Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Relativism, Revolutionary Fictionalism, Moral Facts and #TheDress

[Disclaimer: this post is a brief, quickly-composed and so incomplete response to a number of tangentially-related events and essays from the last several days.  I have a lot more to say about all of them, including how they are not merely tangentially-related, but not now.]

If you haven't already, you should read yesterday's Stone article in the NYT by Justin McBrayer entitled "Why Our Children Don't Believe There Are Moral Facts." There, McBrayer bemoans the ubiquity of a certain configuration of the difference between "fact" and "opinion" assumed in most pre-college educational instruction (and, not insignificantly, endorsed by the Common Core curriculum). The basic presumption is that all value claims-- those that involve judgments of good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse-- are by definition "opinions" because they refer to what one "believes," in contradistinction to "facts," which are provable or disprovable, i.e., True or False.  The consequence of this sort of instruction, McBrayer argues, is that our students come to us (post-secondary educators) not believing in moral facts, predisposed to reject moral realism out of hand. Though I may not be as quick to embrace the hard version of moral realism that McBrayer seems to advocate, I am deeply sympathetic with his concern.  In my experience, students tend to be (what I have dubbed elsewhere on this blog) "lazy relativists." It isn't the case, I find, that students do not believe their moral judgments are true--far from it, in fact-- but rather that they've been trained to concede that the truth of value judgments, qua "beliefs," is not demonstrable or provable.  What is worse, in my view, they've also been socially- and institutionally-conditioned to think that even attempting to demonstrate/prove/argue that their moral judgments are True-- and, correspondingly, that the opposite of their judgments are False-- is trés gauche at best and, at worst, unforgivably impolitic.

For what it's worth, several years ago (in 2009), Joshua Miller (aka, Anotherpanacea) and I had an extended cross-blog discussion/debate about what I call "lazy relativism." (You can read the entirety of it here, but you'll have to scroll down to the bottom and follow all the embedded links in order to read it in chronological order.)  To save you the time it will take to read through that debate, I will sum up my own position thusly: I think there are philosophically defensible versions of moral relativism, but "lazy relativism" is not one of those.

What I wish I had at my disposal back in 2009 was something like the argument that Ammon Allred (aka, Ideas Man, PhD.) recently made on his blog ("In Lovely Blueness: Protagorus' Revenge")  in reference to #TheDress controversy. (If you don't know what #TheDress controversy is, you really must click on this link. Otherwise, what follows will make no sense at all.)  Allred speculates that what is most interesting about the almost-comedically vigorous Facebook and Twitter et-Internet-al debates that ensued in re how we perceived the "True" colors of #TheDress is, at least in part, the manner in which our arguments about the "facts" of #TheDress revealed our deep-seated (and largely disavowed) realist and normative prejudices.  Even despite the fact that we all should have implicitly conceded that what we were really arguing about was the Truth of our "perceptions" of the colors in the image of #TheDress, we were nevertheless, on the whole, dispositionally inclined to refuse that concession.  However we "took it to be the case," we failed to recognize that the imagistic reproduction of #TheDress about which we were arguing was not really or truly #whiteandgold or #blueandblack in the same way that the actual dress was really and truly one or the other.  We ought to have been, but we were not, arguing about the reality or Truth of our perception of an image, a photograph, not the reality or Truth of #TheDress itself.

And there's the rub, according to Allred,  A photograph-- etymologically derived, from φωτός (genitive, "of light") and γράφω ("I write")-- is a particularly revealing type of image in this case, one that inclines us to double-down on our universalistic and normative presumptions with regard to our perceptions of the so-called Truth of so-called Reality.  That is to say, an "image-written-from-light" is the sort of image (unlike, as Allred notes, a painting or a poem) that inclines us to trust its re-presentation as more faithfully representative than other sorts of images. But this is exactly the wrong sort of intuitive inclination. From Allred:
If it turns out that the image really can be blue and black AND white and gold, and that we can understand what the other person means when they say it's white and gold (because c'mon you guys, it's obviously blue and black), it's because we're willing to suspend some of the universalistic and normative properties of our ordinary language when we're talking about images. We're even willing to grant that there might be room for aesthetic education here. (I can learn more about an image by trying to experience how others see it. I can appreciate food and music that I didn't before if I learn about what the properties in it are that other people are experiencing)... It's too bad we can't take this point about aesthetic education further, because frankly I think this particularistic, anti-normative sort of experiencing is of far more importance to how we can live happily together than any normative ethics.
Not that it matters in this case, but I saw the image of #TheDress as white and gold.  Unlike many others, I have been unable to see it otherwise, though I am sufficiently convinced that this is not some elaborately-complex joke being played upon me alone.  I concede that others are as sure that their perceptions of the colors of the image of  #TheDress are black and blue as I am sure that my perceptions are that it is white and gold. I've read all of the explanatory accounts of this disagreement; I still see the colors as white and gold. I also am willing to concede that the "real" dress is, in FACT, contrary to my perceptions, black and blue. Allred calls his position "revolutionary fictionalism," in which we might stipulate it to be the case that any discourse D is only engaged via "pretend-assertions," which conditionally stipulate the Truth- or Reality-claims posited by D, but at the same time considers all subsequent truth/reality/value judgments implied by D as something akin to aesthetic judgments, For Allred, revolutionary fictionalism's merit is that it "bends philosophy away from its normative biases."  And, for what it's worth, I agree with Allred in this regard: if we were to take moral/political value judgments to be of a kind with aesthetic judgments, then philosophy may very well be relieved of its normative biases tout court.

But then aren't we back to McBrayer's problem articulated above?  Are we left with nothing but lazy relativism?

I do not mean to suggest an equation of Allred's revolutionary fictionalism with what I have called "lazy relativism," for the following reason, with which I think (hope!) Allred will be sympathetic: the very activity of discursively working-through the distinction between (what the Common Core calls) "fact and opinion," or the distinction that professional philosophy more or less regularly determines between aesthetic judgments and"value" (i,e,, ethical/political) judgments, can only legitimately be engaged within the frame of an at-least-conditionally stipulated revolutionary fictionalism.  I suspect that some, like myself, will exit that frame at a certain point and want to claim that the "pretend-assertions" granted as such for the sake of discourse are not, in fact, fictional.  But I am inclined to agree with Allred that, without at least entertaining the possibility that some facts are indistinguishable from opinion outside of an agreed-upon frame of reference-- that is to say, outside of a common "light" in which our images (if not also imaginations) of Truth are written and represented-- forces us into a position of universalistic/normative dogmatism or, worse, lazy relativism.

1 comment:

Ammon Allred said...


A quick response and a promise for a longer one when I have more time. First, thanks for your really thoughtful response to what I wrote. I feel so lucky to have friends and colleagues like you who can sometimes force me to see my own position more clearly than I did on my own.
Second, I agree with you that in fact a hard dogmatism about the universality of our judgements is oddly enough closely related to lazy relativism (this is the Hegelian in me, I suspect.). Finally (for now), I'd also read the Stone piece you linked to, and my problem there was that I don't think the alternative is between accepting lazy relativism or moral facts. I take it you don't either. Where I suspect you and I disagree is exactly what we're willing to cede to both positions in carving out a middle ground.