Relativism, Objectivism, and Judging

      Copyright © 2007 Bruce W. Hauptli

1. "Narrative" Understanding, Our Selves, and Evaluation:

Oliver Sacks provides us with seven "narratives" depicting lives of individuals who are both like and unlike us.1  They are both disturbing and informative because they show us how minor (and sometimes major) changes in our physiology and experiences might make major differences in our lives. in addition, these narratives help us see who we are.  They are both instructive and disturbing because they help us recognize some things about ourselves which we tend to take for granted.  I wish to take our earlier discussion of these narratives in a different direction however. 

     Look with me at two passages from Sacks' essay "Prodigies:"

Stephen's development has been singular, qualitatively different, from the start.  He constructs the universe in a different way—and his mode of cognition, his identity, his artistic gifts, go together.  We do not know, finally, how Stephen thinks, how he constructs the world, how he is able to draw and sing.  But we do know that though he may be lacking in the symbolic, the abstract, he has a sort of genius for concrete or mimetic representation, whether drawing a cathedral, a canyon, a flower, or enacting a scene, a drama, a song—a sort of genius for catching the formal features, the structural logic, the style, the "thisness" (though not necessarily the "meaning"), of whatever he portrays. 
  Creativity, as usually understood, entails not only a "what," a talent, but a "who"—strong personal characteristics, a strong identity, personal sensibility, a personal style, which flow into the talent, infuse it, give it personal body and form.  Creativity in this sense involves the power to originate, to break away from the existing ways of looking at things, to move freely in the realm of the imagination, to create and recreate worlds fully in one's mind—while supervising all this with a critical inner eye.  Creativity has to do with inner life—with the flow of new ideas and strong feelings. 
  Creativity, in this sense, will probably never be possible for Stephen. But catching the thisness, perceptual genius, is no small gift; it is quite as rare and precious as more intellectual gifts.2 
In this passage, one might contend, Sacks summarizes large portions of his narrative of Stephen's life, and describes its difference from the lives of other artistic geniuses whose lives are more like our own.  

     Next consider the following passage:

finally, it was time for Stephen to choose a song he wanted to perform.  He wanted to do "It's Not Unusual," a song much to his liking—a piece on which he could really let himself go.  He sang with enthusiasm....His entire autistic persona, it seemed, had totally vanished, replaced by movements that were graceful, with emotional appropriateness and range.  Very startled at this transformation, I wrote in large capitals in my notebook, "AUTISM DISAPPEARS."  But as soon as the music stopped, Stephen looked autistic once again. 
  Until now, it had seemed to be part of Stephen's nature, part of being autistic, to be defective precisely in that range of emotions and states of mind that defines a "self" for the rest of us.  And yet in the music he seemed to have been "given" these, to have "borrowed" an identity—though these were lost the moment the music ended. 
  It was as if, for a brief time, he had become truly alive.3 
Is this passage simply "descriptive?"  I believe not, it is also, and I think revealingly so, evaluative.  Though Sacks is clearly sensitive to the worth and value, as well as the differentness, of the lives he narrates, and while he recognizes that there are "trade-offs," his evaluative language more than hints at an (his?) evaluation of the differing "lives" he is discussing.  His stories, then, might be called "moral narratives."

     If you don’t want to accept this term in the case of Sacks' narratives, however, it clearly applies in the case of the Bierce and Bennett readings that I have asked you to examine for this lecture.  Neither Bierce nor Bennett, I contend, recommends a particular set of moral directives to the reader.  In fact, I believe they each discuss what Bennett calls "bad moralities"—moral orientations which we, the readers, are supposed to find repugnant. Neither author is simply trying to shock us however.  Nor are these authors simply "describing other's lives" in an effort to enhance our sense of the "diversity of human lives."  Both engage, albeit indirectly, in moral instruction (or moral education). 

Sacks is no different on this point, I contend, and here I want to direct our attention to an aspect of "who we are" which we have not discussed much yet: 

we are creatures who have particular values, and who make evaluations
Of course, I haven't told you anything new here, and many of you recognized, in fact, that this aspect of who we are is one which poses difficulties to the Wilsonian reductionist program, and to the cultural conception of who we are.  But I want to complicate this point a bit before I get to my central concern. 

