Relativism and the Limits of Rationality

Since our values derive from our situatedness as physical human being within a particular culture, how can we defend them as absolutes?   Since our cognitive apparatus likewise grows out of a particular biological and cultural context, how can we be sure it reflects the world as it is in itself?  This essay addresses the threat of relativism to the common conviction that our values and knowledge are ultimately justifiable or grounded in something external to our conditioned ways of valuing and knowing.  Relativism is accommodated, but with the important proviso that we indeed cannot abandon those values and facts which constitute us as ethical and cognitive creatures.  Published in the Humanist, 1992, V52, #1, pp. 25-32.

We have no choice but to live our lives from the standpoint of value. As sentient beings we embody a network of needs, desires, preferences, and long term goals which determine the course of action, and we cannot, even for an instant, step completely outside this network. Even if we decide to question our preferences, or to evaluate them, we do this from the standpoint of yet other preferences which act as a standard for evaluation. The very desire to conduct such an inquiry expresses commitment to a value, that of self-understanding. Thus we never look at the world, or ourselves, from a completely neutral, unmotivated stance.

If we stop to reflect upon the source of our values, we discover that they have what might be called a "natural history". They flow from our biology, culture, upbringing, education, and the idiosyncratic twists and turns of our career through life. If we knew enough of this history, we could use it to explain the appearance of these values, to show how our particular constellation of aesthetic preferences, ethical beliefs, and personal commitments arises out of genetic and environmental circumstances.

These two claims about value–its inescapable effect on thought and action, and the naturalistic contingency of its origins–underlie the thesis of relativism. Our way of understanding the world is inherently relative to, that is, motivated and biased by, our needs and preferences. Further, the preferences we embody are relative to, that is, they grow out of our particular situation. This thesis causes consternation in both secular and religious circles, for it seems to deny an objective foundation for one's cognitive scheme and it rules out any absolute basis for ethical claims. How, they worry, can we justify as true our beliefs about the world if they are tainted by biologically and culturally induced motives? How can we justify as right a system of ethics which originates in contingent circumstances?

In what follows I want to explore this worry and some responses to it, and show that relativism, while it may undercut the impulse to justify our cognitive and ethical systems, may by and large leave them intact. My basic prescription for those troubled by relativism will be to face squarely the contingency of their situation, and then notice that such a confrontation may not erase the preferences they thought needed absolute justification. The justifications we can offer will be in terms of those preferences, not something deeper which shows them to be ultimately right or just. Having understood the limits of justification, worrying about the contingent, relative character of our views may strike us as unnecessary, the result of the false supposition that some particular view could or should be universally correct.

In discussing reactions to relativism, I will focus particularly on the secular tendency to set up the notion of rationality as a foundation for deriving universally acceptable cognitive and ethical systems. Despite some fond hopes to the contrary, I believe that an "objective" rationality, something against which we could measure or evaluate our ideas about what's true and what's right, is a chimera. Taking a line explored by several contemporary philosophers, among them Peter Strawson, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Richard Rorty, I will argue that rationality operates within an already given system of assumptions and motives, and that even our conception of rationality itself is relative to a context. We will never be able, finally, to rationally justify our most basic values, nor perhaps our fundamental beliefs about how the world is. These values and beliefs constitute the context within which our version of rationality works. Again, my move is away from justification towards something like an acceptance of how things are for us and how we want things to be. Finally, I want to address the practical question of how competing ethical and cognitive views are to coexist. The desire to universalize our values may continue even though we discover they lack an ultimate foundation or justification. The acceptance of relativism may affect how we express that desire.

Inclusive Naturalism

That we are inextricably bound up with values and that these have their origins in our culture and biology are naturalistic hypotheses, stemming from the basic idea that nothing exists beyond the natural continuum of events and processes. If we are wholly embedded in the natural world then there is no essential self, soul, or disembodied awareness which monitors, from a causally detached vantage point, the ebb and flow of desire within us. We exist as our motives and desires (among other things), not as something which can pick and choose among them. If we do pick and choose our motives, it has to be according to some existing preference, operating within us as yet another motive, albeit at a higher level. To act at all, whether overtly or in thought, requires us to embody a desire; thus it is a mistake to think we stand above our motives, dispassionately observing and channeling them.

