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Weird Relativism
Posted: 04 September 2007 10:36 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Most of the people I am surrounded with are religious or very close minded on other topics. I cannot imagine them chaniging their views, and it seems that they are not interested to. Arguing with them is impossible since no thinking effort is made.

But perhaps this can be an argument for relativism? If there is no way to change their minds, and neither of the camps can be convincedm then their position is an alternative position to our position. Their position is valid as ours, it is an alternative point of view to look upon reality.

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Posted: 04 September 2007 10:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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wandering - 04 September 2007 10:36 AM

Most of the people I am surrounded with are religious or very close minded on other topics. I cannot imagine them chaniging their views, and it seems that they are not interested to. Arguing with them is impossible since no thinking effort is made.

But perhaps this can be an argument for relativism? If there is no way to change their minds, and neither of the camps can be convincedm then their position is an alternative position to our position. Their position is valid as ours, it is an alternative point of view to look upon reality.

Disagreement is the classic argument for relativism, but it is a bad one.

First of all, there has always been disagreement about the physical world. For centuries there was disagreement about the shape of the earth, of the universe, of the size of the universe, etc. That doesn’t mean that any of these things are relative—that there is no fact of the matter about them.

Second, disagreement only implies relativism if people are infallibly accurate about their beliefs. I mean, if I’m always right and Jerry Falwell is always right then I suppose the existence of God must be relative. But in fact, neither of us are always right. So our beliefs about the world don’t necessarily imply anything about the way the world is. We both could be wrong, or one of us could be wrong and the other, right.

I think when people get into disagreements they use relativist talk as a sort of polite escape from confrontation. And I suppose depending on the circumstance it may sometimes be the gentle thing to do. But as a general position about the world, it is incorrect.

And note, this has nothing to do with the possibility that people can be convinced. There is nothing about reality that forbids someone from dying with false beliefs.

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Posted: 07 September 2007 10:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The only time relativism is useful is if we’re talking about morality.  Religious people claim that only by believing in God can you be moral.  If that is really what they believe, and the only thing that keeps them acting morally is a fairy tale about Jesus, then by all means let them believe it.

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Posted: 07 September 2007 10:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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dougsmith - 04 September 2007 10:54 AM
wandering - 04 September 2007 10:36 AM

Most of the people I am surrounded with are religious or very close minded on other topics. I cannot imagine them chaniging their views, and it seems that they are not interested to. Arguing with them is impossible since no thinking effort is made.

But perhaps this can be an argument for relativism? If there is no way to change their minds, and neither of the camps can be convincedm then their position is an alternative position to our position. Their position is valid as ours, it is an alternative point of view to look upon reality.

Disagreement is the classic argument for relativism, but it is a bad one.

First of all, there has always been disagreement about the physical world. For centuries there was disagreement about the shape of the earth, of the universe, of the size of the universe, etc. That doesn’t mean that any of these things are relative—that there is no fact of the matter about them.


Unlike the physical world, perhaps you can argue for metaphysical relativism?  The existance of metaphisical entities is relative - each person has his own truth, his own metaphysical entities which are “true for him” ?

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Posted: 07 September 2007 02:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Wandering, now you sound almost like a Gnostic.  Of course, they talk in metaphors.

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Posted: 02 October 2007 09:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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One could say that metaphysical relativism is impossible, because it is possible to assert contradicting metaphysical entities.

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Posted: 02 October 2007 09:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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wandering - 02 October 2007 09:27 AM

One could say that metaphysical relativism is impossible, because it is possible to assert contradicting metaphysical entities.

What do you mean?

