“Everyday relativism”, follow-up

Two days ago I posted a hypothetical example of a person seeking therapy and getting certain advice, and I claimed this gave an example of (ethical) relativism in practice.  Comments from a couple of people have shown me that my example doesn’t necessarily read as an instance of relativist practice at all. Whether it does so or not depends on what goes on outside the frame of the story.  (I should have seen that coming!)  So here today is my follow-up explaining how I think the story illustrates relativism.

First of all, let me give a non-relativist interpretation of the story.

Through her scientific training, the therapist has a foundational theory of human behaviour that allows her to objectively diagnose the causes of your relationship conflict and prescribe an effective treatment. In this case, she advises you to negotiate desires rather than norms because desires are a more fundamental human motivation than norms. You listen and carry out her advice because you recognize as legitimate her claim to objective knowledge, and the advice works because the theory it is based on corresponds to reality.

The relativist interpretation, on the other hand, goes something like this:

(1) By giving up the struggle to determine who is right, you let go of the notion of a universal normative truth applicable to this particular situation.

(2) You shift your focus from norms to desires, not because desires are more fundamental than norms, but on a contingent and pragmatic basis. You make a tactical decision based on the elements available in the situation.

In other words, the situation could be framed in terms either of norms or desires, and at the moment framing it in terms of norms isn’t working, so framing it in terms of desires seems a plausible way to move forward.

(3) and (4) You let go of the effort to resolve your difference into identification.

That is, you stop trying to resolve the conflict by finding or making grounds on which you and your partner are the same.  You accept the fact of difference between you as an irreducible element of the situation.

(5) You orient your action to relation and process rather than to any fixed, essentialized notion of how things are or should be.

Even this explanation of mine is incomplete; point (5) especially is relational but not relativist per se.  I expect one could put another frame around all of these points that turn them into examples of a realism or universalism that is simply quite flexible and adaptible to local situations, like Habermasian communicative theory or something.

But for me relativism is not a doctrine but a movement. What the example illustrates for me is a situation in which a person shifts from thinking and acting in terms of ethical identification (“we must agree on an ethical definition of the situation”) to to a praxis that is more inclusive of ethical difference (“we disagree on ethical definitions, and perhaps don’t even understand each other, but can work out a mutually acceptable compromise in practice”).

From sameness to difference: we can and do make this gesture in small ways all the time. I want to find out how far this small gesture can possibly go.

11 thoughts on ““Everyday relativism”, follow-up

  1. Would you recommend the adoption of the relativist approach to the UMFA bargaining team as we head into negotiations? I’d say 3) and 4) are already part of the strategy (though the UM strategy is to get us to resolve our difference into identity). 1) and 5) would make me a tad nervous about my next contract. I’m still thinking about 2).


    • Yes, unequivocally. The situation is very different, of course: instead of two partners negotiating the mutual satisfaction of their eros, we have two adversaries meeting each other through the irreducible contradiction of class struggle.

      In such a situation, the relativist abandons the notion that their adversary will ultimately be constrained by any universal normative considerations, and perceives norms as tactically relevant social formations, the importance of which varies historically. (So, for example, the extent to which one side or the other must appear not to be “too greedy” or “unreasonable” depends on the power and the interests of various other involved parties, etc.)

      One also orients to a process, namely the increase of workers’ control over the conditions of their labour. This process has no predetermined end point. We can say that this end point is “communism” but since we don’t know what communism will look like until we are halfway in it, all we do by using that word is indicate a certain vector of social transformation.

      I think it helps, too, to see the contract itself as a relational process, not as a thing. To do work the contract needs to be enforced, which requires a whole constellation of institutions, all of which exist only through action. So, for instance, if workers are not mobilized enough to sustain a union organization that can and will launch grievances, the contract does not work (or not on behalf of workers, anyway).


      • Nice. I like the argument about 1). One of my favourite cartoons shows a wolf and a rabbit sitting at a bargaining table, and the wolf, pen and paper in paw, is saying “we are perfectly willing to concede the moral high ground.” I actually think that bargainers do operate for the most part (except in their PR exercises) on desire, and not on norms. I do, however, see some use in maintaining a struggle over who is right, if only to contest a fixed version of the truth that the administration is fond of forwarding (“we have no money with which to give you a salary increase.”) The union position is that there is money, which the administration decides to spend on things (like a $3 million increase in the marketing budget) other than salaries. Now, it is unlikely that the two sides will come to agreement on who is right about it. However, the union cannot accept the validity of the administration version of the truth and still push for any kind of improvement that has budgetary ramifications. Perhaps the adoption of the relativist approach to conflict requires both parties’ willingness to do so? In that case, I suspect we have to look carefully at the power relationship between the two parties. Do structurally powerful actors (well-funded, organized, enjoying alliance with other powerful actors, etc…) have an incentive to adopt a relativist approach, or do they have the capacity to enforce their version of the truth to a greater extent? And if one party is unwilling, can the other do anything but contest what is “right”?