2. Evaluations and Values Are Context-Dependent:

I am going to read a brief passage from Jon Bransford and Nancy McCarrell's work in psychology.  Be prepared to (a) rate it for comprehensibility, and (b) answer questions designed to measure your recall:

the procedure is actually quite simple.  First you arrange things into different groups.  Of course one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do.  If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set.  It is important not to overdo things.  That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many.  In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise.  A mistake can be expensive as well.  At first the whole procedure will seem complicated.  Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. I t is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell.  After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again.  Then they can be put into their appropriate places.  Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated.  However, that is part of life.4 
Well, how comprehensible is it?  Can you answer specific "recall" questions (how the process starts, what one does first, second, etc.)? 

     According to Alvin Goldman,

subjects to whom this passage was presented "cold" rated it very low in comprehensibility, for it is difficult to integrate this passage into one's antecedent body of knowledge.  These subjects also showed poor recall, presumably for the same reason.  By contrast, some subjects were told before hearing the passage that it is about washing clothes, and this made a dramatic difference both in their comprehensibility ratings and on their recall tests.5 
This passage is a single example which could be multiplied a thousand, but the point I want you to draw from it is that our perceptions, understandings, and communications are all richly context-dependent

     There is a wonderful drawing of M.C. Escher's which depicts a building with a stairway where individuals are walking down on each of the different stories of the building.  As one's eye follows the route taken by the individuals, one finds oneself drawn back to the top of the building.  We all know that you can not go downstairs to reach the top of a building!  Something is wrong here.  Of course, the artist is using tricks of perspective to beguile our eyes, and this is the basic tool of all magicians—void the contextual presumptions without letting the audience in on the trick, and you can, seemingly do the impossible. 

 Click here to go to site with interesting version of Escher picture and discussion of it

     These two examples, I hope, help you see that our perceptions, descriptions, understandings, and communications are all context-dependent.  Change the context and our seeings, understandings, and communications will also change.   Moreover, our reading of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Pamuk’s The White Castle, and our viewing of YOL all help clarify, I hope, that our cultural inheritances are unavoidable contextual factors in our perceptions, descriptions, understandings, and communications. 

    I am appealing to the moral narratives offered by Beirce and Bennett (and Sacks) to suggest that this is true of what we value and of our evaluations also—they are also deeply context-dependent.  This is important because the central concern I want to direct your attention to in this lecture would not obviously arise if all human beings learned to perceive, theorize, value and evaluate within the same social context—if we all inhabited the same "culture."  Were this the case, then our perceptions, beliefs, emotions, and values would be more uniform.  This is, clearly, not the case, however, and this leads, inevitably, to the question:

can we legitimately evaluate (and "value") others' values (and share or accept their evaluations)? 
To clarify the question, and its importance, let me turn to the readings. 

3. Ambrose Bierce and the Carter Druse Narrative:

The first reading I asked you to do for today is a short story by the American writer Ambrose Bierce [1842-1914?] ("A Horseman In the Sky").  I will not relate the whole story, as you have all read it—if you haven't, you should do so! 

How did Bierce's story affect you? 

Does he appeal to your emotions? 

How do you think he wants his reader to feel? 

  -For example, would you say Bierce is "pro-war?" 

Do you believe that Carter Druse did the right thing? 

  -Would you shoot your father? 
Bierce is an artist, and the narrative he offers should rate rather highly on any Bransford/McCarrell measure of comprehensibility and recall.  But Bierce intentionally appeals to the reader's emotions as he gets the reader to think about the moral maxim offered to Carter Druse by his father ("Whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty"). 

4. Jonathan Bennett, Huck Finn, Heinrich Himmler, and Jonathan Edwards:

Turn your attention now to the essay by Jonathan Bennett ("The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn").  Bennett asks us to consider the interplay between "human sympathy" (an emotion) and (bad) moral theory by asking us to look at three very different cases. 

