Richard Bernstein (1983. pp. iv, andpassim) has argued that much of the outstanding philosophical work of the later twentieth century shares a common interest in moving beyond objectivism and relativism. ObjectivrSm refers to "the basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in detennining the nature of rationality, knowledge. tnith, reality, goodness, or rightness" (Bernstein. 1983, p. 8). Acmrding to Bernstein, objectivism is motivateci by what he calls "the Cartesian anxiety", which is based on a
seductive either/or assumption. The assumption is that either our beliefs about what is tme and right can be given solid foundations in the form of universally valid standanis for rational assessment, or we shall faIl into an intellectual and moral chaos "where nothing is fmed, where we c m neither touch bottom nor suppon ourselves on the surfacem.1 In its desire for certainty, objectivism is closely related to the foundationalist project of establishing unshakable grounds for belief.
In Bernstein's terms, reiativkm refers to a conviction that the meaning of and standards for such fundamental ideals as "rationality, knowledge. truth, reality, goodness. or rightness" are intemal and so relative to some particular 'conceptual scheme. theoretical framework, paradigm, fonn of life, society, or culture" (Bernstein, 1983, p. 8). The relativist is profoundly suspicious of the objectivist's desire for universal standards, for the relativist fears that claims to universdity will inevitably serve to privilege one particular and limited point of view over others. Thus, while objectivists tend to see challenges to universal standards of rational judgement as a threat to truth, justice, and stability; relativists see attempts to fix absolute standards as stifling, dogrnatic, and ultimately oppressive.2
As Bernstein notes, objectivisrn today is rarely considered to be a viable position: foundationalism is widely discredited.3 Most contemporary theorists could be considered relativists in the limited sense that they accept that the standards used in rational assessments have changed over tirne, and that no set of standards are absolutely and universally true. At the same tirne, for many such theorists framework relativism is an unacceptable alternative. This is because framework relativism asserts that the
standards of rational assessment internai to conceptual schemes cannot themselves be rationally justified. If this is tme, then the relative merits of competing schemes cannot be evduated without
arbitrarily adopting the set of standards interna1 to one or another particular scheme. In thus asserting that rational debate is possible only within frarneworks, and not between them, framework relativism severely limits the scope of the justification of both ernpirical and normative beliefs. Hence, for many
Bernstein (1983, p. 18; cf. TRV, p. 58). For an example of at l e s t a mild form of the Cartesian anxiety, see Salmon (1967, p. 55). See also the remarks by Carter (1985, p. 9). Wilfred Cantwell Smith's (1988, p. 15) remarks are instructive here: "Ineluctable variety has becorne conspicuous, in vinually every area of Iife, including the moral and the religious; so that there is no firm ground on wtiich to stand. This can be temfying for those who see nothing higher than the ground."
Bernstein (1983, pp. 4-5, 62), also Barnes & Bloor (1982, pp. 46-47), Beyer & Liston (1992, pp. 373-3741. Davis (1990, pp. 160-161), Geertz (1989, pp. 14-19), Margolis (1991, p. xi), Meiland & Krausz (1982, pp. 4-5).
3 See, for example, Bernstein (1983, pp. 3, 12), Geertz (1989, p. 32). Ludan (1977, p. 129; 1990, pp. 134-1351. Margolis (1984a, p. 310), Nola (1988, pp. 1-2), and Simpson (1987, pp. 1-3). Mandelbaum (1982, p. 45) attributes the "widespread acceptance" that relativisrn enjoys today to three 'convergent streams of influencew. "The f i t stems from developments within the philosophy of science; the secand from problems of method in the Geistes-wkse~~~chajten; the third h m the ways in which certain perceptud phenornena, and also data drawn from comparative linguistics, have often been interpretedw.
