Sunday, November 08, 2009

Strong Relativism

After posting my bit on lazy relativism yesterday, my good friend and colleague, economist Prof. Art Carden (who also blogs regularly over at Division of Labour), sent me the following email:
I really, really enjoyed your post on "lazy relativism" and have a suggestion for a followup that would help non-experts like myself: what's "non-lazy relativism?
Excellent question. I think the best place to start might be in identifying the kinds of positions to which relativism, generally speaking, is opposed. There are many variants of philosophical relativism-- moral, cultural, epistemological, aesthetic, methodological-- but what they hold in common as a principle is that some statements of value or truth are conditioned ("relative") in the sense that they are dependent upon other elements, aspects, paradigms or contexts of meaning that consitute the basic struts and girders of our belief/knowledge. This is opposed to absolutism (which holds that value and truth claims are "absolute," i.e. timeless and unchanging), universalism (closely related to absolutism, and which holds that facts can be discovered objectively and thus apply universally), or objectivism (also closely related to absolutism and universalism, and which holds that "reality" exists independent of human consciousness and can be known objectively). Not to overcomplicate things here, but it is possible to be an absolutist, objectivist or universalist about some things (like physical laws or mathematics) and a relativist about other things (like morality). Most philosophers grant a qualitiative distinction between what we call "facts" and what we call "values," and perhaps the biggest disagreement between relativists and their philosophical opponents is that the latter treat "values" as having the same form and force as "facts."

To simplify things, I'm going to talk about ethical relativism, since that is the area in which there is the least disagreement about whether the subject of our inquiries are "facts" or "values." Relativists hold that particular moral values are always, in some way, determined by broader evaulations of what we consider to be "the Good" and, further, that "the Good" is not an absolute "fact" that can be universally or objectively known. This is why we have conflicts about moral values-- because we have different conceptions of what is Good and different understandings about how it is best achieved-- and those evaluations, according to relativists, are deeply embedded in a framework of all kinds of other philosophical commitments (metaphysical, epistemological, aesthetic, social and political). So, for relativists, our moral values are dependent upon a larger paradigm of belief (and what we believe to be "facts") that justifies values and gives them sense. If you take one of those values out of its framework, then you will likely find that it's truth-value changes, which proves (at the very least) that that particular value is relative to the evaluative system in which it belongs.

An example: if I hold the general moral value that human life is sacred or has some essential, intrinsic and undeniable worth, then I may also hold the particular moral value that the death penalty or (depending on when I think human "life" begins) abortion is wrong. If you do not share my more generic evaluation, then it is very possible that you will come to different conclusions about the more particular moral issues of abortion or the death penalty. Assuming that we both believe our positions to be "true" and that our positions are mutually exclusive (and, of course, that something cannot be simultaneously true and untrue), then one of us has some explaining to do. The person who I call the "lazy relativist" will, in this situation, simply ignore the conflict and pretend as if it isn't really a conflict. He or she will say: "well, what's true for you is true for you, and what's true for me is true for me. It's all relative, man." (Whenever I speak in my "lazy relativist" voice, it always sounds like a burnt-out, stoner, surfer-dude. For the full effect, I suggest my readers adopt the same character when reading.) The problem here is that no one can rationally hold that position. If I say 2+2=4 and you say 2+2=5, we can't just shake hands, grant the relative truth of the other's claim, and then pass the pipe. It matters that one of them is true and the other isn't. Otherwise, how can we know if we've been given correct change? (That was for you, Art!)

Non-relativists will always have a stronger case when they come into conflict with lazy relativists because non-relativists can appeal to some absolute, universal, or objective authority to justify their values and explain the process of evaluation that led to those judgments. Maybe that authority is God's revelation (as is the case with Augustine or many Natural Law theorists), maybe the authority is dictated by Reason (as is the case with Kantian deontology) or maybe it's some other reasonable method of caluculating the Good (as is the case with utilitarians), but whatever it is, non-relativists are able to account for the authority they are lending to values they claim to be true. So, the challenge to relativists is two-fold: (1) they must account for why the proposed authority (God, Reason, science, whatever) is not an absolute, universal or objective authority for determining values, and (2) they must account for how, in the absence of a an absolute, universal or objective authority, they are making the value judgments they are making. "Lazy" relativists will sometimes (weakly) meet the first challenge, but will almost always balk at the second.

But if one can't meet the second challenge, then one is resigned to ceding a profound, disturbing and ultimately paralyzing meaninglessness to the world. If you are inclined to be skeptical of absolute claims to truth-- especially moral truths, which admit of so much reasonable conflict-- then you've got more work to do than the non-relativist. You cannot reasonably claim that mutually exclusive propositions are both true. No one can. (Except lazy relativists.) Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty sums this problem up nicely in his essay "Pragmatism, Relativism and Irrationalism" when he writes:
[What people call] "relativism" is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called 'relativists' are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.
That last characterization by Rorty-- that relativists claim "the grounds for choosing between [values] are less algorithmic than [the non-relativist] thought"-- is the the first step towards what I would call a "strong" or philosophically robust relativism. The most important consequence of philosophical relativism, and the one entirely missed by lazy relativists, is that the rejection of absolute, universal or objective authorities does not absolve one of responsibility for justifying beliefs, but rather exponentially increases that responsibility.

If I deny that there are "absolute" moral values, or that we have some revealed or reasonable access to them, then I am now the ONLY one responsible for giving an account of why I believe x instead of y. It means, among other things, that I understand the activity of moral evaluation to be the activity of free beings, that is, beings who (unlike objects) are not primarily governed by necessity... therefore are not obligated by necessity to hold whatever values they hold... therefore must take responsibility for their free choice to take up certain values and not others. I don't think that I "freely choose" to think that 2+2=4 because I believe that mathematical facts are not values; they're qualitatively different than moral judgments inasmuch as they are necessarily governed by what I accept to be absolute, universal and objective laws. Consequently, the conflict that I experience with someone who claims that 2+2=5 is different than the conflict I experience with someone who claims that abortion is right (or wrong). As a relativist about moral truths, I deny the authority and the necessity of my antagonist's moral truths, and I ought to be able to give an account of how I arrived at my values judgments independent of such authority or necessity.

