"Open" and "Closed" Relativism (1)

Ko Hasegawa (Hokkaido University)

[1] Many people today understand, respect and tolerate personal autonomy and diverse opinions. It is commonly recognized that everyone has their own manner of thinking, and third parties cannot easily make decisions in place of another. Yes, these thoughts are true. We cannot deny that moral decisions are ultimately personal. They are not the problems of family or friends, nor of the government or society as a whole. In fact, it is the modern ideal that individuals choose for themselves how to construct free and fruitful lives.
Of course, as political communitarians criticize, our social bonds have become less evident than before. Our sense of social belonging is being relativized and diversified in accordance with the particular activities we participate in. And this sense of social belonging itself, ever more decentered, is weakening.
How we understand and direct this trend is an important theme for ethics and political philosophy today. But, it is not the focus of this essay.Although it is said that such a modernistic recognition itself undermines the communal bonds of human society, I believe it nevertheless can produce dynamics of tolerance and diversity. Thus, my purpose here is a reconsideration of a related meta-theoretical question: how can a recognition of relativity of values and fallibility of our judgmentbe a meta-theoretical basis for the dynamics of tolerance and diversity?
I will examine this problem utilizing Karl Popper's insight that it is completely possible for us to communicate even without any common frame ofreference. But I will not naively accept Popper's position. For I believe that a fundamental problem lies in the very prerequisites of Popper's thinking.
Hence, the problem is this: some persons are relativists in one of the three ways: (i) They want to believe in the objectivity of value judgments,but cannot have any confidence in believing the foundations of them, and thus tend to be skeptical about everything. For these persons, there can be no reasons which support moral convictions; or (ii) They do believe certain value judgments are basic and important, and they even acknowledge the existence of values, but they believe such judgments are personal, and do not have any confidence in thinking that these judgments can be reasonably discussed and judged publicly as better or worse. They are also skeptical, but not about the absoluteness of their value judgments, but about the possibility of communication with others for value problems.; or (iii) They are radically subjectivistic, thinking in essence --"You believe so, O.K..I believe otherwise. Thus don't force your judgment upon me. You think as you like, and I will doas I like. That's enough, isn't it?"-- This third type of person is aggressive in espousing relativism normatively.
Of course, some persons might not doubt the importance of moral conversation even if they are skeptical about the foundations of value judgmentsor the communicability of such judgments with others. Perhaps even some of the third type of persons will be eloquent in explaining why he/she chooses to be radically subjectivist. However, many of all of these three kinds of persons are resistant to the activity of reasonable moral discussion, and to a public conversational demand to cite reasons. These people do not seem to believe in the relevance or importance of moral conversation, even if the extent of reluctance is different according to the types classified above. They seem to just want to retreat from such serious conversation. All of these people are, as I call them, "closed" relativists.
We should not misunderstand this as a sort of habit of silence. This is much different. There are a variety of psychological, sociological or anthropological explanations for such behavior patterns. But my problem is rather a philosophical one. The "closed" relativists seem to think such a conversation cannot be carried out in a public way. They can block significant positive arguments for public moral conversation by maintaining "hedges" around themselves. They might be too indifferent or too sophisticated, or they might not find moral conversation decorous. Their stances might even be postmodern in a sense.
However, I believe that although sound relativism is very important, we have to be ready to carry on serious discussion to arrive at moral truths, or at least some consensus. We have to be, as it were, "open" relativists, who can accept the importance of collective enterprise for searching for a better vision for our society. Thus, my inquiry turns to how to convince "closed" relativists why we ought to carry on moral conversation as a public enterprise; that is, how can I argue for the importance of a public moral conversation?