      • Cool; I was hoping that would work for you. My point about norms and desires, though, isn’t to say that one is more fundamental than the other, but to suggest that one can parse the same situation in multiple ways. Maybe we can understand bargainers as norm-motivated, as long as we also understand that each side has pretty different and probably irreconcilable norms. But you raise two really big question:

        (1) “Perhaps the adoption of the relativist approach to conflict requires both parties’ willingness to do so?” – I want to believe that it doesn’t and that, furthermore, the side that adopts a relativist approach would thereby gain a strategic advantage over the side that doesn’t because relativism would help them rule out some fruitless tactics and also see tactical opportunities that would otherwise be invisible.

        (2) “If one party is unwilling, can the other do anything but contest what is “right”?” This is an enormously important question. As a social scientist I can say that when union and management bargainers argue about what “is right”, they are making performative utterances masked as denotative utterances – and that, moreover, the performative force of their statements depends in part on this very mystification. To adopt a position of universality, in our culture at this historical juncture, offers a valuable form of legitimacy. Can the tactical advantages of openly de-reifying the terms of one’s own discourse ever outweigh the tactical costs? Again, I want for the answer to be “yes” but I haven’t figured out a demonstration of this yet.


    • Do you mean, in terms of radical class struggle or in terms of everyday relativist practice? If the former, I don’t think so; the actual demands that came out of the movement seem, as far as I know them, not particularly radical.

      In terms of its practice, I don’t know enough but I’m very curious to know. Part of the reason that I’m interested in relativism is that I think it could be conducive to strongly egalitarian modes of mobilization. But I have no idea; I didn’t spend enough time in Occupy camps to observe how they negotiated their issues or how they thought strategically about their relationships with their adversaries. This is something I want to research further.


  2. I think Saul Alinsky came as close as anbody can to cutting the Gordian knot tying ethical sameness to difference, but only inasmuch as his ethical conclusions (local government) were the same as his premises, his politics identical to his political strategies and his ends his means. Alinsky didn’t care what ethical decisions people make in the course of assuming local control, nor what ethical decisions they make once they get it- as long as they do get it, since for him local control was the sole and supreme ethical end.

    On the other hand (judging from your assertion that Occupy’s demands weren’t “radical” enough), I suspect that, for you, polymorphous populism isn’t an end in itself, but a means towards an ethical end of broad and definite social transformation, one that goes far beyond popular empowerment.

    If I am correct, then I propose that the strong form of relativism you outlined in your post doesn’t apply to your political project and cannot. I propose weak relativism as a better fit. In other words, I think it is a question, not of making the qualitative leap from ethical sameness to difference the way the strifing couple does, but of working out just how much ethical difference your ethical sameness can tolerate- in short, of identifying the limits of possible ethical variation of your programme, whatever it may be.

    For example, there’s obviously no way that a Marxist could incorporate laissez-faire Libertarians into his bloc. However, they could mutually fly a flag of convenience here and there against things like “crony capitalism” which neither of them likes.

    Totally off-base?


    • Not at all; your proposal is very plausible and I don’t have an immediate refutation of it. The example you give of the Marxists who can’t include Libertarians in their movement identifies precisely an issue that I would like to investigate empirically. David Graeber, writing about anarchist movements in New York, calls it “the wingnut problem”: what does a movement do when someone who voluntarily came to the meeting stands up and argues for a praxis completely incompatible with the goals and values the movement has previously established for itself? (I like having a convenient phrase for this but I’d prefer to find a term less prejudicial than “wingnut”.)

      But I think I can unpack a couple of issues.

      I think both you and Mark are assuming or inferring (no doubt quite reasonably) that strong relativism includes the ethical aim of being inclusive of all difference. I haven’t done enough to distinguish this ethical claim from what I perceive as relativism’s defining epistemological features.

      In my example of the couple, the parties involved want to prevent their differences from dissolving their relationship because of their particular motivations: they love each other and want to stay together. A therapist might offer a particular strategy for doing this which, I suggested, involves a modest relativist gesture. But the motivation to treat each other kindly, understand each other, stay connected, etc. doesn’t come from relativism but from the love relation between them.

