Reflections on Relativism, Reputations, Language and Morality
by Mark English
1: The dangers of relativism
1.1 Some recent discussions about the French far right got me thinking about narratives, morality, rhetoric and reputations.
1.2 It was suggested that moral relativism was an insidious force that opened the way for collaborationism in the past and threatens today to return us to a depraved moral condition. These notes constitute not so much a direct response to those claims as an attempt to set out my own basic intuitions on moral relativism and related matters.
2: Ethics and rhetoric
2.1 I am not a relativist about scientific and factual questions. But I don’t have a worked-out philosophical position on ethics. Largely this is because, as I see it, ethics is not primarily intellectual, and so the scope for rigorous and productive theorizing in the area is very limited.
2.2 Part of the problem is that the subject is difficult to satisfactorily define. A narrow definition seems unnecessarily arbitrary. But, on the other hand, if one uses (as I would be inclined to do) a broader definition incorporating prudential and related considerations then the question of the ‘right thing to do’ in any given case becomes a question which will be potentially dependent on such a wide range of factors (including the exact circumstances pertaining to the case in question and to the participants) that any purely theoretical or abstract principles-based approach would obviously be inappropriate.
2.3 I see ethics as a practical business. It concerns the way we deploy or express our personal value systems in our day-to-day lives. We deploy our value systems in virtually every action we take. But we also often give expression to our values in rhetorical terms; and our values can be modified via the rhetoric of others.
2.4 Clearly, rhetoric serves public purposes such as persuasion and shaming. It is an instrument of action rather than of observation, perception or intellectual exploration. It is more like a set of weapons than a piece of scientific equipment like a microscope or a telescope. (See section 5.)
3: Ethics and reputation
3.1 Ethics or morality is not private in the sense that it is social and mainly about how we treat one another as human beings; but, in another sense, it is private. It is private in the sense that it is not just about the way we act and treat others; it is also about the way we see others and ourselves. (‘Opaque’ might be a better word than ‘private’ here.)
3.2 Moreover, I would suggest that, on the whole, the reputational side of things is taken too seriously. Simply put, reputations – which are by definition public and subject to rhetorical interventions, both positive and negative – typically bear little relationship to the (private, or opaque as I am calling it) reality of the person in question. And I believe that reputation as it pertains to the moral qualities of a person is something that we can – and should – remain agnostic about, under normal circumstances at least.
3.3 If there is a thing which we cannot know, the proper response is agnosticism; and we cannot know another person’s self-perception. We can see a small part of what they do. We can hear a small part of what they say. But – with a few possible exceptions (life-long friends, spouses, certain confessional writers perhaps) – we cannot know the details or nuances of the value systems of other people, nor how they see their own actions as relating to these value systems.
3.4 Of course, we can judge the actions and statements of others against our own value systems and/or against a legal framework. In fact, we need to do this. Anarchism is not a realistic option. But we need to be clear about what it is we are doing here, what it is we are judging. And what it is that we are not doing, not judging.
3.5 Even in its more mundane applications (relating to accomplishment, expertise or practical reliability, say) we often get things wrong when it comes to a person’s reputed qualities. The implication of the common idiom, “So-and-so has a well-deserved reputation for …”, is that reputations are often (usually?) not well-deserved.
3.6 Given the above points, it seems to me that there has been far too much emphasis on moral reputation in recent times, both on the positive side (in respect of certain historical figures, but also some contemporary figures) and – especially – on the negative side. Given the infinite possibilities for spin and communicational distraction and deception, this obsession is arguably having a serious adverse effect on our politics.
3.7 Monarchical systems of government were effective for long periods of history. Maybe they got certain things right that we get wrong. The monarch was not in the position he or she was in on account of his or her virtue or accomplishment but rather by an accident of birth. There were some advantages to this state of affairs which could be seen to have contributed to political stability, social harmony and continuity. “The King is dead. Long live the King!”
3.8 There is a moving scene in the film La Nuit de Varennes in which the ceremonial cape of the fleeing Louis XVI is displayed and the woman responsible for looking after it talks about having once watched the king address a large crowd. It was not the man that she saw in the distance but the red cape. In other words, it is not the person of the king but the role and the symbols of kingship which really count and which constitute the true focus one’s loyalty.
4.1 Historical narratives often serve political and ideological purposes. Most ideologies have a narrative component. In some cases the narrative component is central, as in most forms of nationalism.
4.2 But even anti-nationalistic ideologies can incorporate narratives in a central way. Marxism is a good example, as it is based on a particular reading of history (class struggle and so on).
4.3 Complex narratives can never simply be true. For any given narrative which is true to (by which I mean compatible with) all the known facts, there will always be other – conflicting – narratives that could be constructed which are also true to those same facts. A complex narrative, I am saying, necessarily goes beyond what can be shown to be true.
