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.