Sunday, March 23, 2008

A case for relativism by Giovanni De Grandis

A case for relativism
by Giovanni De Grandis - Saturday, 22 March 2008, 02:56 PM. Reproduced with permission.

my highlights in green - but a quick first read does not do this justice.

Here I offer an analysis of Pojman’s objections against relativism and a possible relativist rejoinder.
(L Pojman, Introduction to Philosophy, ed. 4, pg 540, Ethical Relativism versus Ethical Objectivism)

(i) The first, the oldest and the most common is a version of the argument that if everything is relative, then nothing is true, not even relativism. Here (p. 493, lc) the argument takes the following form: if moral principles are culturally relative where does a transcultural principle of tolerance come from?

Since there is not a universal culture it seems that there cannot be a universal moral principle universally accepted and therefore valid. That seems a sound way of reasoning, yet I think that one may still have the impression that there is something about the connection between relativism and tolerance. Can we articulate such an intuition so that it can resist the argument? I think that there is chance that we can do something to help the relativist. After all he is not saying everything goes, but he is saying that there is a plurality of moral principles that are valid, but only locally. To put it another way, moral codes are parts of ways of life and each of them apply only to those people who belong to the corresponding way of life. Tolerance can therefore be seen not as a super moral principle of universal validity, but more modestly as the application to each individual or community of only one of the many existing moral codes, but not one chosen at random, rather the one that they know, understand and accept rather than one they ignore, or find incomprehensible or alien. After all when someone utters a sentence we do not decide to interpret the meaning of these sounds in a randomly chosen language, but we interpret them according to the rules of the speaker’s language. Is this a strange and objectionable moral principle or it just a piece of basic good sense? The same apply at the legal level: if I commit a murder in France I will be judged by a French tribunal according to the French laws. If I play football I will have to follow the rules of football and not those of rugby or volleyball. Toleration then can be seen not as a further superior moral rule, but as a simple rule of pertinence that reminds us of which are the bounds of validity of every moral value or principle. Tolerance is simply the ability of telling when we are passing from the sphere of legitimate validity of a moral system to that of another. Another legal analogy may here be useful. In legal systems there are not only the firsst order rules (those that say what is mandatory and what is forbidden) but there are also different kinds of second order rules that establish how we recognize, change, enforce etc. first order rules. According to this analogy tolerance can be likened to a rule of recognition, in particular a rule that sets and makes explicit the limits of the sphere of application of each moral value or principle. So tolerance is not a new overriding moral principle, rather it is the ability to see the realm of validity of the various existing moral codes: it does not add to them, it just makes explicit what their limits are; it is an interpretive skill, not a moral principle.

This defence gains further force if we keep in mind that according to Pojman relativism includes the dependency thesis (p. 491), which implies that it is the social acceptance of moral principles that justifies their validity, and this can be seen as a consent theory of moral validity: no moral principle holds among people who have not acknowledged it and agreed to it. From this principle it follows that no moral principle has authority upon those who do not recognize and accept it, hence they cannot be judged according to principles that do not apply to them. If the normative force comes from consent then it is perfectly consistent to conclude that where consent to a norm is not holding the norm is not obtaining and is no legitimate criterion of judgment. Tolerance simply acknowledges this fact. Intolerant people can be criticized as unable to realize what are the limits of applications of any moral norm. Like someone who wanted to apply the rules of football on a rugby pitch, the intolerants would be someone who has failed to understand the (formal and procedural) rules that govern the application of a principle. The relativist cannot say that the intolerant is wicked or evil, but can accuse her/him of being incompetent.

The consent principle of moral validity is of course very contentious and has some unwelcome implications (we will come to them soon). However, it also has some merits: first it resembles very closely the democratic principle of political legitimacy according to which it is the consent of the majority of citizens that authorizes and makes legitimate the authority of the government and the parliament. Second, it does not need to invoke any misterious super natural source of moral authority, and it does not require either any misterious faculty to be able to grasp universal moral truths. So it looks that this principle has at least the advantage of being in tune with the spirit of our democratic age and that it satisfies the principle of simplicity (Ockham’s razor) better than many objectivist competitors.

(ii) The second criticism raised by Pojman is again a standard objection agaisnt conventionalism. If every moral code accepted by a social group is valid how can we possibly criticize it? Is it plausible that we have to tolerate the nazis or other peoples with aggressive, violent, racist moral codes? This looks like a serious problem. However, let’s try to approach it from a slightly different angle.

