"An Argument for Moral Relativism" Why? Radio Episode with Guest David B. Wong
4:30PM Aug 15, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
David B. Wong
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Hi, everybody, welcome to why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host jack Russell Weinstein. Today we're talking with David B. Wong about ethical relativism. There's a long standing philosophical debate as to whether ethical claims are the same type of statements as other kinds of claims. Whether or not for example, Thou shalt not kill is the same kind of thing as two plus two equals four. Some philosophers argue that they are the same that they both report a fundamental truth but their opponents argue that thou shalt not kill is really just, I don't like killing or I believe killing is wrong in fancy up language. On the surface, this may seem dry, but in fact, it is an incredibly Important controversy with massive consequences for our day to day life. When the President appoints a new Supreme Court Justice, for example, Congress grills the candidate on his or her position on this very topic there. They call it natural law, the idea that rights are written into nature. And just the same way math is, if the candidate believes in natural law, he or she thinks that the rights don't come from the Constitution, but from God or nature or logic, these rights then should never ever be taken away. Even if we change the constitution. Maybe there's a right to work or a right to freedom of worship. But the point is, anytime the US does something against these rights, it's wrong to do so no matter what. On the other hand, someone who thinks ethical claims are different from other tools may end up claiming that everyone gets to decide what is right for themselves. They may say that ethics is nothing but wanting to live in a certain way that moral preferences are no different than musical preferences. We disapprove of torture they'll say the same way we disapprove of Coldplay We call both abominations, but that's really just our opinions stated in a more forceful way. So if the government makes a law allowing torture, that's just fine as long as we declare it to be. Now, these are the most extreme positions in the debate. Of course, I'm not being fair to those who would hold the more moderate point of view. Nevertheless, most of us end up holding some version of these extremes we encounter moralities that are different than our own. Arab Islamic culture in the Middle East tends to think of women very differently than many American and European cultures do. Is their position moral? And if so, do we have a responsibility to get them to change their beliefs? Your answer will depend on whether you think your morality is absolutely right or not. Many Asian cultures have a strong position on the importance of family approval, stronger than say many American millennials. Are these Asian cultures more respectful, or just old fashioned? Again, your answer depends on what you think about morality. Some cultures eat horse meat, others make children work. Others have cast systems while others publicly display their own sex acts. Are these just preferences? Or can they be evaluated from an objective standpoint? Is there some place we can stand to arbitrate these ideas fairly and independently of culture? Can we declare one set of beliefs superior to another? Or are we always unable to step outside our own education and personal experience? In other words, our ethical statements true like mathematical ones, are they fundamentally different? The consequences of our answers are, are overwhelming. On today's show, we're going to step inside this debate. But we're going to look specifically at one aspect of it. We're going to ask about that moment when we encounter moral difference, and consider what it might mean to be charitable to other points of view. We're going to ask whether there may be more than one truth and consider the suggestion that ethics is neither purely preference, nor absolutely true. In other words, we're going to try to find a bridge between the two extremes and ask not simply about the rules that we follow. Provide the human experience of seeking them, acting on them and defending them. ethics is often portrayed as the process of finding a single solution to a particular dilemma. But this is as incomplete as evaluating a baseball team by only considering its picture. In fact, as today's guests will show, reevaluating what ethics means involves questioning our very definitions of nature and politics, of reconsidering how human psychology works, and how it helps unify a culture, not to mention a long list of other debates that are often falsely regarded as settled. To put it bluntly, today we are considering moral relativism in doing that. We are reconsidering our whole world. And now our guest, David B. Wang is the Susan Fox beiser and George d. beiser. Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He's the author of numerous books and articles including moral relativity and most recently, natural moralities. David, welcome to Why
thank you, jack.
We're live this evening and we'd love to have your questions and comments, you can email us at ask firstname.lastname@example.org tweet us at why radio show post on facebook.com slash wire radio show, or join the conversation with our intern Sam, who is lonely in our chat room at philosophy and public life.org. Also, if you have a periscope, a service that I couldn't remember, we are there at why radio show you can see the action, at least me in so far as I am the action. So David, let me ask let me start with just a really basic question. What's the most basic definition of relativism and why do people find it so scary?
I would define it as the view that there is no single true morality. And that would embrace the extremes that you mentioned that morality is just a matter of individual feelings or preferences or cultures preferences and that the other Well, that would be the extreme of moral relativism. And I suppose in stating it that way as one can get a clue as to why people are afraid of it.
There, they are afraid of losing their footing.
Doing that the have no from guide to act upon to navigate their lives. And yeah, that's why they would be afraid.
Yeah, it it that makes it seem a sort of calm but disconcerting process. Aren't there people who would suggest that relativism completely undermines morality at all that would then under relativism, the whole ethical project disappears.
Sure, I mean, there is the phrase everything is permitted. If I mean that originally was said, If God doesn't exist, but I could apply equally well to some independently existing moral realities, that's part of the fabric of the universe that doesn't exist and perhaps everything is permitted.
And so so the argument then is that once we start allowing for all possibilities, we're lost as you say, we have no anchor, but also there's no judge, there's no standard and then and then all bets are off and there's no punishment. There's no arguing for right or wrong. There's just whatever anyone wants to do at any one time.
