Are you a relativist?

Discussion in 'General Philosophy' started by wegs, Dec 26, 2016.

  1. wegs Matter & Pixie Dust Valued Senior Member

    Would you consider yourself a relativist? I'd say that most of us carry around our own subjective views of life, but could there still be room for universality in a relativist's world?
    Magical Realist and danshawen like this.
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  3. Seattle Valued Senior Member

    Yes and "sure".
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  5. wegs Matter & Pixie Dust Valued Senior Member

    How are you a relativist, in what specific areas of life?
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  7. Seattle Valued Senior Member

    As you say, I carry around my subjective views of life thereby realizing that others have their own views as well.

    Regarding some "universality" while being a relativist (and I don't call myself that...that was your word) I think society tends to provide or encourage that. Most of us agree that killing is wrong under most circumstances. Some of us agree that some degree of cooperation is beneficial for us all.

    Too much absolute truths is where people tend to get into trouble (wars).
  8. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    Excellent question, Wegs. Thanks for starting this thread.

    It's a difficult question to answer.

    I guess that I'm inclined to think that there are both objective and relative aspects to many kinds of judgments. I weight those aspects differently depending on what kind of judgments they are.

    Consider a physical property such as the mass of something. We might want to say that the mass is an intrinsic property of the object (and hence objective and not subjective/relative). But the number that we attach to that mass will certainly be different depending on what units of mass we use (pounds or kilograms for instance). So even in cases like these, there's an element of relativism, though a very weak one. The observed mass should remain invariant through application of various conversion factors, which just describe how we quantify it.

    I'm inclined to favor a correspondence theory of truth, where truth is a property of those propositions that correspond to reality in some way. (It's hard to precisely describe how that works.) So I'm inclined to treat most matters of truth and falsity as objective in the same sense that mass is. If A is 'true for me', it will be 'true for you' too, even though we may use different language and concepts to describe the world that we both inhabit. There's going to be some underlying invariant that's the same for both of us. This is the realm that science is most comfortable with.

    Cognitive norms like logic and rationality (and hence mathematics) present a problem. My approach to them is that the norms of reason are generally speaking innate to human beings, and they do seem to reflect and model relationships that exist in the real world. Presumably we evolved these modes of cognition for that reason, because they have survival value. But even with logic there's an element of relativism. It's possible to create all kinds of logical systems ('deviant logics') that are all consistent with our innate logical intuitions of implication and consistency, but aren't always consistent with each other.

    Things look very different when I consider aesthetic judgments. When I say that a particular painting is beautiful, I rarely mean to imply that it has some objective property called beauty, analogous to mass. I'm just saying that I personally find it beautiful. (My eccentric artistic taste has annoyed no end of art teachers who tried and failed to teach me to appreciate particular artists and genres of art.) It's true that most human beings possess perceptual systems that favor things like symmetry, so we do tend to be somewhat on the same page. But it's also clear that a lot of things like religious imagery go into art works, things that might be more culture-specific. So I think that relativism is much more pronounced in aesthetics than in physics.

    Things get more difficult when we consider moral judgments. Moral values do seem to be quite relative to individuals and to larger cultures, but one of the defining characteristics of moral judgments is that we universalize them and apply them to those around us, even if those others don't agree with our ethical standards. I say that Nazis exterminating the European Jews is wrong, even if the Nazi leaders didn't see it that way. (They thought that they were eliminating a polluting plague from the human race.) But regardless of how they perceived things, I still apply my own standards to them. It's this quality of morality that sets people against people in holy wars. Many of our current social/political divisions around the world are the result of people casting moral judgements on others and trying to enforce moral hegemony over them.

