Relativism - response to comments

Many thanks for all the comments. The transcript I posted was from a discussion that was really focussed on the "politically correct" brand of moral relativism that is still regularly wheeled in certain circles, rather than more subtle, sophisticated versions developed by some reputable philosophers.

I still come across the "politically correct" brand pretty regularly. I would say maybe 5-10% of first year philosophy undergrads sign up to it.It is usually justified and motivated by arguments of the sort I cite here. It's kind of irritating, and I just wanted to show that these "politically correct" arguments are poor.

Of course, to expose the failings of these arguments is not to offer an argument against relativism. Nor is it to show that relativism is false.

That said, this "politically correct" brand of relativism does entail that if Nazis think that murdering Jews is good, then, hey, they're right. Does anyone really believe that? I don't think so. So put it this way: this sort of relativism has at the very least some prima facie deeply counter-intuitive consequences.

Don't assume I am an objectivist, by the way. Some days I think I might be an eliminitivist (!)

The point I do agree with (if barefoot bum is making it?) is that the influence of "politically correct" relativism is vastly hyped by liberal-bashers, especially in the U.S. I'll post something on that shortly.


There are actually three points I'm interested in.

One is that (until recently) all the information I received regarding "moral relativism" and postmodernism in general was coming from critics. Such a one-sided view, even coming from people I ordinarily agree with, always raises a red flag.

The second was that I realized that none of the liberal/progressive writers that I read, either in magazines or online, were using any sort of academic information from the humanities. Why not?

The third point is that I happened to read a dissertation recently, a dissertation for which the candidate not only received their Ph.D., but also received a notable award. What's interesting about this dissertation is that the author appears utterly unable to write a single page or draw even the simplest conclusion without logical fallacy. The author doesn't simply make some mistakes; the whole paper is a train wreck.

This is thin enough evidence, of course, but still I speculate.

The hypothesis that springs immediately to mind is that (a) humanities academics are not being consistently taught basic critical thinking skills, even at the graduate level and thus (b) there is an enormous amount of bullshit being propagated at that level and thus (c) humanities academics are being ignored by the liberal popular political press and (d) humanities academics are being used as critical fodder by the conservative popular and political press.

I'm not encouraged by your previous post. The "cultural relativism" you address is such risible bullshit that it wouldn't last twenty minutes on an amateur philosophy discussion board.

If it is still a serious notion in academia, that's evidence for (a) and (b) above. The fact that a reasonably well-read but non-academic person such as myself hasn't seen a a positive presentation in the (more-or-less) popular press argues for (c) and that I do see criticism of in the popular press argues for (d).

The evidence is not overwhelming, of course. I don't know how deeply I want to investigate the matter; the intellectual health of academia my biggest concern. I am not a member of the academic community and I have no standing to offer internal criticism.

But externally, as an intelligent, liberal reader, I've seen little reason--aside from history and exceptional specimens such as Bob Altemeyer--to seek out or consider much of the academic humanities, including philosophy, in my personal or political life.

You are, as has every academic with whom I've discussed this issue, entitled to consider the above simply my own prejudice and willful ignorance.
Correction: The intellectual health of academia is not my biggest concern.
Cassandra said…
Dear Barefoot Bummers,
I think the post by Mr Law underestimates the perniciousness of relativism (of all varieties). I'm not a lib-basher per se, but I am a seeker of truth and I think relativism causes a mind-set that is - to put it mildly - very unhelpful. Ideas have consequences. This one has the following: for starters it is an oxymoron, and whole hords of people cannot even think straight anymore, confusing fact with opinion and people with ideas, public opinion with truth and religion with democracy, crushes pride of self (if I pretend to be smaller, the other guy looks bigger), causes tolerance of the intolerant and turns tolerance into intolerance, confuses valid critique with rudeness, reality with myth, truth with self-delusion and equal with identical. And it polarizes people, makes debate impossible (opinions set against opinions), it's immature thinking. In short, it's a serious fallacy that if it weren't so pervasive wouldn't even be worthy to be taken seriously. And that's just for starters (my blog lists them all 10 of them, and counting). I am against it and the sooner we let this sophistry go, the better.

Perhaps you (and Professor Law) are correct. I've heard a few people spout the "true for me" line.

But after centuries, perhaps millennia, of cultural rigidity and intolerance, I don't see a little philosophical sloppiness in 5-10% of college freshmen as that big a deal. Of course they don't yet know how to think carefully and precisely; that's why they're in college.

While I disapprove of sloppy thinking in general, I don't think informal cultural relativism per se is particularly pernicious.

It's an obvious non-starter as a serious formal philosophical position, but for informal purposes as a naive interpretation of ordinary tolerance and pluralism, it's mostly benign. Many normative moral beliefs really are completely culture-specific. That doesn't mean all of them are, or that truth is relative, or that cultural acceptance establishes objective truth. Relativism is truly toxic only in a few extreme examples that most people are too embarrassed to defend anyway and just escape with special pleading.
Cassandra said…
Dear Barefoot Bum,
Thanks your reply. I hope I haven't stumbled upon a private tuition group or something.
I'm afraid your answer will not do, though. Not for a philosophy student, not even a freshman. Otherwise it wouldn't be philosophy but misosophy, an insult to your subject: I hate to inform you playtime is over. It seems you are prey to relativism in a serious way. Your reply lives and breaths it. And since you know it's a non-starter I think some serious introspection is indicated. Once you do it should become clear to you just how toxic it is. Perhaps Prof. Law can provide a few pointers. Wish you all the best.
P.S. Received this in my mailbox this morning. That should get you started: