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 independent standards of rational justification by appeal to which the issues between contending traditions can be decided." There is no neutral common ground from which to evaluate the conflicting traditions of science and religion. If we dismiss the fundamentalist as irrational, my claim is that such a judgment really reflects a difference in the pre-rational, culturally relative values over which the shared aspects of rationality – coherence and pragmatic effectiveness – operate. Pre-rational values provide the standards by which we justify higher level beliefs and actions; they cannot themselves be rationally justified.

Ultimate Rationality

The limits to justification outlined here often go unrecognized. For instance, the hope is sometimes expressed, especially in the secular humanist community, that differences in world views might eventually be ironed out by a meeting of reasonable men and women. Agreement would be reached not by dint of propaganda or emotional persuasion but through the rational consideration of facts. But in practice it can turn out that the differences in perspective are radical enough so that no one on the other side seems reasonable. The underlying assumptions about the correct way to establish beliefs (and thus the facts), the correct way to treat others, and indeed the notion of what counts as rational, self-consistent discourse, may vary between cultures. Even if there is agreement about what constitutes formal reason, the underlying cognitive and ethical assumptions over which reason operates may be irreconcilable. There may be no shared, fundamental value that is binding enough to serve as common ground, in which case there is no basis for discussion. For me this came up recently in conversation with a Christian Scientist about faith healing. It rapidly became clear that our ideas of what would constitute valid evidence for the efficacy of prayer were so far apart that further talk was useless. There seemed to be no underlying concept or value we had in common that could have resolved the difference.

The hope that the application of reason alone might unite us in a single world view is generated by a belief in an ultimate rationality, that there is a finally correct way to order and investigate our concepts, a correct and inevitably successful way to mediate even the deepest disputes, and that a universally agreed-upon prescription for ethical behavior might thus emerge. The belief in rationality as a universal panacea is ardently expressed in the following lines from a recent humanist newsletter:

And I, who have forsaken in my heart all deities, do hereby pledge my soul unto the faith that we ourselves can chart by reason's light the course that will control the forces of destruction, and make whole our lovely earth and all her wounded lives (emphasis added).

The light of pure rationality, unconditioned by organic need or cultural bias, will guide us through the morass of human differences and, given the recent interest in animal rights, the differences between us and other species. If we have no god at least we have Reason to underpin our decisions about what is and what is right.

Obviously, I dispute the existence of such an ideal perspective. First, as I began by arguing, the human activities of cognition and valuation are conditioned at every turn by our organic embeddedness in the world. To desire, to know, and to act at the prompting of desire and in the light of knowledge are inherently perspectival functions of organisms with limited outlooks and specific needs. On top of this specifically human perspective cultures put their heterogeneous stamp. Why, then, should we think our point of view and modes of action are, or could be, universal? Why do we suppose that we could represent or take into account all interests and somehow harmonize them to every person's, or creature's, satisfaction? Richard Rorty, in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity suggests instead that "we abandon the notion that 'reason' names a healing, reconciling, unifying power–the source of human solidarity...We do not need to replace religion with a philosophical account of a healing and unifying power which will do the work once done by God." Should human solidarity ever be achieved, Rorty goes on to argue, it will be a contingent, historical achievement, not the result of coming to see the world by the light of universal reason.

Rationality, in its various forms, serves purposes which may never be universal. True, all persons (excepting the insane) and even all creatures may be "rational" in the sense that their actions are, in general, pragmatically consistent with their motives and their pictures of the world. But this conception of rationality still leaves potentially unbridgeable gulfs between motives and between world views. Although it's possible we might all come to agree about what constitutes the good life, acceptable grounds for belief, and ethical conduct, it's highly unlikely in a world of cultural diversity.

This leads to a second point. Even if such an agreement were reached, it wouldn't be the triumph of some universal rationality but rather the triumph of certain pre-rational values. I have tried to show that the notion of what's rational is inapplicable to our most basic assumptions about the world and how we should act. An ultimate rationality would be that which could command agreement about such assumptions, but on what further grounds could it command it? Even if at some point all of us here on earth ended up agreeing that science, for instance, is the One True View, that wouldn't mean that such a view was finally rational in the sense of being justifiable by antecedent standards. It would have to stand on its own, perhaps self-consistent, intellectually satisfying, and pragmatically effective, but not founded on anything deeper and not necessarily unique in its achievements. We can never rule out the possibility of other, alien perspectives, equally consistent and effective, bounded and shaped by unimaginably different constraints, and perhaps unknowable by parochial bipeds with limited cognitive resources. Given this, can we be confident of identifying science, or any other world view, as ultimate in any sense?

This question, posed non-rhetorically, lies at the heart of much philosophical inquiry. Indeed, the history of Western philosophy can be understood as the ongoing investigation of claims to establish, for all times, places, and persons, some ultimate and necessary truths about reality. The prospect of success for such claims seemed bright in earlier eras of Platonism, rationalism, and idealism, when the discursive human intellect was thought to be more or less independent of, or somehow prior to, nature and circumstance. Around the time of Descartes the growing sophistication of logical analysis, combined with the assumption that some self-evident propositions about the world were there waiting to be discovered, set the stage for final solutions to philosophical problems. But with the advent of empiricism and scientific understanding came the realization that reasoning and philosophy, like other human activities, occur within a context of conditioning circumstances. As it became clear that mind is not independent of nature, the whole project of classical objectivity was called into question, both in the realm of science and in the larger arena of philosophy.

The expectation that truth might be universal and context-free still lingers, but the naturalistic, anti-foundationalist turn of the postmodern era has tempered it considerably. As Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, and many other philosophers have pointed out, we can no longer maintain the so-called "correspondence" theory of truth. There is not, on one side, our theories about the world, and on the other, the world in itself; we do not evaluate our theories by seeing how well they correspond to the world. This is because we have no access to a theory-independent world, that is, a world unconditioned by our point of view, our needs, goals, and perceptual idiosyncrasies. The world we see is, to use a philosophical expression, "theory-laden"; it already bears the ineliminable mark of our involvement in it. Thus there is no point outside our view of the world from which to evaluate that view's truth. Knowledge, it turns out, is always a representation of reality from within a particular perspective. Although we exist and participate in an ultimate reality we cannot know this reality ultimately or objectively in the sense once hoped for.

As participants in the natural we cannot assume the detached vantage point of what philosopher Thomas Nagel has called "the view from nowhere". The best we can do, it seems, is to discover and correct the flaws internal to our perspective and realize that even if we find no further emendations are necessary, there may be other possible points of view, equally self-consistent and pragmatically effective. Such a reduction in the scope of our philosophical expectations may seem a disappointment, an end to the quest for ultimate cognitive enlightenment. But we are compensated, perhaps, by the original insight of naturalism, that we are completely caught up in a larger, non-human drama in which we play an open-ended role, limited only by the structure and dimensions of the universe as we perceive it. If our desire for a god's eye view is thwarted, nevertheless we are – existentially speaking – at home, actively being that part of the scheme of things that wonders about the scheme of things.

Relativism and Commitment

For some, such compensation affords little comfort. The inability to finally justify a world view as absolute seems tantamount to rejecting it. Basic cognitive and ethical commitments lose their worth, are less "dignified" once they are understood to be relative to a context and naturally originated. To explain the origins of values, for those wedded to absolutes, is to explain them away. But this need not and indeed cannot follow. Recognizing the natural, relative, and pre-rational status of basic assumptions cannot pry us loose from our commitment to at least some version of them. We have no choice but to hold certain biological values, and as social creatures we have an almost equally strong commitment to the ethical standards bequeathed us by our culture. Even if we end up rejecting the norms of the majority, we will find ourselves acting by another standard. Nor can we function in life without some method of deciding what and who to believe. If, which is unlikely, my arguments for relativism created doubts in the mind of a spiritual absolutist, that might initiate a shift in some basic beliefs, but it wouldn't lessen his need for them. We must all think, act, and believe from some standpoint which is taken as provisionally correct.

