Thursday, February 22, 2007

Caging and framing `relativism`

There's been a fascinating discussion going on over at Stephen Law's blog Thinking Big about the dichotomy between authoritarianism, liberalism, and relativism:

Now I'm a liberalistic kind of guy. I completely agree with Law's thesis that authoritarians are presenting us with a false dichotomy, that there is a vast middle ground between authoritarianism and the sort of moral nihilism authoritarians label as "relativism". I agree that there are "Liberal" moral beliefs that are neither authoritarian nor nihilistic in the sense that authoritarians define "relativism".

I don't see, however, any kind of critical examination of why authoritarians curiously choose to label what is clearly moral nihilism as "relativism", nor any kind of critical examination of why we should accept this curious labeling and reject the term "relativism" itself while correctly rejecting the nihilistic definition of that term.

Steve Gimbel of Philosophers' Playground gives us some insight: framing and caging. Authoritarians frame the debate as between authoritarianism and relativism, and then cage the debate to talk only about nihilism as one narrow brand of relativism, unjustifiably elevating nihilism to be the paradigmatic interpretation.

Why are they doing so? Because relativism actually means something.

Any time we want to talk about individual conscience, socialization, acculturation and the like as an integral part of our moral discourse, the authoritarians pounce and and accuse the speaker of "relativism", which of course is nihilism, which of course is not only absurd but hypocritical: What's a nihilist relativist doing making an actual moral judgment!?

Although Law does reject the dichotomy, he still swallows the framing by rejecting the term relativism along with its faulty definition. But by rejecting the term, he makes it all that much harder to introduce conscience, etc. into moral discourse, because all of these terms really are relativistic. To use these terms but deny "relativism" leaves the speaker wide open to the charge of disingenuousness and provides a handy refutation: you've admitted that "relativism" means nihilism, your philosophy really is--despite your disingenousness--relativistic, therefore your philosophy really is nihilistic.

Unless Professor Law is prepared to do what no philosopher has done for millennia and give us a truly objective absolute morality that is not subverted by the Universal Philosophical Refutation, I think we should address some effort to reclaiming the term "relativism" and breaking out of the frame the authoritarians have so cleverly prepared.

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