Relativism Debated

We had a nice debate going between Kevin and Arie on relativism. Here was the original discussion that got me interested. It was on the Legal blog Mirror of Justice between July 2 and July 10. Here are some of the positions. There were thousands of words on the topic. These are some of the less semantic and less technical responces. I must note that Leslie Green himself tweeted the discussion here. I alternate blockquote and italics to differentiate. I did not write any of the material below.

Green inadvertently affirms the future Pope’s thesis when he argues that we do have minimum moral standards and that they are determined by the ever changing whims the majority. To this country bumpkin, that sure sounds like relativism. But, what do I know? Michael S

The point that Pope Benedict is trying to communicate, I believe, is that many people, including many influential people, appeal (sometimes only implicitly, but sometimes quite explicitly) to relativism in the face of demanding moral claims. People want to do what they want to do. As the socially liberal movie maker Woody Allen famously said, “the heart wants what the heart wants.” So, when morality gets in the way, many are tempted to say (sincerely enough, even if often inconsistently) that morality lacks any objective basis. Robert George

The serious disagreement between Pope Benedict and Robby (and Catholic moral-theological traditionalists generally) on the one side, and some Catholic moral-theological dissidents on the other, with respect to the issue of same-sex sexual conduct, is a disagreement about the requirements of human well-being. This is a disagreement between two groups neither of whom is relativist (or subjectivist), both of whom are fiercely anti-relativist. Michael Perry

When I was young, innocent, and hopeful, a conversation broke out among several friends and myself about the old ‘Nazis marching in Skokie’ case, which I had read about in connection with a history of the ACLU. Some of my friends, with whom I was inclined to agree, thought if fitting for the city to prohibit the march. Other friends, with whom I was inclined to disagree, argued that the prohibition was a violation of the Nazis’ First Amendment rights. I recall feeling great irritation with this latter observation, and I said as much. It just couldn’t be licit, I thought…For in ‘tolerating everything’ one would be tolerating, among other things, intolerance — toleration’s contrary.

I hit upon a tentative solution that I later recognized to have been a primitive grope in the direction of Kripke’s response to the Epimenides (the ‘paradox of the liar’). The Epimenides, as many here will recall, is the paradox occasioned by a statement’s apparent self-denial — a statement of the form ‘this statement is false.’ The putative paradox stems from the statement’s being false if it is true, and true if it is false — assuming, of course, that it must be one or the other and not both. (That assumption turns out to be false.)
Now intuitively, Kripke’s response to paradoxes of this form, if I’m remembering it rightly, involves distinguishing between what he calls ‘grounded’ and ‘ungrounded’ statements. A grounded statement, again if I recall this correctly, is about something other than a statement. It’s about dogs, or cats, or what ever, anything other than statements. So long as you have one of those, then any statement about that statement, or about a statement about the statement about the (grounded) statement, or … , will itself be grounded as well. Otherwise, not. If one then stipulates that only a grounded statement is possessed of a truth value, one defuses the Epimenides by observing that the self-denying proposition in question is ungrounded, hence possessed of no truth value at all, true or false, hence not paradoxical in the ‘both true and false’ sense.

Now my own youthful proto-Kripkean response to the ‘tolerance’ conundrum worked in much the same way as Kripke’s response to the Epimenides: ‘Tolerance,’ I speculated, always carried what I then called a sort of ‘argument place’ with it. It always implicates what the grammarians call a ‘direct object.’ One does not simply ‘tolerate.’ One ‘tolerates x,’ or ‘tolerates y,’ etc. Further, assuming some x that it is right to tolerate and wrong not to tolerate, it surely will often be right not to tolerate intolerance of that x. At any rate it will need not be incoherent to deny toleration to such instances of intolerance.

Now, how does this bear on the conversation here? I think in this way: There seems to be much intolerance afoot in some quarters, for example, of girls and women who wish to participate on equal terms with boys and men in educational and vocational settings. My guess is that most of us in ‘the West,’ be we generally ‘leftward’- or ‘rightward’-leaning where political questions are concerned, agree that instances of this form of intolerance are not to be tolerated, either as an ethical or as a legal matter. And there is no incoherence, nor need there be any bigotry or relativism, in any such judgment.

All of us, ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘in between,’ who find sexism of the specified type intolerable are simply taking a universally applicable human right seriously — ‘absolutely’ seriously. We are not thinking as ‘bigots’ or ‘relativists.’ And we might even be right, moreover, in some cases, to describe certain instances of the particular form of intolerance itself as bigoted or relativist — if prompted or defended, say, by reference to a putatively relevant ‘fundamental difference’ between women and men, or to a putative ‘religious’ or ‘cultural’ right to subordinate women.

There are some, for example, who appear to take sexual orientation to be more a matter of behavior or ‘lifestyle choice’ than of genetically determined or deeply-psychologically-rooted identity. There are others who appear to see things the other way round.

To those who see sexual orientation as merely a ‘lifestyle choice,’ by contrast, it will sometimes be tempting, again in careless moments, to view defenders of ‘gay rights’ or ‘gay marriage’ as ‘relativists.’ For it will sometimes seem to them, again prior to reflection, that their opponents think ‘anything goes’ where behavior and ‘lifestyle choice’ are concerned. But in fact bigotry and relativism are apt to be neither here nor there in these cases. For in fact most on both sides will be absolutists about moral and ethical matters, and in agreement that it is ethically wrongful to view persons as subordinate on the basis of ineluctable attributes.

And it is only by keeping one’s eye on the real ball — that is, by fixing attention on the act or attribute in question — that we keep the door open to real progress. I fear that labeling, as ‘bigots’ or ‘relativists,’ those who view the ball differently than we do is, all too often, an indicator that our eyes have strayed from the ball, and that the discussion has accordingly become ungrounded. Posted by Robert Hockett

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