     Huck Finn's quandary as to whether or not to turn in his friend Jim, the slave, who he is helping escape down the river.  Huck's (bad) morality, and his conscience, tell him that turning Jim in is the right thing to do, and in the story he sets off to do exactly that, but Jim's praise of Huck's friendship and assistance, his sympathy, distracts him from his duty.  Huck describes his actions in terms of weakness: "it seemed to kind of take the tuck all out of me," "I just felt sick," "I wam't man enough—hadn't the spunk of a rabbit" [p. 6 of handout].  As Bennett interprets the story (correctly, I believe), Huck knows he has done wrong, can not reconcile this with his fellow-feeling for Jim, and, so, he decides morality is too much trouble:

...s'pose you'd done right and give Jim up; would you feel better than what you do now?  No, says I, I'd feel bad—I'd feel just the same way I do now. W ell, then, says I, what's the use you learning to do right, "when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?  I was stuck.  I couldn't answer that.  So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time [p. 10 of handout]. 
Now Bennett isn't recommending Huck's conclusion, but before we get to that lets look at the other two cases he presents:
Bennett presents the case of Heinrich Himmler as a near opposite case to Huck's. Himmler is portrayed as holding on to his (bad) morality and "overcoming" his human sympathy or fellow-feeling!  Indeed he encourages his fellow S.S. Generals to do the same, while remaining "decent fellows!"   While it will be a "great burden," he says, it is their duty, and he adheres to duty rather than to the emotion of sympathy. 

Finally, in the third case, Bennett presents us with Jonathan Edwards, the American Calvinist theologian and philosopher.  As Bennett tells the story, Edwards is, or endeavors to be, utterly without any trace of human fellow-feeling, or sympathy.  For him human beings are "loathsome" creatures who are "ten thousand times so abominable in [the deity's] eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours."  According to Edwards, all human beings deserve the most horrid of infinite fates and do not deserve either pity of redemption (though some receive the latter as the result of an "arbitrary...and unconvenanted unobliged forbearance of an incensed God" [p. 8 of handout].  Bennett finds this picture utterly misanthropic! 

These three cases provide examples of the conflicts which may arise between sympathy and morality, and Bennett is clearly playing on our sympathies to say that where a morality is "bad", it would be best if sympathy over-rides the dictates of that morality.  His use of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" (and its use of poetic image to counter Horace's "it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country" (dulce et decorum est pro patria mori) nails this point down, but raises issues I want us to be sensitive to throughout the remainder of the course:
clearly Bennett believes that our evaluations and values can be affected by our emotions.  He contends that it is good that morality be placed under the check of sympathy.  We need to be sensitive to the consideration that if the emotions can affect our values, they may be able to do so in ways that Bennett would not be so approving of.  Indeed, the case considered by Wilfred Owen may be just such a case—he seems to be inveighing against one particular emotion (patriotism detached from fellow-feeling) and the values and evaluations that are encouraged in such a case! 
Bennett notes that one can not meaningfully say that one's own morality is bad (cf., handout p. 11).  As he says, such a statement would be incoherent.  For example, I can not coherently say: "I am not speaking."  This is not because the phrase is contradictory, it is the attempt to utter it which leads to contradiction.   Similarly, I can not say that the system of valuation I employ is bad, because to say something is "bad," I have to appeal to that system itself.  Note that this means, also, that the attempt to say that one's system is "good" is also without much meaning. 

     It is important to add to what Bennett says here.  If it makes no sense for one to say that one’s morality (one’s moral standards) is wrong, then saying that it is right is also suspect.  Since one’s standards are what one employs when engaging in the evaluation process, asserting that they are either right or wrong misfires in a central way.  To say they are wrong would be to “contradict” oneself as indicated above, while saying they are right would amount to no more than saying that they are the standards one employs! 

     Nonetheless, a sensitivity to the narratives which Bennett presents (and to others we are examining this semester) should at least raise the possibility (intellectually) that one may be like Heinrich or Huck, have sensibilities all too close to those of Edwards, or be carried away by the patriotic fever which Owen warns against.  This "worry" arises as we go back to the two passages from Sacks noted earlier regarding the life of Stephen:

who or what makes our evaluations of the value of a way of a life; or of the values of different lives; or, more simply, our values, the ones which should be appealed to in "evaluating" others' lives (or, indeed, our own lives)? 
If we accept that our perceptions, beliefs, theories, emotions, evaluations and values are (partially) dependent upon the context in which we learn to perceive, believe, theorize, feel, and value, then how can we legitimately evaluate those who are "differently socialized"—who work, live, believe, and value in a different context?  

