Practical implications of relativism

I haven’t lived up to the title of this blog.

Answering Mark Hudson’s question about Marx’s relativism took much longer and many more words than I anticipated.  And it involved a long excursis into abstraction.  If you still care, you probably wonder: what  practical implications does all this talk about relativism actually have?

(And why do I keep putting the verb “to be”, selectively, in strike-through text? But that, dear readers, will have to wait for another day.)

The social relativity of truth doesn’t, by itself, imply any particular ethical consequences. Let’s clear that up right away.

The great imperialists of the nineteenth century and many nation-builders of the twentieth, including right here in Canada, used ideas about the universality of Reason to justify the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples.  The cultural anthropologists used relativism to oppose this. But the Nazis used relativism to justify their own genocide.

Whether relativism justifies genocide or tolerance depends on your values. More deeply than that, it depends on what you give your love to: your own nation, your own people, your own Volk, or something broader — humanity as a whole, say, or all life on this Earth.

The Nazis used a form of relativism to justify genocide, as I recognize in my book.  Liberals like Karl Popper saw this and proposed a universalistic rationalism as the antidote to the totalitarianisms of Hitler and of Stalin.

Oddly enough (or not), twentieth-century Western Marxists also proposed universal rationality as the foundation for revolutionary socialist struggle, criticizing the irrationalities of capitalism. It shows up in Habermas’s work, his vehement criticisms of Foucault and his defense of modernity, and in contemporary Marxists’ even more vehement attacks on postmodernism.

The dominant Marxist strategy has been to say, yes, we need modernity, we need Enlightenment, we need rationality — rather than reconsider these things, we just need more of them. Modified rationality, for sure, not just the short-sighted and inhuman instrumental rationality of capitalists, but a more pure rationality, unsullied by petty self-interest.  And for their part, champions of social democracy have claimed that some such form of rationality, implemented by a democratic state, can overcome capitalism’s irrational distribution of wealth and poverty.

Behind these various deployments of the ideal of universal reason lies a conviction that to bring about the good society we can and must use reason, innate to human nature, to produce a unified consciousness which can serve as the foundation for that good society.

I think this strategic investment in rationality has led the Left into a dead end.

Not pictured: most of humanity

The relativity of truth implies that reason can only take us so far.

It implies that we cannot actually separate reason from our mundane interests, from our embodiment, from our emotions, or from power. We can only pretend to do so.

It implies that what will seem reasonable to any group of people will depend on non-rational factors, and that to ignore or marginalize the non-rational in the name of reason functions only to conceal the material relations that give reason its efficacy, its seeming universality.  In the name of pure and universal reason we conceal our desires, our fears, we conceal the use of force on which reason depends, we conceal the violence required to make people reason in a common way.

We expect reason to lead us to consensus — to a free, uncoerced consensus. And sometimes it can. But what happens when it doesn’t? What do we do when a reasonable conversation fails to reconcile our differences?

One option is to attempt to outdo the reasoning of the other, to play the game of reason and win, to triumph over our opponent through the superior use of reason.  This counts as one form of what I call, in my book, deferentiation: the process of establishing a relationship of dominance and deference through symbolic means.

If that doesn’t work, we can accuse the other of not reasoning properly, of ‘being irrational’, in order to disqualify what they say. We can try to say, “we will not listen to you when you talk like that; for us to listen, you must talk in this way”. Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition, called this ‘terrorism’; I prefer to call it a form of symbolic violence.

Perhaps sometimes we have to struggle for dominance; perhaps sometimes we have to use violence, symbolic or otherwise, to oppose the violence of our oppressors. It works well enough for certain purposes. But it always comes with a cost: the alienation of the other.

No free person would choose to let others dominate or silence them.  For this reason I don’t think we can build a radically free, egalitarian society on a foundation of reason. We can use reason towards that end in specific, limited ways, but we need other tools.

What do these tools look like?

Materialist relativism tells us that if we wish to relate nonviolently with others we need to learn, understand, and accept the material factors that shape the truth of their experience.  If we love the Other, we need to accept that their location in social relations may differ from ours. That their embodiment may differ from ours. That their logic and perceptions may differ from ours. That their needs and interests, their fears and desires, may differ from ours. And to accept these things, not as static entities that will never change (because all things change continually), but as operating in the present moment.  As neither good nor evil in themselves, but as bearing good or evil qualities only in relation to our own desires and interests. To observe with mindful acceptance the irreducibility particularity, the Otherness, of the Other.

And this means accepting the material factors that shape the truth of our own experience, accepting our own irreducible non-universality.

17 thoughts on “Practical implications of relativism

  1. Have you seen the Adam Curtis documentary, “The Century of the Self”? Modern history gives a fragmented view of the last century, leading to a fragmented social identity. I never quite understood what happened on a social as well as psychological – essential – level, until this documentary asked a few penetrating questions. Some insights into relativism;

    Around the 1960s, as a reaction to social control, to religious dogmas and to authoritarian mindsets, a new psychology began to form… first in academics – saturating the youth of that time, and then it very rapidly within the span of a decade spread into a collective paradigm –

    This was the beginning of postmodernism – the idea that all experiences are valuable, all truths are relative and individual, and unique to each person… and there is no one set truth.

    This view had some wonderful elements that have positively influenced the world;

    * Acceptance of diversity in culture and beliefs without judgement.
    * Creative abundance, as now, anything goes.
    * Equality for all human beings, no one is better or worse than another.
    * These kinds of ideas created powerful movements for human freedom, and freedom of speech.

    It is because of this appreciation for individuality and freedom of speech that such an idea that “all truths are relative” took on so much power, and why it so quickly saturated among societies.

    Capitalism also quickly assimilated this idea, which is why now we have such an abundance – such a variety – of different gadgets, technologies, clothing, utilities, etc.

    But at the same time, this idea lead to a moral relativism – that is, it was left upto anyone to decide what was the right thing to do… if “all truths are relative,” then surely it is the right of a terrorist to kill another…

    I mean, you can’t say, “all truths are relative, but the one Supreme truth is that you shouldn’t kill others,” can you? Isn’t that inherently self-contradicting?

    “The SUPREME TRUTH is that all truths are relative.” Haha. Really? So, even there, there is a supreme truth?

    That is the fundamental problem with postmodernism. Not only that, this has affected people more on an emotional level, a visceral level, rather than as a rational belief system.

    Also, this idea lead to much self-indulgence and wastage of resources.

    Ultimately this comes back to the story of the five blind men and the elephant –

    Sure, each of the five blind men only had a piece of the truth… and each of their pieces were relative….

    But you see, that’s as far as postmodernism goes, and it is not the whole truth.

    The whole truth is that there STILL is the elephant in question, and how about the “wholeism” – the integrating of the truths of the five blind men to see the elephant for what it is.

    Whilst people went around proclaiming the great evils of religious dogma and its institutionalisation… they also seemed to forget something that needs careful consideration…

    If you take the zealots out of the picture, the world religions all seem to be saying the same thing…

    So much for relative truth being the only truth. 🙂

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    • You’re right that it is a contradiction to say “relativism is true”. This is the most famous objection to relativist thought. However, while it points out a problem with certain ways of articulating relativism, one can overcome these problems.

      The short version of my response goes like this: I do not assert that relativism is true. I assert that, starting from certain experience and certain assumptions, we can arrive at a coherent relativistic way of perceiving. I further assert that this way of perceiving has certain effects which I value positively. This does not involve asserting that my (relativistic) perception constitutes some kind of absolute truth which invalidates all other ways of perceiving. Quite the contrary.

      The kind of postmodernism that you criticize is, in my view, a specifically liberal postmodernism. That is, it is a postmodernism affiliated with a politics that takes the individual subject as its ultimate standard of all value. To me the problems famously associated with postmodernism – its tendency towards subjectivistic solipsism, in particular – derive more from its liberalism than from postmodernism itself. I am interested in helping to advance a postmodernism congruent with relational and materialistic thinking. This is not the same thing as holism, but it does escape some of the problems of subjectivism.

      More could be said …

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  2. I will respond in full soon, as I also want to address some very important points you made on contemporary genocide…

    But I do not find relativism to be false – rather I find EXCLUSIVE relativism to be false.

    You recently made a post on the problem – or illusion – of duality.

    “Elias argued that the conventional, dualist, account of the universe, which assumes that we exist separately from the objects around us, is misleading and inaccurate.”

    This I completely agree with, and is more along my line of thought on this issue. I find Advaita philosophy to be the most logically sound of all philosophies I have ever come across.

    In effect, I find absolutism and relativism to exist in PERPETUAL paradox, and this is the natural state of the Universe.

    Will reply in full soon. 🙂

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  3. Quick point, I am guessing you know the story of the five blind men and the elephant… I think this story demonstrates clearly what I mean about absolutism and relativism existing in paradox:

    Once upon a time, five blind men came upon an elephant.

    “What is this?!” asked the first one, who had run headlong into its side.

    “It’s an Elephant.” said the elephant’s keeper, who was sitting on a stool, cleaning the elephant’s harness.

    “Wow! So this is an Elephant! I’ve always wondered what Elephants are like!” said the man, running his hands as far as he could reach up and down the elephant’s side. “Why, it’s just like a wall! A large, warm wall!”

    “What do you mean, a wall?” said the second man, wrapping his arms around the elephant’s leg. “This is nothing like a wall. You can’t reach around a wall! This is more like a pillar. Yeah, that’s it! An Elephant is exactly like a pillar!”

    “A pillar? Strange kind of pillar!” said the third man, stroking the elephant’s trunk. “It’s too thin, for one thing, and it’s too flexible for another. If you think this is a pillar, I don’t want to go to your house! This is more like a snake. See, it’s wrapping around my arm! An Elephant is just like a snake!”

    “Snakes don’t have hair!” said the fourth man in disgust, pulling the elephant’s tail. “You are closer than the others, but I’m surprised that you missed the hair. This isn’t a snake, it’s a rope. Elephants are exactly like ropes.”

    “I don’t know what you guys are on!” the fifth man cried, waving the elephant’s ear back and forth. “It’s as large as a wall, all right, but thin as a leaf, and no more flexible than any piece of cloth this size should be. I don’t know what’s wrong with all of you, but no one except a complete idiot could mistake an Elephant for anything except a sail!!!”

    And as the elephant stepped aside, they tramped off down the road, arguing more loudly and violently as they went, each sure that he, and he alone, was right; and all the others were wrong.

    Whereas the truth is that the elephant is… the elephant.

    This leads to what is often called ‘Integral Philosophy,’ – on the one hand each of the five blind men see a piece of the truth (in other words, everyone is looking at the same thing from a different angle… from a zillion different angles, creating a zillion different perspectives, and each perspective is equally true and valid to some degree)…

    But that would mean that we would completely be stuck only in the relativistic experience.

    At this point Esoteric wisdom has some very interesting insights into the matter… often called the Holographic Mind:

    http://possibilitymagazine.me/2012/05/11/the-holographic-mind/

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    • Re. The story of the blind monks and the elephant … yes, I’ve heard this story before. It’s a great parable. But an analytic philosopher friend of mind pointed out to me that it doesn’t illustrate relativism as much as perspectivism.

      A strict relativist perceives others’ perceptions as belonging in part to worlds of experience that cannot be fully commensurated with her own. A perspectivist acknowledges that different people situated differently in the world will have different experiences, perhaps radically different, but affirms that these different experiences can be commensurated at least in principle – typically (although not necessarily) because our experiences derive in part from a reality independent of ourselves, a reality that on some level has a fixed and stable essence and to which we have, on some level, a common relationship despite our particular differences.