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Posted: 02 October 2007 11:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Well, I have a sympathy for relativism in matters of morality and other human ideas/institutions because I am not convinced there is an objective fact of the matter the way there is with regard to questions about the physical world. I don’t think that means that every idea is equally true, however. I think ideas can, in some sense, be tested for utility and value by argument, debate, and evidence as to how they perform in the real world. I think the idea, for example, that science is superior to religion as a way to understand and manipulate the physical world is clearly supported by evidence, even if as an abstract idea it arises out of culture and may be more congenial to certain cultural points of view than to others. Relativism’s main value, as I see it, is as a check on our arrogance, zealotry, and tendancy to be blinded by certainty and self-righteousness to the potential flaws in our own perspective or the potential value in the perspective of others. I think the danger of extreme relativism leading to all ideas being regarded as equally valid is less than the danger of extreme absolutism and self-assurance. But I’m in the minority around here in that sentiment.

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Posted: 03 October 2007 10:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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dougsmith - 02 October 2007 09:43 AM
wandering - 02 October 2007 09:27 AM

One could say that metaphysical relativism is impossible, because it is possible to assert contradicting metaphysical entities.

What do you mean?

The perfect loving Jehovah-the-only-god, and the perfect immaterial loving flying spagheti monster - the only god.

Or perhaps the immaterial unstopable bullet, and the immaterial unpenetratable shield.

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Posted: 03 October 2007 10:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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mckenzievmd - 02 October 2007 11:51 AM

Well, I have a sympathy for relativism in matters of morality and other human ideas/institutions because I am not convinced there is an objective fact of the matter the way there is with regard to questions about the physical world. I don’t think that means that every idea is equally true, however. I think ideas can, in some sense, be tested for utility and value by argument, debate, and evidence as to how they perform in the real world. I think the idea, for example, that science is superior to religion as a way to understand and manipulate the physical world is clearly supported by evidence, even if as an abstract idea it arises out of culture and may be more congenial to certain cultural points of view than to others. Relativism’s main value, as I see it, is as a check on our arrogance, zealotry, and tendancy to be blinded by certainty and self-righteousness to the potential flaws in our own perspective or the potential value in the perspective of others. I think the danger of extreme relativism leading to all ideas being regarded as equally valid is less than the danger of extreme absolutism and self-assurance. But I’m in the minority around here in that sentiment.

What you say boils down to ‘relativism is useful’. I am not sure if you actually say the following, but if you say that relativism is useful, and therefore is true, that seems quite wrong.

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Posted: 04 October 2007 12:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Well, I am saying that relativism is useful.  I also think that to some extant it is true, though I agree that doesn’t follow necessarily from it being useful. I think the idea that there is some objective, actual right or wrong only makes sense if there is a god who decided it or if the universe outside of human beings cares what we do or what happens to us, which I don’t believe. I think the very idea of moral or immoral isn’t applied typically to other animals these days because most of us recognize it isn’t inherent in the physical universe, it’s just a set of human ideas. As such, it’s really cultural. So I think when evaluating moral precepts, it’s useless to talk about what is absolutely right or wrong, since anybody can claim and defend anything they want as the “real” morality. I think it’s more useful to recognize that while there are great commonalities, likely because we share the same biology and evolutionary history, there are also differences and there may not be an absolute right answer that one group has and everybody else has missed.

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Posted: 04 October 2007 08:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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mckenzievmd - 04 October 2007 12:03 AM

So I think when evaluating moral precepts, it’s useless to talk about what is absolutely right or wrong, since anybody can claim and defend anything they want as the “real” morality. I think it’s more useful to recognize that while there are great commonalities, likely because we share the same biology and evolutionary history, there are also differences and there may not be an absolute right answer that one group has and everybody else has missed.

I actually think that this is one of the fatal weaknesses of relativism. The realist believes that there is some truth out there which is worth investigating. The relativist doesn’t. It’s the relativist who ends up cutting off discussion and building barriers—because, as you rightly point out, on their view “it’s useless to talk”. I believe what I do, you believe what you do, and that’s all there is to it.

The realist at least admits he could be wrong about the facts. So he has some motivation to continue the discussion.

