Saturday, August 30, 2008

The violence of philosophy. (Are some values “objective”?)

Philosophy can be about anything, and so it can be about “values.” We step back from the world of nations and civilizations and inevitably puzzle at differences and tensions that continually arise there. And this brings us to the difficult question of whether and how there can be “absolute” or “objective” values.

Now, if there were such things, and if we were confident that we could identify them, then, naturally, we would “wield” them. Often, having values (having a morality) is a matter of trying to make the world better—and this involves attempting to eliminate or lessen “bad things” in the world: pain, suffering, injustice. And, sometimes, especially bad things seem to be happening far from the borders of our own peculiar (i.e., distinctive) society and its way of life.

OK, but what about moral relativism?

Interestingly, two important 20th Century writers, one a leftist (socialist), the other a rightist (conservative), agreed on rejection of moral relativism. Or so says David Lebedoff, author of The Same Man. The book was reviewed in yesterday’s New York Times: Two of a Kind:

…[George] Orwell conjured up the nightmarish dystopia of “1984.” [Evelyn] Waugh’s best-known work, “Brideshead Revisited,” was a reverie about a vanished age of Oxford privilege, titled Catholic families, large country houses and fastidious conscience. Orwell was … a socialist with an affinity for mineworkers and tramps. Waugh was a short, plump, florid social climber and a proud reactionary…. Orwell fought on the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. Waugh announced, “If I were a Spaniard I should be fighting for General Franco.” … Orwell thought “good prose is like a window pane,” forceful and direct. Waugh was an elaborate stylist whose prose ranged from the dryly ironical to the richly ornamented and rhetorical. Orwell was solitary and fiercely earnest. Waugh was convivial and brutally funny. And, perhaps most important, Orwell was a secularist whose greatest fear was the emergence of Big Brother in this world. Waugh was a Roman Catholic convert whose greatest hope lay with God in the next.

Dissimilar though their causes may have been, Orwell and Waugh were both anchored by “a hatred of moral relativism”; that, Lebedoff claims, is what set the two men apart from their contemporaries. Yet in stressing this similarity, the author elides [omits] a deeper difference. Although Waugh despaired about the future, he saw the Catholic Church as an enduring bulwark against chaos. His moral order was backed by divine authority. Orwell too was a passionate believer in objective truth, including moral truth. But unlike Waugh, Orwell did not attribute transcendent power to the truth; indeed, he feared that it might ultimately prove impotent in history. Hence his terrifying vision in “1984” of a future of totalitarian sadism, of “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

…The two men admired each other — up to a point. Orwell thought Waugh was about as good as a novelist could be while holding “untenable” beliefs. “One cannot really be Catholic & grown up,” he wrote. Waugh thought Orwell was as good as a thinker could be while neglecting nine-tenths of reality: the supernatural part. He wrote to Orwell apropos of “1984” that “men who love a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful.”….

In class, I often note that those on both ends of the political spectrum do seem to approach the world as moral objectivists—people who suppose that there exists some set of values that apply equally to all of humanity. It is obvious that conservatives do: the more primitive among them often seem to view the beliefs and practices of foreign cultures essentially as 16th Century Europeans (or late 19th Century Americans) did.

Perhaps it is less obvious that leftists/liberals are often entrenched objectivists as well, for surely a willingness to wield “human rights” across cultures assumes that there is some objective standard of conduct and moral belief to which people around the world may appeal!

But I am a philosopher. And so I ask, “OK, what justifies that idea?” I mean, how is this supposed to work exactly? Is it that those nasty cultures that practice female genital mutilation and the like (i.e., violations of human rights) are somehow blind to facts? Do they lack reason? Are the members of such cultures brain-damaged? Did God neglect to send them a Moses?

My guess is that most who read the above review think that they are clear in their minds about the nature of “moral relativism” and its opposite. But I have my doubts.

We need to philosophize a bit.

Just what is a “moral relativist”? Why, it is someone who supposes that morality is “relative.” —Relative to what? The likely answer (coming from most, I suppose): one’s culture.

But the statement is problematic. One can believe that “morality is relative (to culture)” and mean very different things.

One kind of moral relativism is “descriptive” and probably uncontroversial. For instance, in saying that “morality is relative,” one might be saying merely that, as one examines the cultures of the world, one will discover differences, some of them significant. For instance, some cultures (our own perhaps) emphasize the notion that individuals are entitled to be left unmolested by others, while other cultures place no such emphasis on the self and its entitlements. Perhaps they emphasize the health and survival of the community.

(More grossly: you’ve got your headhunters and you’ve got your non-headhunters; you’ve got your patriarchal societies and you’ve got your egalitarian societies; etc.)