      Is that what you’re getting at? If so, then in Anglo-American philosophical terms you could be a perspectivist (and also a realist). You might enjoy looking at “Contemporary Philosophy of Social Science: A Multicultural Approach” by Brian Fay (Wiley-Blackwell, 1996).

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      • “A strict relativist perceives others’ perceptions as belonging in part to worlds of experience that cannot be fully commensurated with her own.”

        This is true, and that’s why I called it a paradox in which relativism and absolutism co-exist – and social engineering based on this paradox is what I feel would lead to a synthesis (more on that later.)

        It is true that even in the discussions on collective consciousness phenomenon (because essentially when we pose a question of experience and how deeply we can relate to each other with it, we are speaking about consciousness) even though there is a unified pool of experience that we can all dip into (the humanities understands this implicitly), there is at the same time a paradoxical individuality where a human being ultimately is born alone and dies alone.

        However, eastern spirituality has such incisive philosophical understanding into this, that to them it is not so much of a contradiction.

        At this point I should mention a key moment in Indian history where Buddhism was thriving and winning over the country. There was a decisive debate between the Buddhists and Adi Shankaracharya (who is often noted for bringing all the traditions of Hinduism under one roof) where they fell down to the pure logic of their base arguments. It went something like this:

        Buddhists: Everything is nothing.
        Shankaracharya: Yes. But if everything is nothing, then everything is also one.

        The paradox of a unified consciousness is that it is one and many simultaneously – so while it is possible to have a billion “perspectives” as you put it, and be able to integrate all those perspectives into a whole – be able to relate and learn from each others experience… at the same time we are somehow profoundly alone. And yet, not.

        One can almost say it is a paradox of being perspectivist and relativist simultaneously.

        Unfortunately, the Western dichotomy of philosophy is unsettled by paradoxes. But that is precisely what non-duality is about:

        http://revolutionwithin.me/2010/04/20/what-is-advaita-or-nonduality/

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      • I know very little about Ayn Rand’s objectivism, mainly because the little that I do know does not make me want to study more. She seems to take an extreme individualist view that denies any effect of social forces on people’s ability to achieve wealth and power. She also seems positively to despise compassion, in principle. Why do you ask?

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      • I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something in my own conclusions on this…

        The idea of a free-market with minimalistic government…

        Or of anarcho-capitalism…

        In either case it cannot resolve a fundamental dilemma of the free-market… which is that when a corporation’s only motivation – only responsibility – is to make profit for its shareholders, that puts it directly at odds with society at large.

        I feel that Ayn Rand was only half right. She has a fiery and penetrating passion – her eyes blaze with some desire for individual expression, and she puts up such a good fight for it:

        “It is not in the nature of man – nor of any living entity – to start out by giving up, by spitting in one’s own face and damning existence; that requires a process of corruption whose rapidity differs from man to man. Some give up at the first touch of pressure; some sell out; some run down by imperceptible degrees and lose their fire, never knowing when or how they lost it. Then all of these vanish in the vast swamp of their elders who tell them persistently that maturity consists of abandoning one’s mind; security, of abandoning one’s values; practicality, of losing self-esteem. Yet a few hold on and move on, knowing that that fire is not to be betrayed, learning how to give it shape, purpose and reality. But whatever their future, at the dawn of their lives, men seek a noble vision of man’s nature and of life’s potential.

        It does not matter that only a few in each generation will grasp and achieve the full reality of man’s proper stature – and that the rest will betray it. It is those few that move the world and give life its meaning – and it is those few that I have always sought to address. The rest are no concern of mine; it is not me that they will betray: it is their own souls.”

