Monday, May 18, 2009

Relativism and "Relativism"
A Very Brief Introduction
Focusing on (a) Cultural Moral Relativism and (b) Anthropological "Cultural Relativism"

I'm posting this because I've got a backlog of things I've wanted to link to, but in each case there's some reference to "relativism" or "cultural relativism" or "moral relativism"...and those terms are used in such a wide variety of ways that they quickly lead people into confusion.

Terminology is good only to the extent that it aids understanding; unfortunately, 'relativism' (and each of its variants) probably does about as much harm as good.

A few simple yet important points:

Philosophers and anthropologists mean very different things by 'relativism' and 'cultural relativism.' Philosophers are often not very clear what they mean, but IMHO, the core of a cleaned-up philosophical account of e.g. cultural moral relativism would be a claim of roughly the following kind:
Action A is morally right =*
Action A is traditional or orthodox.
Now, this is an absolutely lunatic view, but I'm just interested in articulating CMR clearly, not in defending it.

When anthropologists defend "cultural relativism," what they are defending is a very different view, roughly to the effect that one can't or shouldn't make (usually normative or evaluative) judgments about other cultures; or, in a slightly more modest version, that cultures should be understood "on their own terms" (though that's a very unclear and tricky claim). On some plausible interpretations of this claim it's obviously true, on others it's crazy...but, again, I'm not interested in criticizing or defending it here, I'm just interested in articulating it...and noting that it has virtually nothing to do with the position called "relativism" in philosophy. The anthropological position obviously does not entail the philosophical one (since even moral objectivists/realists might endorse the anthropologist's interpretive caution). However, if philosophical relativism (that is, CMR in this case) were true, it might explain why the relevant anthropologists hold that cultures must be understood "on their own terms." That is, if acts were only right or wrong because of the traditions they were associated with, then that seems like it might give us a reason to say that we shouldn't evaluate the acts of individuals in another culture without taking their own traditions into account.

However--and I realize this is all going too fast--CMR doesn't entail anthropological relativism. CMR as sketched above, says that acts are right or wrong in virtue of being traditional (or orthodox, or accepted or whatever). Now, there are many different traditions in many different cultures, and some of them conflict. Advocates of CMR tend to simply assume that traditions have something like cultural or geographical ranges or boundaries. Rather like a watershed or something. So that e.g. my action of eating beans isn't made wrong by the traditions of the Pythagoreans. However, there's nothing built into CMR that automatically makes that so. One possible version of CMR has it that, in order for my act of bean-eating to be wrong, I have to belong to the culture that prohibits it. Another possible version has it that any anti-bean-eating tradition anywhere makes bean-eating wrong everywhere. On the latter view, there may be different "kinds of wrongness"...wrongness(sub Pythagoreans), wrongness(sub us), wrongness(sub 18th-century Maori), etc...but every person is subject to the obligations generated by every culture...even, perhaps, the contradictory ones. (You might object that 'ought' implies 'can'...but according to CMR, there's nothing sacred about that's just one among a vast number of principle...)

One might protest against the latter version like so: the fact that there were some bean-o-phobes 2500 years ago shouldn't matter to me. And that's true. But it rather misses the real point. The real point is this: the fact that there were some bean-o-phobes 2500 years ago cannot constitute the wrongness of your bean-eating. That is, it's not the kind of fact that could--in and of itself--make bean-eating wrong. Which is to say that CMR is daft. Don't focus on the moderately wacky consequences rather than the outright insane core of the theory.

Once you recognize that Pythagorean customs shouldn't matter to how you conduct yourself, you are in a position to recognize that the fact that what your contemporaries and comrades do or believe something also cannot constitute the wrongness of your action. Were everyone around you to begin eschewing bean-eating, that might have all sorts of implications for your actions, but it could not make your acts of bean-eating morally wrong. Lots of people doing something--no matter how ardently, and no matter for how long--cannot make it right--cannot ground its moral status. It's not the right kind of fact to ground moral obligations. Now, living among anti-beanists might make it hard for you to get beans and dangerous for you to eat them...but those are merely prudential matters, very different from making bean-eating morally wrong. You should be cautious about your bean consumption, like people are cautious about, e.g., their marijuana consumption. But it wouldn't be morally wrong.

So reflection on the differences between the view that anthropologists call 'relativism' and the view that philosophers call 'relativism' can lead us to an understanding of why the latter view hasn't a snowball's chance of being true. The anthropological view--though it probably shouldn't be called 'relativism' at all, and though it isn't related to the view that's more properly called 'relativism'--is more likely to be true.

