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Who’s to Say? (Norman Melchert). Malaspina Great Books Lecture Series. Russell McNeil, PhD. Malaspina Great Books 2006. The First Conversation Relativism in General

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Who’s to Say? (Norman Melchert)

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who s to say norman melchert

Who’s to Say?(Norman Melchert)

Malaspina Great Books Lecture Series

Russell McNeil, PhD

Malaspina Great Books 2006


The First Conversation

Relativism in General

Fred: Who’s to say which values are the best? It seems to me that if something seems good to me it is good to me. Fred accords everyone the same freedom. Fred would say that value judgments are therefore impossible.

Fred believes all values are equivalent because to assert otherwise would require an external, objective gold-standard, or a god’s eye perspective – something the relativist says is impossible.

Peter agrees with Fred on the basics but I does not agree that we cannot make value judgments.

If something seems bad to Peter, he says he is justified in taking action – whereas Fred might not. But this, Anita says, is ethnocentrism or hypocritical relativism.

In either case because the legitimacy of opposing values are seen as equivalent (notwithstanding the fact that someone may have an opinion otherwise) the relativistic position discourages action and leads to immobility.


The Question of Right or Duty

Fred since there is no gold-standard, the question of right is irrelevant. I may act if I feel strongly. But there is no duty for me to interfere or to not interfere.

Fred’s Fallacy

But Fred is caught in a contradiction: to hold the position that there is no objective standard is itself an objective claim! This contradiction nullifies the argument of relativism as formulated by Fred.

The Plot Thickens: Relativism revived

Peter accepts that assessment and defines Fred as a dogmatic relativist. Peter simply withdraws from making that claim.

Peter instead attempts to refute the dogmatic absolutist position using the evidence of history and listing the “evils” done by those who have held this position.


The Second Conversation

Fred tries to recover from his earlier defeat by redefining his position in cultural terms rather than in individual terms. His new cultural relativism admits to good and evil but only in relation to a given culture.

This new position of Fred’s is challenged again. Which culture would apply? Each of us belongs to many. Must we thus refrain from making about cross-cultural judgments?

The cultural relativist could not make a judgment about the holocaust. It leads, for example to another contradiction. We would be forced to acknowledge praise for the Final Solution from a Nazi cultural position and to acknowledge condemnation for the Final Solution from a Jewish cultural perspective. It also insists that we must both accept and reject the very position of cultural relativism.

Fred relents but Peter lays in wait.


The Attraction of Peter’s Relativism

Peter case rests on his claim that he really has no view. He actually deniys that one can even have a view.

Peter’s position rests on his claim that for any view he can demonstrate that there are equally good reasons for competing views. This position appears very attractive. It is attractive because it is motivated by genuinely anti-prejudicial considerations, a desire for universal tolerance and a desire to avoid being ethnocentric.

Peter’s project rests on an approach that requires sympathetic identification and a complete openness to alternate ways of seeing.

(Sounds like Liberal Studies?)

Peter maintains that if we do this – with honesty,charity and sympathy we will discover that we indeed really do have no good reasons to prefer our views over alternative or competing views.


Peter goes on to shore up his argument invoking the idea of underdetermination – we really do not and can not know anything with certainty.

As a consequence, our only option we can really ever have is to simply choose (a value system or a rational framework for living).

In developing this theme Peter presents these choices or belief systems as analogous to ships on a stormy sea – a sea shared by many other ships. It matters not what ship you are on. You are also free to jump ship, to change positions, to adopt a competing value system, to convert.

But these conversions are really nothing other than a gestalt shift - a psychological switch in perspective illustrated by the vase/face illusion where it is possible to see the same situation in radically differing but equally valid ways.

When I say that I hold a conviction because that is “how I see it,” I acknowledge that competing and equally valid perspectives can and do exsit.


Two Flaws in Peter’s Position

Elizabeth attempts to undermine the gestalt analogy by illustrating how the mind can sometimes not see what it firmly believes (The unequal line demonstration). This is intended to demonstrate that there can be a neutral seeing place that is common to two differing positions. No simple “gestalt shift” is possible here.

Anita agrees with Peter’s point that our evidence is underdetermined but that some ideas are more underdetermined than others – something Peter fails to point out.

Peter’s Pre-Rational Argument

There must be something (non-objective) outside any belief system (scientific or religious) that we point to in order to accept the belief system. There is a pre-rational basis for all beliefs. And all the choices that we make involve this pre-rational step. Once the choice is made, we then make value judgments from within the system we have chosen. The fact that there are many choices and that there is no rational basis for evaluating the pre-rational basis for the choice means that we have no way to evaluate those choices. This is the foundation upon which Peter’s relativism rests.


Peter’s Argument – a Summary

  • all our views are underdetermined
  • our evidence is contaminated
  • our language mirrors not reality, but our interests and desires
  • there is a pre-rational basis for the very rules of rationality

The Third Conversation

Attempts to Refute Peter

1. Michael ponders the fact that science works and that the world is independent of what we make of it. Science gives us truth. Science works because it yields truth about this world. Anita defuses this refutation by showing that science can work yet not be true. Peter goes on to say that “working” is a culturally dependent idea.

2. Anita counters Peter by saying that the reasons for his relativistic position (above) are themselves relative to a (fixed) framework that defines just what reasons ought to be! Peter is irritated with that response – a dialectical game (says Peter) that Anita is playing …

3. Anita than tears into Peter charging him with unrealistic abstraction. Peter, she says, does not describe life as it is lived, but that he creates a template that he lays over life. Peter, she says, takes rationality too far. Life isn’t all about being rational. Furthermore a reason is not the kind of thing that relativists say it is.


4. Learning – real learning – says Anita is gradual and real. We do discover that some standards are better than others through a process of Problem solving. Anita goes on to develop a notion of what she calls human flourishing. This idea allows a rainbow of flourishing possibilities (a harmless sort of relativism). Certain things are true. For example, it is true (says Anita) that human flourishing is more possible in a free society than in a totalitarian society.

5. Elizabeth analyses Peter’s position from a Socratic perspective arguing that his relativism leads to an idleness (something Socrates suggests is a vice) that is inconsistent with becoming better.

6. Elizabeth also attacks relativism as merely an ego position. It makes the ego look good. For example, any “Who’s to Say” question is answered with “I, you, or we.”

7. Elizabeth further asserts that relativism actually enhances ethnocentrism by leaving us smug in our own ethnocentric skins.

Peter is unmoved…