That would be the good way of putting the fear.
So and and, and I know and I will remind our listeners that we're going to argue against all these positions, but just just to run counter. One more line of attack. Someone like Lawrence Kohlberg famously argued That relativism is a developmental stage that it's sort of immaturity, that eventually we grow out of that is is that also is is there a dominant sense among philosophers that that relativism is unsophisticated or childish or something that we just have to get our students past in order to be good philosophers.
When I was starting out, perhaps that was truer of the community of professional philosophers that they would regard more relativism as a view to be grown as soon as possible. But actually, more recently, I'm found myself with more company. And that may be because we're getting more used to a world in which We encounter people from different cultures every day, every, every minute if we're on the internet. And I think, relativism, some version of that is natural response to two varieties that we encounter. But of course, the argument starts from encountering difference and how to interpret it, what to make of it, whether to say they're just wrong or whether to step back a bit and reflect on why did they Why might they believe that? What might their what might be behind that? And I think there's philosophy is, in perhaps it corresponds to its ancient Origin it's slow to change. So, I think, for example, compared to literature, it's, it's more wedded to the idea of an independent moral reality. And, you know, resistant to other ways of situating it in human life, that make it more responsive to human need, but also to human conditions that can change.
That's a really interesting observation that that literature in some sense has been more responsive to human lives and changes quicker, obviously, in part because literature tells a story and narrative about a particular life and situates a person at situates a character it puts a discourse in the context of a story. So philosophy has Traditionally looked for outside the particulars, right? They tried to look for this universal standpoint, what, what technically we call an archimedean standpoint? Is that is that a connection? Is that a sense that philosophy is somehow scientific and wants to be objective in the way that physicists think they're objective? Or does it separate itself from science? Because of course, science gets its evidence from particular instances. What's the relationship between ethics and science?
And it's a big question.
That's, that's what we're here for.
Certainly, there is this aspiration towards objectivity and philosophers might when they're in their mode of superior authority might say that philosophy was the originator of this ideal of objectivity. And then science came along with a pretty good way of trying to reach that objectivity, at least within the physical realm. But philosophers would, I guess, reserve the right to criticize the way scientists go about it. Scientists would reserve the right to say, well, we're doing just fine. Thank you very much. But that's a conversation that, you know, philosophers and scientists may be having right now. Scientists sometimes now over taking the offensive and saying we've got the answers.
And yes, they they do.
Start from particulars, but always Within a theoretical framework, so there is there's no way of getting even the scientific truth from a pure observation. You've always got to be able to interpret your observations within a theoretical framework. An interesting development in philosophy is that some of us want to make use of science, the relevant human sciences. I do. But I think that as far as I'm concerned, I want to preserve the separateness of philosophy and the separateness of science and hope that we can have useful things to say to each other.
You know, this is actually touching on one of the reasons why I was intrigued by your book when I first saw it and why I thought of having you on the show. Because the title of your most recent book is natural moralities and the word nature there implies a whole host of stuff right? philosophy has always had an issue with the word nature is nature wilderness is nature human nature is nature just moral propriety. So when you when you take a word like natural and your, you attach it to the word moralities. Are you asserting a scientific point of view? Are you asserting, excuse me a biological point of view? What does the word natural mean in this context? And what does it bring to the ethical discussion?
Yeah, I wouldn't say that I'm trying to reduce morality to an object for scientific study. But I'm trying to tell a story about why we have this thing we call morality while being informed by the most relevant parts of the human sciences, including evolutionary biology. Including psychology.
And those parts of the sciences that studied why we might we have culture. I think all those things I mentioned are crucial to being able to understand why we have morality.
There's a cooperation.
Evolutionary Biology has highlighted the fact that much of how we evolved was through cooperating within groups of various sizes. And we may have gotten various psychological traits to help us to cooperate with each other. There's regard for our kin, perhaps a willingness to sacrifice for our kin certain dispositions that I Help us to deal with people outside the kin group in arrangements of cooperation, reciprocal arrangements of reciprocal benefit and perhaps also some capacity to be moved by the suffering of of strangers. All that might have set us up to cooperate within groups. And I think we can think of morality as one kind of structure of guides of norms, rules and specific judgments that human beings evolved to help structure that cooperation to help say to each other, this is the way we should work together and not that way. This is acceptable and this other way is unacceptable.
So I think that's a rough sketch of one big part of my story of why morality is in that sense, natural. It's, it's part of human life and we can understand how it came about. Without presuming that morality is some there is somehow there in the fabric of things that right and wrong are part of the structure of the universe in the ways that mass and the speed of light are part of the structure of the universe. It's a human phenomenon. It's, it's important to us because it helps us with a human life and hopefully, a good and decent human life.