As long as we understand it properly, that is. The anthropological view is a good one to the extent that it's intended to be a rough rule of thumb that means something like "Hey, be cautious and fallibilistic in your attempts to understand other cultures; make sure you really understand their situation and all the details before you judge them to be defective or crazy." On the other hand, it's sometimes taken to mean something more like: we can never justifiably judge another culture to be in any way sub-optimal. Someone from culture 1 can never be in a position to make judgments about someone in culture 2. Now, that view is silly and also doesn't have a chance of being true. And unfortunately, anthropologists often slide incautiously between the two poles. But the former, weaker claim is pretty good methodological advice, given that we humans seem to be natural ethnocentrists. We can overcome it, but that seems to be our default state.

Most people who use the term 'relativism' mean something more like what philosophers mean by the term. We'd probably all be better off if we dumped the term entirely, but since that's not an option, we have to at least be cognizant of the fact that it is used to name extremely disparate positions...including, for example, nihilism, skepticism, fallibilism, doxastic pluralism and social doxastic determinism...but distinguishing relativism from those views will have to wait for another time.

*I use '=' to indicate some not-very-specific equivalence relation. You could replace it with 'iff' if you wanted to.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your definition of moral relativism, with regards to philosophy, seems a bit off to me. I've always taken it to be something along the lines of:

X is morally right iff X is considered/taken to be/judged as morally right in society/culture/group Y.

Just because something is traditional or orthodox doesn't mean it's good or right, according to moral relativism.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, I agree with your first claim and disagree with your second.

X's being traditional or orthodox is roughly the same as its being taken to be right by the culture.

CMR is actually a vague thesis, or a kind of thesis. To the extent that it's identifiable, it says something like: morality is grounded in culture.

So only things that are straightforwardly cultural can be a ground of morality according to CMR.

Now we run into a problem, because *culture* itself is a problematic concept.

I cut the Gordian knot here (but argue at length about this elsewhere) by just presupposing that only things like *the fact that x is traditional* (roughly: that x has been done or accepted over a long period of time) or *the fact that x is orthodox* (roughly (and contentiously) the fact that it's widely accepted now) are really at issue.

They're something like the analogs of acceptance or belief in individuals.

The point of this, incidentally, is that its common for cultural moral "relativists" to pull a bait-and-switch at the last minute and covertly try to pack something already moral/normative into their conception of culture.

So, anyway, as to your second point: yea, cultural moral relativists do seem to think that it's things like being traditional or being orthodox that *make* things morally right.

But once we're down to this level of niggling, we're probably on largely the same page.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Richard Y Chappell said...

Hi Winston, I'm "largely on the same page" too, but would stress a couple of further points:

(1) 'Moral relativism' is often (and, I think, best) used to describe a more radical view on which there aren't any moral prescriptions that apply to us absolutely. Instead, the truth about which moral claims apply to me will vary from person to person, and hence at most be "true for" X, rather than just plain true.

(2) The label 'cultural moral relativism', as applied to the view you describe, is not merely unfortunate because of the ambiguity, but for the more principled reason that it suggests a misleading classification. The view is better described as the "cultural command theory", to bring out its absolutist nature (and commonality with divine command theory).

I expand on these points in this old post.

11:38 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks for the comments, Richard.

I don't exactly agree with either one, but I think both points are within the realm of the reasonable, FWIW.

As for (1):
Aside from the difference about whether the view is about individuals or cultures, what you say is either another way of saying what I said, or it hints at a slightly different and more elaborate alternative theory. Part of what's at issue here is what it means for an obligation to "apply to use absolutely." On the simplest interpretation of CMR, it's just a view that should more properly be called something like "moral culturalism"--it's just the view that obligations are grounded in culture. I may not be obligated to do what e.g. Incas were obligated to do...but then utilitarianism holds that I'm not obligated to do what differently-situated other folks are obligated to do. So part of what's interesting here has to do with figuring out whether that's all CMR means, or whether it's got some fancier kind of non-applicability in mind. The other notable way to cash out the view, I think, is in terms of there being a plurality of most general or highest-level obligations. This isn't the place to go into the full-blown theory, though...

As for (2):
Well, I can't agree with this one at all. The view I articulate is the most central version of relativism. If any view deserves to be called 'relativism,' it's CMR. But you're right that there's an important isomorphism between CMR and the divine command theory. It's funny how rare it used to be recognize that...when I wrote my dissertation, I had to figure it out for myself...but now it seems to be all over the place...