      In an adversarial relationship, relativism could help one contestant recognize limits and see possibilities that an essentialist mode of praxis would conceal. In this case, the motivation to understand and accept the irreconcilable difference of the other comes not from one’s love for the other but from the exigent need for tactical resources in one’s violent struggle with the other.

      For instance, if I do not accept that my adversary is different from myself, I will waste a lot of energy fruitlessly treating them as if they were the same as myself. I might even fall for their deceptive pretense that, deep down, they actually are the same as me, and agree to let them go on having power over me.

      But here things get complicated to the extent that bad-faith practices have tactical value. Maybe each adversary gains an advantage from pretending to act on a universal basis, for instance.

      This is where the relationship between the means and ends of struggle comes to the forefront. Deception and bad faith can readily support a relation of domination, in which some agents are permanently subordinated to others. But does radical socialism amount merely to replacing one form of domination with another, or does it aim to abolish all forms of domination?

      If the latter, then can one achieve this abolition through means that reproduce domination? How important is prefiguration?

      I don’t know the answers to these questions.


    • Incidentally, I’m not sure that my position is so different from Alinsky’s, in the form that you’ve sketched it. I claimed that Occupy’s demands weren’t radical because, as far as I know, those demands amounted to fairly modest legal reforms of the financial system, not actual popular enfranchisement through, e.g., serious curtailment of the rights of private capital. But I could be completely mistaken about this.


  3. A few final thoughts:

    Perhaps the “wing-nut problem” could be less pejoratively, and more rigorously, re-branded as the “square-peg” problem.

    Reflecting on the square-peg problem made me think of another aspect of everyday relativism. The relativism of the everyday, by way of which strifing couples manage to stay together in spite of differences, in no small part entails learning to simply ignore those differences, or at least keep their mouths shut about them. Not every troubled couple goes to a therapist and learns all about dialogic and accepting difference and so forth. Sometimes the wife will learn to pretend not to see the gin bottles hidden in the toilet-tank, the husband pretend not to notice that the pool boy suspiciously shows up when the pool isn’t dirty, etc. Similarly, rival capitalist guys, each of whom wishes the other were dead, will nonetheless and naturally form cartels, to the extent where the State has to legislate against the practice.

    I don’t think much of the student protestors here to say the very least. And yet, not only did I cheer for them when they tried to disrupt an ultra-elite cocktail party on Grand Prix weekend, but actually vowed to head into town and join at least one demo if they succeeded. (Unfortunately for the students, when it comes to protecting the pleasures and pursuits of the elite, the Montreal police suddenly discover that they know how to control crowds after all- but this is a digression). They’re finally doing something right for once, I thought- and for about 48 hours forgot about how their views and ends differ from mine.

    On the other hand, had I showed up, I would have been *their* wing-nut. On the street, this wouldn’t be a problem. In a meeting setting, though, I suppose I would have inevitably blurted out something impolitic sooner or later, and made myself very unpopular and unwelcome in so doing. (Come to think of it, I objectively wing-nut just by reading and posting here, here biting my tongue, there blurting things out- and the self-censorship aspect is actually pretty stressful).

    Perhaps one day in the future we could do a quasi-experiment. I would lay bare my manifesto, you yours, and from there we could identify how many things we could agree to disagree on in pursuit of some common, fictitious en bloc alliance towards some goal.


    • Yes, I like the “square-peg” terminology. That seems perfect.

      You make a good point about ignoring differences. However, ignoring and accepting seem like two different things. If ignoring is just denying, then it might operate as a kind deferral, passing off an issue into the future without dispelling its problematic quality. Such problems often return with accrued interest.

      Acceptance is a complicated concept. We often associate it with condoning, and my example of the strifing couple inadvertently played to that association. But accepting that one’s partner is an alcoholic might lead to the decision that it’s time to finally leave them. Or, as in the case of adversarial collective bargaining, acceptance means accepting that one must fight.

      In a more complex political situation, acceptance of difference might make collaboration possible while simultaneously defining the limits of that collaboration. As you say, two parties might accept that they can collaborate on a particular issue but not on most others.

      In “Direct Action: An Ethnography”, David Graeber wrote that, in the consensus-based direct action groups he observed, people very often could agree on practical matters without agreeing on ideology or theoretical orientation. My recollection of his account is that often such matters would not even be discussed, except tangentially as part of an activist’s narrative about their own thought process or ‘where they were coming from’.

      I like your idea for a quasi-experiment. Although, I don’t know if I have a manifesto per se.


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