The values which we embody are themselves a function of the cultural and biological circumstances of our situation. As might be clear by now, I mean by "value" the full range of our motivational dispositions, from the basic desire to draw one's next breath to a commitment to an ideal conception of virtue. The naturalistic claim is that even the upper reaches of abstract value, those general norms we find ourselves subscribing to (the "golden rule", "honesty is the best policy", etc.) have their roots in our creaturely existence. They do not come from on high, graven in the stone of the Absolute, but rather from our collective experience as social creatures with a specific past and with specific current needs. The particular ethical norms of a culture represent a compromise between each individual's tendency to maximize his or her own benefit (or the benefit of family, town, or country) and each individual's need for protection against the unlimited expression of that tendency by another. Ethics have evolved as the codification of such compromise, and not surprisingly, they have varied greatly from culture to culture. The naturalistic view of value I am taking here can account for such variation as a function of differing geographical, political, and economic conditions, and furthermore sees no moral difficulty associated with it. Like other phenomena, behavioral norms arise out of complex sets of circumstances. They are natural facts, some of which inevitably apply to each of us insofar as we find ourselves subscribing to various notions of what is right and wrong.

Cognition, the representation of the world to ourselves, is likewise a natural function, reflecting our needs, wants, and aspirations, as well as the very selective structure of our perceptual systems. There are many possible world views, and the human condition shapes just one that may not be particularly privileged or objective in the sense of seeing things as they "really" are, or are "in themselves". Objectivity, naturalistically understood, becomes simply the agreement between individuals about what exists and how the world works, but this occurs within the unavoidable cognitive relativity of being a particular sort of creature inhabiting a particular culture.

The cognitive and ethical relativisms described here follow from the understanding of ourselves as completely included in the natural world. Knowledge and ethics are conditioned by the circumstances in which they arise, not revealed by contact with some ideal or unconditioned vantage point. For absolutists, convinced that there are universal, certain standards of knowledge and behavior, such relativisms must be denied. There must be a source of truth and value outside human needs and preferences to ground such standards. Thus we find, predictably, that they attack the naturalistic premises with which I started. For many of religious or New Age persuasions there is not one inclusive world of natural phenomena, but rather two worlds, one natural and one supernatural, and it is contact with the latter which provides cognitive, moral, and existential certainty. Truth is revealed by consulting God or a spiritually authoritative text, or entering one's "higher" body, or receiving instructions from a trusted channeler. All such versions of the supernatural, however disparate, have a common characteristic. They attempt to escape relativism by sidestepping what the naturalist sees as the obvious contingency and uniqueness of each person's historical situation. They place the individual securely in a transcendent realm in which knowledge and ethics are part of the structure of the Absolute. Back on earth, travelers in the supernatural or paranormal justify their actions in the everyday world by standards they suppose are eternal and universal. Unfortunately, there seem to be a number of rather different Absolutes, and violent disagreement about which of them constitutes Truth. The consequences of such ideological conflict need no elaboration here, except to say that they demonstrate the surprising strength of the human urge for self-justification.

As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. pointed out in an article on the virtues of relativism ("The Opening of the American Mind", New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1989) non-religious forms of absolutism display an equal disregard for the multiplicity and contingency of human experience. Fascist ideologies, super-patriotism, utopian dogmas, systems of racial and caste rank, all seek to monopolize truth and justice. Thus is "civil blasphemy" born, the judgment that "there are things so sacred that they must be protected by the arm of the state from irreverence and challenge–that absolutes of truth and virtue exist and that those who scoff are to be punished." Here it is the flag, symbol of American virtue, which some think must be defended at all costs from those who would desecrate it. In communist China it is the monolithic and utopian absolute of the party line. Often such secular absolutes will be based in a highly selective or distorted version of naturalism itself. Free markets and the unchecked accumulation of personal wealth are the only "natural" way to regulate economic interaction; homosexuality is "unnatural"; science "demonstrated" the inherent superiority of the Aryan race, the inevitable ascendance of the working class, and gave its stamp of approval to the "Darwinian" triumph of colonialism. If we can't appeal to God for justification we can always appeal to Nature.

The Limits of Justification

The perennial resurgence of spiritual and secular absolutes is, to some extent, a response to the ethically neutral world described by objective, non-partisan science. Such a world has no built-in guidelines for how we should conduct ourselves, just a description of what exists and how things fit together. Generally people want to feel secure in their beliefs, want to feel justified in acting as they do, and want things, finally, to work out. Since there are no clear guarantees for any of this in science they undertake what John Dewey called the "quest for certainty", getting plenty of assistance from religions, gurus, and charismatic leaders. Even those of us immune to the seductions of obviously contrived absolutes may attempt, in more "respectable" ways, to find a guarantee for our cognitive and ethical stance. We may construct a perhaps more sophisticated, but (I claim) equally forlorn version of some foundational absolute, to which we try to anchor our beliefs about what is and what is right.

