Everyday relativism

You and your partner are having a fight that you can’t resolve. You need to make a decision together and can’t agree; maybe about money, or about how to raise the kids, or how to organize your day to day lives. Or you have an ethical or political or religious disagreement. Or something else; whatever it is, it goes deep and neither of you feels you can compromise.

So, you go to a therapist, either individually or as a couple. Either way, the therapist tells you several things:

  • First, you need to stop trying to determine who is “right”. In other words, you need to stop fighting at the level of abstract impersonal norms.
  • Second, you need to examine your own desires and fears, what you want out of the situation, what feelings and thoughts are motivating you to take the practical stance that you are taking.
  • Third, you need to open yourself to understanding the corresponding motivations of your partner, and to accept these without trying to change these things about the partner.
  • Fourth, you need to give up trying to change the other person. This involves accepting that there will always be aspects of the other person that you cannot identify with, that are irreducibly different from you. Instead, you focus instead on changing the relationship between you.
  • Fifth, you need to negotiate with each other on this basis to try to find a solution that works for both of you. This could mean “ending” the relationship (i.e. turning it from an intimate relationship into something comparatively more distant), or it could mean modifying the dynamic between you in a way that preserves your intimacy. But even in the latter case, the relationship as you knew it will, in a narrow sense, be over; there will be change.

This simple, unremarkable process, which countless people go through without needing to consider its epistemological implications, exemplifies relativism in practice.

7 thoughts on “Everyday relativism

  1. Actually, it doesn’t. The therapist adjudicates the dispute on the basis of a set of rules recognized as legitimate by the litigants, and which are recognized as legitimate on the basis of the therapist’s status as an expert authority- in short, taken as absolutes by the litigants. True relativism only enters the pictures where the therapeutic rules and procedures are contested in their legitimacy- to wit, just before the therapeutic interaction breaks down.(Screw you Dr. and your pop-psych snake-oil, I’m outta here).


    • In an earlier comment you indicated you felt uncertain as to your knowledge of blog etiquette. You might want to look up http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flaming_(Internet).

      Aside from your final sentence, though, you make an interesting point. Whether my little narrative illustrates relativism or not depends on the assumptions one makes about what is going on outside the frame. I’ll address this further in a follow-up post.

      However, I don’t think that participants must assign absolute legitimacy to either the rules of therapy or the authority of the therapist. Relative legitimacy could suffice. For instance, one may accept the authority of the therapist to the extent that, as for long as, one expects the process will be helpful, by whatever standards one defines helpful. “Contestable” is not automatically “contested”.


  2. I appreciate it. Anyways, the theoretical punch-line of my remarks is as follows:

    Today, morality of whatever stripe is reduced to nullity. It is, at best, an idiosyncratic personal affectation that is more or less innocuous- as long as you keep it to yourself. At worst, it is an oppressive and pathogenic superstition that stifles the creativity of the individual. The individual is not only permitted, but encouraged, even exhorted, to break all sorts of moral rules in order to prove what a fearless innovator he is, and moreover to attain to optimal norms of psychological health. (My favorite example came from a news item last year concerning the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in which a psychologist explained that elites achieve at high levels because they take risks, while the average person pathologically “over-subscribes to the rules”. This piece appeared in the Health section of the paper, and so carried an implicit subtext of self-help: You, too, could be a player, if only you could stop over-subscribing to your petty-bourgeois notions that sexual assault is, like, wrong or whatever).

    In politics, the sacred and the profane have exchanged roles; where the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Mencius once argued that the paramount duty of government was to promote virtue, today “legislating morality” is a particularly damning indictment of both any given law and the legislators that framed it. For Aquinas and Mencius, a law that does not serve a moral end is no law at all, but mere violence; today, any law that bears even a vague formal homology to morality is denounced in the exact same terms(viz. “unconstitutional” and therefore null and illegal). Indeed, any law so impugned is taken as ominous evidence of a sinister plot to bring down the rule of law and establish a “theocracy”.

