Rahul on relativism and moral phil

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Mon Apr 17 21:21:43 MDT 1995

Rahul, could could please write shorter paragraphs and put a space between
them? It's hard to read solid blocks of text.

I am mystified by Rahul's pronouncements on relativism. He says

(1) There is no way to win a relativist to a concrete moreal position.

Now this is plain wrong. Lots of relativists hold concrete moral
positions. Milton Fisk, the most sophisticated relativist now working,
thinks that exploitation is wrong from the point of view of the working
class, for example, and holds many other concrete moral positions--all
relativized, of course, developed in many papers and books.

I initially thought that Rahul meant that relativism is
irrefutable--perhaps true, at least relative to some perspective. But this
is less clear from recent posts. In any case the proposition requires more
defense, for example, against my own argument. Simply asserting the
(relative) validity of relativism is no argument.

But perhaps Rahul means the relativist is not entitled to her moral positions.
If so, I may agree, much we'd have to see what that claim meant. Certainly
Fisk would admit that exploitation is OK from a capitalist perspective;
he'd just say that it's only from within some such perspective that we can
make moral claims at all.

Or maybe Rahul means that a relativist like Fisk will not be persuaded, as
a matterof fact. Well, I don't hold out high hopes for changing Fisk's
mind. He has too much committed to the view he;s developed. But surely the
validity of some position does not depend on changing the minds of all of
its critics. Arguments don't work like that. The bvest you can do, even in
natural science, is to show that the critics should change their minds,
that the positions to which they cling are mistaken, whether or not they
agree. That indeed is what I try to do in defending emancipation,
acknowleding that defenders of dominatiuon will not agree.

2. Rahul also claims that there is no way to reconcile competing moral
positions. Again I am unclear on what this means.

It might be a statement of a relativist position, that if two moral views
differ, both are equally right or wrong. Such a view would require
defense. Disagreement does not of course imply this, even if it is
irreconcilable psychologically or sociologically. If two positions are
inconsistent, all that follows from logic is that they cannot both be
right in the same respect.

Or it may be a statement that people with conflicxting moral views never
will agree. That would be a statement about psychology and not logic, and
by itself has neither relativist nor antirelativist implications. Of
course I think that irreconcilable disagreement does get you started on
the road to relativism, and that this threat requires an answer, which I
have tried to develop.

Or it may be a claim that turns on some special understanding of
"reconciliation," such as finding a third position, different from the
conflicxting ones, on which differing parties might agree. Still, whether
or not this is generally possible, I do not see what Rahul is driving at.

3. Rahul says that we must at some point make a leap of faith and act on
our conviction of what is right, even though we may not be absolutely
certain or able to convince everyone.

I agree with this, but it is consistent with relativism, anti-relativism,
or any position about moral truth you care to entertain.

4. Perhaps Rahul's puzzling statements about relativism are connected with
his impatience about the lack of progress, as he says it, or anyway the
lack of consensus, in moral philosophy. If I may hazard a guess, what's
pushing him around here is the sense that, Goddammit, why fuck around with
all these fancy arguments. You can't persuade the unbelievers anyway, all
you can do id fight them and beat them. We know we're right, so let's not
quibble about it. Let's just talk tactics and strategy, how can be beat
them? Or something like that.

While I am, or have been, a moral philosopher, I have a certain degree of
sympathy for this view. Certainly I hold no hopes for persuading the
exploiters to change their minds. Moreover, I will freely admit that my
mind is closed on certain issues: exzploitation is wrong, freedom is
better than slavery, gross inequality is unjust, etc. I hold these beliefs
to be on a level with Red is a color, grass is green, etc. That is, I will
defend them come what may. In that sense I have the lawyer's mindset, or
maybe not even that, since the other side couldn't bid high enough to hire
me. So why bother with moral philosophy?

a. From a practi8cal point of view it has use in the struggle, since
ideological enagement with the adversary is necessary. We need the
concepts and arguments developed and worked out, we need to be able to
meet and beat their best case, not just to do it, but to win. After all,
they can make their own story sound plausible to those in the middle, so
we we have to do better to win those whom we can.