Krausz (1984, pp. 395-397) differentiates the logical thesis of absolutisrn from the epistemological thesis of foundatiodism;
and while he seems to dlow that an absolutist view of truth might be coherently formulateci, he categorically rejects any fourtdationalist claim to universal, ahistoncal truths.
theorists, the effort to move beyond objectivism and relativism is closely bound up with a search for a non-foundationai form of justification for standards against which cognitive and moral commitments could be a~sessed-~
1 have noted that, for many, the tenn mtiomlity has negative connotations. It has been associateci with such rhings as the efforts of Western European white males to promote the patnarchal capitalist project of global domination through the hegemony of uncontextualized disciplinary practicps.5 This suspicion of the discourse of reason and rationality is not without justification. Nevertheless, partly because 1 do not wholly share these negative associations, and partly to be consistent with similar reviews, 1 shall use the term mtionalis~ to refer coIlectively to the diverse assortment of theorists arguing for the possibility of non-foundational justification-even though some of the theorists in question might object to being called a rationalist. And. similarly, while acknowledging that (a) not al1 relativists are frarnework relativists.6 (b) not al1 framework relativists hold compatible positions (or even wish to be known as relativists),' and (c) the belief that frarneworks are incommensurable does not necessarily entail frarnework relativism, 1 shall in the interests of brevity use the term relativists to refer collectively to those who argue from one or another thesis of incommensurabiIity to the
impossibility of evaluating competing points of view. In other words, 1 shall use relativlsts a s short for r a d i c a l ~ w o r k relativ&s.
Aithough not al1 of the following theorists talk about going beyond objectivism and relativism in precisely those tenns, they are engaged in essentially that project as the cited pages attest: Allen (1989, pp. 360-363), Dewey (Rockefeller, 1992, pp. 178-179); Doppelt (1982, p. 134; 1983, pp. 107-108). Haraway (1988, pp. 576-5801, Kekes (1980, pp. 96-98), Keller (1989, p. 149). Krausz (1984, pp. 402-403). Laudan (1990, pp. 134135). Mandelbaurn (1982, p. 55), Matilal (1989).
Maxwell (1984, pp. 254-258), McKimey (1987, p. 97), MeynelI (1993, pp. 3-8). Mohanty (1989), Seller (1988). and Weinert (1984, p. 382). This is not an exhaustive liste See Hollis & Lukes (1982, pp. 14-20) for a characterization of other theorists intent upon formulating epistemological positions which are neither objectivist nor relativist. Note also that Komesmff (1986, p. 12) reports of the theorists of the early Frankfurt School that " d l these thinkers accepteci that in some sense knowledge must be regarded as historically conditioned; however they insisteci that an independent moment of criticism was nevertheless a possibility", which suggests that they too had to be committed to the possibility of a non-foundational justification for the noms implicit in critique.
5 For example, Feyerabend (1978, esp. p. 10). Haraway (1988, p. 592). King (19891, and Ruddick (1993, pp. 140, 143, 145).
Edwards (1990, 5-31) reviews the taxonomy of relativisrns provided by Hollis & Luka (1982, pp. 5-12) and concludes that they boil d o m to either (a) "relativism of üuthn, which relativizes truth to individuals or to commensurable linguistic communities; or (b) "cognitive relativism", which relativizes tmth to incommensurable conceptual frameworks. According to Edwards (p. 20). this distinction corresponds to Swoyer's (1982, pp. 92ff.) distinction between 'strongn and 'weak" versions of relativism. The taxonomy is not complete, however, because Margolis (1991) States that efforts to relativize the concept of tnrth to frameworks leah to incoherency, and defends a quite different form of relativism. The arguments against versions of
"strongw relativism are summarized by Edwards (1990); my concern in this chapter is prirnarily with versions of 'weak"
relativism, which Edwards believes are more plausible. How Margolis' version of relativism is related b my position wiil be explained in chapter four.
Laudan (1990, p. viii) remarks that, although neither Quine nor Kuhn wish to be considend relativists, their work has 'unrnistakable relativist implicationsn.
The rationaiist-relativist debate over the limits to evaluation acmss frameworks persists in various guises within the rnethodoIogicai literature of the n a t d sciences, the social sciences, and the
humanities-including education, history, aesthetics, literary criticism, and ethics (RPP, pp. 196-197).
