Relativism

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Sun Jan 15 15:19:51 MST 1995


On Sun, 15 Jan 1995, Jamal Hannah wrote:

> 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."

Of course there is nothing wrong with raational persuasion! My concern is
that Wolff, having abandoned truth as a goal in argument, abandons the
idea of rational persuasion. So "critique" or "dialogue" on his account
threatens to become at best merely rhetorical and at worst cynically
manipulative. Hence my example about substituting drugs or hypnosis for
argument if that would work as well or better at influencing the behavior
of others. I reject such means because I want others to accept my views
because the views are right (if they are), and drug-induced agreement
would not reflect that; also, it's unethical to treat people like that. I
would like to hear from Wolff why and if he has any basis for preferring
persuasion to drugs if they would be equually effective.

>
> 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.
>
I hope my point is now clear. The reverse psychology might kick in if
people realized that Wolff is not trying to establish the truth of the
proposition, "Capitalism is bad," and suggesting that we act on its basis,
but rather somply trying to get them to act what he might condsider a
suitably revolutionary way even though he thinks the propositions on the
basis of which he "argues" are not true or false but only--what?
Assertable in his framework?

> > 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...

<snip>

The problem is that it's not clear what Wolff can _mean_ by "disagree"
since her cannot use this term in its normal sense, i.e., thinking someone
is wrong. Moreover your own "why one disagrees" is ambiguous. One
might offer a reason one regarded as having force for the other person,
but that would seem to imply the notion that the position critiqued is
wring or the argument for it bad in some sense not merely private to one's
own framework. Or one might offer an explanation which is not an
argument--"I'm a Baptist." The latter seems the only sort of account of
disagreement available to Wolff, as far as I can see or he has said.


>
> > 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.

Right. That's the problem. Can Wolff make ratioonal, logical arguments if
he gives up the absolute notions of true and false, right and wrong?

 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.

Absolutely. That's one reason I'm unhappy with Wolff's views.

  I think I am perfectly
> capable of listening to what this person has to say without being
> "brainwashed".

If Wolff is--uh, "right" (or whatever positive designation assertable
claims can have in his account)--are you?

  "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.

Well, for Wolff, are there really counter-arguments or just competing
influences, different frameworks? And what's this "reality" business?
Wolff will have none of that.


>
> > > 	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".

An an intolerant person who did could say, Well, tolerance may be OK for
you, but intolerance is OK for _me_. My point is logical: there is no
argument from relativism to tolerance. Your point is causal, I think:
relativists are more likely to be tolerant. I doubt it. But supposing it
to be so, what's so great about tolerance? Relativists cannot assert its
value as absolute, after all.

  A more tolerant person would understand that a
> persons' behavior is based on their upbringing, experiances, and
> environement..and basicly this justifies it.

So if I was brought up as a racist that would justify my lynching Black
people? You don't believe that.

  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).

You're wriggling here. Look: the reason that taking peyote is OK is
roughly speaking that it harms no one, except maybe the peyote takers, not
because it's "integral to the culture." And the reason racist lynching or
Nazi genocide is wrong is that it violates people's basic rights and
causes immense unnecessary suffering, oppression, and humiliation. Even
were some such practices "integral to a culture"--and in the South, where
I grew up, the usual racist arguments were precisely that, that Jim Crow
and white supremacy were the culture, a claim which I think had a lot of
merit--that would not justify them.

 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.
>

Ah, reading ahead, I see we aragfagrYour relativism vanishes and we have a
straightforward appeal to Mill's harm principle, with its objective sense
of "harm."

--Justin Schwartz




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