There's there's a strong part of me that hears that description and finds it very familiar and incredibly welcoming. To the to the idea because some of the stuff that I do in the Scottish Enlightenment has some similar ideas. But I think that many of our listeners won't know that this approach by calling morality, evolutionary, and using the term natural this runs counter to a tradition that starts really with Aristotle that that there's a nature and artifact and that human beings create stuff and then going through the social contract that somehow society isn't natural, right, that society is somehow different than nature, that society is the product of an agreement, but it doesn't evolve the way that Rousseau sometimes suggests that Adam Smith suggests. And so, is there. Do you have to? I'm trying to figure out how to phrase this question. Do you have to assume that society is as natural as forests and oceans and dams and caves in order to have a natural morality or Can you have that division between nature as the non human realm and artifact as the human realm? Hmm?
Well, morality is not like rocks or trees, although I tell recently that trees are in a forest are actually part of members of a community and they cooperate. They inform each other as to what's going on underground to maybe where we're a lot less distinctive than when we think we are. One way we might think we're distinctive is by having culture. We develop ways of doing things that we pass on to others and to succeeding generations. need that may be a big part of the story of you know why we were able to develop the power All kinds of knowledge that that we have and the modes of technologies that allow us to manipulate so much of the earth and its natural resources for good or ill.
Culture, I think includes morality. These are ways of cooperating ways of guiding ourselves towards what we might think are the most worthwhile lives. So that's, it's, to me that's natural in the sense that we are human beings who have not only a biological nature, but it's part of our nature to be cultural animals, to, to guide ourselves through these ways of doing things that our predecessors in our peers have evolved.
Is The study of morality is empirical. And what I mean by that is many scientists, although certainly there are pure theoretical scientists who work in the realm of of math in a different way, but but is there many scientists will observe things and use the senses or use advanced equipment as substitute for the senses to experiment and get results? Is ethics the same way? Is it trial and error? Is it empirical? Is it is it the result of experimentation in the scientific sense, or is it is it um, theological and abstract and systematic constructions for political purposes? Is it an is is an artifice that that has no necessary relationship to the things we taste, touch, smell the mistakes and the success
Well, I think part of what informs my theory of morality is empirical in an important sense, that part that is informed by cognitive and social psychology. I wanted to develop a theory of morality that takes into account what we might have, by way of being the kind of biological creatures we are. So, what I was talking about a while ago about the dispositions we might have come to have acquired as a species through evolution, regard and concern for our kin, our willingness to deal with others in relationships of mutual exchange, this ability to be moved by the suffering of strangers, all that I think we can make sense of, we're To begin to make sense of scientifically.
But when you when you're talking about trying to understand moral differences I think we get into that part of the sciences that are sometimes called interpretive sciences. And there I think you've it part of it involves storytelling to go back to the theme you mentioned there the beginning. You have to tell a story about what people
what people mean,
what they're, how they're trying to knit their lives together through having certain kinds of values, and we have to tell that in a human way that is in a way that makes sense to us. So, I mentioned the, the, the perhaps biologically based disposition to be concerned about kin and often to sacrifice for them. Well, and as you mentioned before, some moralities I think all moralities have concern for the way that the younger are raised and that this typically takes place in small groups very often and what we call families.
David, I apologize I have to interrupt you for just so we can take a break. When we come back. We're going to use this foundation and look more deeply into your theory asked what you mean by moral ambivalence, and then figure out what exactly relativism is and why it won't destroy the world. You're listening to David B. Wong and jack Russell Weinstein, on why philosophical discussions about everyday life We'll be back right after this.
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You're back with wide philosophical discussions of everyday life. I'm your host jack Russell Weinstein. We're talking with David B. Wang about moral relativism and taking another look to see how it fits in with pluralism and with open mindedness among other things. And as David's been talking, I think A lot about the travel I've done in my life. And as long term listeners know, I lived in Vienna, Austria for a couple years in my mid 20s. And I remember was the first time I ever left the country. And I didn't, I spoke two words of German, both learned from john Irving novels, bitta and sloggers. Which mean please and whipped cream in Vienna, very useful terms. And I was nervous about being in this country. I didn't know the rules, I didn't know how to act. And I told myself to overcome my fear. If I could get from the airport, to the institute that I was going to for a dissertation fellowship, I would be okay. If I could just make it on my own traveling, it would work out and so I get on the plane and I take the bus to the main terminal in the city and then I get in a taxi and the taxi takes me to the institute and I have to pay and I have this very, very vivid image. holding out this money that I didn't understand and saying to the taxi driver, I want to give you a tip. But I don't know how much to give you. And so he was Austrian. And he was a rule follower. And so he took a very small amount. And he said, That was good. And he sent me on my way. And I felt great about it. There are some places where they can 1000 American dollars, but he didn't take advantage of me. And I was trying to figure out how to describe this experience of wanting to do the right thing of not wanting to offend him, but of also asserting myself and my desire to give something that was particularly American, which is a tip. And so the phrase that I think encapsulates as well, is a phrase that David uses in his book moral ambivalence. So David, let me ask you, what does the term moral ambivalence mean, and why is it so important? In this encountering of other cultures and other moralities
Okay, so moral ambivalence is in controlling others who differ with you about something important. But it you, you get to ambivalence by being open enough and taking the others point of view seriously enough to try to understand why they believe as they do. And I say and in the book that you can get to the point where you can not only understand their point of view, but it begins to appeal to you. You can see why they might have taken that path, though it remains different from the ones that you took. And so that gives you a puzzle. You begin to wonder if, well if there is a single true morality And that, at that point I present my story of why we have things like morality, it's not part of the structure of the universe is not something given and fixed. Something that human beings evolved partly to, to be able to live together productively. And it's not impossible that people develop somewhat different ways of living together. But that these ways have certainly important features in common because we're, we're all human. We have sharing common these kinds of psychological dispositions that was mentioning a while ago. And so, ambivalence involves both recognizing oneself and the other, that we share very important features and and interests and aspirations. But it also come coming to realize that maybe, despite what we share in common, we might have come to take different paths. And we come to take seriously that we're, maybe there's not a single right path to take.