b. Also from a practical point of view, while the broad outlines are clear
(to me,a nyway) the details are not, and as Aristotle says, we need a
target to aim at. So we oppose exploitation, but what is objectionable
about it, and why? This matters so we can critique the things that produce
it and avoid them. For instance, there is a debate about whether markets
per se are exploitative, or share whatever it is that makes capitalist
exploitation objectionable. Or again. ought we be more exercised about
inequality or unfreedom, and so forth.

c. Then there's the issue of self-assurance, which I have emphasized. We
want to have some degree of confidence tht we are right which is not based
merely on the confidence itself. I will fight exploitation on the basis of
that confidence alone, if i have to, but I will fight it better if I can
explain to myself why it's wrong. Maybe this is just a fact about me, but
I doubt it. Otherwise even those who proclaim allergy to moral philosophy
would not keep returning to it.

d. Finally thyere is the scholars' and thinkers' drive to get things
right. This is a curious taste, not widely shared, and perhaps not
essential to the struggle, especially if carried to the lengths one has
to carry it to to get things right. But it is a taste of mine. If it's not
Rahul's, well, moral philosophy is optional. He doesn't have to do it.

5. I am also puzzsled by Rahul's indivious contrast between moral
philosophy and science, especially natural science. Let me remark by the
way that I am not impressed by moarl philosophy's alleged weakness, which
Rahul asserts, vis a vis economics and political science. As someonew with
fancy credewntials in both philosophy and political science and more than
a passing knowledge of economics, I'll take moral philosophy, as an
intellectual enterprise, over those social sciences any day. Unlike
economics, moral philosophy is not dominated by a discredited technocratic
and purely ideological paradigm. Unlike political science it is not
star-struck with envy of economics. UJnlike both of them it is not crudely
and directly devoted to upholding the rule of the rich and the power of
the state. And the level of argument in moral philosophy is far, far
higher than that in political science. Economists have theorems, but their
significance is at least a matter of dispute.

Anyway, with regard to natural science and the contrast there, Rahul seems
to be disturbed by the fact that moral philosophy is nonconsensual and
nonpredictive. It won't tell us what makes plants run and people don't
agree on it. These complaints seem to miss the mark, but they're
connected. Moral philosophy is supposed to tell us what to do, not how
things work. It is intrinsically nonpredictive. Whether it is explanatory
depends on what you mean by explanation, but in general, as Aristotle
says, the aim of this science is practical. Given that, the lack of
agreement almost falls out automatically. Peopple disagree on moral
philosophy in part because they have conflicxting interests and aims. This
doesn't mean, of course, that these conflicts can't be adjudicated in the
sense of developing plausible arguments about who's right.

Now in the past, and to a certaion extent in the present, natural science
has bneen nonconsensual for just the same reasons. In Galileo's time,
there was a dispute over astronomy because the Church based part of it
claimn to authority on its pretensions to science. Today, the ruling
classes around the world have an interest in the way things work, based on
their commercial and military aims, and so no powerful group in authority
opposes what we call the claims of natural science. ALthough I note taht
sometimes they will oppose particular claims, as they do over
environmental issues, for one. But the consensual nature of natural
science isn't based omn its predictive success, but on the power of groups
with an interest in predictive success. If, as in Stalinisr Russia, some
groups get into power which value other things over predictive success,
they will dispute the authority of mainstream science just as the
Lysenkoists did.

I am not NOT _NOT_ saying that the Church or the Stalinists were just as
right as Galileo and Darwin or Mendel. I have insisted in moral philosophy
and will hold for natural science too that interest-based diszagreement
does not imply relativism. (Although the arguments have to be made for
natural science too.) My point is that consensus here has an explanation
which is largely independent of the validity of claims of the disciplines.

Still, moarl philosophy will never be predictive. That's not it's point.
It's prescriptive, something different. And progress in moral philosophy
consusts in getting clear on the issues, concepts, the range of
alternatives, the interconnections among issues and positions, the
implications of arguments; in incorporating into our moral vision new and
unnoticed experiences and presenting compelling pictures about how we
might best live. That's a different enterprise than that of natural
science, and it's wrong to judge our success in doing it by the standards
of natural science.

--Justin Schwartz

On Mon, 17 Apr 1995, Rahul Mahajan wrote:

> 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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