Relativism

Jamal Hannah jamal at bronze.lcs.mit.edu
Sun Jan 15 11:19:00 MST 1995


Justin Schwartz Wrote (in reply to Richard Wolff):
> > 	Contrary to Schwartz's assertions, I try hard to convince others
> > to see my way because I need their help, cooperation, and comradeship to
> > achieve the goals that make sense to me socially.
>
> So for you, argument is just an attempt to influence the behavior of
> others? To admit this is rather self-defeating, eh? If other people
> thought that you were quite serious about that, they might resent it and
> refuse to be influenced.

Justin, I personaly cannot say there is anything wrong with attempting
to change people's minds, or convince them of something, with rational
arguments.  In fact, admiting it ahead of time is a bit more honest
than not admitting it, which is the standard practice of salesmen
and marketers trying to sell a product, and attempting to hide their
argumentative/persuasive nature behind the veil of "engaging in a
personal conversation."

If he "admits" it, more power to him.  Even if a person is "alerted"
that someone is trying to convince them of something, they can still
decide for themselves weather that person was right or wrong.. perhaps
it might take a little time or experiance to decide for sure.

If people "might resent it and refuse to be influenced", then one could
go around saying "I want to convince you that capitalism is good", and
presumibly, under this logic, people would disagree with it and assume
capitalism is bad. (reverse psychology).. but it just dosnt work that way.

> So what is it to adhere to a view? Suppose you "convince" me--in your
> terms, what have you done? I do not, as you see it, come to agree that you
> are right. It's no use to say that I agree with you, because the question
> arises at the level what it is to agree with someone if I do not think
> they are stating truths. Perhaps--I'm just trying to think out how this is

It seems simple enough to openly state that one disagrees, and then
immediatly offer supporting information as to why one disagrees, and
then leave it at that.  Granted, there are many polemical arguments
on the internet (and elsewhere)  where people have decided, ahead of
time, that they disagree with someone (hate them, whatever) and no matter
what that person says, they will come up with rationalizations that
everything they say is wrong.  This is rather sad, because it means
that some people are ridgidly inflexible in their thinking.  However:
the saving grace is that even when people openly state that they feel
someone is wrong, sometimes the very fact that the person expressed
powerful ideas has a long-lasting effect.  I could say that I have
been equaly influenced by people who disagreed with me, as I have
been with people I aggreed with.  I have seen this in other people too:
sometimes I have seen right-wing ideologues using an argument
which a leftist was using some weeks or months before!  (in fact,
it goes back and forth like a ping-pong ball, sometimes.)

> A thought experiment may help with the problem I'm having with Wolff's
> theses as I understand them. If warrant and "rational" acceptability for
> Wolff boils down to effective persuasion, inducing cooperation (setting
> aside for the moment the puzzle of how we can tell whether it has occured
> on his account), then in principle it might be replaced by drugs or
> hypnosis. If I can get cooperation on goals that make sense to me just as
> well by letting Wolff sample my medicine cabinet, why isn't that an
> "argument" for Wolff? "Here, Rick, try this argument. It's Colombian!"
> Maybe I am missing something, but I'd like it explained to me. (Good drugs
> are gratefully accepted, but not in lieu of more conventional arguments.)

I dont remember Wolff claiming that it "boiled down" to "effective persuasion"
.. this is the kind of thing a salesman might say.. but rational, logical
arguments usualy have more than intimidation, flatery, or emotionalism
behind them: they have supporting arguments which determine the
validity of the ascertion.  Comparing the desire to persuade people
to the desire to brainwash them or give them drugs seems, to me, to be
a very cynical view of human capabilities.  I think I am perfectly
capable of listening to what this person has to say without being
"brainwashed".  "Brainwashing" is only effective in a vacuum: so long
as there are no counter-arguments to the arguments a person makes, ever,
then people will eventualy default to those arguments, unless some other
aspect of reality steps in the way.  I think this is why people with
a Christian upbringing overwhelmingly grow up to be Christians,
and people with a Jewish upbringing grow up to be Jews: if there had
been arguments of equal force for NOT being religious, at the same time
the child got the religious arguments, then the number of people who
grew up to choose to be religious would, I think, more realisticly
reflect the validity of the argument for belief in a religion.
(Or, they might grow up Agnostic, as I did.)

> > 	My parting shot thus is: have we not had more than enough
> > illustrations, left, right, and center, of awful consequences of such
> > absolutist judgement styles.........to be at least a little suspicious of
> > them and defenses of them, to be just a little open to alternative,
> > different ways of conceptualizing difference?
>
> This is the notion that relativism promotes tolerance. It is a fallacy. As

I always felt that relativisim DID promote tolerance, though there are of
course exceptions.  Basicly, an intolerant person who does not accept
moral relativism might see anyone behaving in any way different from
them as "immoral".  A more tolerant person would understand that a
persons' behavior is based on their upbringing, experiances, and
environement..and basicly this justifies it.  The exception is
when that behavior is clearly harmful!  I think the argument that,
say, Nazis are "simply following their upbringing" when they attack
Jews is less valid than the argument that "certain Native Americans
take peyote as part of a religious ceremony."  With further information,
we know that in fact the killing of jews on the Nazi's part was a
political tactic: not directly related to culture, but a means
to a political end (focussing mass anger at something other than
the ruling class).  The most important thing here is that the
Nazi behavior is going to be harmful _even_ outside their own sphere
of influences.. whereas indiginous cultural practices are generaly
not "harmful" even within their own sphere of influence.

(I realize this digresses a bit but I'm just trying to prove a point.)

 - Jamal Hannah

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