Let me continue with that story a little bit to ask you a little bit more about this idea of relativism in different cultures. So I ended up living there for a while, and I grew up in New York City. And one of the things that is wonderful about New York City is you can do anything you want, as long as you're not a threat to anyone else. You could stand on the corner, singing a song, no one will care. You can wear the funniest hats. You're anonymous and people might be entertained, but as long as you're not a threat, no one cares. And in fact, very few people will hold any of it against you. But what you can't do or certainly couldn't do when I was growing up, was walk safely down the street. In the middle of the night with anything valuable now, when I was in Vienna, I was a guitar player and I was playing in clubs, and I'd walk home at three o'clock in the morning. And I'd be listening to my Walkman, no iPods back then. And I know that I was perfectly safe that no one would hit me over the head and take my stuff. And so freedom in New York meant you get to do whatever you want. And people leave you alone. Yeah. In Vienna freedom means you have to be that kind of rule follower that I brought up with the taxi driver, but you're safe and you're secure. Is that an example of relativism? Or is it more Universalist because they both involve the idea of freedom.
It's involves that combination of both something that's shared and
in my book I explored differences between moralities I call morality centered on rights and autonomy and those that are centered on relationship and community. And they, when we're traveling, it may strike us that. Yeah, here's a society that may be more focused on relationship and community. I mean, that's certainly true. I think of many East Asian societies and Confucian morality that that I've studied, that has been influential on those societies. they emphasize filial piety. Family is the model for relationships in the wider society. So you look after your own you and you look after others as you would your family in The the ideal case, and that's why it might be safer to, to walk through the streets of those kinds of societies. But there is also, you might say, a kind of cost to that you kind of interest that people take in you might be experienced as suffocating or restrictive.
And I think that's a reason why we have these two, two different kinds of moralities that we see. I think, actually, all over the world. One thing that we that I could pretty soon is that you can't really associate one very broad type of morality with a whole society and say that that's You know, the morality of that society? That's way too simplistic. What you have are maybe trends, if you look broadly over us. And of course, New York, that's a very good example of more writes in autonomy oriented
community. But certainly there are parts of the US that emphasize to a greater degree, relationship and community. And there are parts of the US where you can walk around the streets and feel pretty safe. And that's because there's still that kind of community that's knit together.
Let me give another example because I think that a lot of our listeners will have heard of the problem of the commons and the problem of the Commons is a standard political science problem where There's public land and everyone uses the public land. And then it gets overused and destroyed because no one takes responsibility for it. I was a, I was a fairly persuaded by that until I spent some time in China, when I was in Beijing and I was in a park Actually, I'm sorry, this was in either Shanghai or Beijing, I can't remember where the park was. And, and in the park, there were all these people. They were doing Tai Chi, they were engaged in a dance lessons, there was a poster of people with with pictures of their unmarried children looking to to find matches for their children. And then at the end of the day, these people would clean up after themselves, they would sweep they would take, they would take care of it. And so in the American or political science model, public ownership means nobody owns it. It looked like at least for me and for the conversations I had with other people about it in the chat. Nice public model, everybody owns it. And everyone takes responsibility. Yet at the same time, when I think back to that, and when I think about what you were just saying about divisions and culture, I realized that almost everybody in the park was older. Everyone in the park was, I mean, I, you know, it's hard to know, 60s 70s 80s. And so so I guess what I'm trying to do is is is articulate what you're teaching me, which is that sometimes these claims of universalism hide the differences that are right in front of us. But then when we see the differences, it takes us a long time to see that those differences aren't universal for all cultures, but there's a discourse and a debate and attention even within groups that seem homogenous from the outside.
So I've come to think of cultures as more like conversations in which there are many voices and particular culture might be distinguished by having certain voices be dominant. And they're the ones who must be taken seriously, even if you vehemently disagree with these voices. You know that the backdrop is the dominance of the certain voices. But it's a feature of the culture that there are always dissenting voices different. Different norms and cultural practices, especially if you're talking about huge, diverse societies such as the United States. That's continually taking in people from other parts of the world. They're coming here and we're affected by them. They're affecting us. They were attacking them. And so it's a continually evolving thing. conversation is evolving. who becomes dominant or what they're exactly Same can can change. So, yeah, to going back to stereotypes of relativism, there is this stereotypical version that what's right is what my culture says or what's right is specified by the standards with my group. But when you think about it, we belong to many different groups. And we're influenced by these groups, and we, as individuals, absorb them differently. So, we are deeply influenced by by those around us, those who raised us and teach us those we work with, but that group alone, that large group alone is diverse. And we take it in and we come up with something that may be fairly unique. That doesn't mean that what's right for me is simply what I say.
