Moral Relativism: Big Ideas/Small Books

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9780312427191: Moral Relativism: Big Ideas/Small Books

Moral relativism attracts and repels. What is defensible in it and what is to be rejected? Do we as human beings have no shared standards by which we can understand one another? Can we abstain from judging one another's practices? Do we truly have divergent views about what constitutes good and evil, virtue and vice, harm and welfare, dignity and humiliation, or is there some underlying commonality that trumps it all?

These questions turn up everywhere, from Montaigne's essay on cannibals, to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to the debate over female genital mutilation. They become ever more urgent with the growth of mass immigration, the rise of religious extremism, the challenges of Islamist terrorism, the rise of identity politics, and the resentment at colonialism and the massive disparities of wealth and power between North and South. Are human rights and humanitarian interventions just the latest form of cultural imperialism? By what right do we judge particular practices as barbaric? Who are the real barbarians?

In this provocative new book, the distinguished social theorist Steven Lukes takes an incisive and enlightening look at these and other challenging questions and considers the very foundations of what we believe, why we believe it, and whether there is a profound discord between "us" and "them."

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About the Author:

Steven Lukes is the author of numerous books and articles about political and social theory, morality, relativism, Marxism, and power. He is the author of Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, as well as the novel The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat: A Comedy of Ideas (which has been translated into fifteen languages). He is a professor of sociology at New York University.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1RELATIVISM: COGNITIVE AND MORALThere is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing.”NIETZSCHE1

