Relativism vs. Objectivism

In any debate, the arguments tend to polarize, leaving no middle ground between them. The slippery slope fallacy states that people on one side of an argument find it easy to accuse the other side of being on the extreme; in other words, the other side is a slippery slope, and it is easy to go to extremes. This can be easily seen in the largely prevalent abortion debate in our country today: pro-lifers scream that all pro-choicers are anti-religious fanatics who advocate killing babies, and pro-choicers scream that all pro-lifers are religious fanatics who advocate child abuse and neglect through unwanted births. On both sides, we see a very small but very vocal minority, accusing the other side of being extremist; the majority of the population is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. The relativism/objectivism debate in philosophy is no different. Objectivists accuse all relativists of being subjectivists who seek ethical nihilism by claiming that morals are up to the individual; relativists accuse all objectivists of being absolutists who believe that all questions have only one right answer, regardless of context or culture. In this debate (as well as in the abortion one), the majority of the population holds views that fall somewhere in the middle between these two extremes.

Relativism is the view that states that moral principles are valid, but they vary by culture (conventionalism) or by individuals (subjectivism). Conventionalists like Ruth Benedict argue that since different cultures hold different principles, how can one judge another? Each of these different moralities is equally valid. She uses the argument from 'normality': each culture defines what behavior is normal, to fit the behavior of the majority. The majority of that population then defines normality and also lives by it, and only a small minority is aberrant or abnormal. Benedict calls morality "a convenient term for socially approved habits" and the normal "a variant of the concept of the good." In other words, whatever behavior is socially acceptable and normal is also good. Subjectivism is the extreme end of relativism. This view holds that morality is determined at the individual level, not a social or universal level. Thus, the only moral principles that are valid are the ones you believe in--in short, all principles are equally valid.

Criticism of these arguments starts with the judgment question: how can one society (or individual) judge the behavior of another if all socially accepted behaviors (or personal moral principles) are valid? From a historical standpoint, wasn't slavery considered morally right (or at least, normal) by those who held slaves? Since slaveholders were the dominant culture in that area, then the normal (and therefore, the good) behavior was to own slaves. Thus, if conventionalism holds true, slavery was a morally right act at the time that it was popular, and only when conventions changed did it become wrong. Nazism was morally right, simply because the numerical majority of a population agreed with it (and the subsequent annihilation of millions of people). The terrorists of September 11 are definitely 'aberrant' in Western culture, but in their own they are saints in paradise. If conventionalism holds true, then the actions of those men were absolutely correct because their society agreed with them. Louis Pojman goes further to ask, how large is a population or a society? If he and a friend get together and decide to become burglars, is that a large enough group to count as a society? He accuses conventionalism of sliding toward subjectivism. He also asks if social reformers aren't aberrant and therefore immoral. Since they swim upstream in their culture, and disagree with the majority, aren't they committing a wrong act?

If these kinds of issues arise at the conventionalist level, they are even more powerful at the subjectivist level. If subjectivism holds true, then any court system or law is useless, since the only standard by which a man can be judged is his own, and whether or not he upheld his own principles. Essentially, all behavior is correct to the subjectivist. Thus, the subjectivist cannot even deplore murder or terrorism because these acts are as valid and acceptable as love and altruism, so long as they are a part of the individual's moral principles. Eventually, subjectivity lends itself to solipsism: since all is permissible and every action is as good as another, where is the meaning? By removing value judgments from his behavior (which is done by saying all is good so long as you believe in it), he is left with no motive to behave in a moral fashion, because he can craft a moral principle to suit every behavior. Everything he does is as good as anything else, because there is no standard to measure his behavior. In Pojman's essay, he argues further that subjectivism reduces morality to aesthetic individual tastes: if I like to murder, I will craft my morality to suit my taste for death. According to Pojman, "a contradiction seems to exist between subjectivism and the very concept of morality..." because morality is the "proper resolution of interpersonal conflict and the amelioration of the human predicament". To the subjectivist then, there is no proper, and therefore no need for morality.

Objectivism is the view that holds that certain moral principles are valid for all individuals and cultures. There are different levels of objectivism: the fixed view, which says that principles are fixed and do not change; the universal view, which includes the fixed view and adds that principles apply to all people everywhere; and the absolutist view, which includes the universal view and adds that certain principles are non-overrideable and true for all situations. People who hold this theory answer the question "where do these principles come from?" in several different ways: from the essence or commonality of human nature, from natural reality (moral realism), from God or the divine, or from the intrinsic good that comes from their application consequentialism). Pojman bases his view of objectivism on the assumption that "human nature is relatively similar in essential respects, having a common set of needs and interests." He then defines moral principles as "functions of human needs...instituted by reason." Pojman is not an absolutist; he does not necessarily think that principles are non-overrideable. Instead, he argues that certain principles hold true across cultures, such as "do not kill the innocent"; the relativism comes in at the application stage (who is innocent?). These principles, which form his "core morality," are few, basic, and general, and leave less important or secondary issues up to the individual or to society. He uses abortion as an example: the debate isn't about the right to kill babies; it is about when life begins. Everyone could agree that killing babies is wrong, but what constitutes a baby and a life? Pojman concludes that the fact of someone disagreeing with a principle does not invalidate the principle; perhaps it is the person who is incorrect.

One possible objection to Pojman is as follows: he claims a commonality of human nature, interests, and needs, but is there evidence of this? Anthropologists like Benedict use the vast diversity of human nature to argue for relativism, and Pojman does counter this with quotes intended to prove the vast similarity of human nature, but are they as plausible an argument? He acknowledges cultural diversity as having led to different applications of these principles, but where did they come from? Are they a priori, prior to experience? Did man evolve morality, or did it come from application of natural laws? Pojman ignores how the principles came about, because he only cares that they exist. Mackie would argue that they don't exist, because if they did we would need an entirely new sense to interpret that kind of information ("the argument from queerness"). Mackie believed that moral statements were not meaningless or emotion-based, that they were claims about moral truth, but he did not believe in moral reality and thought that all moral claims are false. Compared to Pojman, both of them are cognitivists: they both see moral statements as true or false claims about moral reality; Pojman is a realist, however, and believes that moral reality exists in the natural world (or at least, in human nature). Mackie instead thinks that all moral claims are false: he calls himself a moral skeptic.

In the end, we are left to evaluate the two sides of this argument as being polar, complete opposites of each other. Is this a fair question? Can one be in the middle? An objectivist like Pojman, who holds that few principles are universal, and that their application varies by culture and society, is close to the middle. A conventionalist who carefully defines a society and then proceeds to argue exactly how their moral principles came about is also close to the middle. Out on the edges are subjectivists and absolutists. Is it fair to argue that stepping onto either side of the argument is leading to the edge, to the fringe? No. It is not just to assume that all relativists are subjectivists, or vice versa, anymore than to assume that all pro-choicers enjoy the wanton murder of children. Would it be easy to slide down the slope of either argument? Yes. Just as religion lends itself to fanaticism and fundamentalism by its very nature, so a split argument like this lends itself to dividing the opinions of those who get stuck in it. So, what is the answer? I think that one needs to evaluate both sides and all of their sub-opinions, and then find one that makes the most sense and fits reality best. Then, leave the issue behind and go on to form a philosophy using that as a basis, but not dragging the debate around constantly. I personally consider myself to be an objectivist, and one of my basic premises is that man should pursue rational self-interest: ethical egoism. Another of my basic premises is that the initiation of force is evil: individual human life is inviolable, and another is that honesty is the only acceptable form of communication. Upon these basic, general moral principles (and a few others) I base my entire personal philosophy.

October 2001

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Relativism vs. Objectivism