Thursday, December 10, 2009

Relative To What?

This will be brief, as I am now in the midst of grading, but I wanted to address AnPan's response to my response on the whole issue of (his) moral realism versus (my) moral relativism before too much time passed.

I think we may have the beginning of a rapprochement after reading AnPan's last rebuttal, indicated at least partially by the title that he chose for his post. AnPan asks "What are moral propositions about?", and he repeats his (now slightly modified) position that moral propositions are about the world. I agree with that, as I noted at length in my previous response. The problem I had with his earlier formulations was that AnPan seemed to be suggesting that moral propositions were not simply about the world, but were "realities" IN and OF the world, either "verified by the world or not." My point, with which I think AnPan agrees, is that moral propositions are "real" and are about "real" things (in the "real" world), but what we mean by "reality" in reference to a value is different than what we mean by "reality" in reference to a thing or event. For a variety of reasons-- most importantly, the dictates of Reason-- we attempt to align our evaluations of the world with the world itself, that is, to evaluate the world in such a way that seems to be consistent with the world's realities. We do this, I think, because morality is not an entirely solitary affair. (That view, again, is what I would call "lazy relativism," what AnPan calls "subjectivism," which I think is an entirely unreasonable position.) When we say something is "right" or "wrong," just like when we say something is "true" or "false," what we mean by that is that we are convinced that we can reasonably expect others to make the same evaluation given the same set of criteria for judging. If they do not, we are obligated to enter into a conversation with them in which we not only address what might be our differing perceptions/experiences of the "realities" that we are evaluating, but also in which we articulate and appeal to the context of rules and evaluations that seem to justify our judgments. Again, my main problem with AnPan's earlier formulation was that he seemed to be suggesting that the final arbiter in these disputes is the world itself, which is a problematic formulation in two ways, as I see it.

(1) First, judgments and evaluations require human reason, they are the operations of human reason, and "the world itself"-- although it may in fact really be "reasonable" (as Hegel suggests)-- does not itself reason. "Values" do not exist in that world. The world gives us things and events to value, but it does not give us values, especially not moral values. I agree with Hegel that if we want to see the world as reasonable, we must look reasonably upon it... and when we do not, we feel as if the world is frustrating us, though it is really the case that our own reason is frustrating us. I think when people use normative language and make normative propositions, they are implicitly claiming that they want to see the world as reasonable, as having reasons or lending itself to reasonable accounts, as appearing purposive. I also think that when people use normative language and make normative propositions, they implicitly expect that those norms apply to other reasonable people in the same way. The difference between saying "I like X" and saying "X is good" is that, in the latter formulation, I am claiming that X is good for you as well. If you don't think X is good, I think you owe me an explanation as to why. Maybe, in the course of that explanation, I will change my mind, or you will, and we will both come to agree that X is, in fact, good (or not). But the point I have been making all along, I think, is that what arbitrates that dispute is (hopefully) Reason and both of our reasonable accounts of the context and rules of meaning-making that we are applying to X. That is to say, X itself does not arbitrate. X itself is not "good" or "not good" independent of a context in which normative judgments are assigned, which is always first and foremost a human context. So, when AnPan asks if "[my] strong relativism is actually compatible with agent-neutral moral realism?", I would say, yes it is. It is compatible with agent-neutral moral realism... but not, and never, compatible with agency-neutral moral realism.

(1a) So, before I leave this first point, I have a little complaining to do. AnPan argues, near the end of his post, the following:

One possibility is that the ultimate non-agential limit of values and moral propositions is intersubjective. I originally thought I might be able to persuade Dr. J of this, though now I’m not sure: intersubjective verification requires only that our ‘moral games’ never conflict, such that, for instance, you’re never playing cops and robbers while I’m playing cowboys and indians, or better, that you’re never playing ‘imperial dominator and colonized native’ while I’m playing ‘aboriginal host and violently pushy guest.’... For clarity: Intersubjective Moral Non-Contradiction holds that A’s claim about what is right for B cannot be co-veridical with C’s contradictory claim about what is right for B.

