Amerika

Relativism

So I was visiting an office the other day, and as often happens, I stumble on something in conversation that triggers a political response.

The woman I was talking to reminds me of a smart version of everyperson: roughly conservative on fiscal issues, roughly liberal on social issues, but personally relatively conservative as a means of self-preservation.

That is, she likes small government and capitalism; thinks we should have a civil rights agenda and that it’s why our nation is great; however, has learned already that gay sex, multicultural neighborhoods, drugs and alcohol, casual sex, and pluralism don’t work for her.

People like this make me curious because I’m envious. I like the nice, simple detached sound of that worldview: I’m just doing my thing. Unfortunately, so were most of the people in Greece, Rome, France, India and Russia when they fell; doing your own thing results in others seizing political power. You know that old saw: all that it takes for evil people to succeed is that good people don’t challenge them.

Apparently, I stumbled onto one of her political hot buttons because I said something about the inefficiency of a public agency. “You know,” she said. “I voted for Barack Obama, but Ron Paul is right about this. Government cannot do anything more efficiently than private practice.”

I told her I agree, but that too much privatization could lead to corruption as we see in, and here are my worlds, “failed states like the third world.” I don’t see any point in beating around the bush and telling you that government works better in Italy than Germany, or in India than England, or in France than Sweden — it doesn’t. Failed states crush their elites and spend the rest of their lives circling the drain.

She leapt on me in a flash. “We have something now called relativity,” she said icily. “That means that there is no absolute standard for what is a failed or succeeding society.”

I looked at her and said, “You know, you’re right. There isn’t an absolute standard. But by my standards, those places have failed and I don’t want to live in them. So I’m going to call them failed.”

“But you can’t do that,” she said. “We don’t have an absolute standard.”

“But that in itself is an absolute standard,” I said to her. “Telling me I can’t consider them failed is as absolute as calling them failed.”

“That’s a logic trap,” she said, and to her credit: “I can’t figure that out. I think it’s in the words.” Not the most coherent explanation, but better than any I can do: it’s in the words, or the logic. It’s a property of the symbols.

What she means is “don’t judge others.”

What I pointed out was that “not judging others” is in itself a judgment.

How to escape this logical loop?

If there’s no universal standard, there’s no universal standard. That means it’s not bad for me to refer to third world nations as failed, and for others to think of them as doing just fine. Depending on where you are in life, both may be true.

But the problem exists when we try to apply one standard to both groups. I want to move upward, far away from the third world state, to more organized, rule of law, rule of logic type states; others may have different goals.

“So,” I said. “I guess the question really becomes relative: what you prefer. I know I’d rather move my family into a first-world state, and be among people who want to make first-world states, than be in the third world. Where would you rather live?”

We left the discussion at that, but it could extend to other things. Values systems — she and I are both personally conservative, meaning that we’ve figured out entertainment, intoxicants, casual sex, laziness, stupidity, freedom and convenience are bad goals. Order, efficiency, honor, fidelity, chastity, pride, intelligence, education and hard work are good goals.

We vote with our feet. There won’t be one standard for all of us, but if someone else has the right not to be beholden to my standard, I have the right not to be beholden to hers.

She was right: it’s in the words. They’re claiming a standard of having no standards as somehow inherent or absolute — a variation on the naturalistic fallacy for neurotics — and trying to get me to agree to it. I want more, and so I won’t.

A useful parable.

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