Relativism is an inherently controversial topic. The very word inspires polemics that are sometimes passionate and often hostile. Relativism seems to be a threat to intellectual certainties, on the one hand, and to moral seriousness, on the other. Here are just two examples. Pope Benedict, on the eve of his election, proclaimed that we are “moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”2 And in his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, the late Allan Bloom wrote that “relativism has extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life.”3Both these statements suggest that what their authors call “relativism” has already secured wide appeal, and both focus on moral relativism, which certainly does seem plausible and attractive to many people, even if they don’t use, or even reject, the label. What is it that causes those who denounce it such concern? In this book I shall try to clarify just what is at issue here. What exactly does a relativist assert, and what is distinctive about moral relativism? What is it about moral relativism that both attracts and repels? What is defensible in it and what should be rejected?First we need to distinguish between relativism about knowledge, or cognitive relativism, and moral relativism, on which we will focus our attention.Cognitive RelativismIs what we can know determined by a world that is independent of us, or is it, in some sense, “up to us”? Immanuel Kant maintained that we cannot step outside the human standpoint—the circle of our own conceptions, theories, and reasonings—to a bare world as it is in itself, independent of them. Kant’s philosophy was built on this unnerving thought, but Kant sought to defuse the threat. He used “we” inclusively to mean all of us human beings, together with any other being that humans could understand. So “we,” in this inclusive sense, are all in the same boat with respect to knowledge and reason. Moreover, there is no cause for alarming uncertainty about what we can know and how we should reason. After all, the only knowledge available to us has to be intelligible to us. So it must be framed within the pregiven categories (such as space, time, persons, and objects in causal relations with one another) that shape our thinking and make it possible. And since we are rational persons, how we reason is not up to us but set by the requirements of Reason (with a capital R).But Kant’s reassurances were gradually swept away and the thought became more unnerving. Friederich Nietzsche made a first major breach by advancing what is sometimes called “perspectivism”—writing that there is “only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’”4—according to which what we know is guided, shaped, even constituted by our desires, our passions—in short, our interests. There is no “true world” that is really objective but unknown to us humans. There are indefinitely many possible perspectives from which knowledge is to be had, and there is no prospect of their being brought to converge within a true, comprehensive theory of the world.This thought becomes fully relativist when the idea of perspectives is tied to particular groups within humanity. Now the idea is that potentially all our ideas and theories are to be seen as local cultural formations, rooted in and confined to particular times and places, and that there is no independent “truth of the matter” to decide among them. This may in turn suggest that we as human beings have no shared standards on the basis of which we can understand one other. Now there are multiple “we’s,” each with “our” own standards of truth, reasoning, and morality. The term we is no longer inclusive but contrastive: it picks out us as opposed to others. As this idea spreads, Bernard Williams writes,
[m]oral claims, the humane disciplines of history and criticism, and natural science itself have come to seem to some critics not to command the reasonable assent of all human beings. They are seen rather as the products of groups within humanity expressing the perspectives of those groups. Some see the authority of supposedly rational discourse as itself barely authority, but rather a construct of social forces.In a further turn, reflections on this situation itself can lead to a relativism which steps back from all perspectives and sees them all at the same distance, all true, none true, each of them true for its own partisans.5
Not all relativists travel the full distance of this reckless and giddy journey. Those who do often insist on “the socially constructed and politically contested nature of facts, theory, practices and power.”6 The very phrase “social construction”—and, worse still, “the social construction of reality”—has, for a while, had an intoxicating effect on thinkers in various social scientific disciplines. The effect was not to refutesocial scientists’ theories and explanations or to unmask ways in which their findings can serve socially or politically powerful interests, but rather to undermine the very idea that scientific explanations are superior to others. So, for example, an archaeologist working for the Zuni Indian tribe, who believe that their ancestors came from inside the earth into a world prepared for them by supernatural spirits, writes that science “is just one of many ways of knowing the world” and that the Zuni worldview is “just as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about.” Another archaeologist, Dr. Zimmerman of the University of Iowa, explicitly rejects “science as a privileged way of seeing the world.”7 And the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo views social scientists’ claims to “objectivity, neutrality and impartiality” as “analytical postures developed during the colonial era” which “can no longer be sustained”: they are “arguably neither more nor less valid than those of more engaged, yet equally perceptive, knowledgeable social actors.”8The way for such assertions was prepared by, among others, three thinkers, who raised questions about the objectivity of science itself in its very heartland, namely, natural science. One was Paul Feyerabend, self-described “epistemological anarchist,” who famously wrote in Against Method that “science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without ever having examined its advantages and its limits.”9 A second was his fellow historian-philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, whose enormously influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions10 challenged the standard textbook picture of scientific progress cumulatively evolving toward the truth, suggesting instead that science proceeds through a succession of “incommensurable” paradigms, seen as constellations of group commitments. And the third is Bruno Latour, who engaged in anthropological studies of scientists’ “laboratory life,” claiming, for example that “nature” can never explain how a scientific controversy gets settled and proclaiming that “[i]rrationality is always an accusation made by someone building a network over someone else who stands in the way.”11 No space here, it would seem, for the role of factual evidence or of reasoning in settling disputes or advancing scientific knowledge. (Interestingly, Kuhn never licensed and both Feyerabend and Latour subsequently distanced themselves from the extreme relativist conclusions others have drawn from their writings.12)The idea that facts, or indeed “reality,” are socially constructed is an intoxicating mix of three distinct ideas, as Ian Hacking has made clear in his book The Social Construction of What?13 Each of these ideas is heady enough, and the first step to sobriety is to consider the plausibility of each in particular cases. (There is a difference, after all, between claiming that, say, quarks are socially constructed and claiming that attention deficit disorder is.) The first is the idea of contingency: the thought that our explanatory theories could have been quite otherwise—so that, for example, there could have been an equally successful alternative physics in no sense equivalent to existing physics. The second is the idea of nominalism: the thought that our categories and classifications are not fixed by the structure of the world but by our linguistic conventions. And the third is the idea, sometimes called externalism, that we believe what we do, not because of the reasons that appear to justify what we believe, but because of factors such as the influence of the powerful or of social interests or of institutional imperatives or of social networks. This last i...

