So, us students are supposed to be idealists, right?
We cannot help but notice that the world, as it is, does not accord with many of our most deeply held convictions, and we cannot help but want to change it.
We are repulsed by the evils of abject poverty and grotesque inequality, even more so by the institutions that endorse them. We are outraged by the iniquities of war and brutality, even more so by the countries that perpetrate them. And we are disgusted by the ignominy of hypocrisy and deceit, and even more so by the individuals who engage in them.
Sometimes, however, I feel like I’m surrounded by cynics.
Pessimism and negativity are often expressed in a way that implies that they are intellectually superior to idealism. Idealism seen as just that: idealistic. These cynics are frequently found making the following two kinds of assertions: in one group you will find phrases like – “that’s just the way the world is” or “a perfect world is impossible”, in the other – “that’s just your opinion” or “who gets to decide what is right or wrong?” The first kind is sceptical about the possibility of fashioning the world so that it accords with ones ideals; the second kind denies that any one set of ideals can, in principle, be better than another.
Both claims are questionable.
As students, who believe that the world can, and should, change for the better, our first goal should be to offer a rejection of the second kind of assertion. Because the relativism entailed by the latter claim provides a degree of support to the scepticism of the former.
Many a dinnertime ‘debate’ in my house has boiled down to a shout off between relativism and anti-relativism. The relativists argue that there are no objective standards of culture, ethics, or truth, and the anti-relativists, usually just me, argue that we can, at least approach objectivity. Or that we can say that some things represent truth better than others.
It is worth saying immediately that the presence of a plurality of cultures, all living by different standards and ‘truths’ doesn’t provide evidence for the relativists claim. There is, in fact, no empirical ‘evidence’ to support the relativist, or the anti-relativist claim. They are both simply assumptions: theoretical starting points and, as it turns out, the relativist position just does not fit with other positions that most people wish to adopt. Simply put, consistent relativism is very, very demanding – much more demanding than most people who make relativistic claims acknowledge.
So, I’m regularly informed by the relativist that I only think what I think because I live in a western, monotheistic, liberal culture. They often forget to tell me exactly what relevance this has, but I assume that it is meant to invalidate my ideals in some way. The fact that everything that I believe is so powerfully shaped by the contingency – sheer accident – of being born and brought up in a particular time and place must cause us to doubt objectivity and truth. If I only think what I think because of where I was raised, for example, then, if I was raised somewhere else, I could just as easily have a completely different set of beliefs, and passionately defend them all the same. So the thinking goes.
This is a fair point, but the relativists overemphasise it.
Of course I am shaped by my surroundings, by arbitrary facts about me, and by the age that I live in, but I am not completely, or powerlessly, shaped by these things. I have the, perhaps limited, capacity to reflect upon the beliefs and practices of my own culture and evaluate them accordingly. For the relativist to take such a deterministic view of belief paints a dark and straight-jacketed picture of the human condition. Furthermore, one could simply address the charge back to the relativist – “well you only think that I only think what I think because of the culture that I have been brought up in, because of the culture that you have been brought up in!”
The potential for an infinite to-and-fro hints at an absurdity in the discussion, but the relativist is also misguided for another reason.
Scientific discovery, for example, can be said to present representations of truth or fact, adding to our apprehension of ‘the objective’, but they can also be contextualised. The reductivist model of physics that we employ is significantly influenced by enlightenment thinking, and our whole numerical system originated in the Arab world.
If you think about it, it is trite to point out that all things are, somewhat, influenced by their context. This fact does not effect our valuing of the account of reality provided by physics over, say, scientology, and nor does it undermine the extent to which we prefer to use the language of mathematics to model our reality.
This is not to say that science is somehow off limits; the consistent relativist would probably be sceptical about the extent to which science represents any sort of ‘truth’. I am attempting to highlight the demands of relativism: the extent to which taking it seriously requires us to radically reorganise our thinking.
I believe that scientific discovery has provided us with an increasingly accurate picture of the objective world, and just because non-scientific ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ are not also acquired by the same empirical investigation doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
It turns out that many people are inconsistent, or fair-weather, relativists. This is evidenced by the well-known discussion around liberal imperialism –
Liberal: “I live in a liberal democracy, and I think that everyone should live in a liberal democracy.”
Relativist: “What’s so good about liberalism and democracy, man? Who’s to say that’s how people should live? That’s just, like, your opinion, other cultures have different opinions and nobody can judge them.”
Liberal: “Well actually, liberalism and democracy can be justified through rational argument. I start with an assumption that all human beings are of equal moral worth… Its kind of long, do you actually want me to explain?”
Relativist: “Whatever man, sounds kinda boring. I don’t care about your ‘rationality’ anyways. All I’m saying is that people around the world have different beliefs, and you can’t impose yours on them.”
Notice how the inconsistent relativist employs the very universal ethical talk that they claim to reject. Why can’t one group of people impose their beliefs, culture, ‘truth’ on another? If I only think that such behaviour is bad because of the environment within which I have formed my beliefs, then what exactly is wrong with another group of people not believing that it is bad to impose beliefs on others, and then going around and imposing their beliefs all over the place?
This is the essence of the problem with relativism.
When one says that you can’t judge another culture’s actions, or that ethical positions are ultimately, and irreducibly, contextual, you deny yourself the vocabulary that you need in order to pass any ethical judgement.
Relativism forces you to stay silent on a multitude of important issues: from slavery to domestic violence, forced female circumcision to the holocaust. Most people, including most people who make relativist assertions, don’t want to remain silent on these issues, and issues like them.
The fair-weather relativist should admit, and accept, that it is not the idea that one can judge ethical systems, or that one system can be better than another, that they disagree with. What is more likely to be the case is that they disagree with the content of the particular ethical system that they are being presented with.
It is perfectly appropriate that people disagree over content. It means that people who disagree can talk to each other, and not past each other.