    So many of the dimmer social thinkers since the 1960's have tried to promote relativism in ethical matters, thinking that it's the road to social harmony and to reducing intolerance. But that opens a different can of worms. If there's no fact of the matter regarding whether genocide and military conquest are right or wrong, if it's all just a matter of aesthetic taste so to speak, then we can't really position ourselves so as to criticize ISIS or the Nazis. "Racism" might be wrong-for-us, but it's clearly right-for-the-KKK. So what puts us in any position where we can judge those others that we find odious? Relativism seemingly reduces moral judgments to 'anything goes' or to the raw exercise of power.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2016
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  9. danshawen Valued Senior Member

    You have used the term 'universality' as though it was somehow opposite of the term 'relativist' or 'relativism', assumed something akin to the opposite of 'moral relativism'. It's not.

    I think the term you are looking for instead would be 'absolutist', as in someone who views morality or truth or other nuanced questions in terms that are absolute, or black and white as opposed to shades of grey. Is this what you intended to ask? Is your idea of 'universality', as in an 'all or none' proposition?

    Absolutism is almost always a bad thing, like stubbornness or having one's mind set in concrete. Universality is more neutral. You almost need to be a relativist to understand the distinction. Which are you?

    Of course, even relativism can be carried too far. Three bathrooms where only one or two would two would suffice is one example. How much would you bet, the third one won't be for people with special needs or mobility issues? Who do you suppose is responsible for this controversy, a relativist or an absolutist?

    Or Facebook's 38 distinct genders. Was that a revelation from a relativist or an absolutist?

    Two flags for one country is another way to carry moral relativism too far, particularly when the same people flying a previously hostile foreign flag or touting other symbols related to past racism are the same ones complaining about burning or disrespecting our real national flag. Don't tell us some folks don't do this. I know a few, even if I don't get it. Life is just full of contradictions for an absolutist. Depends on what country it is you think you live in, I guess.

    But don't call them universalists. They are not anything like the rest of us. Perhaps they do need their own private bathrooms, so that the rest of us don't need to deal with them playing with their own excrement or smearing it on the walls on a daily basis. Don't tell us that doesn't happen either. We've all seen the evidence that it does. Your kids are probably the ones doing it. If you deny it, you would probably be an absolutist.
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2016
  10. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    I'm more an absolutist when I think about it. We do live in our own largely cultural and psychological constructs, but behind all that there is an immediate visceral sharing of the same things that makes us all human as well as a common reality we all have equal perceptual access to. I'd use the analogy of all us at our own homes watching our own TV's but all tuned to the same channel. Sometimes though those TV's get pretty staticky and we start picking up surreal stations transmitted from who knows where. Do ISIS leaders watch the same channel as Catholic priests? Which channel is the legit channel? And who decides that? I guess I'm pretty relativist too. It's one of those enduring paradoxes that I like about philosophy.
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2016
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  11. danshawen Valued Senior Member

    post deleted-- wrong thread
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2016
  12. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    The question I first wanted to ask has been opened up.
    Relativist in what field or subject area?
    I believe there is some absolute physical reality, of which we living creatures with sense organs can perceive some aspects in various ways. None of us can talk about more than the small fraction of universal reality that is available to us, but that universal reality is the origin and medium and determining force of all our subjective beings. This makes it possible for discrete organisms to exchange information about the reality they perceive. The information we each possess is minuscule, but there are so many billions of organisms that, if we could learn to communicate with all the species on Earth, we might be able to compile an accurate description of 0.1% of the reality of this one planet.

    Moral relativism is much simpler. It's a matter of consensus in a group of organisms that need to co-operate for mutual survival.
    If there were an absolute morality, it would require all species to suspend a given portion of their self-interest in order to promote the welfare of the biosphere.
    Obviously, there is no such morality in effect.
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  13. Counter Registered Senior Member

    I prefer a moral intelligence to an intelligence that is without a doubt, clever, but lacks in moral judgement. There are tests to define such a thing:

    "You are on an airship that is crashing and on-board is Adolph Hitler, a male prostitute, and Donald Trump. By throwing one overboard the others may survive. Who do you throw?" This is an example of a moral test. Another is life itself: an on-going moral examination.

    "Can you pee in these wet-suits?"
    "You CAN, but do you really want to??"

    -The Deep Blue Sea.

    "Just because you COULD beat this guy, doesn't mean you should!"


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