I'm I am deeply influenced I inherit the moral languages of the different groups I belong to. But it's it's complicated like that it's not simply relativist, it's not simply what I think it's not simply what what the group thinks. But they are these ways of living together and working together that have been handed down and have their influence on us. It's also the fact that, you know, getting to pluralism I don't think that there's any there is no single true morality but neither is it the case that all moralities are equally true.
That was that was a question I'm sure that that that our listeners are waiting for it of course, it was on the tip of my tongue. You know, there may be many right answers. Are there Wrong answer Are there things that are just absolutely not morally acceptable? Or is there somewhere some group that is going to make a case and relative as mean, means we have to respect their case?
Mm hmm. Well, I think that we ultimately have to get listened to what, what's behind their views, what what possible traditions have influenced their views and we have to try to understand those predictions. But in the end, it is a matter of what we what we are persuaded by. Think morality is not just a way of getting people to walk, cooperate, but it's it's a way that people can accept and internalize without having to be threatened or coerced into doing so. It's something that we absorb through our culture and assimilate and make our own.
So it's got that kind of, dare I say autonomous aspect to it.
morality is something that we can internalize and use it to guide ourselves, even as we are with others and we share it with others. But that means that there are certain constraints on what we can absorb and internalize.
In my book, I argue that there have to be ways of assessing what we're taught. I think it's become part of the concept of morality that if, if a norm, especially one that's used to subordinate one group to another, if a norm depends on falsehoods for getting people to act, cept it and that's something that we use to assess it, then to reject it. And I think various beliefs that have been handed down about various racial groups or or women, for example, have been these, these beliefs have been used to subordinate them give them a place that is lower than than others. And that's the critical aspect of morality. We can ask, well, it's what we're told about African Americans or women, is that actually true? slavery used to be justified in the United States by saying that African Americans were of inferior rationality. And, you know, now, we do make some progress. So we know that's false. We are now able to see that women was Aristotle with painters, we see that what Aristotle thought was false that they don't have this inferior capacity to self command to self. So, I think those are, those are forms of moral progress, when we look and see, evaluate the forms of justification that especially have been used to subordinate one group to another. But that is consistent with the kind of pluralism that that I would would advocate with there are moralities that value relationship and community and in the past, often they have embodied the kinds of subordination and hierarchies that were based These kinds of falsehoods about people. That doesn't mean you have to get rid of communities doesn't mean that you have to devalue relationships. I think that would be a pretty scary thing for human beings. And again, I think that's one thing about, that we human beings share in common. we thrive within relationships, we develop as individuals through relationships. I think that's even true of the most individualistic of cultures. And to the extent that they neglect that truth about human beings, they endanger their own foundation, they endanger their own freedom by neglecting social foundations of that
I want to do something which is actually a little embarrassing. I want to do what what the internet calls God winning a threat. And what that means is the Godwin's law is the first person that brings up Hitler loses and, and and And and you talk about very much about understanding the other position and evaluating another position. But there are some people who say that in something like the Holocaust, to understand is in part to be culpable to try to Daniel goldhagen, who was a, who was a guest on the show, in his book, he tells this horrible story of an SS guard, ripping off the arms of a baby when he's trying to pull it out of the mother's hands. And he says there's nothing to learn from tearing a baby in half. And I'm not suggesting that that that Danny doesn't think that we have to study the Holocaust because he spent his whole life doing it. But there are people who suggest that just asking for the justification gives more credibility to certain positions than we should allow. We shouldn't even give people the forum. We shouldn't even let people have the moment if the table does Do you oppose that notion? Does your just your searches for justification analysis run counter to that? Or is that even is that a separate conversation? Well, and it's not fair to bring up Hitler. I know that but
sometimes conversations can be pretty short. You know that.
I think that that kind of racial justification is an inch deep in terms of intellectual justification, and but it's very, very, very deep in terms of whatever is behind it emotionally, and the factors that bring people to that very sorry state. I think the kind of understanding that's the most useful is the kind of understanding of what leads people to That, to that point.
So I think that if you're looking for intellectual justification, you don't, you know, there's not that much to it and we can listen. But certainly if it's a matter of saving somebody from getting torn apart, you know, you act first. You act first, then, and then you do try to understand, I think, if nothing else to try to see what led to the two that led people to that state, and to try to prevent it the next time.
So what's of interest then in, say, Holocaust studies or any genocide studies are not the arguments for the genocide, but rather, the historical circumstances, the literature, the philosophies that they use to sort of examine how they got from one point to another, you know, and so ultimately, in the last minute, Are is what you're suggesting that really arguing for universalism not giving relativism, its credence is being both profoundly disrespectful of cultures but also having a very simplistic view of cultures that cultures have their own moralities. And that that all of them are deep and sophisticated in some sense, and that we can't eradicate all that history in that culture. Is it or is that an oversimplification?