Imagine that a neighbouring people have a horrible (in our judgment) morality: they are a warrior nation, aggressive, ruthless, with no aversion to violence and no commitment to limit human pain and suffering. Suppose further that they and we are people of more or less the same military force, so that neither can easily overcome the other. Now you have a well-founded suspicion that they are about to attack you. What are you going to do? Are you planning to send there a delegation of moral philosophers that will explain why their morality is wicked and perverted? Imagine that, surprisingly, they accept to listen to your moralizers. After having heard a eulogy of peace, respect, tolerance, and further about the advantages of good relations between neighbors, commerce, prosperity and economic growth they answer in the following way:

“What are you talking about? Really, we cannot even begin to understand you. Are you kidding or are you pulling our leg? You come here and tell us that we should stop being ourselves, that the way we live is all wrong, that we are blind to real goodness and, as it were, mad. You are saying that if we become like you then we will be able to live together in peace and to enjoy both our existence. But what if we were to ask you to become like us, to appreciate the courage, the inner strength, the spirit of self-sacrifice and denial, the awareness of the unforgiveness and ruthlessness of life on earth. What if we were telling you that if you engage in war with us it would be for our mutual benefit, that only through a struggle for survival and victory we will unfold and realize all our bravery, heroism, ingenuity, strength, that only under such an extreme pressure and risk we will be able to get the most from ourselves, to sharpen all our skills and abilities, all our endurance and self confidence, that only in that case we will be able to taste the taste of the real good things in life, to look at the reality of human life in its tragic frailty, limitation, uncertainty. You want to destroy us with the lures of luxury, hedonism, delusion, contentment, self-deception, selfishness and the like. We want to draw some real virtues out of ourselves and out of you, for that matter. You will soon find out whether you are still capable of strength, generosity, abnegation and sincerity, or whether you are already rotten and without spine.

Go now, and tell your people that there is no way that we can both live next to each other in peace, for peace is your way of life, and your meat is our poison. War is our way of life and, we believe, is more honest and upfront than yours. War would have been in any case, but instead of being imposed your style of commercial war and the corruption it brings with, we have chosen to take our destiny into our hands and to fight according to our style of martial war with the virtues it brings about. If you’ll be brave enough to resist and develop such virtues in turn, then you will come to appreciate them. That would be a great moment because through fighting we will have learned to respect each other’s valour, instead of despising each other’s way of life”.

There is no need to wonder which party may have the better reasons. What we need to realize is that there is no way of persuading anybody if you argue from premisses that they don’t share, accept, and perhaps not even understand.

If you want to engage in a discussion, respectfully, fairly, you need to find some common ground.
If you are discussing about moral matters, then you have to find some principle or value that your interlocutor shares if your argument is to have any grip. But once you do that you are already arguing from within your opponent moral tradition and values. Effective criticism can only take the form of internal moral criticism. Criticism from points of view that are external are nothing more than (verbal) aggressions. They can only lead to exasperation of the differences and of mutual suspicion and mistrust. The outcome can only be a radical confrontation.

Internal moral criticism has obviously always scope when we are dealing with communities that have a complex and long tradition, for these cultures always have a rich enough repertoire of values, principles, and interpretations of them, and therefore there is always the possibility to emphasize some element of the tradition and to downplay another. If a group is very simple and does not have a rich stratification of moral thinking then it is very likely that its morality presents ambiguity, looseness, inconsistencies and these offer some elbow room for internal criticism. (What is the gorund for this supposition? Well if there is a practice of critical reflection the tradition will invariably feature different interpretations of its values, for critical reflection involve the possibility of questioning received authority. If a practice of critical reflection on its own morals is absent in a society, then we cannot expect to find a very robust logical structure in its moral system since consistency can only be the outcome of critical scrutiny and refinement).

(iii) The third accusation is that relativism always sides with the conformist majority against the reformers and innovators. Here the relativist can reply that social reformers and innovators are mostly internal critics who appeal to some feature of a tradition against some other, who recommend a return to principles and values that have been obliterated, perverted, corrupted. True, in some cases the innovations are genuine breaks with a tradition and involve either learning from another culture or genuine social invention. Yet the relativist is not committed to the dodgy epistemological thesis that the majority is always right. The idea is rather that if the majority cannot be led to see for itself the benefit of the innovation, then this latter can be imposed only through coercion, paternalism, condescension. For a principle to be moral it should be felt as a genuinely moral one, if it were enough to obey right principles then the dog loyal and obedient to a just and virtuous master would be a model of morality! Furthermore it is too easy and misleading always to name the small bunch of moral heroes that in our eyes have effect genuine moral improvements. What about the legions and legions of petulant, garruluous, arrogant moralizers that since ever and at all latitudes have raised and raise every day their lament against the prevailing morality thinking that they know better? Shall they all be welcomed and given a fair chance to rewrite our moral code? As John Austin once remarked, tradition is not the last word, but it should always be the first.

