simply reject the assumption that moral behavior depends on religion, though obviously I recognize that there are good Christians out there who (incorrectly) attribute their goodness to religion.