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Weird Relativism
Posted: 04 October 2007 11:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Social sciences can discover truths about human institutions and behaviors. I think those truths are often les reliable than those from the physical sciences, because of les reliable data sources (e.g. verbal report or questionaires, etc), more entrenched biases to overcome for the researchers, and the rapid pace of change in many of the instituions studied, but yes I accept there are real facts about how people act that the scientific method can uncover.

I certainly believe this is true of the physical sciences, though not always as true as lay people assume (as a doctor, I often have to explain to my clients why understanding the complexities of a living organism isn’t as mathematically simple and straightforward as they imagine from TV).

I think they are related in that social sciences use many of the same methods as other branches of science.

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Posted: 05 October 2007 08:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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Social sciences can discover truths about human institutions and behaviors.

Then, we agree about that.  In that case, I think that we may disagree about far less than I initially thought in Vanessa’s Introductory thread.

I will assume from your response to the prior question that, in the case of both the physical sciences and the social sciences, you agree that a very limited human perception leads us to our conclusions about what is factual or true.  Also, that we can and often do make mistakes about what we believe is factual or true.  For example, people once thought that the sun revolved around the earth.  In fact, they were wrong, and when they acquired more detailed evidence they concluded that it was the other way around.  If we are rational in our approach to examining available evidence and we are open to the possibility that we may be wrong about one thing or another, that means that we are amenable to critical thought, right?  In that sense, we are always working from the standpoint of a “best guess for now.”

When I made my initial statement about right and wrong being independent of culture, my real point was that some things can and ought to be asserted as right or wrong whether other people agree with them or not.  Sometimes the group is wrong and the solitary individual is right.  After all, what really is a culture but a group of individuals who behave and believe things together.  I imagine that you agree with most of this.  Am I incorrect to assume?

I suspect that the directness of my language is, more so, what bothers you about my ethical stances.  Perhaps it struck you as priggish.  So, if you’ll pardon the rhetorical questions:

Must we qualify all statements that we make with such phrasing as “it is my opinion that…” or “in my understanding…”?
May we not take for granted that anything that anyone states is limited by the scope of their understanding.
Isn’t anything that anyone believes just a best guess, if not less than a best guess due to bad reasoning or a lack of reason?
Would making a statement without such verbal qualifications really make us less or more likely to take an authoritarian stance?

Let us not confuse parsimony and economy of language with arrogance or a closed mind.

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Posted: 05 October 2007 10:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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I agree that it doesn’t sound like we are very far apart in our positions. I also understand that inserting qualifications about the provisional nature of all scientific truths into every sentance is awkward and unnecessary. If in saying that right and wrong are independant of culture all you mean is that as a practical matter we should act is if our values were true, with all the caveats taken as given, then I don’t disagree.

As I said in responding to Doug above, I do think that moral standards are necessary, and that acting as if all such standards were equally valid is not useful or appropriate. From a theoretical point of view, though, I do not believe that moral truths exist in some way independantly of human beliefs and desires as truths about the physical universe do. I think we make them up, as individuals but mostly as groups, based on features of our biology and on our beliefs and desires. And I think they differ as much as they do among cultures because the starting points, the point of view and goals, differ. And there is really no rational way to objectively evaluate them and say one set of standards is truer than another, because the judgement is always relative to some premis (suffering is bad, tolerance is good, God is real and says X, etc). So ultimately I do think moral standards are cultural in nature, varying freely within the limitations set by our biology. I happen to think it is more useful in the world to act in accordance with our own moral standards, and sometimes that means acting in opposition to someone else’s. I even think our biology dictates that we are driven to do so. I couldn’t stand by and watch a deliberate act of cruelty because I feel such is morally wrong, and I’m comfortable acting on my beliefs. But I think remembering the theoretical caveats is useful because it does protect against ethnocentrism and arrogance of the kind our current president is such a good example. And I think the danger of absolute certainty in the objective rightness of one’s own moral position is more of a danger than the bugbear postmodernist excessive relativism everyone here is so afraid of.

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