Saturday, May 06, 2006

Relativism and Opinion

TMK asks:
So could a relativist then acknowledge the complexity of his belief structures, and using that acknowledgment as a basis, admit to being wrong in an instance where he felt guilt? Sort of a nuanced relativism? -- Do relativists not accept the concept of bad faith?

I have always sort of unreflectively assumed I am a relativist -- after all I'm a liberal and an unbeliever, everyone tells me liberals and the irreligious are supposed to be relativists. But I have not really delved into what the label denotes.
The simplest definition of relativism is "The belief that ethical statements are only true or false in the context of some group that takes them to be true or false." This is more exactly known as cultural relativism. It implies that whenever one says that something is wrong, one must add "for the So and So." Thus female genital mutilation is wrong for the Americans but OK for the Massai. The implication is that the thing you are talking about is wrong only because the people in question think it is wrong, and if they just thought it was right, it would be ok.

Relativism belongs to a larger class of beliefs which Gil Harmon has dubbed "ethical nihilism." The club includes subjectivism, which is like relativism only it uses personal belief instead of cultural belief. It also includes the claim that all ethical statements are meaningless and the claim that they are all false (since there is no such thing as right and wrong.)

Relativism and subjectivism, as we philosophers define them, have little room for conflicted individuals or complex cultures, because the truth of an ethical statement depends solely on the ruling of the culture or individual.

Relativism, when stated this flatly, sounds completely daft. Why would anyone think such a thing? But there are a number of forces at work in pluralist and capitalist societies that push people towards believing it. The pluralist drive behind relativism is essentially noble. People think they must be relativists to be tolerant of other cultures. Relativism makes it easy to look at your neighbor's strange customs and laughing blue god and say "well, that's just how they do things."

Relativism is also promoted, in a more pernicious way, by capitalism. Capitalism encourages us to think of everything in economic terms. But in economic theory, every decision that is not purely monetary is a preference. If I decide to by chocolate instead of vanilla ice cream, that is a preference. If I decide to by a Hummer instead of a hybrid, that is a preference. If I decide to give all my money to terrorists, that is a preference. There is no difference between values and preferences in capitalism. (This is what makes the Republican party such a paradox. It combines the most pompous moralizers, the people who view their every whim as a value that everyone else must follow, with the most amoral sharks, people for whom there are no values at all.)

Although most liberals are led to relativism to promote tolerance, relativism is the enemy of tolerance. Relativism blocks conversation between cultures. It only allows for "you go your way, I'll go mine." When a real conflict arises, say over resources, there is no common language to resolve differences, thus leading to war.

Relativism is also the enemy of feminism. For starters, many practices that get a pass from the relativist--female genital mutilation, sati, Sharia--are specifically tools for the oppression of women. Also, by viewing cultures as monolithic, relativism shuts out women's voices. If there is a resistance movement in a culture, their goals are simply wrong, because right and wrong are defined by what the culture believes.

As a philosophy teacher, I have to deal with a specific version of relativism which the industry has come to call "student relativism." The student relativist uses relativism to rationalize not having to think seriously about the material in the course. If I present an ethical problem, the student will declare that it is just a “matter of opinion.” No one can say if euthanasia is ok. That is a matter of opinion. If a scientist teacher announces, though, that the speed of light is 300,000 meters per second that is not an opinion, that is a fact.

The problem is that everyone has the idea drilled into their heads that a fact is the opposite of an opinion. (I blame journalism especially for this.) Look, an opinion is a belief. Both the scientist and the ethicist have beliefs. Beliefs can be justified or unjustified, and true or false. The belief that the speed of light is 300,000 kilometers per second is eminently justified and almost certainly true. The belief that Sati is wrong is at least as justified, and at least as likely to be true. Beliefs are not opposed to facts. Facts are features of the world. Beliefs are mental structures that attempt to mirror facts, or at least provide simplified representations of them. The opposite of a fact is not an opinion or a belief. It is a way the world could be but isn’t.

Really I have two lessons I teach: (1) A theory is not a unconfirmed fact and (2) ethical statements can be true or false. These two lessons are related, because once you get over saying “it’s just a theory” you will also get over saying “ethics is all a matter of opinion.”


Anonymous said...

"The belief that the speed of light is 300,000 meters per second is eminently justified and almost certainly true."

LOL! Thanks for demonstrating that facts can be *false* - that should be kilometers, not meters!

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

fixed, thanks

Anonymous said...

I think your observation and distinction between opinions and the opposite of facts is well stated.

You did leave your relativistic position open-ended and also eluded to the fact that morals are actually real and that we should be following them.

That is the claim I got out of your article, and I'm not quite sure how the 2 make sense together.

'good and bad' would still be relative. But some 'opinions' consequences would be more agreeable. But to say something is wrong, is illogical, etc. etc.
Tons is written on this point.