        – Ayn Rand, 1968 (from the introduction to “The Fountainhead”)

        This is a passage I have come to love… despite what conclusions the fire of this passage might have lead Rand to, that fire in itself is something I relate to intimately. It has been the journey of those who refuse to abandon themselves into fake gestures…

        It was a beautiful beginning… but Rand took it to some false conclusion. And I think it comes down to a misplaced idea of human motivation itself that perhaps existed in society at that time…

        Even now, the real evidence on human motivation is not being accepted into economic practices:

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      • Well, immediately I have questions about the source of this information. Who are these “critics of Peter Joseph and his followers”, and why do they make themselves Anonymous when anonymity isn’t really necessary in this context? Why focus on Peter Joseph in particular? The content of the video doesn’t seem oriented to anything specific to RBE theory. I’m not filled with a desire to engage with this particular person or persons.

        Second, who is this professor, what are his credentials, where does he work, and what is the source of this trend data that he is presenting? How can we be sure that anything he says is factual?

        Perhaps this is Hans Rosling, the Swedish public intellectual. In that case, I would want to know how he measured these variables, especially the income variable. But perhaps because he is a famous public intellectual he has taken care to ensure that his statistics are correct or at least defensible. Even so, there are several problems with this information, or at least with the way it’s being used:

        1) Historical trends by themselves do not predict the future. If the growth of global capitalist economy is socially and/or ecologically unsustainable, then this nice upward trend shown by Dr. Rosling could reverse itself quite unpleasantly.

        2) The trend itself only addresses two variables: national average income, and national average life expectancy. If we’re to evaluate the merits of an entire social system we would want to look at more than just these two variables.

        3) Are these variables even valid? That is, do they measure what they are claimed to measure? Life expectancy is a pretty valid measure of health (if you have to pick just one variable) but income is not such a valid measure of wealth or material quality of life. People use money only to the extent that their economic life is commodified and monetized. People can meet their material needs through a barter economy, or a gift economy, or direct production for personal subsistence, or a combination of these, etc. It’s possible that worldwide poverty has grown since 1800 even though the circulation of money has increased. And this is even leaving out the whole issue of relative poverty, which is not revealed at all by a national average income.

        Rosling makes some interesting points, but these points don’t refute all calls for radical systemic change. It is undeniably true that, on its own terms, the capitalist economy has grown vastly since the industrial revolution. This does not mean that it will continue to grow; nor does it mean that continued growth will solve the problems that the system itself creates.

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      • I’d been engaging in what has been a pretty interesting debate (despite that many commenters resort to insults instead of arguments, every now and then an excellent point is made that I need to sit and think about) on this particular blogsite… several points were brought up for and against RBE concept… I’ve been listing them one by one and plan to write an article addressing them… 🙂 Your thoughts have been invaluable.

        http://zeitgeistmovements.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/resource-based-economy-ignores-historical-data/

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      • One of the main arguments brought up to claim that a resource based economy – one not based on monetary standards – is impossible, is the “economic calculation problem.” I’ve been looking into this of late. Your thoughts?

        It I have found it a rare event to meet economists who haven’t convoluted their arguments into a web of smoke and mirrors, hopefully you have had better luck meeting even-headed economists not pushing a vested agenda. 🙂

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      • That’s a tough question. I am a sociologist, not an economist, so this is a little outside my area But as a sociologist I am quite skeptical of planned economies. My skepticism is based on the perception that planned economies set up a hierarchical distinction between those who do the planning and everyone else, and that this distinction itself can become a form of alienation and class contradiction.

        Of course markets and other distributed-decisionmaking systems have their own problems too. I think these problems are soluble. But that’s pure intuition; I won’t be able to prove that they are unless and until solutions actually are found.

        Is all RBE dependent on central planning?

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  4. Ah, and a question –

    “I am interested in helping to advance a postmodernism congruent with relational and materialistic thinking.”

    Why do you find this important to achieve?.I ask because, well, I tend to look at all these theories of relativism and postmodernism more in terms of its sociological effects… and this is why I brought up the “Century of the Self” documentary. I find postmodernism to be the antithesis to modernism (as it is usually known, and I would agree), and how the two would need to form a new synthesis in order to be holistic.

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