The arguments here are from the standpoint of a naturalistic philosophy. They support the thesis that we hold our basic cognitive and ethical commitments not as rationally justified by some absolute standard, but as functions of natural conditions. I hope they are rational arguments – rational, that is, within a particular context – but to be consistent with the thesis I'm trying to justify, I can hardly claim that they have an indisputable foundation which other viewpoints lack. Naturalism and science embody assumptions which are congenial and compelling to many – assumptions about what constitutes good argument, good evidence, good theory, and the basic assumption of a single universe of interconnected phenomena – but they lead to the very relativism which insists that there is no final, absolute way in which the world must appear to us.

Such relativism does not undermine the commitment to these assumptions. They are part of a powerfully consistent and practically effective world view that its adherents are not about to abandon just because it understands itself as relative. Part of the attraction of the naturalistic stance is its capacity to explain its own development and predict that major changes may occur within it in response to unforeseeable contingencies. Relativism is acceptable for the naturalist, indeed inevitable, since it follows from and is consistent with the basic (and perhaps pre-rational) scientific notion that all phenomena, including human cognition, arise in a unified context of conditioning circumstances. This notion itself, the naturalistic relativist will happily admit, must be equally conditioned by some context. If science, even in its most basic assumptions, were not a function of the world in which it appeared, then it would be an arbitrary affair indeed and unintelligible by its own lights.

Even so, a dilemma often confronting the relativist is how to make a case for relativism itself. As Hilary Putnam puts it in Reason, Truth, and History: "[I]s it not obviously contradictory to hold a point of view while at the same time holding that no point of view is more justified or right than any other?" (Putnam's emphasis) My answer to such an objection is that our holding a point of view is, finally, not a matter of justification at all, but a matter of being human. To repeat Strawson's point, we can't help but have cognitive and ethical commitments which are beyond or prior to rational justification. When these conflict with someone else's there may be no way to show which is superior. Naturalism is a body of cognitive commitments, one of whose corollaries is relativism. If we accept a naturalistically causal view of perception, motivation, and how cognitive schemes are built up, then we may well be relativists. So naturalism, by its own lights, is not ultimately justifiable from irrefutable premises but simply is the way the naturalist sees the world. As one world view among many it can be explained as a natural phenomenon, albeit an extremely complex one. Inevitably, I offer this assessment of how we hold world views and how we can explain them from within one such view, that of naturalism itself.

The discovery that we cannot finally justify our most deeply held assumptions and preferences does not mean we will cease to hold them. It does not mean that we will suddenly become nihilists, or feel warm kinship with the Nazi, or (if we are pro-choice) start to believe that a day old fetus is a person. Our basic convictions are held in place by the biological and cultural conditions which created them, so although they may change with those conditions, it's highly unlikely we'll disown them simply because we discover they are natural, not ultimately rational, phenomena. This explains, as Rorty puts it, why "a belief can still regulate action, can still be thought worth dying for, among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstance." Our beliefs don't, it turns out, need the dignity of being universal and absolute. There is nothing more basic required to justify our abhorrence of the Nazi; it's something that constitutes us. Instead of seeking further justifications, we simply accept the natural fact that these are our preferences, that this is how we see the world. Our views may be contingent, relative, and open to eventual change but they are rooted in our being. They don't need final justification for support, and it turns out we can't supply it in any case.

Relativism and Tolerance

If we accept relativism this may well undercut the impulse for self-justification, making us less smug ideologically and perhaps more tolerant of opposing world views. I don't mean that we will consider all views equally true, or just, or justifiable. Since we must still think and act according to our (local) standards of knowledge, ethics, and rationality, we don't have that choice. Rather I mean that we can understand the existence of the opposing view as the outcome of a set of conditions, not the willful distortion of a finally "correct" picture of the world of which we are the guardians. Smugness and intolerance come from thinking that we are privileged in our understanding and that those who fail to agree with us are somehow morally blameworthy. Such self-righteousness can have its roots either in the religious absolutism that sees God as the infallible source of knowledge and ethics, or the secular absolutism that supposes Reason, Nature, or the State to be the universal arbiter.