5. Moral Objectivism and Relativism:

One of the possible responses to this problem is, simply, to maintain that our values are the absolutely right ones.  This view is one particular version of what I will call "moral objectivism."  Moral objectivists maintain that there is one, single, coherent, simple, rational, knowable moral code. It should not surprise you to learn that the Enlightenment (and Ionian) thinkers were moral objectivists. 

     Of course one could be such an objectivist while wondering if one's code was completely right.  Indeed, I believe, one of the things which best separates "values" from mere desires or passions is that they have withstood the test of critical reflection.6  Individuals who simply assume that (or do not question whether or not) their values and evaluations are the absolutely objectively correct ones purchase clarity and certainty in the valuational arena at a great price: they can only imagine one human narrative. Such people are much like Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly! 

     A recognition of our fallibility, of the all-too-frequent valuational and evaluative conflicts which arise within our own system of values, and of the many very different lives and narratives all should lead us, I believe, to countenance the possibility that our system of values may need to be changed, and that others' systems may offer us valuable clues regarding such changes. 

     Moral objectivism is not, of course, the only option on the horizon.7   Some individuals claim that there is not a single universal, absolute, rational evaluative perspective.  Instead, they maintain "right and wrong," or "good and bad," are discriminations which may be made only from within a particular cultural perspective, and they hold that there is no legitimate evaluation of these differing evaluations.8  Such a view is called a relativistic view, and is often summed up in the phrase "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." 

    Moral relativism is a seemingly easy position to hold intellectually, but practically-speaking it is nearly impossible to maintain.  While it sometimes seems only appropriate to demur from applying one's standards and values as one assesses the values and evaluations of others in radically different cultures, there are two problems with relativism which we need to be aware of as:

first, the relativists' position itself verges dangerously on objectivism.  That is, to claim ""Good and bad," "right and wrong" are always relative to a culture" is to make a seemingly non-relativistic claim!  The simplest dialectical retort to the relativist is "In my culture all valuings and evaluations are objective, and your relativism is wrong; and since you say each culture is right, you're wrong!"  

Second, and more tellingly, few relativists can remain relativists when they move from the calm realm of theory to that of action: suppose one of the students in this class says that she is a relativist, and I say to her: "You flunk."  If she is at all a normal product of her culture, she, or one of the rest of you, will say "That's not fair!"  But, since she is a relativist, she must recognize that there is no such thing as objective fairness.9   Similarly, our readings of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Pamuk’s The White Castle, and our viewing of YOL presented us with cases where, to differing degrees, we were both tempted to take, and yet hesitated to take, a relativistic position. 

In our daily actions we generally appear to presume that our moral valuations and evaluations are universally applicable—and this betokens objectivism.  This is not, of course, true about all of our valuations and evaluations.  In the many areas (for example in etiquette, food preferences, and in law) we accept that there can be values and evaluations which are not universally shared.  But a characteristic of the moral values and evaluations is that they are supposed to be over-riding—they are supposed to specify values and evaluations which lay the strongest obligation upon us.10 

     How then, should we confront the tension which arises given the contextual character of our valuings and evaluations, and the fact that there are other lives and valuings?  If we have to appeal to our moral and evaluative standards in making our evaluations, yet we recognize that these standards may need to be changed, what can we do as we confront the diversity? 

6. Reflective Equilibrium, Narratives, and Evaluation:

I believe that the Bierce and Bennett readings point the way here.  The methodology which we should employ is one which is often called "reflective equilibrium."  As we confront either conflicts within our evaluative system, or a diversity of evaluational systems, we must endeavor to take our theoretical commitments and our pre-theoretical emotional responses (especially or our "sympathy" for others), and endeavor to render them consistent.  This, of course, is exactly what Bennett is recommending.  Take the theory and modify it where its dictates conflict with normal human sympathy.  Of course, as the case of Jonathan Bennett shows, there can be individuals with little sympathy for others.  Moreover, as Wilfred Owen's poem clearly points out, we can be under the throes of a powerful passion (e.g., patriotism) which might overcome normal human sympathy.  In addition to this, I would recommend, we should take advantage of those situations where we discover alternative evaluative contexts and systems by employing them to critically reflect upon our own valuations and evaluations.  We should endeavor to subject our valuings and evaluations to critical scrutiny, in the hopes that in the light of critical reflection and consideration we can, perhaps, uncover any inadequacies in our own and rectify such. 

