Saturday, July 7, 2012

What relativism isn’t

Moving from a pure philosophy environment to the social sciences and law can be a disconcerting experience. One of the first things that I had to get my head around is the significance of relativism and postmodernism in these domains. Of course, both relativism and to a lesser extent postmodernism are found in philosophy departments, but they do not amount to orthodoxy. Then there was the perplexing assumption that, because I am a philosopher, I must be a relativist or postmodernist. The idea that one could have deep-seated philosophical reservations about these positions was not one they had hitherto confronted in any sustained way. Finally, there was the issue of what exactly they thought relativism amounted to. It seems to me there can be a lot of confusion about this question, and it is the one I want to discuss today.

The title of this blog echoes an excellent 1998 article by William Max Knorpp, Jr., which I highly recommend. However, Knorpp’s treatment is quite technical and at points heavy going, and so I think the basic points are worth explaining and augmenting in a more informal manner.

Here goes:

To begin, relativism is roughly speaking the view that some (perhaps all) facts, truths or claims are relative to a particular standpoint, person or society. It is contrasted with objectivism, which holds that facts, truths and claims can be true or false in an objective sense – that is, in some sense independently of the perspective taken. They are true or false because of how the world actually is, and not (merely) because of how the world is understood by the person or community. An immediate complexity is, of course, that at least some facts are definitely relative. What counts as etiquette in a given society is plainly constructed by that society, and so any claims about proper polite behaviour must be relativized to a particular community. Equally, it is arguable that some facts must be objective – at the very least, one might think, the fact that all (other) truths are relative must itself be an objective fact, if relativism is to be accepted. If it is only a relative fact, then it does not foreclose the possibility that there really are objective facts out there, and the relativist is only telling us something about their own perspective and not something about facts in general. Potential paradoxes loom here, but these are not the focus of this blog. Here I only want to distinguish relativism, so understood, from a host of quite different views with which it can be confused, and which are sometimes (mistakenly) marshalled in support of it.

First, and most emphatically, relativism is not falliblism. Falliblism is the awareness that one’s beliefs may be mistaken, and is associated with having an open mind to weaknesses in one’s own position, and to the possibility that opposing positions or new perspectives may ultimately turn out to be correct. Far from fallibilism being opposed to objectivism, on the usual understanding fallibilism requires objectivism. The fallibilist is someone who is concerned that their beliefs may be mistaken – that they do not accord with the way the world actually is. The relativist has no such concern – the relativist is not worried their beliefs, or the beliefs of their society, may be false, because there is no test for falsity independent of their own perspective, or that of their society. It is impossible, for any given belief X, that they are wrong about X and another society is right in believing not-X, because there is no standard (such as an independently existing world) that for the relativist can substantiate such cross-cultural rightness and wrongness. Fallibilism is opposed to dogmatism, which is a fervent belief that one is right and a consequent unwillingness to consider criticism of one’s own views or the attraction of alternative perspectives. It is of course possible to be a dogmatist about one’s belief in objectivism (‘relativism is so patently false it is not even worth thinking about’), and equally about one’s belief in relativism (‘objectivism is sooo modernist and last century’).

The same follows for being critical. Relativism does not provide a standpoint with which our society’s values can rightly be judged. It denies the existence of any such standpoint. If we have relative-to-us values of critical thought, then we will of course use them. If not, then not. The person who rationally critiques her own views and her own society has her own relative values, and the person who blindly accepts everything his society tells them has his own relative views. Nothing more can be said by the relativist. Relativism provides no resources whatsoever for recommending the former over the latter, and no reason for the latter to think they should become more like the former.

Second, relativism is not scepticism. Scepticism about a belief is the view that we have important reasons to doubt that belief. Philosophical scepticism is of a stronger stripe than ordinary scepticism; it usually entails the view that we have important reasons to doubt widely accepted views about, say, the existence of the world or of other minds. Scepticism does not say that the truth of a belief is relative to the standard of the believer or her community, it says that the belief’s truth is unknowable. Scepticism has objectivist roots. It claims that there are objective standards about what justifies belief and that because these standards are not and cannot be met, we are required to doubt what hitherto were seen as common-sense beliefs. If standards for belief were relative, then scepticism would not be justified in any such blanket or over-arching sense. Each society would have different standards for belief, and some of them would be justified by their own standards in holding their beliefs.

Third, relativism is not pluralism. Pluralism is roughly speaking the position that diversity and individuality (of perspectives, ways of life, societies etc) are good things. On the ordinary understanding, pluralism is an objective moral viewpoint; it says that such diversity is, objectively speaking, something to be valued and facilitated. It says that, objectively speaking, very different life-plans are worthwhile, and that something profound would be lost if each person were cut to the same mould. John Stuart Mill is the best example of an objectivist (in this case a utilitarian) mounting a case for pluralism. But this is not to say that a relativist cannot be a pluralist. For instance, if Bob’s society happens to value pluralism, and has constructed it as a value for him, then Bob will be pluralist. There is however no conceptual link between relativism and pluralism. From the claim that all viewpoints are equally true and valid (because there is no over-arching objective standard from which to judge them) it does not follow that we ought to respect them all equally. No such over-arching ‘ought’ can possibly be justified by relativism because no over-arching ‘ought’ can be justified by relativism period. All that follows from relativism is that we will do what our relative values require of us. Perhaps we will be born and inculcated into a pluralist society, in which case we will be pluralist. Or perhaps we will be born and inculcated into Nazi Germany, in which case we will not.

Inter-relatedly, relativism is not about tolerance. Many undergraduates in ethics courses in my experience often say that we should be relativist because to do otherwise is to be intolerant (or arrogant, etc). It is hard to credit this argument. If tolerance is objectively a good thing, then the argument is contradictory, for it posits an objective value as a basis for believing a relativist conclusion. If tolerance is only relatively a good thing, then the argument simply begs the question, by implying a relativist conclusion through the assertion of a relativist premise.

In any case, from the fact that our views are not objectively correct it does not follow that we ought not impose them on others, forcefully if we desire. As observed above, no such over-arching ‘ought’ can be derived from relativism. We will act on our culturally-relative views because there is nothing else we can do. If those views are invasive, fundamentalist, belligerent and colonialist, then so be it. For the relativist there is no objective value of tolerance that stands in our way.

Inter-relatedly again, relativism is not necessarily a way of respecting the beliefs of other peoples and cultures. To be sure, relativism is an improvement on parochial dogmatism, which will aver that on every point of dispute, our culture is right and other cultures are wrong. But relativism still has something to say about the views of other cultures – namely, that they are relative to that culture. If the culture believes that X really exists, as an objective fact about the world, then the relativist will think the culture is mistaken in representing their beliefs as objectively true. For people from that culture, someone declaiming that no objective facts whatsoever exist may be perceived as far more demeaning than someone agreeing that objective facts do exist, but arguing that their specific belief in X is objectively wrong.

To conclude, none of this is to say that relativism is  wrong (objectively wrong?). The point is merely to be clear about what relativism is. All too often, fallibilist, sceptical or pluralist arguments are made, and then relativist conclusions appear. To the contrary, fallibilism, scepticism and pluralism are not only distinct from  relativism, they are often directly and conceptually linked to objective standpoints. 

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