Saturday, November 18, 2006

What is Relativism?

Anybody have any interest in doing me a favor? If so, here's what you could do: in comments or via e-mail, answer one or both of the following questions:

(a) What is relativism?

(b) What do you think most people think relativism is?

You could address the question(s) generally, or you could address some specific version of relativism, e.g. moral relativism, cultural relativism, alethic relativism (i.e. relativism about truth), or whatever.

I've been piddling around with a book on the subject for quite some time, and have just received a kick in the ass from one of my colleagues, which kick aimed to get me to finish the damn thing. I think it would be informative to get more data about what non-philosophers think the view is.

Don't be shy. This is more like an opinion survey. You won't be graded or anything...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hrm... my basic understanding of the original meaning of relativism was that actions should be judged within cultural and situational contexts - e.g. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, which we'd consider doubleplusungood today, but it was common for a man of his social class in Virginia at that point and history, and shouldn't be grounds for an unequivocal condemnation of the man. Likewise, one might argue that vandalism for the sake of vandalism is a bad thing, but vandalism might also be deployed as a tool of social protest, so again, the context of the action matters.

That said, I think when the word's deployed these days, especially in US political discourse, it's used as a slur that implies that someone "guilty" of relativism has no real understanding of morals at all. To a certain extent you'll see it pop up in rants that follow the basic pattern of "moral relativists condone gay sex, smut disguised as art in our public discourse, and disparage the Bible." More recently, though, I've seen it used more to attack non-hawks in the WoT - that a moral relativist would attack the US for taking tough action against terrorists, and sympathize with Palestinian terrorists, etc., etc. And because that's the direction the word's been taken in, I tend to avoid using it at all, even when I'm trying to get across the original meaning of the word.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the vandalism example counts as relativism, because it's not aimed at a cultural thing. With vandalism as social protest, the same action by a single person can be interpreted both as a postive or negative act according to his motivation. It's the difference between murder and self-defense after all, which certainly should not be included in the 'cultural relativism' class.

As for Thomas Jefferson, he didn't think slavery was morally sound either. And I don't think cultural relativism matters very much when applied historically, since it can't cause any harm.

Cultural relativism involves making excuses for (current) violations of a universal right or for socially motivated lies about a well-established truth. (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness is a good place to start.)

Examples include:
* Making excuses for "Intelligent Design" hucksters because it's a "religious belief."
* Making excuses for Taliban neanderthals for stoning women who don't wear Burqahs or who blow up 2500 year old statues as idolatry. (Look where that one got us in the long run...)

I don't know if Donald Rumsfeld was guilty when he said "Democracy is messy" when Iraq's history was being openly looted.


8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moral relativism is nothing more than a recognition of context, choices, possible outcomes, and desirable outcomes. It is, in short, a method of analysis that starts with the idea that things are fluid, and a variety of considerations must be accounted for, and that mistakes will happen, but also that mistakes are instructive and not a moral failure.

The alternative is to start with fundamental "right or wrong" ideas and then lie and equivocate while adopting the method of analysis stated above. However, instead of using the "right or wrong" statement as a position to start thinking about complicated issues, the statement is instead used as incontrovertible proof that the "right wrong" dichotomy is the appropriate way to address the pending complicated situation.

Put another way, moral relativism recognizes that context requires an ongoing assessment of what is right and wrong. In doing so, it creates an ad hoc series of moral determinations based upon conflicting theories. Torture is a priori wrong. Punishment for crimes committed migh be approached with a consequentalist framing, tax policy is uh, complicated.

On the other hand, "absolutists" engage in the same type of mix and match, but fail to acknowledge this. Thus, torture is viewed in a consequentialist way, capital punishment is a priori deserved in certain crimes, and tax policy is, uh, complicated.

Relativism is wishy washy and emotionally unsatisfying. Abolutism is wishy washt and emotionally those who place their own perception of "right" above the question of whether the question might not have a right or wrong answer, but instead requires experience, intellect, and the willingness to try something...knowing that trying something might prove to be wrong, or at least disastrous. The next step is to change (relativism), or explain why the facts are wrong, not the rightness or wrongness (absolutism).

Off the cuff, being a relativist, I will happily revisit any and all premises and conccusions.

5:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As to part b.

Relativism is what those who disagree with me feel without the "proper" underlying principles that I know are inviolate and therefore prove I am right. In short, those who lack my moral certitude on any given issue are relativists.

This, I think, is what most people think of relativism.

5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a. Relativism is an analytical method that ascribes importance to extrinsic contextual facts in reaching judgments about specific questions.

b. Most people think relativism is a permissive moral philosophy that approves any behavior because a context can always be created where a given behavior, however heinous it may sound in the abstract, can be justified.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks. keep 'em comin'.

12:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think DLev and I are somewhat on th same page. Relativism is a perjorative label, as it means the person is adopting a moral view based upon inconvenient realities.

The argument goes...given inconenient realities, people abandon "real" moral beliefs for "relative" moral beliefs.

This attitude ignores the people being killed, tortured, etc. In the worst instances, it allows people who are "relativists" in the sense DLev and I explain to then start using the term "relativist" to definte their weak-kneed appeaser opponents.

As a bit of an anectdote, I believe W. Smith has sympathy for the "ticking bomb" hypothetical as an argument when it comes to torture.

I do not (and my apologies for any mischaracterization of W. Smith's position). That said, I am certain that I employ such scenarios in other moral arguments that I make.

Are we both relativists? Are neither of us? Is one an "admitted" relativist (take your pick)?

Who knows. The categorical imperative is fun when I like it, not so much when I don't. Same goes for consequentialism. Other, more nuanced views are always in danger of being "relative." In the same way "liberal" is tossed around, so too the "r" word.

My choice is to embrace both labels. This does not help W. Smith except as to point out that it is a label more than anything...not a school of thought, or even a coherent approach to thought. It is a label. That said, I'm not sure whether it is easier to denounce a label than it is to define it in more positive terms. Liberal is a dirty word....conservative might displace it. (OK, I suppose that means defining the anti-label in even worst terms than your own chosen label is currently defined).

In all seriousness, I have not read Lakoff, but I presume that his whole schtick, at least in the descriptive sense, probably plays along these lines.

So....relativism is a label that defines, apparently, moral opportunists, but in reality is pretty much defining of all folks, as no moral label really works to describe a position these days better than relativism. At least no mildly rational position that acknowledges that reality happens regardless of our plans and intentions, no matter how well-meaning.

12:13 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I didn't think anyone admitted to being a relativist anymore.

The core question of philosophy is, what is good? A relativist would answer, that all depends.

But I do not think people think that way. Certainly any nexus between relativism and liberalism cannot truly exist---the decision is made in absolute terms that for instance and per the above example, abjuring torture is an absolute good, regardless of whether it could save lives.

And the modern conservative might see it in the converse; regardless, one values x more than y, or the other way around. I agree with Mr. Funk that "relativism" is an unhelpful label, and somewhat with DLev's drafting of an a) and b), in that wisdom is tacit in a) and our universal hypocrisy in b).

Because we all have our absolutes, relatively speaking.

2:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Relativism is whatever I say it is. Of course, it's also whatever anyone else says it is.


The question is: relative to what? DLev's dictionary definition is a good starting point. What facts are extrinsic?

Even so-called absolutists believe that circumstances matter. Despite the unexcepted prohibition of "thou shalt not kill", they make exceptions for self-defense, and most or many make exceptions for war and capital punishment. (There are peaceniks and monks who don't make these exceptions.)

Relativists believe that the actor can matter, too. Everyone (besides the occasional rule-proving nutcase) shares this view at the boundary - children are not held accountable for fully developed moral responsibility.

What absolutists fear in this relativist belief is the erosion of responsibility in Twinkie defenses and the acceptance of ever lamer excuses. Often, they want the punks punished, and goddamn the consequences. If a year in prison is more expensive than a year at Harvard or much more expensive than rehab, they think there's a moral imperative to buy the cell (or the lethal injection) even if that means discarding the remaining value, realized or potential, in the (bad!) actor.

Those of us whom absolutists often insult as relativists, on the other hand, have at times failed to accomplish what we would desire in rehabilitation. We have learned in time that too much latitude or too much mercy can teach the opposite lesson from the one we intended, that they can harden the heart instead of softening it.

The paradox of American politics in 2006 is that the Bushists claim to be absolutists ("moral clarity"), when in fact they are arrant relativists - and of the worst kind. For them, IOKIYAR is the "principle", especially if you sustain Duhbya's desire for authoritarian rule. For some reason, Christian conservatives cannot see the tatters that their so-called Christian President makes of the Ten Commandments, which they profess to care about. In contrast, they admire the Constitution only as Scalia-fixated absolutist scripture, not the relativist document it really is.

Still, even if the absolutist reaction to the 21st century is to claim that the Constitution codifies the 1780s into an ill-fitting garment for today (much as they claim the "literal" Bible codifies its prescientific context as all that we are fit to know), I can't understand any logic by which they can ignore Duhbya's violations of their core principles.

That hypocrisy and tolerance of hypocrisy makes me think that the absolutists are really relativists after all, that if you're in their in group, you're golden and all will be forgiven. If you're not, you're evil, and you're going to hell for eternal torment. In the end, only the consequences are absolute.

12:45 PM  

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