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Rant against Naive Relativism 27 December 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Multiculturalism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
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1) All ideas (including religions) are not equal, either in their truth content or in their consequences in the real world. For example, to believe that one must “respect” Mormons, because it’s their religion is naive relativism at its worst, and assumes that mormonism’s truth claims are equal in value — merely because someone believes them — to the evidence that disproves them. Hogwash.

1a) Social scientific relativism is a useful and ethical requirement in doing research, but it is far narrower than commonly understood: In order to fully understand someone else’s culture, one must, to the extent possible, lay aside and/or suspend one’s own values and world view. Notice that this says nothing of the value of either your own culture or the culture you are trying to understand. Naive relativism is the misapprehension that social scientific relativism means that all cultures are of equal value. [As a side note, I would argue that social scientists doing descriptive work must stop short of the evaluation stage of analysis; however, I do think there’s a place for evaluation in scholarly work, if it is done correclty and in the right contexts.]

1b) In the real world, we must — I repeat for emphasis, must — judge among competing values and world views. In fact, our world would grind to a halt if we actually lived as if all world views and values were equal. Why? First, our brains aren’t set up to function without values to guide our actions. But more importantly, because competing values and cultures and world views do not impact the world in equal ways. We choose among values and world views on an individual level as we assemble the collection of values that work for us; but socially, we must do this collectively to ensure that society moves forward in a way that maximizes our ability to choose our personal values and world views [insert long discussion about democracy here].

2) Making a truth claim or a value proposition is ethically neutral and a normal part of being a human being. It is not unethical or problematic to do so. However, I would argue that there are better and worse ways to make truth claims (i.e., scientific method) and value propositions (i.e., solid argumentation with reasons and evidence). Further and related, to evaluate a value proposition or a truth claim is ethically necessary: Not to do so is to be complicit in the consequences of such, good or bad.

3) The best way to make evaluations of others’ value propositions and truth claims is to require they be made with adequate reasons to support them and adequate evidence to support the reasons (basic argumentation/logic). Then, if the argumentation is solid up front, the consequences, real or probable (not just possible), of adopting the value proposition and/or believe the truth claim must be evaluated.

3a) If both the argumentation and the consequences are acceptable, rock on. Adopt it or leave it be as your heart desires or as is necessary in your situation or society.

3b) If the argumentation is faulty but the consequences are acceptable, beat the shit out of the argument, but leave the believers their freedom to believe their idiocy (insert again long discussion of democracy and the harm principle). But do not renege your ethical responsibility to the truth to undermine wrong ideas, even if the consequences are acceptable.

3c) If the argumentation is solid, but the consequences are unacceptable, organize socially to stop a value system from being put into place that would have undesireable consequences, even if the argument behind that value proposition are solid. (I have a hard time thinking of a good truth claim that would have unacceptable negative consequences, although many Hollywood political scenarios seem to present true information to the public would somehow harm them.)

4) All truth claims and value propositions should be approached as provisional, as ends-in-view rather than ends-in-themselves, so that at any juncture, with any new information, they may be revised as necessary.

Therefore 5) Although you may have an ethical responsibility to treat believers in false ideas or bad values nicely, you are under no ethical obligation to treat their faulty, untrue, baseless beliefs and values nicely, nor to excuse or ignore the consequences of their beliefs in the real world.



1. mattblack - 29 December 2007

The crux seems to be point 3.
“The best way to make evaluations of others’ value propositions and truth claims is to require they be made with adequate reasons to support them and adequate evidence to support the reasons (basic argumentation/logic).”

But isn’t this just a fancy way of saying that when faced with the choice between Faith and Reason, one should always pick Reason? Further, that if Faith doesn’t play by Reason’s rules it should be discounted and eliminated?

Not sure I disagree, but then, I’m not sure I agree either. Something in me balks at the elevation of the mind above all else.

Perhaps my problem with all this boils down to nothing but an illogical queasy feeling in my stomach, but maybe that’s the point.

2. C - 29 December 2007

“Therefore 5) Although you may have an ethical responsibility to treat believers in false ideas or bad values nicely, you are under no ethical obligation to treat their faulty, untrue, baseless beliefs and values nicely, nor to excuse or ignore the consequences of their beliefs in the real world.”

Thank you.

3. Todd - 3 January 2008

I think I understand where you’re coming from Matt. But I think (nd I could be completely out to lunch on this) that this stems from an old idea that “reason” and “faith” come from different realms or brains. I don’t think Faith (capital F religion?) should be discounted or eliminated. But I do think it should be evaluated. It is very human to have affective experiences of irrational beliefs; in many ways, it makes us human. I also don’t think Reason is somehow separate from feeling or experience (and neurology backs me here); rather, reason is a process and function of our brains that combines all our sensory inputs, including emotion, to work. Cartesian Reason doesn’t really exist, external from our brains, and our brains don’t work the way Descartes (or Aristotle or Plato or Aquinas or Locke) thought.

Of course I’m basing all of this on my assumptions coming out of William James and John Dewey and Charles Pierce’s reformulation of thought and truth as deeply embodied processes.

4. mattblack - 3 January 2008

Hmmm. Perhaps I am falling back on a false dichotomy. At any rate, I agree with you that all ideas, values, and systems are not created equal and that we must judge them on their merits. But when I look at my own methods of judging such things I find that I go with my gut instinct and then use the kind of reasoned argument you propose to back up my initial intuitive leap. I think a lot of scientists (and other academics) do the same thing and have to be on constant guard against finding what they’re looking for and ignoring the rest.

5. Todd - 4 January 2008

Yes! That’s actually very true. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that, frankly, as long as you’re willing to let go of your gut when you get to the argument part and find that your gut was wrong. I totally do this, too.

6. mattblack - 6 January 2008

There’s still a part of me, the part raised by devote Mormon parents, who keeps trying (less and less) to find some substitute for the absolute in my decision making process. I think this sort of loss (among certain segments of the culture) may be where sloppy ideas like naive relativism come from (i.e., well, if there is no God/Truth/Absolute Authority then all that crap must be essentially the same/it’s all true, none of it’s true, ohmmmm). It’s a way of losing your faith in God without having to take on any of the pesky new-found moral autonomy.

7. Sean - 7 January 2008

I agree, Matt. I think there’s something innate in the human thinking process that gives intuition or gut feelings unconscious weight, and religions have hijacked this and called it God or the Spirit. That way people get to say, “You know, I’ve always FELT that there was something more than this life . . .” or “I’ve always FELT that families are forever . . .” or whatever other nonsensical notions they cling to. That’s what reason has to fight against–that unconscious reliance on gut feelings and wishfulness, not as the first line of reasoning (which is natural), but as the ONLY line of reasoning.

8. Todd - 7 January 2008

Matt, I completely agree. Naive relativism in the academy could really be seen as a widespread replacement for God/absolute through the erasure of absolute (as as we were all fond of saying during undergrad years, “there’s are no absolutes” is an absolute). I definitely find that with hard core post-modernists/post-structurualists, there is an almost religious reverence both for the movement’s prophets and for the ideas, which purport to undermine all a prioris, only be estabilishing a set of a prioris.

I know I’m a broken record on this point, but this is what I loved about the American Pragmatists. They figured out that knowledge is situated in the 1880s, and came up with a full-blown of explanation of why situated knowledge still matters and a method for how to produce situated knowledge (including moral knowledge) that was both ethically responsible and small-t true.

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