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A week or two ago, my friend Momin Malik responded on Facebook* to my first post on Leah Libresco’s conversion. He took issue in particular with my very brief negative reference to relativism. I have argued against relativism at some length before, in response to Peimin Ni, and also to postmodernism. But in those posts I argued against relativism on pragmatic and performative grounds, because it was mainly being defended in pragmatic and performative terms. I’m interested in Momin’s position because, as far as I can tell, he argues for relativism on rational terms, tries to convince us of relativism because it is in some sense true, not just effective.

According to Momin, relativism says (his emphasis and brackets): “there is no universal or neutral perspective from which we can [rationally] arbitrate between competing viewpoints. So, it’s not that we can’t say Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were wrong and horrible, it’s that such a statement is made from within our own values, and not a universal or neutral perspective.” There is much to say about this, but perhaps the first and most important is the great difference between universality and neutrality. When it comes to the philosophy of value or practical philosophy (of which ethics, politics, aesthetics and soteriology are all forms or branches), neutrality is not a worthy goal to strive for. Universality is.

Momin’s version of relativism, as I understand it, claims that there is no right or wrong that transcends what is merely right or wrong to us. So it is not “Pol Pot was not wrong but merely different” but rather “Pol Pot was only wrong to us, not to him” – with no way to move further beyond the dichotomy of us and him. But let us think about this claim in a couple of ways. First of all, it does seem to undermine itself, for it would seem that this claim would itself be true only for Momin and others who inhabit it, not for me and others who don’t. If I disagree with the claim, then it would seem difficult to find a ground on which to establish that the claim should be wrong for me and not merely for Momin. But in attempting to reply to and defend relativism against my accusations with rational argument, it would seem to me that Momin is in fact trying to establish that I should consider it wrong for myself and not merely for him.

From another angle: if it is true that Pol Pot was wrong only to us, we should be clear about the grounds on which we say that Pol Pot was in fact wrong to us. Is our assertion of his wrongness mere arbitrary will and whim, with no reason behind it? Then there is no point in pretending to have arguments like these. The relativism itself is a simple whimsy, and to try to offer arguments for it (as Momin has done) is a callous deception of the kind Nietzsche accused the priesthood of. Or are there, in fact, reasons involved, as the practice of offering arguments implies? I think this is the option Momin has taken, and rightly so. But if relativism claims to be a logical conclusion of rational inquiry in this way, then it must admit reasons as a ground for accepting that one position is better for us than another. And if reason can arbitrate that position is better than another for us, why can’t it arbitrate that one position is better than another for someone else? After all, reasons cross the boundary of individual selves; people convince each other of things all the time. So if we accept that reason should decide matters for ourselves, why can’t accept that it should decide matters for others?

It can’t be that “reason itself isn’t true for them.” Very few people even claim to refuse reason entirely, and of those who do so claim, most of them betray the claim with their actions: making rational arguments and acting accordingly. Indeed, if we do try to understand Pol Pot internally, as Momin and I agree we should, then we need to understand his reasons. This is exactly what I have done when I have tried to so understand him. I noted how he justified his mass killings: “If the result of so many sacrifices was that the capitalists remain in control, what was the point of the revolution?” This rhetorical question serves as an argument, aimed to convince at least those who urged less radical, less destructive measures toward the communist goal: it would have meant that society was left more or less in the same unacceptable state it was in before the revolution. It strikes me that it is a part of being human in the world to employ reasons, to insist on reasons from others and to seek truth, at least to some degree. Those who do not are babies and the truly insane – not the Pol Pots of the world, who use rational means to accomplish terrible ends, but those whose brain functioning does not permit them to interact with the world.

Nor is it that reason can decide only means and not ends. People can and do get rationally convinced by each other about ends. I’ve focused on Leah Libresco’s conversion as an example and illustration of how this can and does in fact happen. So we can arbitrate between different perspectives rationally. We begin within one, but its inadequacies are revealed dialectically, leading us to another. At no point in this process are we standing on some outside neutral ground; but nevertheless we have come to decide that one such view is better than another.

Alasdair MacIntyre‘s work notes the possibility of such supersession even though he doesn’t advocate universality, and is a diehard opponent of neutrality. He nevertheless claims that competing viewpoints can be arbitrated – it is possible, and has indeed happened in important cases, that one viewpoint can give an account of both itself and its competitor that is fuller and more satisfactory – again, from the perspective of both that account and its competitor – than the competitor’s account is.

With all this in mind, let me examine Momin’s arguments for his relativism in more detail. The key argument rests on the importance of understanding:

if Pol Pot was universally wrong, then how could he have done what he did? Obviously there was some perspective from which his project made sense, some perspective that was not, for him, defeated by arguments coming from our western enlightenment perspective. Relativism is simple the epistemic recognition and understanding of this dynamic. The alternative is to dismiss Pol Pot as crazy, insane, incomprehensible. And I don’t find perspectives that dismiss parts of the world as incomprehensible to be effective ways of understand the world. Perhaps dismissing Pol Pot as crazy is helpful in an emotional sense, but for me it is not helpful in an intellectual sense of understanding why historical events in Cambodia played out the way they did.

I disagree with the conclusion Momin comes to from this line of reasoning, but there is a very important grain of truth in it. We learn nothing by dismissing those we disagree with as incomprehensible. Not only do we learn nothing about them, we learn nothing about the world – or the features of the world that drove them to the positions that they took. We learn a little bit more – but not that much – by calling them insane, understanding their actions externally in terms of neurological breakdown or the like. This is much less than we learn if we can understand their positions internally, as their positions made sense to them – that is, if we can make those positions make sense to us.

But why is any of this incompatible with universalism? I had responded: it is pretty obvious to every universalist that some people – indeed probably most people – are wrong about many or even most things. A universalist account requires some sort of theory of error, and “they’re all nuts” is a pretty bad one. A really good universalist account can provide an internalist theory of error – not just explain error away (in, say, Freudian or evolutionary terms) but explain why it is internally persuasive despite being ultimately wrong.

Momin has already responded to this argument, claiming that internalism and universalism are incompatible. But this post is already long. I will post my reply next week.


* I post links to each week’s blog post on Facebook, as well as on Academia.edu and Twitter. If you want to be my friend on Facebook and I don’t already know you, please send me a Facebook message introducing yourself. When I receive an invite from a total stranger with no introduction, I assume it’s a spammer.