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Relativism - Real And Notional Confrontations

williams culture normative belief

Bernard Williams was concerned to come up with some way of stating normative relativism such that it is coherent and does not fall victim to self-contradiction. Recall that the self-contradictory ethical relativist view is the claim that since there are no universal moral standards, no one ever ought to condemn the practices of other cultures. The main issue is whether philosophical relativism can coherently be grounds for normative relativism. Coherent normative relativism requires recognizing the absence of a vantage point from which one can make meaningful evaluative comparisons between alternative frames of reference for judging Fness. Such a vantage point would result in what Williams calls a "real confrontation" between systems of belief (1981, pp. 132–143).

The idea is this: the possibility of normative relativism arises only when some action or practice is the locus of disagreement between holders of two self-contained and exclusive systems. Two systems of belief, S1 and S2, are exclusive of one another when they have consequences that disagree under some description but do not require either to abandon their side of the disagreement. When groups holding S1 and S2 encounter one another, this can result in a confrontation between their systems of belief. A real confrontation between S1 and S2 occurs when S2 is a real option for the group living under S1. In a notional confrontation, S2 is not a real option. S2 would be a real option for a group living under S1 if two conditions held. First, those in S1 could "retain their hold on reality" living under S2, in the sense that they would not, for instance, need to engage in radical self-deception. Second, they could acknowledge their transition to S2 in the light of a rational comparison to S1. If the conditions for a real confrontation are not met for holders of S1, however, then there is only a notional confrontation with S2 and there is no "point or substance" to considerations of whether S2 might be a better or worse system of belief than S1. If a member of S1 does not regard the confrontation with S2 as a real confrontation, then "the language of appraisal—good, bad, right, wrong and so on … is seen as inappropriate, and no judgments are made" (Williams, 1985, p. 161). The suspension of such judgments amounts to adopting normative relativism about S1 and S2.

The language of appraisal is appropriate regarding S2 only if those in S1 could "go over" to S2. The hoi polloi who pursue the pleasures of so-called "low" culture may judge that there is little of value in a life crowded with the elite activities of "high" culture. It is a real possibility that they could learn to love opera and lose their taste for country music, so they may evaluate doing so in their own terms. Those from the low culture judge high culture to be boring; those from high culture judge low culture to be tacky and lacking depth. However, Williams observes, "the life of a Bronze Age chief or a medieval samurai are not real options for us: there is no way of living them" (1985, p. 161). They are too alien to permit us to make the same judgments made between culture mavens.

In this respect, however, Williams's account, like Harman's, fails to deliver what it set out to—a coherent normative relativism. For it is not clear in what sense it would not be "appropriate" to appraise these moralities as less morally enlightened than our own. If appraisals of S2 are inappropriate, then they must be inappropriate according to some S. Can S1, then, forbid appraising other Ss? It is difficult to see how it could, if, as we assume, a system of belief requires having a grip on the thinking of those within it that prevents taking an external view of it. Suppose Williams thinks that a "real option" is an option that would be as good or better from a point of view external both to S1 and S2—say, the point of view of human well-being. This would be to abandon relativism. For according to the relativist, there is no S external to particular systems such as S1 or S2, a universal standard from which one could judge that appraisal is inappropriate. To measure S2 and S1 by human well-being would be to hold human well-being up as a universal standard. Alternatively, suppose Williams is thinking, like Harman, that this is a "soberly logical thesis"; it is just nonsensical to judge medieval samurai morals to be better or worse than our own. Williams himself denies this claim, saying that the vocabulary of appraisal in such cases "can no doubt be applied without linguistic impropriety" (1981, p. 141). But if he were to accept that this was a logical or linguistic impropriety, then he, like Harman, would have to explain how this could be so, given it seems intelligible enough to say that their morals were worse in many respects than our own.

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