Sunday, April 13, 2014

Relativism as bullshit

A bullshitter does not primarily care whether what he says is true or false. His primary goal is to win votes, sell the car, get applause, make the teacher think he has read the paper he was supposed to read, generate buzz, or something of the sort. Bullshit is a sort of consequentialism in action (not that all consequentialism is bullshit, of course). If I don't know what I'm talking about (I haven't read the book, say) then I might sincerely hope that what I say is true, but first and foremost my concern is with appearing in a way that gets others to do what I want them to do. I am pretending.

Whenever anyone does anything they try to do it well, or properly, or at least adequately. Otherwise they are not really doing that thing but something else, such as pretending to do that thing or trying to make it look as though they have done that thing. If I mow the lawn and don't try to do even an adequate job then I am really just trying to pacify someone else (my neighbors, my wife, perhaps even my conscience), not to mow the lawn. I am making a show of mowing the lawn. And I will, in that case, care about putting on at least an adequate show.

Internal to everything we do is some sense of adequacy, if not goodness. We live by standards. We cannot do otherwise, but we also cannot live by standards while sincerely affirming that any standard whatsoever is just as good as any other. This would be one possible reason to deny that relativism exists at all. It's an impossible position to hold, so why bother trying to counter it? I agree that it is impossible to hold, in a way that is similar to the impossibility of thinking nonsense, but people still do utter (and 'think') nonsense. And I think they do fall into relativism, even of the very crude sort discussed in textbooks.  

Moral relativism typically shows up in the form of someone saying "it's all relative" when a discussion of ethics gets difficult (socially, intellectually, or in some other way). It's a way to disengage so as to avoid hurt feelings or hard work or boredom or whatever. Aesthetic relativism shows up when students treat artworks as something like bullshit, as content-irrelevant shows whose value is only to produce a certain effect. I once had a discussion with students who claimed not to care at all what the critical response had been to a movie. That is, they claimed it made no difference whatsoever to whether they would watch a movie if critics had universally praised or panned it. Of course they might have been exaggerating, but I think at least some of them really meant it. They had found no correlation at all between movies that get good reviews and movies that they enjoyed. (If you never read reviews this is hardly surprising, I suppose.) Their faculty for enjoying higher pleasures of the movie variety was seemingly non-existent.

There's a similar indifference to content in the way many students talk about responding to poetry. To hear them tell it, a typical essay about poetry is all bullshit. This probably is an exaggeration, and probably not exclusive to essays about poetry--minimum length requirements on any essay encourage bullshit, whatever compensating virtues they might have. But I bet most English professors encounter at least some bullshit when grading essays on poetry, and I expect there is more of it when it comes to poetry than in essays on, say, history or engineering where one can fall back on mindlessly listing facts. And it's not just students. Very large numbers of people, I think, really have no response to artworks beyond thumbs up or thumbs down.

That might be going too far, but I don't think it's going much too far. And so far as it is true, people can't be articulate about art because they have nothing to articulate. (Anything they do 'articulate' will be bullshit.) And then standards will be invisible to them.   

I had a point but I seem to have lost sight of it. One (boring) thing I want to say is that relativism is bullshit, in its crudest form it's simply impossible to believe or to mean. The possibly less boring thing I wanted to say is that bullshit is produced by people who care about effects and appearances, not content, and that relativism about aesthetic matters encourages the production of bullshit. If you don't believe that there is a difference between good art and bad--that the only relevant differences are between what is liked and what is disliked--then you won't try to produce good art (or good criticism), just popular art (or criticism). And something similar goes for ethics. As far as you think of your own ethics as just a product of your culture or genes or upbringing, etc., you will take an external kind of view of them, as if they are just part of a chain of cause and effect, and not something whose contents can be evaluated. This is not a position you can actually live in, but it is possible to insist on talking as if it were.

(I'm not sure that I am not confused about this, but when I started to write this post--several days ago--I felt as though I had an insight to share. I'm posting it now for whatever it might be worth.)


