Thursday, May 28, 2009

One Way to Understand Relativism:
Relativism and Nihilism

I suppose I've gone on about this here before, but it seems to me that, if you want to make some sense of the various relativism debates, you have to treat the distinction between relativism and nihilism as in some sense central.

When people say or read claims like (taking cultural moral relativism as our example):

(CMR) Morality is relative to culture

or, more specifically:

(CMRo) Moral obligations are relative to culture,

They have a natural and reasonable inclination to

interpret them as an expression of moral nihilism, meaning:

(CMN) Morality is not real; it is a culturally-sustained fiction

or, more specifically:

(CMNo) Moral obligations are not real; rather, they are culturally-sustained fictions.

But there is a vast difference between the two sets of claims. The prima facie meaning of (CMRo) is something like:

Moral obligations are real/genuine; and they are relative to culture.

So construed, relativism contrasts with nihilism; it is in a certain sense on the side of realism: it holds that moral obligations are non-fictional. They're the real thing. (Though they have a funky nature...)

And--according to me, anyway--the best (inter alia: most natural) interpretation of claims like:

x is relative to y

is something like:

x is grounded in y


x supervenes on y


y is the truth-maker for x.

Thus "moral obligations are relative to culture"...which, changing nothing significant, but restating to make the grammar come out right, is equivalent to "moral obligations are relative to cultural facts" best interpreted as meaning something like:

(R) Moral obligations are grounded in (or supervenient upon) cultural facts.

On this way of looking at things, what is central to relativism is a certain kind of dependency claim. The central aspect of CMR is the claim that morality depends on culture. That is: truths or facts about morality depend on truths or facts about culture. Relativism, so construed, is not the view that there are no moral truths or facts.

If we take the dependency claim as central to relativism, then we see that the famous plurality claims are peripheral to the view. Take CMR again, which is often associated with a descriptive and a normative plurality claim. Descriptively, we note that there are many cultures, which relevantly disagree. Add the dependency claim, and you get the normative plurality claim, that there are many conflicting (systems of?) moral obligations. Difference in culture + the claim that morality depends on culture --> differences in morality. But there needn't be more than one culture, and some day there may be just one. If we take either of the plurality claims as definitive of CMR, then when the second-to-last culture dies out, we'd have to say that CMR has become false! Then some version of objectivism would be true! But that's clearly not right. If morality is dependent on culture, then CMR is true no matter how many cultures there are. Including: one. If CMR is ever true, then it's always true, even if there is only one culture. (Even if there's none...but that raises other problems...) The depency claim is central; the notorious normative plurality claim is merely a consequence of the conjunction of the dependency claim with the descriptive plurality claim.

Another thing about looking at things this way: the head-spinny nature of relativism is to some extent mitigated. It's just another philosophical view about what grounds moral obligation. Utilitarians think it's facts about happiness; cultural moral relativists think it's facts about culture. But there's nothing all that weird about relativism. It's false...but it's not a completely different kind of view.

But wait, isn't it well-known that relativists think there's a confusion involved in making non-relativised claims? Like e.g. "Jones shouldn't lie to Smith"? Doesn't the CMRist think that we ought really to say things like "Jones shouldn't(C) lie to Smith?" Roughly: it's wrong in culture C for Jones to lie to Smith. Well, it's plausible to construe CMR as the view that cultural facts are morally salient facts. According to CMR, perhaps Jones shouldn't lie to Smith if they belong to a culture that rejects lying. But that's analogous to a case in which utilitarianism rules against lying in because it will have overall worse consequences in those circumstances. In both cases the obligation obtains only given that certain other contingent, morally-relevant facts obtain. In both cases the obligation is limited. So in some sense this localized feature of obligations--specific obligations, anyway--is preserved...but again, it's a feature of at least some normal, non-relativistic theories.

On this construal, it'd probably better to call CMR "moral culturalism," actually.

This view doesn't capture all of the features normally attributed to relativism in general and CMR in particular, but it captures many of them. We also normally think of the CMRist as denying that there are any more general obligations from which our obligations to obey our culture spring. If we insist on preserving that feature of the view, things do look rather different...though I think there are difficulties involved in distinguishing the two views, actually. But that's a long story.

But you needn't buy the claim that CMR is really just moral culturalism in order to buy the more general (and I think more important and less-controversial) point above: that you have to treat the relativism/nihilism distinction as central.

Finally, I said above that people tend naturally to interpret relativism as nihilism, e.g. to interpret (CMRo) as (CMNo). This is natural, I conjecture, because people do recognize the centrality of the dependency claim to the theory--they recognize that CMR is saying that morality is grounded in culture. But they also recognize that mere culture per se--roughly: mere tradition--cannot ground moral obligations (nor epistemic ones, nor truth). They recognize that, if nothing more substantial than cultural agreement underlies putative moral obligations, then moral obligations are unsupported--they have no rational force, no genuine authority. And that is nihilism. So relativism is an unstable position, which degenerates into nihilism. And that's why people so often interpret (CMR) as meaning (CMN)--they skip the intermediate steps and go straight for the nihilism.

O.k., that's radically oversimplified, but I think there's truth in it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

More posts like this, please. Politically you're unctuous and stupid but this is good stuff.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Aw, A, coming from you, I take that as high praise.

Er, the second bit, I mean...

12:22 PM  

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