Now even a moral absolutist like Pat Buchanan embraces this kind of “moral relativism.” Sure, he says, different cultures have different moralities. Who would deny that? But, he adds, some of those cultures are in the dark, morally speaking. Ours (i.e., our “Judeo-Christian” culture) is not.

So, in one sense, Pat is a relativist. In another, he is an absolutist.

Another kind of moral relativism is the odd idea that “rightness” is whatever one’s culture defines as right. For us, female genital mutilation is wrong, wrong, wrong. But, in some cultures, it is right. It is “wrong for us,” but it is “right for them.”

Now, try to resist the temptation to “beg the question” here.

DIGRESSION: among logicians (and verbal conservatives!), “begging the question” does not mean “raising a question”; rather, it means something else entirely: committing the error of assuming the truth of X in one's argument for the truth of X. Suppose that a theist argues that God exists on the basis of references to God in the Bible. But why should we regard the Bible as reliable? Because (we are now told) the Bible is "divinely inspired." But the idea that the Bible is "divinely inspired" is the idea that God exists and inspires the Bible. That is, the theist is assuming the truth of the very claim that he is supposed to be establishing. He is "begging the question." —END OF DIGRESSION.

Some of you may be thinking: “It is ridiculous to suppose that the practice of female genital mutilation could be anything but wrong, wrong, wrong! Anyone who views the matter otherwise is obviously beyond the pale!”

Well, yes, I sympathize. FGM strikes me as “wrong, wrong, wrong” too. But, really, that’s what is at issue here. Are we entitled to regard such practices as absolutely wrong? On what basis exactly? How does the universal “wrongness” of this practice go exactly? These are very difficult questions to answer (for those who do not beg questions, if you can find such people).

It is clear, I think, that, as members of a culture, we are raised to think and behave in a way such that certain practices will seem right and good to us. And it is clear, too, I think, that those same practices will sometimes be regarded with horror by those who are members of other cultures and who are raised in very different ways. And so, clearly, some practice P will seem absolutely right and good to me while, for people in some other culture or cultures, P will seem absolutely wrong and wicked.

But just what sort of thing is being said when someone asserts that “for us” mutilating girls is wrong but “for them” it is right? And remember: this second kind of relativist doesn’t mean merely that, from our perspective, this practice will seem wrong; from their perspective, it will seem right. The latter idea is perfectly intelligible and likely true.

The sort of relativist we are now examining means something else entirely. They mean there is this thing—rightness (or wrongness)—and it is one thing for us; it is quite another thing for them.

What on earth are they talking about?

Many philosophers, I think, doubt the coherence or meaningfulness of such talk. Me too.

There’s a third kind of relativism that is very different from these first two. Perhaps it should not be called “relativism” at all, although I think we can see why it is sometimes called that. It is the view that, when we step back from the various moralities/cultures of the world, and we seek some standard against which to evaluate them (for correctness or truth or “validity”), we seem unable to locate that standard.

Again, I must warn you against question-begging. You may be inclined to say: “Well, obviously, some moralities are barbaric! They are immoral! They offend reason!”

Again, I sympathize with such remarks. I can think of any number of practices of foreign cultures (and a few home-grown ones too) that strike me in exactly that way. But to reason in this way is, I think, to beg the question. It is to assume the very matter that is at issue. Our question is: on what basis may we regard “values” embraced by some foreign cultures as right or wrong, valid or invalid? To insist now that these girl-mutilators are “plainly wicked” is to assume that we have a basis, that we may start from the "fact" that girl-mutilating is wrong.

If we have a basis for supposing that our assessment of girl-mutilating is correct and the others' assessment is incorrect, then just what is it?

“Why, anyone with reason can see that mutilating these little girls is wrong!”

Well, yes, but, obviously, mature adults of these other cultures do not see things in this way. On what basis exactly are we entitled to judge that these people are irrational (or blind or…)?

That’s the question.

“Why, it is self-evident that mutilating little girls is wrong!”

But it is not self-evident to these people in the other cultures. How come?

“Well, that is because they are backward!”

Well, perhaps so, but could you please explain that to us? On what basis may you judge that anyone who does not share your sense of the “self-evident” is backwards? Please explain to us how you are not simply exhibiting ethnocentrism?

Such questions are not easily answered (again—among those who refuse to beg questions).

I do not think that philosophers—people who make it their business to deal with these matters—are in agreement about the answer to these questions or even that they can be answered. (Don’t kid yourself; these thinkers aren’t missing something obvious about which you can easily enlighten them.) In my view, we need to take seriously the possibility that we just don’t have—not yet at least—a justification for the assessment that the disturbing foreign moralities are somehow mistaken or benighted.