If I can give such an account, then the advantage has shifted. Whereas the lazy relativist leaves him- or herself vulnerable to the charge of being simply irrational (i.e., holding that mutually exclusive propositions are equally true), the strong relativist who can give an account of his or her beliefs and take ultimate responsibility for the judgments that constitute his or her values is now able to make different demands of his or her antagonist. Now, the non-relativist must justify the grounds of an aboslutist moral system to someone who does not accept the authority of those grounds. If your moral truths are grounded in God's revelation, and I don't believe in God (or don't believe God said what you say God said), then the burden of proof is on your shoulders now. Similarly, if you claim that your moral values are authorized by the proper exercise of Reason or utilitarian calculation, and I can reasonably account for my arrival at opposite values, then you either have to account for your understanding of what Reason dictates or you have to demonstrate to me (in terms that I can agree to) how I am not being reasonable. The point is that the strong relativist doesn't leave him- or herself an "escape" route; he or she cannot get out of a tight spot in a conflict of values by displacing responsibility to something or Someone other than what is acceptable to all parties in the conflict.

Obviously, not all conflicts of values when it comes to moral or ethical issues are resolvable. But, at the very least, the strong relativist has a way to account for why there are conflicts in the first place, and the strong relativist is also predisposed, philosophically, to understanding what he or she is capable of doing to amend, assuage or at the very least engage in meaningful conversations about those conflicts. The absolutist can only ever understand his or her antagonists as in error, and has the unfortunate superadded challenge of not being able to correct that error because the basic rules governing the distcintion between truth and error are not shared. The "lazy" relativist, on the other hand, can account for the conflict and can acknowledge the absence of a common ground for adjudicating that conflict, but lacks the courage of his or her convictions that might either motivate the search for a mutually acceptable discursive ground or motivate a "strong" rejection of that commonality and a corresponding account of a replacement paradigm for which one takes ultimate responsibility.

In sum, strong relativists take human freedom seriously... especially the human freedom exercised in the determination of values, those things that are not governed by necessity or given over to us whole and complete by some transcendent or transcendental authority. Those determinations are the only ones for which we can be "responsible" or "accountable" or any other ethically-loaded adjective that we commonly use, after all.

As far as I'm concerned, this is Philosophy 101: It ain't easy being free.


Art Carden said...

And have you ever wondered if, like, what I see as "red" is what you see as "red?" And are you saying that "like, whatever" isn't a defensible position?

Seriously, thanks for the detailed explanation. The man or woman on the street--someone like me--probably thinks that all relativism is of the lazy variety.

Perhaps there's another idea for a SEGA panel: what are the biggest misconceptions non-specialists have about your field? The analogue to lazy relativism in economics is the mistaken view that "economics" means "money" or that "costs and benefits" are necessarily or exclusively financial. I think of "cost" very generally as whatever we give up when we make a choice and "benefit" very generally as whatever we gain when we make a choice. Every action is an attempt to change the world and to make it a better place (however we choose to define "better," and this is the point at which I refer students to the philosophy department) than the world we leave behind. The cost of an action is the action we didn't take.

The cost of reading this blog post and writing a comment is whatever else I could have done (nap, for example, or grade homework). The benefit was that I now have a better understanding of the difference between lazy relativism and strong relativism. If we really wanted to we could evaluate these in monetary terms. By investing my time in reading the blog post I gave up the opportunity to earn income now by going around the neighborhood offering to rake leaves (like a couple of kids on the sidewalk appear to be doing now) but I gained knowledge that might increase my income in the future. This is one way to think about action, but I think it actually limits our knowledge by throwing out non-pecuniary reasons for action.

Dr. Trott said...

Dr. J, this is as fantastic and worthwhile a contribution to the blogosphere as I have seen in some time (no offense to my other blogging friends).

I wonder if in the face of some contemporary claims we might be ceding "truth" too easily to the absolutists and the objectivists. I don't say the univeralists, because people like Badiou are precisely concerned to say truth is universal from a particular situation or localized position, but not because it is objective, but rather subjective, that is, that subjects form themselves in relation to a truth and a truth then is something that must be worked out in the world, which is why Badiou calls it a truth procedure.

Badiou calls truth universal because it is indifferent to differences and therefore the same for all, as for example the truth that all who are here belong is the same for all and also a truth that must be performed in political action.

I think Derrida takes a similar tack when he tries to show what is hidden or unsaid in the pronouncement of every truth -- his point is not to unmoor truth, but to reclaim the understanding of what truth is or must be.

My point is to say, I don't want to relinquish the concern or the claim to truth to those who claim things are true objectively and by reference to some absolute position of authority. We've already given them the right to define truth when we do that. Would you agree?

Anonymous said...

A short query regarding the meaning of the terms you use: how do you distinguish between relativism and subjectivism? My understanding has been that relativism refers to cultural determination of values, while subjectivism refers to individual determination of values. Given my definitions, you seem to be arguing for strong subjectivism, not strong relativism. Relativism, as I understand it, would make values independent of the individual, though not independent of the culture that determines them. From another perspective, one could ask whether it is cultures that are free, or whether individuals are.

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Anonymous said...

As a lazy relativist, "okay" and that is the beauty of lazy relativism.

lide said...

If I for some reason thinks 2+2=5 and live my life with that fact, Am I then wrong about that claim?