The desire to justify one's ethical stance or one's beliefs about matters of fact is common enough. It can manifest itself on at least two levels. First, we often find ourselves attempting to justify a particular belief or action. If we can't, we'll usually modify our belief (or behavior) so that it becomes justifiable according to criteria we still accept. Most of us find it important to be self-consistent by not holding obviously contradictory beliefs and by acting according to our avowed values. If we are self-consistent, then chances are we'll be able to offer justifications more or less straightforwardly. We point to our larger network of values and cognitive commitments and show how the particular act or belief in question fits into this network. This ability to offer justifications which are acceptable to ourselves and others in our community is one general characteristic, I think, of being rational.

But there is another level at which we sometimes find the impulse to justify arising, the level of our most basic and strongly held beliefs. These commitments, about what is fundamentally right and about how the world fundamentally is, function as the background criteria by which we justify particular higher level actions and beliefs. If we are challenged to justify these background criteria, we can to some extent employ the strategy above, that is, we can show that they are mutually consistent (if in fact they are). But of course we won't be able to offer further or yet deeper commitments as justification since it is precisely our central beliefs and values that are being called into question. The regress of justification has to stop somewhere. As Peter Strawson puts it in his book Skepticism and Naturalism, "we have an original non-rational commitment which sets the bounds within which, or the stage upon which, reason can effectively operate, and within which the question of the rationality or irrationality, justification or lack of justification, of this or that particular judgment or belief can come up" (emphasis added). The rational is embedded and elaborated within a non-rational context of preferences and cognitive assumptions.

Many of our preferences and assumptions are practically universal, so we don't ordinarily get challenged to justify them. We would find it odd if we were asked to justify our implicit desires to breathe, eat, sleep, avoid severe pain, and seek human companionship. This would be tantamount to asking us to justify living itself. We might, if we are Christian fundamentalists, respond that even the most basic biological "values" find their justification in allowing us to testify to the greater glory of God. (Why God should be glorified or exist at all then becomes the mystery.) But if we are more naturalistically inclined it is likely that at this point, instead of offering a justification, we would offer an explanation: "There's no reason or a priori value that justifies my desires to breathe, eat, avoid pain, etc. I just find that those are my desires. I can explain them as a function of evolutionary biology, but I can neither justify them or nor put them aside." An explanation can only show the origins of basic commitments, it doesn't and can't attempt to show why they should exist according to antecedent standards. When we find ourselves unable to offer justifications, but only explanations, then we know we have reached what I will call pre-rational values and beliefs. Rational justification proceeds using these values and beliefs as background criteria, but they cannot themselves be rationally justified. Rationality, at least as the ability to offer justifications, cannot be applied to what functions as the standard for justification itself.

It is not only basic biological values that are beyond the reach of rational justification, but many of the commonly held, but by no means universal values and world views generated by human culture. These too form part of the pre-rational set of commitments which rationality uses as benchmarks to decide higher level questions. Take, for instance, the widespread religious commitment to the authoritarian transmission of knowledge and social norms. This background belief functions as a standard for justification, allowing, for example, the Muslim fundamentalist to claim that the social status of women in his society is ordained by the Koran. If we ask further why he trusts the Koran, we might get the answer "It is the word of Allah", which for the fundamentalist ends the discussion. It is here that we have likely reached the point at which he will be unable to offer a yet more basic commitment to justify his belief in the Koran's divine infallibility, and at which no amount of persuasive rhetoric on our part will change his belief. That the Koran constitutes truth is for him cognitive bedrock.

If we are naturalists we may want to call this sort of commitment not pre-rational, but irrational. To do so implies that we have ready to hand a standard by which to judge a belief in the Koran's inerrancy; and I suppose that the naturalist's own commitment to evidence, experiment, and scientific consensus functions as that standard. The difficulty is that while we may subscribe to this, the fundamentalist does not. We will not persuade him of his irrationality since he starts from different background assumptions about how to justify belief and proceeds from there, with perhaps a high degree of consistency. He could easily make a similar claim about us: we are fools not to see the limited scope of naturalism: its ignorance of authoritative truths, its blindness to the spiritual reality of personal revelation, its denial of the miraculous.