Well, I don't want to leap to the generalizations that all of them are deep and sophisticated. I think that, you know, the conclusions we draw should depend on our investigation. I think what I would insist on is that we make the effort and merely standing and asserting we are right without even considering why other people might believe what they do is not only unjustified simply from the point of view of knowledge seeking, but it's closing ourselves off from learning from others, we might actually take something from others a tip or so tip or two, about how to live together. We don't have to become them. But you know when terrific thing about the United States is that, well, compared to a lot of other societies, we have been open in that way we become open to be, you know, having even our American identities affected by people who come here.
So, David, I want to take a step back, we got a question from someone who didn't leave their name, please, listeners do that. And the question, I'm going to tell a story afterwards to adjust question a little bit, but the question is, does a morally relative society assume respect for humanity to be innate? Does it presume the cooperation and the word cooperation really triggered another memory for me from that trip to China. This time I was in Shanghai, and I had gone with a whole bunch of people to a restaurant and we had gone through the beautiful light lit highways of Shanghai and crazy fast traffic. And it was one of those taxi drivers. And we're having a conversation over dinner. And this woman was arguing about the Paleo diet, diet and some other things. And she just said, You know, I want to go back to a time when there was cooperation, I want to go back to a time when people cared about each other and worked on projects together. I looked at her and I said, you want cooperation? We just drove through one of the most densely populated city in the world at 90 miles an hour. We drove through highways and under buildings, and everyone was obeying the traffic lights, and everyone was engaged in this project. Neither killing themselves nor anyone else. That's cooperation. Now she wouldn't have any of it. So the question that I want to ask with this term cooperation with this term respect, going back to this notion of freedom is, is relativism, that there are just fundamentally different values? Or is there something more akin to, let's say, an overlapping consensus where every society has a virtue of cooperation, they just define it differently. Every society holds the importance of respect, and they just define it differently. Everyone has, let's say something like marriage, although that's problematic, and they just define it differently, or would there be would would relativism suggest that there are places where cooperation is just not on the table or freedom or respect or marriage just isn't on the table, and we also have to engage with them as well.
I would say that within the pluralism I accept it's more of the overlapping consensus in the following way that there are common values that we interpret differently over across different societies and even within a single society, we tend to differ on that. And we also differ on how we prioritize values. Relationship versus autonomy. Some societies place more emphasis on individual freedom and others on nurturing relationships between people. I don't think that any society couldn't do without some degree of concern for nurturing relationships between people I mean that some sense cooperation. Nor do I think that any, any society with a in the range of within the range of true moralities could do without respect for the individuals vital interests, and among those who are interested in in doing what one wants. But I think these are prioritized differently or across different societies. Where you're the person you had a conversation with in China, it was said, I think, harking back to a time when there was more concern for relationship and community. It's kind of commonplace now in China to observe that there's been that kind of deterioration in a kind of emphasis that people place on their relationship. And not surprisingly there, there is some something of movement to revive and reconsider Confucian morality. They're looking back to as it were the roots of traditional Chinese culture, and seeing if some modified version of that some updated version of that could perhaps form a new moral basis for Chinese society. It's very much a matter of concern given the infusion of capitalism in that society and the kind of culture that that brings of increased individuality, increase self interest, Actaeon self interest. And the worry is that they're there. Why I think there's not that much interest in terms of Majority of times people are becoming just another version of the US for example,
it's interesting that you bring this up because what I was doing in China was doing an episode series of five episodes of why several of which were in an in front of a live audience. And our first one was an interview with someone who was putting forth a Confucian political theory. And so this is something that if our listeners want to go back to it's about four years but but why goes to China as a five episode, look that? Oh, that'd be wonderful. So um, what? What, how do we know which questions are our questions of morality in which aren't mean only the most bigoted person is going to criticize people who use chopsticks or who eat with their hand traditionally, or something like that? So, you know, chopsticks is an immoral how, what utensil you use or don't use this not a moral question, but how do we identify especially given the different cultural priority In the different interpretations, what constitutes a moral question? Hmm?
Well, they're certainly questions of harm to others physical harm. Those are our moral questions. But so are questions that affect the degree of trust and the ability of people to work with each other based on their sense that others will do as they say, or have the qualities of characters thatmake them trustworthy.
So I think are almost just about everywhere, moral questions, but it's interesting that you bring up etiquette. One of the distinctive features of Confucian morality is that it actually does play, pay a lot of attention to what we might call questions of etiquette. questions of how one expresses respect in everyday interactions. How you greet one another, how you take meals with others, and how you do that respectfully. And I think that's actually one of the things that we could pick up from other cultures. There's, I think a good deal to be said for paying more attention to the way we structure our everyday interactions with each other. We may affect the kinds of attitudes that we take towards others, what we call the really important dramatic moral questions. But this may be the infrastructure of those more dramatic interactions is the ways that we relate to each other and behave towards each other on the everyday level. small details And I think, you know, when one of the concerns I've had about American society is that a lot of that has eroded. It's not just a matter of walking on the street and feeling not safe, it's not secure. But I think it, you know, some of the infrastructure that used to make places safer has eroded in the sense that we're less able to make connection with each other, less able to form a community with others. And when there's that kind of impersonality, it's much easier to for crime and other kinds of unsafety to to occur.