One pervasive problem here, though, is that "relativism" is a disastrous term, used to cover everything from nihilism to fallibilism to social doxastic determinism. It's almost best to chuck the term, lay out an array of well-chosen terms to cover all the relevant positions, then ask how to draw the fuzzy circle that delineates the scope of relativism, such as it is.

These are just late-night sketches of outlines of points, but they adumbrate the stuff I'm trying to do in a more systematic way in the book.

Haven't had a chance to check out your post, but will do so soon.

Thanks very much for the thoughts.

1:21 AM  
Blogger Richard Y Chappell said...

Hmm, let's see if we can clarify the disagreement regarding (2). You claim that "If any view deserves to be called 'relativism,' it's CMR." But I assume that your only ground for saying this is (local) conventional usage: the label 'relativism', when applied to moral theories, has most commonly been applied to CMR.

I don't dispute this claim about historical usage, but I do deny that this makes it a fitting label. Why? Because the word 'relativism' has a more general meaning (cf. truth relativism, Einsteinean relativism, etc.), so we need to assess whether this local use fits with the more general meaning of the term. If it does not, then - I claim - we should instead use 'moral relativism' as a label for the moral view that has features that render it 'relativistic' in the more general sense.

To illustrate, suppose that people had always called CMR 'cultural racism' rather than 'cultural relativism'. This would be a silly label, since the theory doesn't have anything to do with racism as more broadly understood. Someone steeped in this illicit usage might want to insist that if anything deserves to be called 'racism', this does. But they would only say that because they are steeped in the illicit usage, and not taking care to think about the broader meaning of the term, and hence whether it is aptly applied to this case independently of the historical fact that it often has been so (mis)applied. So: it is possible that a local usage is inapt given the broader meaning of a term, and this is something we should take into account when judging whether the local usage is apt. The mere fact that it is the conventional local usage doesn't settle the matter. Do you disagree on this general principle of apt terminology?

If you'll grant the general principle here, then my next step is to apply it to this specific case. I claim that CMR has nothing relevantly in common with the more general meaning of the word 'relativism', and so the label is inapt (again, despite the local common usage). It strongly implies a connection to (e.g.) truth relativism, but this is a sheer philosophical error: there is no such connection. CMR is an objectivist view, no less than utilitarianism or divine command theory. Do you disagree with this more specific, substantive claim about the nature of the view?

[Another way to see bring out my worry is to imagine a Martian learning about human science and philosophy one subfield at a time. They learn about physics, then about truth relativism, and then we come to ethics and CMR. It seems to me that the Martian would naturally respond, "Huh? Why are you calling that relativism?" There just isn't any basis for the label, again independent of the merely historical fact that it has often been (mis)applied to this case.]

3:02 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, of course I don't deny that the term 'relativism' is applied in all sorts of loony ways. Recognizing that, we might conceivably elect to use it in this extremely inclusive way...though that seems wrong to me.

So we're on the same page in that we both accept a kind of revisionism about the term 'relativism.'

But I'm still not seeing why you would think that CMR is not a central case of relativism.

The physics case isn't really relevant, as 'relativism' and 'relativity' are used in very different ways. We might try to unify philosophical usage with the use of the slightly different term in physics, but that's unlikely to work very well.

And, the use of the term 'relativism' in philosophy significantly predates the use of the term 'relativity' in physics. (John Grote first used the term in the mid-19th century...but used it to name a view that sounds a bit like Kant...)

Now, we'd probably agree that Protagorean relativism should be taken as a central case. But CMR is very similar to protagoreanism. In both cases, there is something like a belief or habit (and if you think that beliefs are habits, then we've got a strong similarity) and in both cases some important philosophical property (truth, moral rightness) is supposed to...roughly...supervene on or be grounded in the first thing. (Swoyer calls the former the independent variable, and the latter the dependent variable).

Now if you agree that Protagoras is a relativist, then there are good reasons for agreeing that CMR is relativism. Since that's a well-established and perfectly reasonable usage, we should stick with it.

Now, 'relativism' should almost certainly NOT be used to name the view according to which people or cultures have different (moral or other) beliefs (that's better called something like 'pluralism'), nor the view that there's no such thing as e.g. truth or moral obligations (such views are best called versions of nihilism or eliminativism)...and so forth.