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Posted: 04 October 2007 01:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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First off “realist” is a nice bit of semantic spin. Of course, I know you mean someone who bleieves moral values are objectively “real,” but it also has the advantage of echoing the sense of realistic, pragmatic, as opposed to unrealistic. I use the term “absolutist” because it emphasizes the point that believers in an objective external morality usually believe there is an absolute truth and the goal is to find it. I don’t generally find this makes them very open at all to admitiing their understanding is wrong or to continue the discussion. Quite the opposite, it is the claim to an objective moral truth that “I” have discerned and everyone else has missed that leads to so much trouble and conflict.

From a pragmatic point of view, I think moral standards are necessary, which means I don’t go along with acting as if all such standards were equally valid. I understand that you think any degree of relativsim necessarily leads to this, but I don’t agree. I think it is possible to recognize that morality is ultimately arbitrary, within the limitations set by our biology, but that since this very biology motivates us to use our reason to find the best set of standards we can to facilitate our goals of surviving together in functional groups, we can do so even with this understanding. Both extreme relativism and uncompromising moral absolutism have their dangers, but I don’t think history supports the notion that relativism is the more dangerous of the two.

Anyway, I wonder where you would locate your “truth out there somewhere?” I mean, what meaning could morality have outside of human beliefs and desires? None I can see. It is not, to use the science analogy again, like there are moral standards out there we could build a telescope or microscope to see or demonstrate as a necessary consequence of some fact of the physical universe. If we begin with what we want or feel and then use our reason to generate a set of behavioral rules or guiding principles to best accomplish this, it seems a process necessarily dependant on the premises and the process, both of which exist only in our minds. And to the extent that different people will have different premeses and reason along different lines, the results are relative. Now, I still think biology rescues us somewhat here because a great deal of our fundamental desires and the general tenor of our reasoning processes are encoded in it, so the range of variation in the outcome is somewhat limited. But if a Jain believs killing even lice is immoral and a muslim extremist believes killing innocent people is moral duty, well that’s still quite a range! And if you believe they are both wrong, is it because you are closer to understanding the actual moral laws that inhere in the universe, or do you just fall somewhere different within the range of variation for reasons that ultimately only depend on the accidents of your own makeup and experiences?

As for being “willing to continue the discussion.” when have you ever found me anything else? grin

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Posted: 04 October 2007 02:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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“Realist” is the descriptor that distinguishes one from the other. There are “moral realists” and “moral relativists”. That’s the terminology used in metaethics.

“Absolutist” is often used as an epithet. Like the similar term “fundamentalist”, it describes one’s psychological imperturbability, not any metaphysical attitude one has or doesn’t have towards the subject matter.

As for where we locate moral truths, one might as well ask where we locate mathematical truths, or truths of logic. They are abstracta, and we come to them by reasoning and argument. You are of course right to point out that there is a lot of disagreement in the world about moral truths. But to take from that the illicit conclusion that therefore there are no moral truths (or that all moral truths are relative) is a bad argument, as you know. There are, equally, differences of opinion among the students about the right answers on the math test. But that doesn’t make addition relative.

Of course, moral truths are not arrived at through simple formal operations, at least not so far as we know. They are more complex rules about how one should interact with one’s neighbors, about right and wrong action, about what is a good life and what isn’t. Some of this is no doubt vague, even very vague, but vagueness doesn’t entirely block us from seeing the general outlines of the thing. And perhaps all that is real about morality are the general outlines.

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Posted: 04 October 2007 02:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Well, I’m enough of a heretic to ask the question about mathematical and logical truths as well as moral ones. I still see those as models to facilitate human understanding rather than inherent features of the physical universe. But, that’s another, and equally fruitless debate.

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Posted: 04 October 2007 05:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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It looks like I’ve found my way back into this discussion.  :grin:

I see that there is an epistemological disagreement, here, as well as one about the foundation of ethics.


mckenzievmd,

Do you believe that social science can discover truths about the world?  Do you believe that physical science can establish facts?  Either way, do you see these two things as related or unrelated?

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