Monday, June 15, 2009

Five More Thoughts: Relativism Ed.

rel•a•tiv•ism (rěl'ə-tĭ-vĭz'əm)
n. Philosophy
A theory, especially in ethics or aesthetics, that conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute but are relative to the persons or groups holding them.
It's as good a starting place as any. In my usual halfbaked way, and egged on a little by two of my favorite readers (which, relatively speaking, is quite a high fraction of them), I was intrigued to write a little point/counterpoint from the scary edges of moral relativism. My divinity, like the man said, is caught between the colors of a butterfly.* The second two thoughts are add-ons, uninspired observations about the tedious and narrow relativism that one needs to employ in order to take American politics seriously. And even the number five can be relative, of course.

A relatively weak theme, to be sure, but hey, what else is new?

1. And it doesn't mean a goddamn thing
It's hard to deny that despite our efforts to describe the experience of being, our thoughts and actions are merely products of the underlying physics, be they deterministic or probabilistic. Consciousness, whatever it feels like, whether or not it can be predicted, and, paradoxically, whether or not the basic phenomena are knowable enough for us to use them to sufficiently describe ourselves, nonetheless has to be the result of these processes. Thinking meat is weird stuff to be sure, but those choices and rationalizations it makes are manifestations of fundamental physical processes, the elaborate details of some long-term and ridiculously complicated path the universe takes down another cosmic entropy sink.

Not that anyone wants to fall down that rabbit hole. My goal here is more empathy, and the point is, no matter how satisfying it can be to undercut a moral argument, you can always go down one further, and really, what fun is that?

So we wretched Adams make our indispensible approximations, practice moral relativism on some scale or other. From my point of view, philosophy, in its broadest sense, is the art of exploring the consistency of ideas in light of some common assumptions necessary to keep ourselves sane: math works, free will exists, that sort of thing.

But at the bottom line, those assumptions are just good guesses. If we're into ethics, then they're practically arbitrary. Even considering that moral development is based on optimizing things like individual and group happiness, food supply, and genetic propagation, at heart our moral stance is whatever we choose to believe it is. It's like faith that way: true because we choose it to be true. And it leaves a lot of room for elective ethical frameworks. We can believe that our urge for compassion and that the organization of nature is a divine order, and it may as well be. Or else we like to believe that equality is a righteous humanist impulse, and so it is.

The practicing political ethos makes a lot more sense when you think about it that way. Why not go ahead and build your ethical system on the party platform? Why not acknowledge exceptionalism as the primary motivator of the populace, as most other societies have, in fact, admitted, right along with the corollary that other groups are naturally inferior. Why not lust for the glory of battle, get a little warrior worship going, accept violent death as the preferred end to inevitable suffering? I'd tell you that I don't accept that morality, and I really don't. I'd tell you that one of the offensive things about the American way of doing things is that we pretend one moral pose and practice another. I'd tell you that a good philosophical framework is consistent with observation and doesn't contradict itself. But calling inconsistency a vice is arbitrary too.

2. And if pigs can fly, then surely so can I
[And I type the first draft of this here on the plane. Is there any vehicle to which the human element is so obviously secondary? It's like sitting in a torpedo which has ludicrously lobbed itself into the air, using 90% of its mass to temporarily and futilely defy gravity. Inside the tube, people are lined up and watered like cattle in a barn, lonely together for the miles of thin, dark air that separates this slim silver dart from any other object. The earth itself is invisible under clouds we can't look down to see. There is solidarity here, unspoken and ignored, but should anything happen, in the exceedingly unlikely event it would be given an opportunity to play out, it's understood that we make up some core of a human civilization, with thoughts, prejudices, relationships all nascent and unexplored. Somehow it's understood that everything human can be represented in or developed from this small population, or in any of the other small isolated populations that are currently racing through the sky. Some passengers will share pieces of themselves to pass the time. We bump elbows and knees and look uncomfortably at our neighbors, reduced to the sweaty, tired, undisguised essence of our human selves. There is a thump, the nose of the plane tips forward. Was it supposed to do that? The lights flicker. Je--]

3. Like a bullet, as a friend
It's often said that there's no difference between the American parties, and it's not that they don't they stand for slightly different things, but there is surely a political society that has never evolved far from its expansionist, patrician roots, and it takes in most of the government.

I seem to have inherited an annoying habit of overusing words like "the state" and "the system" when I make political arguments, but there is some sort of continuous bureaucratic entity that appears to operate with its own arbitrarily defined, but predictable, ethical framework, reflected even in the few operatives who were sincere in their stated desire to change it. Maybe the better word for that thing is "the company," which makes our leaders quintissential company men and women.

The description seems to fit. In the company, the customer is always right, but the goal is really to make a buck off him, and the marketing to that effect is intense. Everybody works hard, and if they succeed or not, whether or not they agree with the corporate aims, the employees, owners, and bondholders are deeply invested in its persistence.