Of course the tolerance generated by relativism will have its practical limits. Since we cannot set aside our basic preferences (for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for example) we will defend them to the death if forced to. We grant others the right to hold opposing views as long as the real-world consequences of those views don't compromise our basic values or do us material harm. If they do, then the relativists' defense is to prohibit the actions of an ideological adversary, not to prohibit his ideology.

Up to this limit, tolerance itself constitutes a fundamental value for the naturalistic relativist. It reflects the appropriate attitude towards knowledge itself, the basic normative stance congruent with the naturalistic view of cognitive and ethical commitments: since these commitments do not correspond to the way the world (or reason) is in any ultimate sense, we do not hold them, and so should not claim to hold them, as absolutes, whether rational, secular, or religious. They are simply the naturally derived solutions to the general problem of being motivated, vulnerable creatures in a complex environment. Given other peoples' very different needs and backgrounds, it is only to be expected that different solutions will have arisen, and these solutions are naturalistically on a par with relativism and naturalism itself. Seeing our perspective as one among many (albeit the one we prefer) means we cannot consider it ultimately privileged, universally applicable, or unimprovable; and so we must admit the possibility that other perspectives may have something to offer. The willingness to tolerate different points of view, to engage in debate, to consider new information, and to admit that one's position might change, all flow from the relativist's open-ended view of knowledge and ethics as responses to contingent circumstances.

Absolutists, on the other hand, are prone to limit not just the actions of their adversaries (whether these be relativists or absolutists of another stripe) but the opportunity to hold and to form opposing views in the first place. Since a high value is often placed on ideological purity and security, central beliefs are protected against challenge by limiting dissent, debate, and liberal education. This generalization must be qualified in two important respects. First, those with faith in Reason are unlikely to impose ideological agreement precisely because they believe (I think wrongly) that, given enough time and argument, most everyone will start behaving Rationally. Consequently, the absolutism of ultimate rationality is benign compared to the absolutism of more authoritarian ideologies. Second, there is no necessary link between feeling that one possesses the One True View and the wish to impose it on others. It is only when absolutism includes among its tenets the belief that differing views are a threat and an affront to the true faith that crusades are mounted and the inquisition begins. But this tenet, whether tacit or explicit, is unfortunately rather common in absolutist frameworks. The fervor to crush opposing views, whether religious or secular, implies a deep insecurity which only the silence of one's critics can assuage. The germ of skeptical doubt must be stamped out lest it infect one's own vehement, but unconsciously precarious, commitment. Underlying much absolutistic thought is the virtually universal desire for secure cognitive and ethical systems, systems which give the individual a stable place within a like-minded social group and which present a manageable and meaningful universe. Many traditional religions offer guarantees against personal annihilation at death, so to challenge them is perhaps to rob someone of a crucial reassurance. Likewise, the ethical and social injunctions of absolutist systems often represent a functional, if sometimes oppressive, solution to the problem of creating social order. If the system which justifies the injunctions is questioned, then the culture as a whole may seem threatened. No wonder, then, that Muslim theocracies such as Iran seek to limit the influence of the West, or that fundamentalists here work ceaselessly to keep Darwin out of the classroom. If an unquestioned ideology seems necessary to underpin individual security and cultural practices, then much energy will be devoted to protecting it from the great Satan of doubt.

Security and Discovery

The desire for security expressed in an allegiance to absolutes contrasts markedly with the openness, tolerance, and pluralism characteristic of the relativist perspective. But these tendencies are basic, in varying proportions, to each human being. On the one hand we all need a minimum of security and stability. There are practical limits to how far we can immediately compromise our cognitive and ethical assumptions, even if in the long run they may change drastically. On the other hand, it is also a human trait to be curious, delight in the new, and find better solutions to perennial problems. Openness, like protectiveness, is adaptive as a general strategy, so long as there is an effective "operating procedure" in place to handle the exigencies of the moment.

