Friday, December 30, 2011

On Relativism, Pluralism and Reality

One of the most tedious charges that has been levelled at me by people who don't really know what they are talking about is that I am some sort of relativist. This is clearly nonsense. Yeah, I believe that morality and ethics are to some extent dependent on contingent factors such as time and place - as an extreme example, the morality of the Stone Age is always going to be different from what can be described as moral in this day and age. But I don't believe everything is relative, and I find the relativist position deeply troubling as it allows for little meaningful differentiation between concepts such as right and wrong.

Rather, I would describe myself as someone who is very aware of the fact of value pluralism*. Even with just a casual look at our country - and other countries across the globe - we see not a truth, or a universally valid understanding of what is good, but rather numerous and often conflicting subjective truths and individual understandings of the good life. That is the fact of value pluralism; there is a complete plurality when it comes to modern understandings of how we should live our lives.

Before we take a look at what this means, let's be clear on what it doesn't mean: firstly, value pluralism does not mean that all conceptions of what makes up a good life are all of equal worth. It is pretty easy to show, for example, that someone who believes that the consumption of crack is the purpose of their life and is therefore prostituting themselves is leading a tangibly less worthwhile life than someone who has a stable job that allows them to pay for their interests, hobbies, and chosen way of living.

Furthermore, I am not claiming that there is no objective truth; there may very well be. What I am pointing to is that the subjective truths all live in potentially unending conflict with that objective truth, should it actually exist and be attainable by human minds.

And that's where reality comes in here; the fact of value pluralism is, well, a fact. You might believe that your subjective truth is the same as the objective truth; you've then got to persuade the rest of the world that what appears to them to be just your subjective truth is actually *the* truth. And good luck with that. Because even totalitarian states have failed, despite all of their brainwashing and the perpetual threats of lethal violence, to make all humans inhabiting that society agree on one understanding of the truth. Just look at the conflict that would (and has) occurred when Christians debated their beliefs with Marxists. The end result is precisely that - not consensus, but conflict. And then you have to take into account the plethora of reasonable people who are not convinced by either the communists or the god-botherers. The fact of value pluralism is that people are going to disagree with you - often vehemently - no matter how much you know you are in the right.

So the question then arises - what does this mean for politics? Well, politics itself can continue to be an often bitter debate over how we should live our lives. What the state needs to be, however, is as small as it possibly can be, and as unobtrusive in judging the plurality of lives led by its citizens as possible - if for no other reason than to allow for what John Stuart Mill once called "experiments in living".

But there will, of course, be some moments where the state will have to make a value judgement about what is acceptable in its society. Female genital mutilation would be one example - even though some faiths and cultures believe this to be acceptable does not mean that it should be allowed. But cases like this involve the use of naked power, and the use of power (and force) to make others conform to what you want is a very blunt tool whose usage can go badly wrong. It is a tool that must be used sparingly if there is to be a truly free society.

And finally, let me anticipate a problem that certain people will have with this idea - yes, the fact of value pluralism may hurt your faith in whatever creed floats you boat. But take a look at the world around you; value pluralism is a fact. The pressing question is how we deal with that fact.

*And I'm happy to acknowledge a considerable intellectual debt here to both Isaiah Berlin and John Gray.


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