Rahul on relativism and moral phil

Rahul Mahajan rahul at hagar.ph.utexas.edu
Mon Apr 17 17:24:31 MDT 1995


Hi, John. God bless you for jumping into my mano-a-mano with Justin. As far
as the progress of moral philosophy, it's definitely not my intention to
knock it. Views have definitely become subtler, many egregious errors have
been corrected (although they do seem to be revived continually), and so
on. My point was not that there is a total lack of progress, but that
compared to any of the natural sciences, or even to economics and political
science, there hasn't been much. It's true, part of my evaluation comes
from the lack of consensus, and even more the lack of any reasonable
well-defined possibly terminating procedure for attaining consensus on any
point, but there are other considerations as well. The depth of basically
all fields dealing with humans in society is just so much less than the
depth of the shallowest natural science. What do I mean? In every natural
science, we have made great progress in relating the characteristics of
various systems to completely different properties at lower levels of
description. We can tell you that chlorophyll is green because it is
composed of certain molecules, whose spectra we can calculate by using
quantum mechanics. We can tell you that certain people with a range of
symptoms that we call Down's syndrome are that way because they have an
extra 21st chromosome. By contrast, most social scientific explanations are
crudely reductionist; we describe societal activities and those of
individual humans in the same terms of economic benefit, political power,
etc. I don't want to do social scientists and philosophers any injustice --
they have mostly advanced from very naive reductionism like saying that the
just society is one where every person is moral. However, they lack the
means to relate totally epistomologically different concepts on different
levels of organization. This to me is a crucial point, although I won't
deny that the lack of any real ability to do what Kuhn calls
"problem-solving" on a day-to-day basis is also a major objection to
treating them on an equal footing.  As far as your statement that one hears
this sort of thing said a lot, I have to say that my experience is totally
different -- society as a whole seems to judge intellectual endeavor by use
of fancy words and existence of well-funded departments, not by depth,
power, and beauty of results.  On the other hand, intellectuals, who at one
time commonly accepted a different status of natural science vis-a-vis
other endeavours, now seem to think that such an attitude is not only
horribly naive, but exploitative as well. And I don't just mean the leftist
ones -- the rightists are constantly attacking the validity and meaning of
science because of the obvious threats it still could pose to religion and
the status quo. If you really hear such sentiments frequently, please tell
me where you live.

        On the other point, about how a relativist can advocate social
revolution, I'm not sure why the question arises. Clearly a relativist can
hardly think others ought to do as he advocates. In fact, I can't see how a
relativist can attack absolutism, belief in objective truth, or any
anti-relativist view, if she is a consistent relativist. If the question is
addressed to me, I would respond that I am emphatically not a relativist.
I've recently been informed that I'm a brute; I'm not sure if it's a
compliment or an insult. Part of my beef with Justin has been that there is
obviously no way to logically win over a relativist to a morally concrete
position.  Equally clear is that there is in fact no way to logically
reconcile two differing moral positions. We have to act on faith at some
point -- we may be for a socialist revolution because in our own system of
beliefs a world where people are emancipated from wage-slavery, or at least
have enough to feed and clothe themselves, is better than what we've got
now, but if somebody thinks that exploitation and misery are a fair trade
for the glories of capital accumulation, there's no way to argue.
          Rahul






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