(iv) The fourth objection levelled by Pojman is very interesting. He contends that there is a serious difficulty in defining the boundaries of a culture or a nation. Furthermore we have multiple loyalties and allegiances. This is true, especially in our contemporary societies. But is this truly a puzzle for the relativist? Perhaps not. First of all we may note that this allegation seems to imply the acceptance of our sixth thesis of relativism: normative relativism. We live in a complex world and we belong to several groups and communities that pursue different values and have different principles. This seems to confirm the idea that there is a plurality of ideals and values morally respectable. There is a plurality of different and incommensurable goods. To cope with this complication of the moral life we need to accept some principles of right that set limits to the scope that we have in pursuing our ideals. Why should conventionalism make it more difficult to accept that? After all our relativist frankly admits pluralism. Moreover she/he openly praises the ability to see that values and principles have a limited sphere of authority (as we saw in explaining tolerance). Given all that, is she/he not in a very good position to realize the necessity of establishing hierarchies of principles, criteria of priority, and rules that traces the sphere of validity of various principles and values? Is not the modern state a device to enable this kind of multiple allegiancies in a rational and ordered way? The laws of the state trace the limits of what individuals and associations can do in their pursuit of their favourite goods, while the various communities work out the duties and responsibilities of its members to promote their shared ends.

Furthermore, Pojman has put forward the following tasks for morality: ‘resolution of interpersonal conflicts’, ‘the amelioration of the human predicament’ (p. 493, rc), ‘the survival of society, alleviation of suffering, encouragement of human flourishing and the just resolution of the conflicts of interests’ (p. 494, rc); but has he shown that these ends served by morality can never give rise to conflicting demands? No, rather he himself accepts Ross’s idea that moral principles are prima facie, so we need to solve moral conflicts and moral dilemmas also if we accept his version of objectivism. In this respect it seems that both the relativist and the objectivist need to give rules of priority or tie-break principles or some procedure to govern the application of principles. Is there any reason why this task should be more challenging and hard for the relativist? It rather seems that this latter’s awareness of the limited and conditional (relative) validity of moral principles makes it more acceptable the need for conflict-resolution rules and the necessity to sacrifice some values and principles. Principles of right and justice are everybody’s interest, while ideals and goods are of concern only for those who recognize and accept them, so a priority of principles of right over ideals of the good (that seems a workable solution to the problem of multiple allegiancies) seems to be consistent with the principle of legitimation through consent explained in (i).

(v) The last allegation against conventionalism is that a gang of criminal could claim to be judged according to their moral code. After remarking that this is reminiscent of the famous story of the pirate captured by the roman fleet, who asked by the roman emperor why he was infesting the seas, quietly replied that he was simply doing on a smaller scale what the emporer did on a grand scale. Apart from this anecdote, one could quickly reply to Pojman that according to the relativist the criminals can claim to do things their own way at most when they deal with each other, but that their moral principles are not accepted by their victim, who therefore are treated on the basis of principles that they clearly do not accept. Since our relativist has accepted a consent theory of moral legitimation the claim of criminals falls off the mark. (Notice that the consent theory of moral validity is the real normative principle of our relativist rather than any claim about relativity).

A similar line of argument can be used against the radicalization of the above claim, namely that conventionalism tends to collapse into subjectivism, which is self-defeating. Let’s grant that subjectivism is self-defeating. To this allegation two kinds of replies are available. The first run along the previous answer: an individual can only set himself moral ideals and aspirations, but cannot legitimately set rules of right, justice, or whatever principle governing human interactions, since those latter principles require the consent of the others with whom the individual has to deal. The relativist does not need to put forward a requirement of explicit consent: a moral community is established not by actual agreement, but by the actual sharing of practices and patterns of interactions. Outside a community of practices no actual moral rules are to be found. The second objection runs along Wittgenstein’s argument against private language. It is a very subtle and complicated argument that needs not be illustrated here, since its conclusion has an intuitive plausibility: only in an open public space rules can exist. If someone is the only author and interpreter of a set of rules there are no rules at all, since whatever exception can be accomodated through a reinterpretation of the rule or through the explicitation of some qualifying, or limiting clause or through a new specification of the circumstances of application of the rules. It is only the availability of an external, open, public check that guarantees the stability of the rule and the possibility of errors. But if there can be no errors in applying or following a rule, then there is no rule at all.

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