In this discussion (and elsewhere on this blog), Bernard has been an eloquent voice in defense of relativism. His comments, however, have features that cause me and others like me—probably Darrell among them—to scratch our heads and wonder if we might simply be miscommunicating. That is, I’m led to wonder whether we are using terms like "objectivism" and "relativism" in different senses.
Specifically, Bernard’s comments in the earlier discussion thread are rich with normative language, and I wonder how to make sense of those remarks if I interpret that normative language in accord with what I understand relativism to be. For example, he says the following:
"(The fact that most leaders of social movements were objectivists rather than relativists) certainly doesn't establish social progress requires such leaders. It may well be that incremental change is more positive and lasting than revolutions (and here we must balance the positive achievements objectivists against some of their immeasurable damage, hence my use of Stalin as a possible example)."An underlying assumption of this remark seems to be that there is such a thing as social progress—that social change can be positive (change for the better) or negative (change for the worse). And the suggestion is made that maybe an advantage of relativist approaches to making social progress is that the changes, while more incremental, are more likely to last.
The difficulty I have with this perspective is that one of the key philosophical challenges to relativism is that, because it makes the subjective preferences of the individual or community the standard of value, and because "progress" is a value judgment (change for the better), relativism seriously truncates the senses in which any social change can count as progress.
If what is "good" for a society and its members is relative to a culture's collective subjective values, then we might say that a culture progresses to the extent that it develops institutions and practices that more effectively realize those values. But no change in the dominant subjective values could count as progress.
And so a slow, negotiated change in the dominant valuation of same-sex relationships wouldn't count as progress in any deep sense. It would count as progress only relative to those individuals who happen to already value such relationships. From the standpoint of those who abhor same-sex relationships, it wouldn't count as progress at all. It's not just that it wouldn't seem like progress to them. It wouldn't be progress. Progress itself is fundamentally relativized.
And one wonders: why should I seek to persuade people to move away from their subjective preferences in favor of mine, if there can in principle be no reason to think that my preferences are any more fitting or appropriate than theirs? Why should I be open to being persuaded, to adjusting my preferences in the light of theirs, if there is in principle no reason why my preferences are any worse than theirs?
As James Rachels and other have argued, it seems as if subjectivism in ethics takes away the possibility of rational discourse about ethical issues. If there’s no sense in which it really is better (or really is worse) to allow same-sex marriage in society than to forbid it, then there’s no sense in which there really are reasons to allow same-sex marriage rather than forbid it (or really are reasons to forbid it). And if there are no such reasons, then if I talk as if I am trying to give you reasons to believe as I do I’m really just engaged in a kind of deceptive use of language (perhaps self-deceptive): I am attempting to present as a reason something that cannot be a reason for the simple reason that in the ethical domain there are no such things as reasons that support one ethical view over another.
And so, all arguments and efforts at persuasion reduce to a kind of psychological manipulation: I attempt to get you to embrace my preferences, not because there is any good reason to do so, but because I want you to; and I try to make it look, falsely, as if there is a good reason to do so in order to more effectively influence your preferences. Since this is done in the absence of any actual reasons to suppose that such a change would be a change for the better, there is no meaningful distinction between reasonable persuasion and pschological manipulation. All of it's nothing but more or less effective forms of the latter.
So can this line of concern be answered? And if so, how? It seems to me that the best way answer to these concerns while staying within the spirit of relativism makes something like the following move: while there’s no such thing as “values” or "the good" apart from subjective preferences, other people's preferences have the same status as my own, shaping the good of other people as surely as my preferences determine what is good for me. And every person’s subjectively-defined good has just as much of a claim on being realized as anyone else’s, implying that there is a reason to attempt to negotiate our way towards policies and practices that do the best job of maximizing preference-satisfactions.
In such negotiations, the fact that someone subjectively values X becomes a reason (all else being equal) for anyone to pursue actions or policies that help to bring about or maintain X. But each such reason must be balanced against a wide array of potentially conflicting reasons in the effort to find that course of action which has the strongest reasons in its favor.
From such a perspective, it becomes possible to reject certain preferences, to view them as ultimately bad reasons on which to act. Some preferences effectively "drag down" our potential for maximizing preference-satisfaction, since they are preferences about the preference-satisfaction of others. More precisely, some people prefer that certain important preferences of others not be satisfied. This creates a conflict among preferences. Not all such conflicts "drag down" the potential for maximizing preference satisfaction (for example, I prefer that pedophiles not satisfy their preference for child sex partners; but in this case, we know that children who fall prey to pedophiles suffer long-term affects that negatively impact their prospects for maximizing preference satisfactions of their own).
In many cases, however, there can arise good reasons to oppose such conflict-generating preferences and to encourage those who have them to take steps to change those preferences--for example, by cultivating and practicing empathy. More broadly, we might argue that the more widely people practice empathy—the more their actual preferences are shaped through the practice of empathy—the less conflict there is among our preferences and the more preferences it becomes possible to satisfy. This, then, becomes a reason to call empathy “good” in a sense that isn’t just an expression of personal preference, and to use empathy as a standard for assessing the merits of individual preferences.
But none of this is relativism as I (or most moral philosophers I know) would define it. It's preference utilitarianism. Preference utilitarianism is a moral theory which holds each person's (and, arguably, animal's) preferences to be reasons for anyone to favor actions that satisfy those preferences (all else being equal). And this means that what is right is determined by what has the best reasons in its favor, not by what any person happens to prefer—even if the preferences that are out there in the world serve as the basis on which moral reasoning is done. Subjective preferences become, on this theory, objective reasons for action: That Joe prefers that X come about is treated, on this theory, as a reason for anyone to favor the realization of X in the absence of any competing reasons against X.
There are many who explicitly label themselves relativists who, when I listen to what they have to say or read what they write, sound to me as if they are actually preference utilitarians. This is the case with some of the regular commenters on this blog. Which leads me to wonder whether they are using "relativism" in a broader sense than I do--or whether, perhaps, they are a bit unsure themselves about whether they find relativism or preference utilitarianism more attractive.