In Praise of Relativism

Stanley Fish

One of my favorite fellow relativists, Stanley Fish, recently took to the pages of the New York Times to defend relativism. First, he defines two different kids of relativism:

There are (at least) two ways of denying moral absolutes. You can say “I don’t believe there are any” or you can say “I believe there are moral absolutes, but (a) there are too many candidates for membership in that category and (b) there is no device, mechanical test, algorithm or knock-down argument for determining which candidates are the true ones.”

He goes on to argue that, while one might argue in the forensic environment of a philosophy seminar that a stated belief in a lack of moral absolutes inevitably leads down the slippery slope to nihilism, there is no evidence outside of that classroom — in the real world — that nihilism is a consequence of relativism:


What exactly will have changed when one set of philosophical views has been swapped for another? Almost nothing….You won’t say, “Because I believe in moral absolutes, I’ll take this new job or divorce my husband or vote for the Democrat.” Nor will you say, “Because I deny moral absolutes I have no basis for deciding since any decision I make is as good or bad as any other.” What you will say, if only to yourself, is “Given what is at stake, and the likely outcomes of taking this or that action, I think I’ll do this.” Neither “I believe in moral absolutes” nor “I don’t” will be a reason in the course of ordinary, non-philosophical, deliberation.

Now that’s some pragmatism that I can believe in!

  • Scot Miller

    I prefer to think of values as objective, but not absolute. They are objective in that publicly defensible reasons can be provided in support of them (i.e., values are not arbitrary), but they may conflict (i.e., in the words of Leszek Kolakowski, “For any given doctrine that one wants to believe, there is never a shortage of arguments by which to support it”). Not all arguments or reasons are equally good, but the test is usually in the practical effects of one set of arguments verses another.

    Objective values can apply differently in different situations, so objective values are situationally relative. (Say “health” is an objective value. Insulin may be good for a diabetic, but bad for someone without diabetes. So insulin is either good or bad depending on the facts of your situation, but health is an objective value.)

    About the only moral absolutes I could imagine (i.e., a value that applies in every situation without exception, regardless of the facts of a situation) would be very narrow, like “Rape is wrong.” I can’t think of any situation in which rape would be morally permissible.

    • http://xjm716.wordpress.com/ John Mulholland

      So, the only moral absolutes are the ones that you “can imagine?”

      • http://getoutfromunderit.blogspot.com Andy Sherwin

        John, do you willfully do your best to take potshots from behind poorly worded one-liners? Or is just a series of happy accidents? I wonder what you think people are getting from you being arbitrarily and reductively contrarian.

        Scot, a friend of mine (also named Scott!) and I had an interesting discussion about morality vs. situational ethics, and the one seems to inform the other, at least in our eyes. The two absolute evils (inasmuch as they can never be done for a “good” reason) were rape and infidelity. In subsequent discussions, we’ve come up with hypotheticals in which infidelity, in the most technical sense, could possibly be “right” (a separated couple staying legally married while both in other relationships in order to provide health insurance, for one). It’s indeed a fascinating exercise, and my relativism has reinforced my belief system, not subverted it.

        (and I guess “genocide” would also be inherently evil, although I’m undecided about violence on the whole, repulsive as it by its very nature is).

  • http://lostcoin.org John Kennedy

    ^ Yes, similarly, what would you say about practices such as female circumcision? I really do appreciate the overall idea of this sort of relativism; I think it’s absurd to claim to know what’s what with absolute, inflexible certainty in most cases but there are certain things that I think merit absolutely no possible value, such as rape, etc.

    • Scot Miller

      Like I said, there are a few “moral absolutes,” but they are quite specific, like “rape is wrong.” I would probably agree with you about female circumcision; but again, this is a very narrow absolute.

      As for your question about moral absolutes being the ones that I “can imagine,” I’m not sure what I can say that would make you happy. I am a historically conditioned finite human being, and I can only understand moral values in human ways. Perhaps it would have been better if I had used the phrase, “can conceive,” since my moral understanding is more conceptual than imaginary. Still, using the example of abortion, it is clearly false that “all abortion is immoral.” In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, in which the fertilized egg is implanted in the fallopian tubes, without an abortion, both the mother and the fetus would die. An abortion would not be immoral in that case (i.e., self-defense for the mother). So when one thinks morally, one often has to use thought experiments where one imagines or conceives of situations to test the limits and applications of objective (but not necessarily absolute) moral values.

  • Jonathan

    I have a hard time following this. When a Christian is divisive, hateful etc., and generally inconsistent in practice with the “philosophy” of Christ, we’d call that person a hypocrite. They believe one thing, but act a completely different way. It weakens their testimony, why should I accept their beliefs when their behavior is so inconsistent with them?

    Yet when relativists are inconsistent with their beliefs, that somehow becomes a mark of solid pragmatism? If relativist philosophy leads to nihilism, but relativists don’t actually act that that way, shouldn’t that make us question philosophical relativism, rather than applaud it? Why is inconsistency something laudable in this case, when it would be damning to any other philosophy?

  • http://homefront.blogspot.com Fajita

    “Given what is at stake, and the likely outcomes of taking this or that action, I think I’ll do this.”

    This is a loaded statement. Way more here than meets the eye.

    “Given what I understand to be at stake and the likely outcomes for of taking this action or that action, I think I will do this as I mete out my internal conflicts about what is valued.”

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47 Keith DR

    For my money, Boghossian (Fish’s target) obliterates Fish with this reply:
    http://nyu.academia.edu/PaulBoghossian/Papers/845903/Does_Philosophy_Matter_–_It_Would_Appear_So._A_Reply_to_Fish

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