Perhaps Obama really did crave sunshine in government when he campaigned, but on issues like state spying, executive authority, and government-sponsored torture, he's been drawing the blinds as hurriedly as the last guy (and certainly as quickly as well-documented douchebags like Sens. Lieberman and Graham). The idea that this will inflame our enemies and threaten our soldiers is the starkest bullshit, of course. It's really just maintaining company policy.

No corporation fears ennobling the competition. The competition already resents your market position, and will resort to whatever means to take it that it is willing to risk executing. And we get that there's a marketing campaign for our competitors lurking in the bad press, but surely, they are already daring enough. What we've actually done to them, they already know with deadly certainty. The real fear here is that the torture photos would lose America customers. It's us that Obama doesn't want viewing the things. For the good of the company.

4. Add it up, extract a lesson
And see, that's why I find political writing so damn tiresome most of the time. Whether you side with the stockholders or bondholders, it's still, if you want to talk about your relativism, rah-rah for the company.

We read it because we're angry, and because we care, but political writing is a marketing entity all to itself. If you want to call that sort of analysis a literary genre, and you can, then partisan opinion writing is fucking fanfic. But still, a good writer can transcend his fiction aisle (the bar may, in fact, be higher for talented genre authors), and on the political blogging scene, there are precious few that can get away with hard partisanship. As always, it helps to write well, be aware of larger dynamics than some silly Republican/Democrat debate, and I'll tell you, well-delivered humor never, ever hurts. (Since the Republican party has had thirty years to write its own straight lines, it's no surprise that the list over there is a more than a little left-leaning.)

Anyway, the gang at The Poor Man Institute is one of the few who get away with using words like "wingnut," challenging the genre establishment a little bit. Good humorists, good general understanding, and an occasional engineer's sensibility that takes pleasure in mocking the likes of Gregg Easterbrook. I like them. So maybe you can understand why I found this a little disappointing:
Half the time Obama considers himself kind of lucky to be following George W. Bush’s opening act: it was such a profoundly colossal disaster of an administration on so many levels that all Obama has to do is not wreck the economy, start a catastrophic war of choice on false pretenses, let a treasured American city drown AND try to gut social security all at once and he should coast to re-election by landslide.
I mean curv3ball's point is fairly cynical in that sure, anyone would look peachy following that act. But even there, we're talking, what? Two out of four? And that's before the start of hurricane season.

5. Can that be all there is?
Well, it's all for today.

*here (and borrowing liberally throughout)


artandsoul said...

Dammit you're good.

In re 2. The whole thing on the plane - is so true that I clinched up at the thump.

In re 4. Here's an experiment to try sometime...and trust me, you will survive: Don't watch any television at all (unless it is comedy or something like CSI, 24 or BBC that you can use your DVR), don't listen to any talk or news radio, don't read any paper or magazine, don't follow any headline on the Internet. Just read the headlines and listen to real people - in the flesh, human beings.

For one week.

After a week, or more if you find yourself addicted, pick and choose writers and institutions you really trust (turns out Atlantic Monthly and the BBC were it for a long time for me) and read their op-eds.

I'll tell you what I found - I had the chance to form opinions and thoughts based on a more rational and explicable basis. And, my thoughts were less chaotic and urgent.

My life returned. Its an interesting experiment -- not too many people do it.

In re: Relativism: This seems to be quite a bugaboo catch-word in Catholic circles. Always accusing one another of being "relativist" is like politicians accusing one another of being Hitler.

However the definition and understanding of "relativism" is so amorphous that I can't seem to get a good handle on it. So ... um .. relative.

Thanks for the great post today!! It's more than enough!!

Keifus said...

Thanks art.

I don't think I'm addicted, I can stop any time! The truth is, I can hardly stand the televised shouters and empty blatherers as it is, and even staid, boring NPR is getting to be a chore. (Or maybe they're resembling the former a little too much--I don't appreciate driving home to Dave Brooks every single Thursday.) I do like well-written commentary though, and enjoy seeing bad but persistent ideas cleverly taken apart, which is a lot less rare online than in the usual media.

As for moral relativism, the claim that Catholic morality doesn't qualify is a bold one. (And I never trust any claim to absolutism. Umm...) Even their best philosophers made an impressive living parsing out the challenging details of the purportedly Declared Holy Truth. (But don't ask me to talk about philosophy, please. I've revealed enough of my ignorance as I care to for one day!)

And flying just sucks. Hoo-boy.


artandsoul said...

You can't be addicted to teevee - you write too well. For me it was more of getting rid of everyone's opinion for enough time that at least SOME of my life experience, education and sense of self could be expressed without feeling like I was always arguing with someone (usually someone who wasn't in the room with me)!

I much prefer written commentary. I think that's why I like The Atlantic so much. Used to love Harper's but they're a bit strident now. Well, last time I bought one.

Yes, flying does suck. Which brings me to Catholicism. :)

Well, maybe not. But I agree - my head hurts after trying to follow Demos' thread. Have a good night!