"Pain" is "real" when you get other people to believe in it. If no one believes in it but you, your "pain" is "madness" or "hysteria.”The difficult thing is to see, or to keep in view, the fact that language is both contingent (dependent on social and historical factors) and necessary (it's the only game in town for thinking, understanding, and communicating). Trying to get the former truth in focus can lead to things like relativism and attempting to "get outside of language," while focusing on the latter can lead to what looks like naivete.
The other day my friend Jim talked about people in a village in Africa (I don't remember which country) who would unashamedly steal from outsiders but would frown on stealing from insiders. They would even beat mercilessly any outsider caught stealing from them. This put Jim in an interesting position, because he lived there as an outsider, and regularly had things stolen from him, but lived there long enough to gain insider status. So, he asked, was it wrong for them to steal from him when he first got there? Yes, said my friend John Paul. Jim's reply was that of course John Paul would think that, because he's a product of a culture where we think stealing is (pretty much) always wrong, just as the villagers are products of a culture that takes a different view.
I think Jim has a point, but it was almost as if, in his view, everyone is just a product of their culture except him. And that's not true. We can travel to other places, read about them in books, learn about them from conversations with people like Jim. And we can question our values as a result. We can see that it is contingent that we have the values we happen to have. But unless we give them up (either completely or by suspending or bracketing them) then they are still our values. And the 'we' implied by "our" here includes Jim. Part of thinking something is wrong is not doing it, and he doesn't steal. Whether we should judge or condemn people from other cultures is another matter, but if we don't do so then this suggests that we don't believe as strongly as we might in the particular values that we don't apply to others, or else that we don't regard those others as "we" in some sense. Neither of which is necessarily good or necessarily bad. (Some values probably should be adhered to more strongly than others, and a refusal to judge could be either wisely liberal or foolishly condescending.)
The same kind of thing goes for belief in human rights. Yes, not everyone believes in them. Yes, they have only been talked about in relatively recent times. Yes, creativity and imagination (including explicit reference to metaphor) were involved in their 'discovery'. In that sense we made them up. But it doesn't follow that people don't really have rights. Saying that is making a value judgment, not merely drawing a logical conclusion from established facts. One can no more step outside values than one can step outside of language. We can be amoral, but that means adopting a specific position on the ethics axis (the one marked by a zero). We can't just step off the axis altogether.
Another example of the kind of thing I have in mind occurs in this interview with Lee Braver. Braver says:
When we want to answer a question about the world, when we want to settle an argument, all we have to go on is what we can come up with. Appealing to an absolutely independent and authoritative reality to rule on our disagreements doesn’t work because, as Sartre argued, it’s still us making the appeal and figuring out how to understand whatever answer we get back. Invoking an absolutely separate reality that “knows” the answer regardless of what we come up with is, as Wittgenstein says, just a picture. It doesn’t, and ex hypothesi can’t, affect our practices of settling disputes or discovering knowledge. It’s just us down here, without a Great Umpire in the Sky, endlessly squabbling.This seems to me to lean too far in the anti-realist, almost relativist direction. What he means might be right, but look at what he says: "all we have to go on is what we can come up with." As opposed to ... what? "Appealing to an absolutely independent and authoritative reality to rule on our disagreements doesn’t work." Right, because only a judge can rule, and "appealing to reality" makes no sense. It can't talk back. But if Braver means that we cannot judge according to the facts, then of course he's wrong. The facts can speak for themselves, and do in some cases. It might sound as though I'm just contradicting myself here, but what I mean is something like the very simple facts that "appealing to reality" has no meaning in our language while "the facts speak for themselves" does. More Braver: "Invoking an absolutely separate reality that “knows” the answer regardless of what we come up with is, as Wittgenstein says, just a picture." I don't know where Wittgenstein says this (or is it just that Wittgenstein talks about pictures in this kind of way?), but who invokes an absolutely separate reality that "knows" the answer? Unless Braver means religious believers then I can't think of anyone who does this, or would think to do so. And neither Wittgenstein nor I think that belief in God is "just a picture."
So are men and women really equal, with a right to equal opportunity, or do we just thinkof them that way? Both (except that the words "really" and "just" are misleading). If we do "just" think of them this way then we do think (and should say) that they are ("really") this way. Is Beethoven really a great composer or is it all just a matter of taste? Both: taste is what allows us to recognize such greatness, but anyone who does recognize it will not say that it is "just" a matter of taste. (There is something like Descartes's response to the accusation that he argues in a circle here. While you have the proofs of God's existence in mind, he thinks, you cannot doubt them. That's debatable, of course, but while you are looking at the sunset, if you are really looking, you cannot doubt its beauty. And closing your eyes in order to judge whether it is really beautiful or not is not being more objective. It's an act that embodies an evaluative stance. It means choosing to adopt a different perspective. But it's still a perspective.) Are you really in pain, or is it just that we call people in your condition "in pain"? Both. We really do call that pain, and here I am calling it pain: It really is pain. Yes, I am saying that, but I'm not just saying it (in the sense that I don't really mean it). Failure to see that would be making the mistake of anti-realism. The opposite mistake is thinking that the word "really" does any work in the sentence "It really is pain." That's the mistake of realism.