4.4 Complex narratives typically have a moral dimension. Certain actions or parties are presented in a good light, other actions or parties in a negative light.
4.4.1 In the case of our (often unspoken) personal narratives, we usually treat ourselves very favorably. In fact, mentally healthy people are known to have an exaggerated view of their own abilities and positive qualities, whereas those prone to depression typically maintain a more accurate and realistic view of their abilities, qualities and achievements.
4.4.2 Political and social narratives are, by contrast to personal ones, essentially public and usually profoundly rhetorical. The very point of these stories is to motivate, coordinate values and facilitate joint activities, in part by persuading listeners or readers to make positive or negative judgments about historical events, figures, etc., elements which are then related to the current situation.
4.5 Stories which are presented as pure fiction can also incorporate political or ideological elements, of course. And, naturally, we tend to prefer novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, etc. who share our general political orientation. In my experience, this applies even when the works in question are not overtly political.
4.6 Being apolitical in certain circumstances can be construed as a strong political statement, but my point is more general than this. It is that one’s politics leaks out in what may be seen to be unexpected ways. (As I see it, however, this ‘leakage’ is inevitable because our political views, like all of our value-related tendencies and inclinations, derive from, or are a function or expression of, certain neural substrates – memory, prediction and reward, intentional empathy, etc..)
5: Rhetoric and language
5.1 I have been talking about narratives. How do narratives relate to language and to rhetoric? My main points here would be more concisely expressed perhaps in terms of Venn diagrams, but I will try to put them into words. In order, then: language-based rhetoric and narrative; rhetoric and language; language as rhetoric; language as a thinking tool.
5.1.1 Not all language-based rhetoric is narrative-based. Much language-based rhetoric is discursive and derives its rhetorical force from figures of speech and the connotations which particular words and phrases carry for a particular audience.
5.1.2 Not all rhetoric is natural language-based, of course. There is also a grammar and a rhetoric of images, as deployed in cinema, for example.
5.1.3 Does natural language reduce to rhetoric? Not quite. I see language as essentially a tool which we use to get things done. In this sense, it is rhetorical. It helps us get our way and make our requirements known to others. It allows forms of cooperation – and manipulation and deception – which would be impossible to achieve without it.
5.1.4 But language also helps us think. How do I know what I think until I hear what I say (or read what I write)? I am lying in bed now, developing these thoughts as notes, as sentences, as arguments. Before I articulate them and note them down, they are half-formed and evanescent.
5.2 The main point of all this is to draw distinctions between the public (rhetorical) domain and the private domain, especially in respect of language. Language is a cultural (and so a public) phenomenon but it also has a private aspect: it helps us think. I am not talking about a putative private language here, just ordinary language. It’s the thinking that’s private, not the language.
6: A form of relativism
6.1 If what I am saying about complex narratives is true, does this have implications for how one sees ethics? Certainly. If there is for any given complex set of events no ‘one true narrative’, no ‘God’s eye view’, then a certain degree of moral relativism is inevitably introduced.
6.2 I am not comfortable, however, using terms like moral relativism and moral realism. As soon as we start talking in such terms, we invite misunderstandings because these terms take their meaning from the various kinds of discussion which gave rise to them. Like any terms, they have no meaning in themselves but rather take their meaning from the discourse which sustains them. And when the discourse in question is technical rather than ordinary discourse, the terms are even less stable because they do not have deep semantic roots as ordinary terms normally do. (‘Thick’ moral terms like courage or decency, for example, have deep semantic roots in our language and culture.)
6.3 Notable secular humanist intellectuals such as Stephen Law and Robert Wright have come out strongly in favor of moral realism. I reject their respective points of view on morality, but don’t see the need to label myself a moral anti-realist or a moral relativist.
6.4 My take on complex narratives may well imply a degree of moral relativism and, to the extent that it does, I accept the label. But only to that extent.
7: Value systems
7.1 Morality is, as I see it, part of an informal system of expectations and patterns of behavior which make human social life possible. These informal rules and patterns vary from society to society, from community to community and from person to person, but there are also commonalities or ‘universals’. (More or less as variation between human languages does not preclude the existence of linguistic universals.)
7.2 Just as there is strictly speaking no such thing as a language – just sets of more or less overlapping idiolects – so you could say that the only real value systems or systems of morality are those that pertain to individuals. Like language, value systems are cultural products; but (again like language) they are instantiated as individual phenomena (and encoded in neural substrates). Though there is significant overlap in terms of their general nature and structure, the actual structure of every individual value system is quite unique.
7.3 These value systems express themselves in our words and actions, but never perfectly, never completely. Words are not always well-chosen. And, even when they are, they are often misunderstood. As are gifts and gestures of various kinds. This is part of what I was getting at when I talked about the privacy or opaqueness of our individual moral lives.