Taking Relativism Seriously

Andrew Taggart in Butterflies and Wheels:

It is common today to hear people speak about wanting to get other people’s perspectives. By definition, perspectives are ways of seeing the world from different spatial (or cognitive) locations. Getting more perspectives thereby gives us more ways of seeing the world. And the more ways we have of seeing the world, the more likely we are to see things more clearly or, if not more clearly, then more complexly. Doubtless, it is an aesthetic capacity: think about how many ways there are of looking at a blackbird. Along with perspectives, one also hears plenty of talk about opinions, interpretations, and readings on radio call-in programs, in college classrooms, and in the public square. Having an opinion seems to imply that neither I nor anyone else can have a final say on the issue. We acknowledge from the start that the things before us are open-ended and bound to change; that opinions are (or may just be) expressions of our feelings, preferences, or tastes; and that I can have my opinion, you can have yours, and there needn’t be any conflict between thine and mine. Indeed, it is perfectly natural for you to opine that P and for me to opine that not-P without there being any contradiction here: for it is P according to you and not-P according to me. Not only is there no contradiction; there is not even a disagreement between us. So, the pay-off of speaking of perspectives, opinions, and the like is that we can tacitly endorse tolerance and, in so doing, keep everything neat and tidy.

The view I have been describing above normally goes by the name of relativism. The tell-tale sign? You say something about a state of affairs only for the next person to challenge your authority by saying something which brings to your attention the fact that you are of a certain race or gender or that you belong to a certain class, social standing, or nation. (I suppose the challenge to the Martian’s universalist claims would be that she is, after all, a Martian.) By the relativist’s lights, you say is or ought, but you mean who.