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.

2 Comments

  1. Lab Rat says:

    ““not judging others” is in itself a judgment.”

    Hmm…not entirely convinced by that. It’s a point of view, true, but it’s not an actual *judgement* in the same way that darkness is not another state of light.

    “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.”
    You are totally correct here though. With no absolute standard, you can put the standard where you want. But you have to accept that everyone else will but them where they want as well.

    “has learned already that gay sex, multicultural neighborhoods, drugs and alcohol, casual sex, and pluralism don’t work for her.” heh, America – where your love life is a politial issue.

  2. Sean says:

    “”not judging others” is in itself a judgment.”

    “Hmm…not entirely convinced by that. It’s a point of view, true, but it’s not an actual *judgement* in the same way that darkness is not another state of light.”

    This is a judgment call on how to approach this relationship of states in one’s mind, a judgment on how to view those states. One is using their judgment to not make a determination on the condition of states, which is–in spite of itself–a judgment call. It’s like a judge referring a case to a lower/higher court because they feel it’s not their call to make. It is still a judgment call, just deferring responsibility.

    In the same way, not judging the condition of those nation states is deferring responsibility to someone else who must then make a call on their worthiness as states. Precisely the sort of thing which means that the few who are interested are those making the political policy and overture of their own state towards other states, and thus precisely why those few in power can do such things as embark upon policies of conquest and colonialism whether or not the remainder of a society–that non-judgmental (i.e., uncaring) portion–thinks it a noble or worthwhile pursuit.

    Not judging others, this whole nonsense of relativity, isn’t some slippery slope–it’s walking on too thin ice that will collapse without a doubt and leave those walking upon it in a serious struggle for life. Those advocating such social, cultural, civilized relativity are the sorts that end up in the cooking pots of headhunters or murdered in their home by kids from down the street, wondering, “How did this happen?” as they are dying.

    That said, there’s something that second and third-world countries have going for them, and that’s a lack of pervasive bad governance. They just have bad governance, but it isn’t pervasive like it is in first-world nations where you pay a tax on everything except the hair and skin cells you shed, the never-ending bureaucracies you must deal with and–worst of all–a nation full of overweight, bald, pasty intellectuals with nothing better to do than subject the rest of society to their social experiments because they have too much time on their hands. We’ll just take it for granted that every nation, regardless of its condition has a wealthy elite with motives that are all about wealth and control and thus influence politics and shape society to suit their own agenda…which the masses go along with because they are simply too busy trying to just “get by.” Which exacerbates the problem in an ever-worsening cycle.

    Half of the problems in first-world nations would be solved if people had to grow their own food, haul their own water up out of a well (or otherwise collect it) and find ways to heat it without the luxury of a power grid and utilities companies. Alas, democracy is its own worst enemy as its greatest strengths are also its greatest weaknesses and the world still builds nations based on premises that are thousands of years outdated, while allowing religion to shape and dictate when it ought not have any place in governance. There are other concepts and beliefs and ideas better suited to hold a society together than the deification or worship of those not even of one’s own civilization. The majority of the world’s populations have all sold their cultural, social, ethnic, and racial heritage out to some foreign concept or other out of political and social convenience.

    Moral relativism is usually the way out for cowards and the lazy who can’t be bothered to actually make up their mind about the value or worth of some thing or idea–because, then, they might have to work at justifying their opinion. Or, worse, do something–lest they be called judgmental for simply stating their opinion but not being concerned enough to get involved or take action. On the other hand, moral relativists are great philosophers, but I wouldn’t ever depend on one if my life counted on it. I might die long before they could make up their mind and determine whether or not they will help…or pass the buck along to someone else to see if they might like to.

    Anyhow, I’m out of coffee. Great post…

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