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Descripción Picador USA, United States, 2008. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. Moral relativism attracts and repels. What is defensible in it and what is to be rejected? Do we as human beings have no shared standards by which we can understand one another? Can we abstain from judging one another s practices? Do we truly have divergent views about what constitutes good and evil, virtue and vice, harm and welfare, dignity and humiliation, or is there some underlying commonality that trumps it all? These questions turn up everywhere, from Montaigne s essay on cannibals, to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to the debate over female genital mutilation. They become ever more urgent with the growth of mass immigration, the rise of religious extremism, the challenges of Islamist terrorism, the rise of identity politics, and the resentment at colonialism and the massive disparities of wealth and power between North and South. Are human rights and humanitarian interventions just the latest form of cultural imperialism? By what right do we judge particular practices as barbaric? Who are the real barbarians? In this provocative new book, the distinguished social theorist Steven Lukes takes an incisive and enlightening look at these and other challenging questions and considers the very foundations of what we believe, why we believe it, and whether there is a profound discord between us and them. Nº de ref. de la librería BZE9780312427191

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Descripción Picador USA, United States, 2008. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****.Moral relativism attracts and repels. What is defensible in it and what is to be rejected? Do we as human beings have no shared standards by which we can understand one another? Can we abstain from judging one another s practices? Do we truly have divergent views about what constitutes good and evil, virtue and vice, harm and welfare, dignity and humiliation, or is there some underlying commonality that trumps it all? These questions turn up everywhere, from Montaigne s essay on cannibals, to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to the debate over female genital mutilation. They become ever more urgent with the growth of mass immigration, the rise of religious extremism, the challenges of Islamist terrorism, the rise of identity politics, and the resentment at colonialism and the massive disparities of wealth and power between North and South. Are human rights and humanitarian interventions just the latest form of cultural imperialism? By what right do we judge particular practices as barbaric? Who are the real barbarians? In this provocative new book, the distinguished social theorist Steven Lukes takes an incisive and enlightening look at these and other challenging questions and considers the very foundations of what we believe, why we believe it, and whether there is a profound discord between us and them. Nº de ref. de la librería APC9780312427191

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Descripción Picador USA, United States, 2008. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****. Moral relativism attracts and repels. What is defensible in it and what is to be rejected? Do we as human beings have no shared standards by which we can understand one another? Can we abstain from judging one another s practices? Do we truly have divergent views about what constitutes good and evil, virtue and vice, harm and welfare, dignity and humiliation, or is there some underlying commonality that trumps it all? These questions turn up everywhere, from Montaigne s essay on cannibals, to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to the debate over female genital mutilation. They become ever more urgent with the growth of mass immigration, the rise of religious extremism, the challenges of Islamist terrorism, the rise of identity politics, and the resentment at colonialism and the massive disparities of wealth and power between North and South. Are human rights and humanitarian interventions just the latest form of cultural imperialism? By what right do we judge particular practices as barbaric? Who are the real barbarians? In this provocative new book, the distinguished social theorist Steven Lukes takes an incisive and enlightening look at these and other challenging questions and considers the very foundations of what we believe, why we believe it, and whether there is a profound discord between us and them. Nº de ref. de la librería APC9780312427191

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Descripción Picador USA. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Paperback. 208 pages. Dimensions: 7.1in. x 4.3in. x 0.6in.Moral relativism attracts and repels. What is defensible in it and what is to be rejected Do we as human beings have no shared standards by which we can understand one another Can we abstain from judging one anothers practices Do we truly have divergent views about what constitutes good and evil, virtue and vice, harm and welfare, dignity and humiliation, or is there some underlying commonality that trumps it allThese questions turn up everywhere, from Montaignes essay on cannibals, to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to the debate over female genital mutilation. They become ever more urgent with the growth of mass immigration, the rise of religious extremism, the challenges of Islamist terrorism, the rise of identity politics, and the resentment at colonialism and the massive disparities of wealth and power between North and South. Are human rights and humanitarian interventions just the latest form of cultural imperialism By what right do we judge particular practices as barbaric Who are the real barbariansIn this provocative new book, the distinguished social theorist Steven Lukes takes an incisive and enlightening look at these and other challenging questions and considers the very foundations of what we believe, why we believe it, and whether there is a profound discord between us and them. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Nº de ref. de la librería 9780312427191

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