So far, so good. I agree with all of that (except for the "not being able to persuade me" of it part!). In fact, I think I've been clear all along that what I think it means to say something is "right" or "true" and also to say that "the value 'X is right or true' is real" means that the claim is either intersubjectively verified or intersubjectively verifiable. If it isn't, on my account, then one is making a merely subjectivist (i.e. "lazy relativist") claim. But, despite all of my claims to the contrary, AnPan still insists on reading my position as a variant of individualistic subjectivism. He claims that I cannot be persuaded to adopt the minimum requirement of intersubjective moral non-contradiction (in order to ground a "realism" that is agent-neutral) because I said the following:

at the end of the day, all value-assgnments exist in a context, which means they can be decontextualized and recontextualized and are thus essentially relative to the contexts in which they belong. The context is what “justifies” or “verifies” the values, not the real world.

AnPan interprets that statement of mine to mean that I think each individual is justified in bringing her own individual context to bear on moral questions, that she alone can determine the context in which moral questions are addressed and answered. But to read my claim that way, I think, ignores almost everything else I've said about the difference between strong relativism and lazy relativism, and it ignores my repeated appeals to the individual-agent-neutral (but not agency-neutral) context of human freedom, autonomy and most importantly reason, which constitutes something like a "global context" or a "context for contexts" to which AnPan also appeals and which grounds rules like intersubjective moral non-contradiction. I just don't know how it is that AnPan continues to read so much voluntarism in my claims, save what I suspect might be his own prejudice against the very term "relativism." So, let me say AGAIN, that what AnPan is criticizing here is the very same thing I was criticizing as "lazy relativism," which amounts to something like a game without rules or, at least, a game in which everyone gets to make up their own rules... which is, I agree with AnPan, not a game at all.

(2) Second, my other main problem with the kind of "realism" that AnPan began with, which claimed that moral realities are "verified-or-not" by the world, is that I believe that view ultimately reduces moral judgment to a matter of calculation. And I (along with Derrida, with Kant, with most of the existentialists, and perhaps also with Arendt) don't think that ethics is merely a science of calculation. I think ethics requires judgment and decision, and that the weight that we assign to moral propositions is earned by the non-algorithmic determination of those judgments and decisions. At the end of the day, I think what worries AnPan the most is that my relativism doesn't allow me to say that someone is "wrong" about his or her moral propositions because I allow for the possibility that inasmuch as every proposition is relative to a context, it can be decontextualized and recontextualized. What I would say to assuage that concern is that not all value-contexts are equal. Some allow for much pressure and intervention, and consequently cannot sustain strong claims to the right or the true, or at least cannot portend to oblige others. But just as some contexts appear to human reason as defenseless and easily assailable (like those of taste or preference), other contexts present themselves to us as impregnable (like those of science, mathematics, or logic). I suspect that the context in which most moral judgments are made falls somewhere between the two. We aim as much as possible to incline our accounts of moral judgment towards impregnability, but I think we often find that they fall short, partly because those judgments are not calculable in the same way that logic and mathematics are. My worry about the way AnPan initially characterized what it means to be a moral "realist" is that it leaned too much toward "absolutism," even as he admitted his own fallibilism in relation to those absolute moral realities.

I believe that AnPan is a moral realist, and that he's not a moral absolutist. I think the problem all along here is that he has been contrasting my position to the former and not the latter, a project which I think led him to mischaracterize both my own position and his.

So, AnPan, we good?

1 comment:

anotherpanacea said...

Great response, Dr. J. We are, indeed, good.

I agree with your assessment that 'real' and 'relative' are ultimately the instruments of my misreading. Even as I warned against the prejudices of this metaphysical baggage, I apparently fell for it myself. Being misread is always a frustrating experience and I regret visiting it upon you. Please accept my apology.