If in reply we try to justify our commitment to evidence (and our skepticism about miracles) we may be hard pressed to come up with anything more basic which might function as a justification. As David Hume showed in posing the problem of induction (and Nelson Goodman more recently), we encounter grave difficulties in making a non-circular argument for our deeply ingrained belief that what has happened regularly in the past will continue to happen. The reliability of evidence is based on this sort of continuity (same cause will lead to same effect); but to show that past regularities are a guide to the future we can't, of course, point to earlier confirmations of our predictions, for to say that they are grounds for confidence in future confirmations is to assume what we are trying to prove. There may be no rational justification, from a more basic fact, for assuming ongoing regularities in nature, and thus for skepticism about future miracles which violate natural laws. Instead, that assumption itself partially constitutes scientific rationality and, not surprisingly, is notably absent from the rationality of many religious traditions.

Beyond the reliability of evidence the further issue arises, for our beleaguered naturalist, of justifying an evidential standard for all beliefs. The fundamentalist is happy to decide most everyday questions on the basis of a commonsense in which evidence plays a central role, yet when it comes to the "ultimate concerns" of life and death it is faith, tradition, and revelation – not evidence – which provide the benchmarks for his convictions. What, exactly, is wrong with this dual standard, rendering unto Caesar where appropriate, and unto God where appropriate? If, for example, faith in the existence of a scientifically inadmissible soul works to allay anxieties about death, on what grounds should we deny him this resource? Unless we can convince the fundamentalist that the exclusive use of evidence to decide beliefs is pragmatically equal to or better than a resort to faith, then a reassuring belief in the soul seems quite understandable, perhaps even sensible. To convert the fundamentalist on this score will be nigh impossible, for since his goal is reassurance, the absence of empirical evidence for the soul or an afterlife surely makes science less attractive than his faith. Lacking a surefire pragmatic argument for requiring evidence for all beliefs, we might cast about for a yet more central tenet of science by which to rationally justify it. But there is nothing more basic than this requirement. Like the assumption of the reliability of natural laws, it forms another pre-rational element of scientific rationality itself.

Such considerations show that competing notions of what is rational or sensible are tied closely to our pre-rational convictions about beliefs: should we hold them as a matter of authority, revelation, and tradition or as a matter of evidence? To answer this question is to take a normative stance, that is, to subscribe to a basic value regarding what should be considered knowledge. Within religious cultures the individual is approved as sensible to accept the claims of spiritual texts and religious leaders, but is condemned as irrational by those skeptical of beliefs unsupported by empirical evidence. Thus, although the logical and practical consistency of respective beliefs in both camps may be impeccable, the grounds for holding them conflict, leading to the charge and counter-charge of irrationality, or lack of common sense. So even if rationality – conceived of as basic cognitive coherence – is common to both the fundamentalist and the naturalist, this cannot unite them in any agreement about what to believe.

If we are naturalists we might try to justify our world view by showing how well it works in our everyday, technologically sophisticated affairs, how it contributes to our material well-being, how it encourages (perhaps) healthy individualism and egalitarianism. But this sort of pragmatic justification will not move our fundamentalist. He will show us the equally effective results of his world view: its social cohesiveness, its regulation of proper individual roles, its spiritual satisfactions. The point here is that both world views work well according to their own standards, standards generated by radically different fundamental assumptions about how the world is, how we should act, and what constitutes a good life. The question of whether these assumptions are correct or the one's we should subscribe to is still left open by pragmatic justification.

Still, there is again something common to both cultures that seems part of a general conception of rationality, namely the pragmatic capacity to fulfill the needs and desires of their respective members. But like coherence, pragmatic effectiveness works within a context of specific values. A successful means-ends, instrumental rationality, when applied to different sets of values, may only increase the gulf between cultures and magnify the divergence of their basic assumptions.

Given all this, what are we to make of the naturalist's original charge of irrationality against the fundamentalist, and the latter's complaints against naturalism? It seems best to drop the charges of irrationality and admit that what is really at issue is the choice of pre-rational starting points. If to be rational includes, among other things, the ability to offer acceptable justifications to one's peers, the coherence of beliefs, and the capacity to pursue desires effectively, then the naturalist and the fundamentalist may both count as rational. But there are other criteria, relative to each culture, which play a decisive role in judging who is rational (sensible) and who isn't. The norms about justifying beliefs, the common social values, and the long-term goals pursued in one culture may seem outlandish and "obviously" flawed when judged by the standards of a rival world view. But the basic cognitive and ethical commitments of any view, precisely because they are basic, are not themselves open to a rational critique. Alasdair MacIntyre stresses this point in his book Whose Justice? Which Rationality?: "...there is no set of in