Monday, May 25, 2009

Relativism Again

So comments, e-mails, and in-person reactions to this post have convinced me--rather I should say reminded me of--something. And that is: one shouldn't simplify things about the relativism debate, especially in contentious ways! Lord knows the debate is enough of a disaster as it is. So I appreciate the harassment about it, and regret my slackness.

The point of the post in question was to distinguish relativism in philosophy from relativism in anthropology. There are several different versions of the latter view, but to...wait for it...simplify for blog-purposes, it's roughly the view that we should see or judge other cultures "on their own terms." This can mean, roughly: don't judge them too quickly, or it can mean something more like: we're never in an epistemic position to judge them at all. Unsurprisingly, the weaker claim is more easily-defended.

In that recent post, I said that cultural moral relativism is the view according to which:
Action A is morally right =*
Action A is traditional or orthodox.
Now, that's a very contentious super-simplification, and several people have (rightly) expressed unhappiness with it.

The telling of even just my take on the full story would take years and cost thousands of lives, so it's not really bloggy material, but I'm plagued with guilt about contributing to the confusion here, so let me say what at least part (necessarily a rather small part) of the story looks like to me. (I'm casting this again largely in terms of moral relativism, but ethics is not particularly my there are likely to be more raggedy edges than usual... Perhaps needless to say, there are also alethic versions of relativism, versions in which the dependent variable is epistemic justification, and some other notables.)

The view expressed above is really to sketchy to live. It is, in particular, ambiguous as between a couple of very different views, the most salient of which are probably roughly these two (again, I'm shortening and simplifying...perhaps at my peril...):

1. There is something like a general or universal principle according to which one ought to do what's (to simplify...) traditional/orthodox/accepted in one's culture.

2. Principles of moral rightness spring out of/supervene on/are grounded in something cultural say (simplifying again...) traditions. Each culture/tradition somehow grounds or produces its own moral principles. Roughly: principles supervene on cultural facts.

I ran the two together because they are similar in many ways (for example they have basically the same moral consequences), because many advocates of moral relativism are unclear which of the two views they advocate, and because, consequently, both might reasonably be called versions of relativism.

Now, my current view is that 2 is something close to relativism proper (to the extent that there is any such thing...), whereas 1 is a version of a view that, in print, I've called "quasi-relativism" and "moral culturalism." I don't think quasi-relativism ought to count as a version of relativism, but I suspect that I've got fairly persnickety inclinations, so I've been willing to loosen up my view on that point.

However, even the above is somewhat contentious, and I should note that there are several other plausible characterizations of the view that make sense. Here are just a few notable examples:

3. There is a plurality of maximally-general moral principles. (Perhaps The principles are not in any way grounded in/supervenient upon cultural facts, facts about individual psychology, nor any such thing.)

4. There are no universal or objective moral principles.

5. To be well-formed, every claim of the form 'S is obligated to do A' must come with a qualifier/subscript/"for" clause. (Roughly: 'S is obligated to do A' is not well-formed, but e.g. 'S is obligated(sub C) to do A' is well-formed.)

[6. There are different types of moral obligations.
(This may or may not be an aspect of 2...and, though I'm leaving out lots of alternatives and sub-alternatives, I thought I ought to include this one. What does it mean? Aye, carumba, that's a whole big thing right there. Let's leave it as something suggestive for now, and maybe dive into it later...)]

(Yargh. Let me say again that this is a sketchy, partial picture...but I've got actual work to do!)

Briefly consider 4: That's a very common type of characterization of relativism, but I'm skeptical of it because it fails to distinguish relativism from nihilism. Moral nihilism is the view that there are no (genuine, real, or non-fictive) moral obligations; alethic nihilism is the view that there are no truths. And so on.

My hunch is that what's crucial to relativism is the positive claim, roughly:
There are relative obligations (whatever that means)
Rather than the negative claim:

There are no non-relative obligations.
However, I think it's sensible to think of relativism as a complex view to the effect that (a) there are "relative" obligations and there are no objective ones. That probably captures the spirit of the thing best. My own tentative view here, though, is that thought-expriments suggest that, should the two claims pull apart, we'd be more inclined to call the positive claim by itself relativism than we would be to call the negative claim by itself relativism.

I'm also tentatively inclined to think that it's sub-optimal to call 3 relativism, and that because, well, nothing's relative to anything according to that claim. That's a view I'm inclined to classify as a version of normative pluralism, but not as relativism. But, again, I can easily see this going the other way, and I don't have that much interest in the terminological dispute...I just don't think that's the kind of view that's generally been at issue.

Whew, o.k.. That's fast and sketchy, but my conscience is pestering me a bit less now.

The really crucial things to realize are these, by my lights:

It's crucial to distinguish relativism from nihilism. It's also important to distinguish it from skepticism, fallibilism, various kinds of diversity claims to the effect that people believe different things or cultures differ, social doxastic determinism of the kind discussed in the so-called strong program in the sociology of "knowledge" (better called; the sociology of belief), and a few other positions I'll skip here.

O.k., don't take any of that as gospel, needless to say...

(Sidebar...or bottom-bar...:my own view of the terminological matter is something like this:
I would like to get the views divided up and clumped together in ways that reflect real/important similarities and differences. I'm less concerned about providing some kind of analysis of the term 'relativism'. My current preferred view on the matter is that the optimal approach might be to articulate the array of relevant views in the vicinity, develop a non-sucky nomenclature, and investigate the interesting views. 'Relativism' could be abandoned entirely. (Actually, that's a very slight overstatement of the case, as you can tell from the above...))

[You might want to check out commenter Richard for another view of the matter--one of many views with which I don't agree, but which I think plausible, ergo worth attention.]


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