    Thus, the triumph of moral relativism appears to be complete. For Liberals and Libertarians, this appears as the early dawn of something out of an old John Lennon piano ballad; to Conservatives, as the twilight of civilization, to be followed in sleep by a Calvinist nightmare of total depravity. As a neo-ultramontane social theorist, I certainly agree that, with no moral absolutes, social descent into a real-life Mad Max film is inevitable. But that hasn’t happened yet and isn’t about to.
    This makes me think that the reality of relativism is actually more complex than its various ideological representations.

    And in this respect I notice, that while morality is mocked and derided to the point where even criminal law is openly flouted (e.g. dope, tax evasion, etc.), *court orders* seem to have a moral authority so absolute that they are obeyed as though from automatism. And the figure of the *judge* comprises a unique limiting-case on the “irreverence” and “political incorrectness” the individual is otherwise encouraged to display before all morality and all authority. You can bad-mouth the Prime Minister to his face, with impunity- but don’t try that with a judge in a courtroom if you know what’s good for you.

    The punch-line is that *moral relativism is a myth*. As in any civilization, in ours there are binding rules of right conduct issued by authorities who are invested with the Sacred, and whose pronunciations are not to be questioned outside of appeal to higher internal levels of one and the same clerisy. (It is symptomatic that various disgruntled, deranged and anomic Americans will shoot their fellow citizens and even their elected officials, but seemingly not their judges). Durkheim’s thesis is proven: we have traded in the collective conscience for civil law. Everything else isn’t just morally relative- it isn’t morality at all. To re-iterate, it has the cultural status of mere private opinion at best, and seditious pathology at worst.

    What is the bottom line for the “practical theorist”? I think you are entirely correct to draw attention to the role of bargaining, negotiation and persuasion. But the problem, as I see it, is that, in a society dominated by the judiciary, and in which everything assumes the form of an adversarial legal dispute or proceedings modeled on one (marital counseling, etc.), things like objectivity, right reason, strict evidentiary standards, etc. are reserved for judges. Everybody else becomes an attorney- and, like any attorney worth his fee, resorts to sophistry, theatrics, and shysterism to the extent he can get away with it. To make things worse, in the field of moral suasion there is typically neither formal nor even informal adjudication or moderation. The court of public opinion is totally anomic, and we are already confronting the ugly results in public life. Are all learned letters condemned to die in this courtroom? Would Aquinas or Kant be counted as anything more than a pompous and laughably ineffectual blowhard?


  3. Interesting. Thanks for being explicit about your political commitments. Mine are pretty far removed from yours; I’m interested in radically non-hierarchical decision-making, which seems about as far from ultramontainism as one could get. So it seems unlikely we’ll agree on many things, but at least we can try to understand and learn things from each other.

    I have two observations.

    (1) I wonder if, just on your own terms, you haven’t set up and then knocked down a straw figure. Many of the point you cite as examples of “moral relativism” might not be examples of this at all, but of secular Enlightenment liberalism in one or another of its current formulations. There is a strong, internally coherent, foundationalist theory at work in the politics which takes the liberty and self-determination of the individual as its cardinal principle. Liberal ethics is certainly very different from, e.g., conservative communitarian morality, but it is no less foundationalist for that.

    So I am agreeing in part with your punch-line: rumours of moral relativism are greatly exaggerated, because people mistake the decline of one normative code and the rise of another as simply the decline of morality as such.

    Durkheim made a similar point in The Division of Labour, arguing that the decline of mechanical solidarity did not equate to the decline of social solidarity as such because of the rise of organic solidarity.

    (2) My other observation is that, for me at least, moral or ethical relativism does not entail a rejection of morality or ethics. Relativism is not nihilism. Relativism involves a shift in how we justify normative claims and in how we understand those justifications, not a rejection of all normativity.

    For instance, in your earlier post you imagine that the patient must accept a therapist’s authority absolutely, and that once this no longer happens then the patient-therapist quickly breaks down. I think, on the contrary, that a patient can accept the therapist’s authority on a relative (contingent, provisional, qualified, pragmatic, etc.) basis and still benefit from the therapeutic relationship.

    In general, I don’t think that social relations depend on a binary logic of either we believe in them absolutely or they dissolve. Certain relations do seem to work that way, at least some of the time, but I think society as a whole has more elasticity and resilience than that.


  4. Pingback: Everyday relativism, explained « The Practical Theorist

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