You have this really powerful example in the book that it was, it was the kind of thing where I had to put the book down and think about it for a while. You're talking about Confucian ethics and you said that a person who's acting properly under that system has to do the right things for the right reason, which is very familiar to us and lots of but then you said, and they have to do it, aesthetically with it with the right aesthetic with the proper sense of grace. And I thought that that was really interesting and powerful. This notion that both aesthetics and grace can be moral categories, especially in a society now like ours, where not only manners are being devalued, as you know, from the extreme of calling it all politically correct to just the bluntness of various different places, but also the loss of the respect for arts and humanities, that that, considering the aesthetic, as a moral category is an incredibly enlarging point of view.
And so much more positive than definitely holding people that are doing hoody sternly, is said in his very stern tone is more positive to find acts of moral excellence to be elevating uplifting to fill one with a sense of purpose, potential beauty in human beings and their conduct. We think we're more receptive to that idea that more positive aspect of morality. The psychologist Jonathan Hite who often has interesting things to say about morality brings up a letter from Thomas Jefferson, advising his correspondent to read works of literature because you would encounter descriptions of accent would inspire through the moral beauty I've made me began thinking about that in comparison with a confusions and thinking, you know, maybe we've lost something important here. Our ability to feel graced by what other people do, to be able to celebrate it andbe inspired to emulate it ourselves.
We're now so often our moral stances, prone to criticism or, you know, peremptory direction you know, you must do this or you know, you're you're a bad person because you haven't done that. But I think our ability to connect with each other rests more well should rest on more of finding value in what what we do. what others do, and expressing our appreciation for them. You know,
I married a southerner. And early on in our relationship once we started living together and having guests, and I visited her family and all that our greatest tension was around various different definitions of politeness that as a New Yorker, I was very direct. And, and, and she helped steer me to a different way. And the same time. My goal is, you know, she had the sense of hospitality, which was different than mine. And my goal coming from the Jewish tradition that I have is just to feed people incessantly. And so now we have this household with a lot of food and a lot of welcome ness. And it's the combination of both of those things. So this, of course, goes back to your point that that no culture is monolithic, right that even even in the United States, you have the north and south but even in a marriage, right, there's this tension between values and how do you how do you open yourself upset but what would happen in if if the Northerner and the southerner let's put the marriage question aside but the northern and the southern are, were so different that they couldn't find common ground. How do you accommodate difference? what what what's the expectation in a relativist society for accommodation and and what would that mean amongst moral differences?
Yeah, well I think accommodation is necessary because
even within a family even even within a neighborhood where that's a real neighborhood, people just have different views. And we usually get along despite that if we want to, if we resolve to keep the relationship on constructive level and try to manage our disagreements and I think there there are various ways that we can do that and still maintain our moral integrity. We can be honest about in expressing our views, but try to find ways of acting on them that perhaps are more gentle and that's I said, aggressive or less imposing some on on others. There are various ways I think we can enact a plan to accommodate others while disagreeing with them. Sometimes it involves finding ways of blending as in your marriage. Food and, while he's telling you my own story, when we first moved down here to North Carolina, and actually
my wife is from North Carolina, she Arielle, she went to UNC, I know you're from Duke, so I'm actually going to be punished for events. Talking to, but and also she but she's from Asheville and you know, so so we're from the same world in a certain sense these days.
Yeah. So it used to when I first got here It used to be a bit nuts that I be in line at the supermarket and the checkout person would be striking up a conversation with with these people ahead of me and it would they would you would they were taking their time and I was thinking, Oh, come on, come on. But then I got up there, and then I have this nice conversation. And then and then I sort of start thinking, well, What's your hurry? It's, it's good to have this human interaction.
You know, I I have to tell you because you have touched on the core example, my favorite example of what it was like to, to sort of enter into the southern world. I always said, here's the issue you go you go down south. You I always I always say pizza place, although there are really pizza places in the same sense in Nashville, but you go to pizza place, and they want to say hello, and you have this conversation. And then after five minutes of pleasantries, you say, you know, let me get a slice of pizza. In New York, you go to the the counter, you say, let me get a slice of pizza. And then while they're getting the slice of pizza, you have the conversation and the banter. And so the the politeness and the connection are there, but they're in opposite order. So if you go and you just walk at the counter in the in the south, and you say, let me get a slice of pizza, they think you're incredibly rude. And you don't want to talk, even though you're going to talk in a couple minutes. And in New York, if you talk to them first. They're like, hurry up, hurry up, hurry up. I'm busy. I'm busy. I'm busy, even though there's going to be space for talking. So I totally I totally get where you're coming from. And so it's like learning another language.
It is. Yeah,
and we have to be In our society nowadays multi lingual in that sense.
So is this. I mean, I mean this is this is sort of a stupid question given what we're talking about. But is this relativism? Is this what relativism look looks like not the the anarchy and chaos and fire and brimstone of, of the philosophers who are afraid of it but but just the everyday push and pull of different people with different priorities and interpretations of norms and expectations and of course, moral commitments. Is this what,
what? That's a good part of what I mean by it. Okay. And my complaint about the way that relativism has been treated in philosophy is a caricature has been held up as a convenient whipping boy.