The conflict between the relativist, naturalist, and scientific stance on one side and the religious or secular absolutist stance on the other expresses, in broad cultural terms, the opposing tendencies within each of us to seek discovery and security. Of course the opposition thus drawn is too simple. Science can be used, illegitimately, to justify entrenched preconceptions useful to those in power, while many on the front lines of social change believe in an absolute, non-human source of their commitment. However, science at its best epitomizes openness, creative self-doubt, and tolerance for revolutionary options. Science and naturalism both undercut the possibility of absolute, authoritarian justifications, whether secular or religious. It is this absence of any final ideological security which makes the naturalistic enterprise open-ended, unpredictable, and thus so attractive to those whose tastes run to the adventurous and unforeseen.

This contrasts with the sometimes stifling insistence on the status quo characteristic of world views based on unquestionable absolutes. Fundamentalist cultures, whether they be states or churches, are driven far more by security than by curiosity. But again, the need for some viable status quo is essential and must be addressed even in the most free-thinking and pluralistic society. To survive, a culture has to present some sort of practically effective united front even if – especially if – it includes, as does ours, radically diverse points of view. Thus the question arises: what should be the common procedural assumptions, the ground rules in the debate between the world views represented in our culture? How are they to coexist? How are we, collectively, to balance the impulse for discovery with the need for security?

There is no neutral point from which to answer this question. Our answer will be shaped by the world view we subscribe to. Even to assume that different points of view should coexist presupposes the value of diversity, of debate, of tolerance. These values, I have tried to show, are more characteristic of relativism than absolutism, of naturalism rather than theistic or utopian philosophies. On the other hand, it is characteristic of absolutism, especially when combined with ideological and personal insecurity, to cut off debate, drastically limit diversity, and encourage intolerance.

The status quo reflects, among other factors, the competition between these two opposed stances. That there is debate and coexistence at all is an expression of tolerance, while threats to free speech (whose definition is itself a matter of debate) are expressions of nascent absolutism. Thus the political arena within which various world views compete for our allegiance is determined by those world views, it is not a level playing field upon which they meet. Nor can it reflect a considered, rational judgment about how we are to evaluate sets of basic preferences from some perspective outside those preferences, for as MacIntyre says, there is no such perspective. To want there to be diversity and debate is already to be in one camp, to have already taken a position concerning how we should hold, and let others hold, cognitive and ethical views. In discussing what he calls the "contingency of community" Rorty makes a similar point:

We should see allegiance to social institutions as no more matters for justification by reference to familiar, commonly accepted premises – but also as no more arbitrary – than choices of friends or heroes. Such choices are not made by reference to criteria. They cannot be preceded by presuppositionless critical reflection, conducted in no particular language and outside of any particular historical context.

Social institutions and the political arena, like the fundamental views of the world they reflect, are not finally justifiable according to neutral standards. The parliamentary, democratic institutions within which tolerance survives represent a political – not ultimately rational – response to conflicting ideologies. Liberal democracy is simply the bet that collective security need not require ideological conformity; instead, security of the sort worth wanting, namely that which allows for discovery, may best be achieved by institutionalizing tolerance of just about any view whatsoever.

It might be supposed that there is a more fundamental and more widely shared value underlying tolerance which could give it rational justification, namely the simple libertarian desire to be left alone with my own opinions. If I let you be, then you should let me be. But the respect for the other's autonomy expressed by this reciprocity is rarely championed by the insecure absolutist, even though he values his own freedom. Since the autonomy of others poses a threat to the universality of his beliefs, the absolutist definitely does not grant us liberty from ideological intervention in forming our opinions and preferences. That liberty, what we know as the rights to privacy and free speech, does not underlie or justify tolerance, but is the expression of tolerance itself. Autonomy can only be granted by those who do not require ideological conformity. Tolerance is permission to be different, make known that difference, and still remain an accepted member of the culture. Intolerance is the desire to suppress or eliminate differences and expel those who persist in their autonomy. Beyond these opposing stances there may not be a deeper, underlying value by which we could justify tolerance to the evangelical absolutist. The simple desire to be left alone may be widely shared, but the reciprocity of "live and let live" cannot be derived from it.

