Relativism

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Sat Jan 14 10:18:52 MST 1995


On Sat, 14 Jan 1995, Richard Wolff wrote:

>
> 		Rather, we need to accept the irreducibly partial
> 		bases for everyone's preferences/desires/efficiency
> 		calculi. Each person's standards are uniquely overdetermined
> 		by all the influences that shaped their biographies.
> 		BUT NO FOUNDATION OR FOUNDATIONALISM lurks in such a
> 		statement. This is because we cannot account for all
> 		those influences that together overdetermine our respective
> 		definitions/standards/values/ etc. We cannot do that
> 		because they - like the ramifications of economic
> 		institutions or acts - are infinite, hence unknowable in
> 		toto, hence unmeasureable, hence NO FOUNDATION in the
> 		sense of some account valid for everyone across their
> 		differences.
>
> 		As Foucault and Derrida sing so incessantly, the issue
> 		is difference and whether - as Marx first put it - we
> 		have gotten far enough in the critique of religion
> 		(read monotheism, absolutism, mono-causalism, determinism,
> 		essentialism....and the other synonyms) to commence,
> 		freed from the search for absolutes, the needed critique
> 		of social life.
>
> 	Rick Wolff

I didn't mean to get into this, but the provocation is too great and my
flesh is too weak. _On what basis_ do we make such a critique if all we
have is partial interests and perspectives which cannot claim any validity
for people of different backgrounds, biographies, and social positions?
Evidently all we can say is that _we_ don't like the way social life is
organized. It doesn't coincide with _our_ conception of _our_interests. (Of
course on Wolff's line our actual interests are uncalculable, so we can't
even say that it doesn't coincide with our interests, but just with what
we think they are and with what we want.) The other side will say, well
_we_ like things just fine. And that's it, end of debate. Now we fight.

On this story there is no reason to prefer the perspective of the
subordinate to that of the dominant, no basis ("foundation"?) for saying
that the dominant perspective is wrong or immoral, no way to say that
exploitation and oppression are unjust or bad from from the point of view
of the rulers. In fact they are just and good from that point of view, and
only unjust and bad from the point of view of the ruled (if the ruled in
fact accept that they are). If we are to choose perspectives, we have a
bare existential choice without any motivation or indeed any rational
claim we can make to anyone else that it was correct. "I go with the
subordinated," says Wolff. "Well, I don't," says Friedman, and there is
nothing we can say to him.

This is not--yet--intended as a reductio of Wolff's position, just as an
explication of its meaning and consequences. Those who are "religious"
enough to want a reason for their moral choices might think that it is a
reductio, but I want to make a different, and logical, point here. This is
that the notion of a _critique_ vanishes on Wolffian assumptions. A
critique implies criticism of demonstrable error. What we can get on the
Wolffian picture is just a difference in perspectives. Critique is
impossible given Wolffian relativism.

Now I should also say that the alternative to such relativism is not
"foundationalism" (necessarily), if the f-word implies finding a basis for
critique that is independent of any point of view at all. Wolff is right
that no such basis exists. But a basis might still be shared by the
critiquing and critiqued perspective: I mean by this that a critique can
proceed ad hominem, arguing, e.g., that given the exploiters' total
commitments, they should reject exploitation on their own grounds.
Actually, to be accurate, such ad hominem criticism need not involved a
_shared_ value: it is sufficient if the exploiters should not on their own
terms exploit even if the critical position of the exploited does not
share any of those terms. This is a kind of argumentative strategy we
learn from Hegel, who offers "immanent" or internal critiques of the
inadequacy of forms of consciousness without appeal to anything outside
all forms of consciousness. In any event, something like that is necessary
for us to be able to offer anything that looks like a critique at all.

Part of the limited plausibility of Wolffian relativism derives from a
false dichtomony. EITHER we assert a God's eye point of view OR we accept
complete relativism. But there are other possibilities. And if there is
to be critique instead of mere brute disagreement and existential choice,
there must be.

By the way, Wolff is also wrong about efficiency. We can define the term
in various ways, and once it is defined, we can determine whether so
defined it is better satisfied by one or another social arrangement. This
determination will not necessarily be thus relative to our interests, our
conceptions thereof, or our particular perspectives. Thus if we choose
the minimization of necessary labor as our criterion, we can then
determine whether socialism, understood in some determinate and precisely
specified manner, minimizes NL more than capitalism, also thus
articulated. I think Wolff's point, properly formulated, should be that
choice of criteria on which to assess social systems, definitions of
efficiency, etc., are contested, which of course is right. But this leads
back to the discussion of relativism. Wolff can offer no basis other than
his own disagreement for a capitalist criterion which chooses, e.g.,
profit maximization or GDP growth as a comparative criterion.

Absolutely yours,

Justin Schwartz


     ------------------



More information about the Marxism mailing list