[2] One way to approach this problem is to show "closed" relativists that while their skepticism may be perceived at some superficial level, they actually do not believe skepticism. More specifically, we must show them that at a deeper level they believe quite the opposite of what they claim. If so, we can show that they themselves distinguish between what they regard as matters of taste or preference, and views they are committed to as objective or true, and that moral opinions fit into the latter category. Then we can convincethem that they themselves really believe that an moral opinion can be true only if there are reasons that make it true. They often hold the strange combination of some vulgar relativism, along with strongly and uncritically held moral positions. My sense is that these people don't really believe in relativism, rather they proclaim it strategically as a polite way of avoiding serious moral discussion. But they don't really see how itis possible to disagree civilly and respectfully. As for the first type of persons, one possible stance is to distinguish between whether their skepticism is itself the result of a reasoned argument, or whether it functions as a mere prejudice. This will frequently require an excursus into meta-ethics, but probably these persons do not have very good reasons for their skeptical professions, and for them, skepticism functions as a prejudice. If they agree, their agreement should help them to be skeptical about their skepticism itself.
As for the second type of persons, I don't know of any method that doesn't involve confronting their confidence that they have a path to the truth, and asking what their belief in their epistemological privilege itself rests on.If they find that other people also have the same belief that each of us holds some important basic value judgments, why can they not understand that value judgments can transcend subjective boundaries? They might want to reject not the commonality or inter-subjectivity but the objectivity of value judgments. For them, when we agree with certain value judgments, it is just a coincidence and not a necessary congruence. But, even if there are serious philosophical differences between these two views,I cannot understand why they reject communicability with others if they can acknowledge the very commonality of value judgments.
For the third type of persons, they often mistakenly assume that the only reason people engage inmoral discussion is to attempt to force their views on others, to manipulate them, and that in expressing the view that, say, some conduct is wrong, they are trying to force the other person not to engage in that conduct. But, both of these assumptions can be shown to be false. Suppose, for example, that B is thinking about whether to have an abortion, and A is thinking through the issue with B. Suppose A thinks that abortion in B's circumstances is morally permissible, other things being equal. But suppose B thinks it is wrong, and continues to think that even after con-sidering all the reasons that lie behind A's view.Far from trying to force A's view on B, A might well think after such a discussion that given that B's considered view is that abortion would be wrong she would ill-advise B to have one. This example points out that the function of moral discussion is frequently to try to work out with otherswhat one should think oneself. Here, far from trying to force one's views on others, one uses the best judgment and wisdom of others as a way of examining one's own views.
Still, of course, we have to be careful about the significant difference between understanding and convincing. In the example above, A's respect for B's standpoint is very important. However, this seems to be just understanding, if this respect just points to the self-restraint of A. If so, there would be no real conflict between A and B, which is the same situation that radical subjectivists want to emphasize. In other words, for radical subjectivists, if A tries to convince B to have an abortion, it becomes forcing A's view on B, because B has to make a conversion due to external pressure from A. However, in this regard, Ithink we can say that B has her own choice in the conversion, because she can reject A's persuasion,thus convincing is different from forcing. And subjectivists will not be able to deny the existence of B's free will. If they do, they will notbe able to retain a subjectivist stance.
Thus we should conclude the example above by showing that one might change hermind, or at least learn the importance of the other's view and somehow incorporate this into her own view. For example, A might come to think that it is not always permissible to have an abortion, namely that in certain circumstances such that if a woman believes abortion is wrong from a deep moral conviction, a final decision should be left to her. And also B herself might come to think that it is all right to have an abortion in certain cases, exceptfor such cases as hers, if there are adequate reasons for one to have an abortion. The process between these two persons is not unilateral, but bilateral,and features mutual learning. The thought at the background of these considerations is that we cannot have only soliloquy inthinking everything, or that we are always and already engaged in conversation in important moral cases, even within the realm of ourselves; a radical publicness of human thinking. Of course, thereare a variety of meta-theories which support this recognition of publicness, and, among them, theories of language and mind will be very important. But I will not enter these issues here. All I wantto confirm is that talking, understanding, revising, or changing are real human activities with mutual contributions. "Closed" relativists do not really understand the nature of their doings.