  1. I think the key point is about articulation. If every evaluative issue is just a matter of primitive reaction, then there's nothing to articulate about why one approves or disapproves (except in purely causal terms). But in many cases (I agree with you) some articulation is possible, and the roadblocks to articulating include laziness and apathy, poor vocabulary and/or communication skills, lack of self-awareness, etc.

    Perhaps in a consumer culture, the important thing is not to be able to articulate, but simply to "Like". Hey, everything is awesome.

    With students, you just have to dig for something about which they care enough to start giving reasons for why X is good or why X is better than Y, etc.

  2. Is anyone ever really a moral relativist or does claiming that amount to bullshitting? In a sense there are certainly moral relativists if, by that, we mean individuals who refuse to judge between competing groups of moral claims and these would include those who refuse to do so in the course of making such judgments as well as those who refuse in a theoretical sense, i.e., those who claim that no moral value claim can be shown (logically at any rate) to be better than any other. Of course, one can claim such a thing and still not act as if one genuinely believes it, no?

    In practice is there really moral relativism? At some point even the practitioner of moral relativism is likely to draw some lines somewhere. Even the person who claims that we cannot condemn acts which might normally seem wrong to us (say brutal vengeance killing if the killer's culture endorses it) is likely to have some lines in the sand which he, himself, will not cross, or countenance others crossing. That is, there are levels of moral claims I think. Some we take to be less compelling or less basic than others and if we grant that the less basic ones are relative, we may still not be prepared to grant the same of those we feel much more committed to.

    And the very endorsement of moral relativism itself cannot be relative and endure can it? Can we allow a value of moral intolerance in another society and not allow it (if we could control for it) in our own? Consider the willingness to kill or torture another for one's principles or out of a desire to eradicate those who think differently than we do. Some societies and cultures do endorse such behavior. Though we may be prepared to look away or make excuses for such behavior in the other society, out of a desire not to seem judgmental or dismissive of that society, would we also choose to endorse that behavior in our own society if such a value were advocated here? Or the behavior of others from that society was implemented by the other here?

    So on some level there does seem to be an element of falseness in certain kinds of claims of moral relativism which, perhaps, is itself an argument for at least some kind of moral absolutism (at least at some level of analysis).

    1. Yes, there's something problematic about the idea of being a relativist. Everything we do involves norms or standards, so we cannot do anything without in some sense embracing or adopting norms, i.e. some norms and not others. We prefer some to others, in other words, rather than treating them all equally or as indifferent. We can only claim that they are all equal, not live out this claim. Relativism occurs when people are not doing anything, it is a kind of language-on-holiday case.

      Of course we can (we have to) be indifferent about some standards. But this requires not being involved in the relevant practices. As soon as we get involved, we adopt standards, taking some things as preferable to or better than others. So relativism (of the "no standards are better than others" variety) is either hypocrisy or else a claim to stand outside all such standards. We can stand outside some, but not all (unless perhaps we are only standing like this and not doing anything else at all, but I'm not sure that's coherent).

      Moral relativism would then be an attempt or claim to stand outside all moral standards. Whether this is coherent depends on what you mean by moral standards, but it's a kind of refusal to think morally, an attempt not to be a moral being. If this can be done it will involve putting other standards above moral ones. As I say, it depends what you mean by 'moral', but it doesn't sound like a good thing. (Especially when accompanied by an air of moral and/or intellectual superiority, as sometimes happens.)

    2. Yes, even satanism, construed as a rejection of certain religiously endorsed moral norms, involves adopting and adhering to some norms, which is to say even it consists of certain moral claims. Nihilism has the same problem because to be coherent it must embody the incoherence of never formulating and applying any standards at all, even a standard of nihilism. A modified version might be conceivable though, i.e., where moral valuation is construed more narrowly, as this or that particular set of moral norms. In this case, then, we have simply elected to call the norms we endorse something else. As long as all our acts are underwritten by some reasons, and reasons involve logical considerations, there will always be generalized expressions or norms which summarize the kinds of things we're prepared to do as principles or standards. And these will be the sorts of things we refer to when explaining our choices or recommending certain choices to others. They are no different in status or quality than those general principles we tend to recognize as moral claims.