     In ending today, I want to say three things about the technique of reflective equilibrium as a tool for resolving the concern I identified earlier.  First, this technique is not scientific—there is no way to reduce this process to a set of mechanical steps or a simple rational algorithmic process.  Indeed, it is a process which heavily relies upon both the appeal to emotions and to "narrative understanding."  Bierce, Bennett, and Sacks do much to portray, as far as possible what it is like to be the individuals they are discussing, they try to place us, as far as possible, within their setting.  It is by doing so that we become able to look anew at our own beliefs, evaluations, passions, and values. 

     Second, the goal of such narratives is not simply to present "alternative" lives to us.  Bierce, Bennett, and Sacks are not simply describing other's lives and asking us to simply say "Oh, that's different."  Instead, they are endeavoring to engender a critical self-understanding—they want us to critically consider our valuations and evaluations of both our own and of other's lives, values, and beliefs. 

     Finally, we need to guard against one "Enlightenment presumption" within objectivism—the view that there must be a single, simple, systematic set of answers to our concerns.  In her "Postmodernism, Pluralism, and Pragmatism," Catherine Elgin maintains that:

vacillation between the absolute and the arbitrary stems from a failure to recognize the availability of an alternative.  Either there is one right answer or there is not.  That is obviously true.  The error arises when we interpret the second disjunct as "or there is none."  One way there can fail to be one right answer is that there is none.  Another is that there are several.  To say that a problem does not admit of a unique solution is not to say that it is unsolvable or that all proposed solutions are equally good.  A math student asked to give the square root of 4 can correctly answer +2 or -2.  But the fact that there are two correct answers does not entail that every answer is correct.  She cannot hope to get credit if she answers 17.  Likewise, a work like Madam Bovary admits of multiple correct interpretations.  But not every interpretation is correct.  The work cannot plausibly be construed as a commentary on the fall of the Roman Empire or a story about a boy and his dog. 11 
It may well be that the appropriate response to our fallibility, to the inconsistencies within our valuational system, and to the diversity of value systems and narratives is not that there is only one correct position, and not that there is none, but, as Elgin suggests, that there are several acceptable alternatives (but not that anything goes).  I encourage you to keep this possibility in mind as you continue to write your own narrative!  


1 Cf., Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist On Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (N.Y.: Knopf, 1995).   Back

2 Oliver Sacks, "Prodigies," in his An Anthropologist On Mars, op. cit., pp. 188-243, 241-242.   Back

3 Ibid., pp. 239-240.   Back

4 John Bransford and Nancy McCarrell, "A Sketch of A Cognitive Approach to Comprehension," in Cognition and the Symbolic Process, eds. W. Weimor and D. Palermo (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlaum, 1975).    Back

5 Alvin Goldman, "The Relation Between Epistemology and Psychology," Synthese v. 64 (1985), pp. 29-68, p. 61. Back

6 A good deal more needs to be said here, of course, but in this talk I am simply assuming that it is obvious that we are creatures who have values, and not looking at what such things are, or what having them is like.   Back

7 Here I will discuss only moral objectivism and relativism.  There are additional alternatives, and at least one of them is far more attractive to me than the ones discussed, but these are the predominant positions, and they give sufficient diversity for my purposes here. Back

8 There are many forms of relativism (individual, social, cultural), but I will use only the formulation appropriate for "cultural relativism" here, as it is the one which will be most appropriate within the context of the readings and discussions at this point in this semester. Back

9 Clearly these “refutations” of relativism are not sufficient, by themselves, and more needs to be said here.  That, however, is not the theme of this lecture.   Back

10 I will not have time to speak of the relative importance of moral and religious values here, yet this important point is of central importance in some of the cases we will confront.   Back

11 Catherine Elgin, "Postmodernism, Pluralism, and Pragmatism," in her Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1997), pp. 161-175, p. 194.  Emphasis added to the passage twice.   Back

Go to Wilfred Owen's Poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est"

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Revised on 07/15/2015