Now, doxastic pluarlism is often referred to as 'descriptive relativism', but, though that's a fairly well-established usage, we shouldn't stick with it because it groups together views which are extremely disparate. But CMR and alethic relativism are very similar--in both cases, something belief- or habit-like is alleged to ground some important property...and in both cases a certain order of dependence is reversed. Belief is normally supposed to be brought into accordance with truth, but according to alethic relativism, truth conforms to belief. Traditions are normally thought of as striving to conform to rightness, but CMR has it that, instead, rightness conforms to tradition. And in both cases, something which must be non-arbitrary in order to have the status we normally think it has, is said to be grounded in something rationally arbitrary (belief or cultural analog of belief, tradition).

So there's no good reason to attempt what would be futile anyway, to stop people from using the term 'cultural moral relativism.'

4:15 PM  
Blogger Richard Y Chappell said...

There was some discussion of the physics analogy in the comments of my linked post.

I take it that in general, a theory is relativistic iff it posits "relative truths" -- truths that only hold relative to a "frame of reference" (or standpoint, or set of standards), of which no one is privileged. Physics is relativistic in this sense, in its treatment of the question whether two events are simultaneous. The question can be answered, but only relative to a frame of reference, and it's not as though there's any further fact of the matter which is the "right" frame of reference in any particular case.

I'm not sure what exactly you have in mind by "Protagorean relativism", so I can't say whether it would qualify according to the above definition or not. (The key thing, on my view, is to distinguish relativism from subjectivism.)

CMR is not in this sense 'relativistic', since it privileges the standpoint of the local culture (whichever that may be). I claim that a truly relativistic view would instead hold that there's no absolute fact of the matter whether even I personally, as a westerner, ought to follow western values. We can say that some particular act of mine is right relative to western standards, and wrong relative to Zulu standards, but there's no further fact of the matter which of the two standards "really applies" to me.

"there is something like a belief or habit (and if you think that beliefs are habits, then we've got a strong similarity) and in both cases some important philosophical property (truth, moral rightness) is supposed to...roughly...supervene on or be grounded in the first thing."

This just sounds like subjectivism: a view about which features of the world (namely, the actor's mental states) make an act right or wrong (or ground truth or whatever). I take it that relativism is instead supposed to be a thesis about the nature, not merely the grounds or content, of morality (or whatever). It's not just about what's true or why, but about the way in which it is true (viz. merely "relatively", rather than absolutely).

Subjective psychological facts may still be absolutely true, after all. There's nothing relativistic about the claim "I like cake." Assess my utterance from wherever you like, and it will still turn out to be true that [RC likes cake]. So you can see it's true in much the same way as the absolute fact that [my desk is wooden]. They are made true by different features of the world, of course (one by my desires, the other by my desk), but the status of the truths is the same in either case: they're absolute.

For another illustrative example, compare coherentist accounts of epistemic justification, according to which S's belief that p is justified iff p coheres with S's other beliefs. This doesn't seem "relativistic", despite the fact that whether a belief is justified depends in a certain way on other beliefs. The reason why it isn't relativistic is because we can specify absolutely the beliefs that are relevant in determining justification in any given case: it is the beliefs of the agent that are privileged. Genuine epistemic relativism instead holds that there's no absolute fact of the matter whether S's belief that p is justified. Maybe it's justified relative to the epistemic standards S accepts, but not relative to mine, and the mere fact that S happens to accept some standards doesn't make them any more privileged.

Now, maybe it isn't worth arguing about terminology. But I think it is very much worth drawing logical space at its joints. So it is worth noting the key feature of the views that I have been calling 'relativistic', and noting that CMR lacks this feature, and so shouldn't be bundled together as belonging to the same class of theories. We need to distinguish absolutist subjectivism (broadly construed) and relativism proper.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks, Richard--all very interesting...will reply in detail asap.

Quickly, though: I suspect we're led down divergent paths here because you take relativity in physics as your paradigm case, whereas I take it to be something like Protagoras's view (and, now contentiously, CMR). Also, you seem primarily concerned to distinguish relativism from subjectivism, whereas there is a large array of views I'm trying to keep it distinct from...but I suppose nihilism is first on the list. I don't have a problem grouping relativism with subjectivism (on some common views about that also controversial position).

One reminder...the post you comment on is a quick-and-dirty approximation of the position I currently and tentatively advocate. I actually think that 'relativism' may very well be ambiguous as between views like Protagoras/CMR and views that look quite a bit like the view you seem to describe above--that there is a plurality of highest-level truths, none of which need be indexed to any person/culture/language/conceptual framework/paradigm/etc. I think I mention this in this post, actually. People tend to think that relativistic obligations have limits (e.g. they stop at the boundaries of the culture...whatever that is...), but nothing in the view demands this. There may be just a vast array of different sets of obligations, all (somehow) binding everyone.