It's as if, you know, the thing is, philosophers find it so hard to come to a consensus about anything. And I think that one respond to that. As well, if we can't agree about this or that, let's find some common object of duration and score. But then you have to caricature that because if you take it seriously, you have to consider more plausible versions and things that people might do with with, with arguments that we do all the time in philosophy, we sort of consider the most plausible version of a view.
And I think that's what hasn't been done with with relativism, by and large. And it's a microcosm of what we have trouble doing in the world, right. We caricature the other and we stereotype and we treat them at their worst, not at their best. So I want to ask you one last question before we go. And it's the question that you end the book with, and I want to ask it partially because your answer is very powerful, but partially because it's actually not a question. Surprisingly, I've had the chance to ask on the show, in the close to nine years that we've I guess there are nine seasons. So eight years plus, since we've been doing it, why should we be moral? Why, in the face of relativism in the face of difference in the face of, of, you know, goodness and badness, it might be easier, it might be more satisfying to certain desires to just abandon the rules to abandon this accommodation to abandon this charity for the other person's point of view. Why should we be this is and our listeners should know, this is the classic platonic question. I mean, this is this is a 2500 year old question, so I didn't invent it. You didn't invent it, but, but why should Why be moral? What, from a relativistic point of view? Is there an answer to that?
It's more complex than the platonic answer that it's if you if you see the good, if you truly apprehend the good then you will see why be more or you have the The answer, right, that's Plato's answer. Yes. It I think morality can answer to very deep human needs. It can answer to the need to see something beyond the self and to invest much of yourself into something larger than yourself. It answers to is a way of connecting to others. And it's a way of making you're making your mark when when you pass you know, they're, we're all going to go and the question is, you know, what kind of mark Are we leaving and doing right by others? Is, is one good way? So yeah, I Thinking not saying anything new, but just pointing out what? What? There isn't a set response to morality. But I think again in in the positive way that there's something beautiful there that we can respond to and that people can remember it for.
Well, that is a tremendously positive and hopeful and optimistic answer and a wonderful way to end this conversation, especially since we started off with such suspicion about the topic. David, thank you so much for joining us on why. Thank you very much, jack. You've been listening to why philosophical discussions of everyday life We'll be back right after this.
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You're back with why philosophical discussions about everyday life. We were talking with David B. Wong about relativism and ethics, what it means how to deal with it and how to accommodate difference when you encounter it. You know, I started off the show by talking about the fears of relativism, about the notion that as David puts it, everything is permitted when there is no absolute rule. Anything Goes there's anarchy. There's fire and brimstone. There's there's people eating pipal people, dogs living with cats, right just the whole vision that people give of relativism is terrifying. And then by the end of our discussion, we got to a place where relativism means a happy marriage, where relativism means having a good conversation at the supermarket or at a pizza place. So what happened in between? How did we get from the most scary vision of chaos to the most almost benign notion of what a good home life is? The answer is to recognize that there are a lot of commonalities between cultures, but they're not always on the surface. And they aren't always in the same measure. Individual respect may be the top priority in one culture when family is the other. Freedom may be a high priority and one and security is another. aesthetic considerations and politeness and grace may be one culture Aim while another culture wants bluntness, and directness and truth. We also have to recognize that there is this thing called moral progress, because there are multiple rights, but there are also wrongs. And that's where the caricature of relativism goes awry. This notion that when you allow for more than one truth, to enter into the discussion, you allow for anything, no matter what. The fact of the matter is, that I pluralist notion of morality, of vision of many right answers that can talk to each other, even if it's difficult, allows not only for a more stable world, and a more open and accepting world, but also a more interesting world, a more beautiful world, a more challenging world. When we face difference, and we close our eyes to it. We don't have anywhere to go. There's no way to grow, but when we count difference with open arms and open eyes, then we enlarge ourselves. We enlarge our intellect. And we enlarge the consideration that we give to everything in the world that we don't necessarily see at first glance, this does not mean that welcoming, everybody will be easy. And it does not mean that in the end, we want to sit and have a meal with every stranger regardless of what they think is important. But it does mean that our gut instinct that our immediate repulsion from the things that challenge us is not just a barrier to our intellectual growth, but it's giving us a distorted view of what morality is and what values are. relativism isn't a nightmare. relativism is a good conversation, an opportunity for change, and a were a world full of difference. Sometimes complexity that, while never perfect, gives us a rich and fruitful future full of new and wonderful things you've been listening to why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm jack Russell Weinstein. As always, thanks for listening. It's an honor to be with you.
Why is funded by the Institute for philosophy and public life Prairie Public Broadcasting in the University of North Dakota's College of Arts and Sciences and division of Research and Economic Development? The music is written and performed by Mark Weinstein and can be found on his album Louis sold. For more of his music, visit jazz flute Weinstein calm or myspace.com slash Mark Weinstein. Philosophy is everywhere you make it and we hope we've inspired you with our discussion today. Remember, as we say at the Institute, there is no ivory tower