The Insecurity of Tolerance

The value of tolerance is of supreme importance to many who are not in the least relativists, and undoubtedly to many who don't have any particularly well thought-out scheme of basic commitments. There are, fortunately, many paths to tolerance and I don't want to leave the impression that naturalism and relativism are the necessary basis for it. Some defend privacy and free speech as "natural rights", while some hold tolerance to be a religiously derived virtue. Relativists will disagree with such justifications but are likely to applaud the result. Their own inclination towards tolerance comes out of a particular world view, one which sees no need or possibility of being finally or universally grounded.

If we are relativists we cannot give an ultimate rational justification of views which give rise to tolerance. How, then, are we to make a case for tolerance, how can we attempt to universalize it (if, that is, we find we want to do this)? How can we defend it against the ever present, equally strong desire that many have to impose ideological conformity? There are two ways, short of force of arms. First is the political process of appealing to the desire for tolerance in others. We search for cognitive and ethical soul mates (or pragmatically acceptable substitutes), create a union of shared interests, and then work for the sort of culture we want. We recognize and accept that beyond a certain point we will not be able to offer any ideological justifications for our program. What we want just is what we want. How we see the world just is how we see it. Our power ultimately comes from the extent to which others share our views about what is and what's right. We believe that debate is more important than Truth, that openness has a higher value than ideological security, that human capacities and preferences, not universal absolutes, are sufficient grounds for cognitive and ethical judgments.

The second strategy is to show, using rational argument, how tolerance underlies, manifests, or brings about other widely held values, values of individual freedoms and collective values of productivity and security. For instance, we might argue that tolerance of personal visions and tastes, besides having intrinsic worth to the individual, has the practical social worth of generating original solutions to common problems, or perhaps the artistic value of allowing the expression of a shared aesthetic impulse. This kind of argument is rational justification par excellence, since it starts with some values as given and shows how other values follow from them. But as rational justification it can only succeed if those to whom we present it share at least some of the values we start from, share some of our ideas of what the facts are, and share our version of rationality itself. Thus it depends a good deal on the first strategy, that of finding and enlisting the support of pre-rational soul mates. If someone is an avowed, militantly evangelical absolutist, then none of this will cut any ice. Rationality will have reached its practical limit.

In the Western democracies, the open political arena embodied in these strategies (and defended by the necessary resort to force in defeating Nazi absolutism) reflects what is only the provisional triumph of tolerance. There is an inherent asymmetry in what I have drawn as the general opposing stances regarding how we are to hold our views concerning knowledge and ethics: tolerance allows the existence of absolutist views that themselves will not, if given the opportunity, countenance tolerance. This asymmetry means that tolerance has within itself the seeds of its potential undoing. The arena that permits debate risks the eventuality that a view based on limiting debate will arise and gain popularity. Thus to be tolerant means to live with a certain unavoidable political insecurity involved in advocating what we take to be a fundamental value.

The consensus now exists that we have the right to think and act as we wish, so long as we don't materially harm anyone, or compromise their similar right to self-expression. But this is only a consensus, it is not how things ultimately should be, or have to be. We won't find support for it written in the stars, or in physical law, or in some universal rationality. It is simply the expression of a set of contingent human preferences which are in competition with other deeply held preferences. Whether or not it remains the consensus depends on how astutely we mount our appeals to the spark of tolerance in others. It may also depend on how much we are willing to sacrifice for what now seems as ordinary as the air we breathe.

 ©   Thomas W. Clark  1992