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.