But such a view may deviate rather too far from established usage of the term, but I think it may remain as an open possibility. And, though we obviously want to classify like things with like, if we're going to retain the term 'relativism' at all (a term I'd get rid of if that were a possibility), we ought to keep it linked with at least some of its central uses.

Also: yes, you're exactly right that, on one interpretation (though not all) of my view of CMR, it turns out to be a really normal kind of philosophical view of morality. A dopey one, but a normal one--one that would, in a terminologically better world, be called something like 'moral culturalism.'

Anyway, thanks again for the interesting thoughts, and I'll try to say something detailed and non-rushed as soon as I get a chance...and I *will* get over to read your post soon!

7:23 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Finally got a chance to take a look at your post, which I thought was very good, FWIW.

Forgive me for backing up and ignoring your specific arguments above...we could discuss those if you really wanted to, but that may end up being uninteresting and/or unnecessary.

I can say that we've got a lot of the same balls in the air...identified a lot of the same issues and positions and so forth...which is good. Agreement of that kind is some evidence that we're both onto something least in terms of some relevant distinctions.

In the end, though, I'm not sure how to resolve the disagreement about how to use the term 'relativism'. I've thought about your way of doing it before, but abandoned it largely on the basis of hunches of a kind that don't seem to carry much weight with you...and may be no good for all I know...

One approach I try to take (though I've never discussed it in any systematic way on this blog) is to just lay out a large array of positions that either have been called versions of relativism, or might reasonably be so called. (Then try to give each a decent, unique name...) Then we ask about the reasons for and against each of the interesting propositions.

Now that task seems to me to be the real task here. The question "what is relativism really?" might, in a better world, just be thrown away. If we've got all the relevant positions divided up and clumped together in the right ways, then, given the disaster that is 'relativism', we might just let it fade away, and take an abandonment approach to the terminology, concluding that there's just no fact of the matter about what relativism is. So we'd likely be better off not using the term...

There are a bunch of reasons, though, why we might still have *some* interest in asking something like "ought any of these views be called 'relativism'?" (They're obvious, so I won't enumerate them.)

Suppose we were to have some interest in that question. If so, I don't really see any very good alternative to asking "what are the paradigm examples of relativism that any theory about how the term is used must capture?" Then we say: "Well, to the extent that 'relativism' makes any sense at all, it means something like those paradigm examples. (Though, again, I'm about equidistant between an abandonment approach and a reformist approach to the terminology...)

Now, if I'm reading you correctly, you seem to think:

(a) 'relativism' has a very clear sense


(b) this sense is fixed by relativity theory in physics.

I disagree with both (a) and (b), but before I proceed I should make sure I'm right about those things.

Sorry this is all both fast and long-winded...I'm basically trying to phase blogs (mine and others's) out of my life...

Thanks again for the interesting input.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Richard Y Chappell said...

"Now that task seems to me to be the real task here. The question "what is relativism really?" might, in a better world, just be thrown away."

I'm sympathetic to this. I guess at the back of my mind is the assumption that we lack any better name for the view I've identified. The term 'relativism' just seems uniquely fitting to describe views on which there's no absolute fact of the matter within some domain (but there are relative facts of the matter).

All the other uses, by contrast, can be fruitfully given alternative labels: subjectivism, nihilism, etc.

So we might not really disagree here after all. But here's a possible point of disagreement: you want to say that in common usage, 'relativism' is ambiguous. I would say instead that it is confused; I expect most people think that they are talking about views on which truth is non-absolute or 'relativistic' in the way I've described, but they are mistaken about the philosophical nature of those views. It is this philosophical mistake, I claim, which leads them to apply the term 'relativism' to these other views in the first place. You might disagree with this diagnosis, and just think it is a brute fact that 'relativism' is applied to cultural moralism, and there's not really any reason (mistaken or not) why people adopted this usage.

P.S. I'm not entirely sure how to interpret your (a) and (b). To clarify: I do think that 'relativism' is clearly meant to denote theories that are 'relativistic' in the way I've described (though it isn't always clear to people which theories share this property!), and that special relativity is one especially clear paradigm of a theory that is 'relativistic' in this sense (though I don't think physics is "fixing" the meaning here in any stronger sense than that).

4:14 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Hi Winston,

Interesting blog. I posted on this subject recently:

(It is only tangentially related, as I was more interested in briefly refuting CRM than discussing/clarifying terms.)

Anyway, in a hurry today so may comment further later. I'm still reading through the comments discussion with Richard.

7:51 PM  

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