Perhaps I have lost you. I left you in a state of bewilderment and annoyance a few paragraphs back. If so, try this. Suppose that you encounter a group of Chinese people playing mahjong. You are accompanied by your cousin Ralph, who has never encountered the game. He watches the people playing it. At one point, he declares, “That’s a stupid game!”

Let’s suppose that Ralph isn’t joking. He is quite serious. He is used to checkers. In his mind, checkers is a good game. But this mahjong—to him, it’s simply ridiculous.

Naturally, Ralph is a dolt. “Relative to what,” we now ask him, “is mahjong a stupid game?” There is no standard against which to evaluate mahjong against, say, checkers. What would it be? Obviously, Ralph simply assumes that his perspective and his traditions are the standards for the universe. Well, maybe so. But if he’s going to take that view, he’ll have to defend it, and the chances of his being able to do so successfully seem slim.

Matters are different if we look at somebody’s car and judge it to be small. We can measure the size of cars relative to the objective standard of interior cubic square footage and the like. Saying that someone’s car is “small” is not at all like saying that their game is ridiculous.

And so, again, what are the standards against which we can assess some culture’s morality (compared to our own)? Appeals to “self-evidence” are just question-begging. Here as elsewhere, if we allow appeals to "self-evidence," we're going to get nowhere.

I suppose that this third view is sometimes called “relativism” (metaethical relativism) because, in suggesting that there is no basis for distinguishing between “moralities” in terms of their correctness or soundness, it is saying that these moralities are all on a par. None is superior to any other. (Perhaps each is equally ungrounded.) “Relativism”—in some sense—is often seen as the notion that has arisen to challenge or replace the often unreflective idea that “our culture” is the true and correct (or enlightened) one, the superior one, the standard for the universe, provided by God (or reason). Well, this third kind of “relativism,” too, rejects the “superiority” thesis, at least with regard to morality.

But notice what it does not do. It does not endorse the second kind of relativism, which asserts that right and wrong (and not just what is regarded as right and wrong) differs from culture to culture. A person who embraces (perhaps reluctantly) this third relativism might well reject the second kind.

And observe that this third view is not based on the fact (if it is a fact) that different cultures have different moralities (the modest and largely uncontroversial thesis of the first kind of relativism). Nothing much follows from this fact. After all, cultures of the world differ in their views about the physical nature of the Earth. It doesn’t follow that there is no objective standard to judge claims about the nature of the Earth, does it? Nope.

What if the history of the world were different and only one human culture existed on earth? In this imaginary world, there are no different cultures, different moralities. There is one.

But, in that world, it would be possible to imagine different moralities. And we could still ask, “On what basis may we judge one morality—for instance, our own—as more correct or valid than these other, imagined moralities?”

And the same problem would arise.

In the grounding department, we seem to have bupkis.

I know that some of you are still thinking, “well, obviously, any culture that permits or endorses something like female genital mutilation is wrong! It is backward”

And, again, it isn’t as though I don’t fully share your horror at that practice. But my question to you is this: how can you defend that judgment (without appealing to the worthless standard of “self-evidence,” without assuming exactly what you are obliged to establish—that those who view the practice with horror are correct and those who embrace it are mistaken)?


Anonymous said...

so the "metaethical relativism" is the objective way to view morality? It sounds like the
neutral view, yes?

Is this saying:

[Because "it" exists, "it" is natural and normal. For example, genital mutilation is a "natural" occuring thing because it already exists (Non-existence is the same as unnatural) And with this logic, theres no standard for morality then. It just exists, there is no such thing as "wrongness" or "goodness". ] ??

tlavery3 said...

Marge, the cigarette-wielding, grey-haired, old lady of cartoon fame announces on my refrigerator magnet, “I can't stand intolerance." I know how she feels.
You are quite correct in pointing out the circular reasoning in moral relativism. For wherever we begin to use words like "right" and "wrong" we have presupposed an absolute standard, which as you have so finely pointed out, does not exist. It seems that this phrase is a veiled way of touting tolerance where none truly exists. It is similar to the phrase I once used when I spoke to a fundamentalist friend of mine:"My beliefs are broad enough to encompass yours, however yours do not appear to be broad enough to encompass mine." I said this rather smugly, feeling just a bit superior for my false tolerance, but the reality is that I do not accept her beliefs because to do so would be tantamount to sanctioning my eternal damnation, which I refuse to do. If I am honest, I realize I was hoping to somehow criticize her for the limited scope of her beliefs while appearing benevolent at the same time.
Maybe the best we can hope for regarding morality is to come to terms on a few basics, and simply agree to call those "the rules" without labeling them good or bad. Those labels are especially useless, however ubiquitous they may be.