A recurrent theme in the rationalist side of the debate is that frarnework relativists have an
unnecessarily narrow view of what should count as rational justification. It is claimed that the relativist is caught within the sarne false eitherlor as the objectivist: either there are universal and absolute standards of justification, o r there can be no evaluation of competing frameworks8 Rationalists typically conclude that the way to move beyond objectivism and relativism is to contest the limited view of rationality unproblematically assumed by both objectivists and relativists, and to provide a broader and more accurate account of how justification actually proceeds.9 On their side, relativist critiques of attempts to move beyond objectivism and relativism typically claim that the rationalists in question have failed to grasp the full extent of the incornmensurability of rival frameworks.
Rationalists are often accused of being thinly-disguised objectivists who falsely universalize their particular and context-bound reason-giving practices.10
The rationalist-relativist debate has been particularly vigourous within the philosophy of natural science. This is due in part to the common modem belief chat scientific practice is our best example of rational activity (Bemstein, 1983, p. 59). It is due in part to the notoriety enjoyed by Thomas Kuhn's The Smtcrure of ScieBtijic Revolutiom, which has provided a focus for much of the debate. For this reason, many of the examples I cite in this chapter will be drawn from the Iiterature on Kuhn's work.
On the whole, however, the philosophical issues are the same whether the competing frameworks in question are rival scientific paradigrns, disparate cultures, diverse forms of life, or distinct traditions of enquiry within the humanities. Therefore, there is much to be learned from the debates arnong
competing accounts of scientific rationality that is relevant to understanding how the strengths and limitations of rival moral points of view could be appreciated and assessed.
How relativists argue that frameworks are incommensurable varies according to which
understanding of comrnensurability thej. are calling into question. In what follows, I will consider under three categories the different ways in which frameworks are said to be incommensurable, and take a doser look at how relativists have arguai from the incommensurability of frameworks to the
For example, Doppelt (1983, p. 108), Allen (1989, pp. 359-3611. Bernstein (1983. pp. 37. 48-49), Ladan (1990, p. 86;
also pp. 134-135). and MacIntyre (WJ. p. 353; TRV. p. 59).
For example, Allen (1989, pp. 359). Bernstein (1983, pp. 37, 52, 591, Doppelt (1983, p. 108). Kekes (1980, p. 99), Laudan (1984, pp. 3-4). For a relateci endeavow in a more practical context. see Winograd & Flores (1987. p. 8).
'O Bernstein (1983. p. 9). also MargoIis (1991, p. 160).
me RatiodiSm-Relativiim Debate 30 conclusion that their relative merits cannot be rationally evaluateû. In each case I will also look at responses to the relativist arguments which 1 believe enlarge in helpfd ways our understanding what it means to be rational.I1
What is the difference between moral objectivism and moral relativism? ›
The theory of moral objectivism holds that moral standards do indeed exist independently of human social creations, and moral relativism holds that they are just human inventions. This is not simply an issue of anthropological curiosity concerning how different people and cultures view morality.What exactly is moral objectivism and what does it imply about our moral beliefs? ›
The moral objectivism definition states that morality is based on a set of moral standards that should be adhered to. These are universal moral principles that are typically seen as valid for all people and situations, regardless of culture, beliefs, or feelings.What does relativism say about moral objectivity? ›
Meta-ethical moral relativism states that there are no objective grounds for preferring the moral values of one culture over another. Societies make their moral choices based on their unique beliefs, customs, and practices.What is moral objectivism and how is it different from moral absolutism? ›
Moral absolutism: There is at least one principle that ought never to be violated. Moral objectivism: There is a fact of the matter as to whether any given action is morally permissible or impermissible: a fact of the matter that does not depend solely on social custom or individual acceptance.What is the difference between objectivity and relativism? ›
"Objectivism" and "relativism" "Objectivism" denotes the thesis that morality is objective. Subjectivism holds that morality is subjective. Relativism holds that morality is relative.What is moral objectivity? ›
Moral objectivism is the view that what is right or wrong doesn't depend on what anyone thinks is right or wrong. Moral objectivism depends on how the moral code affects the well-being of the people of the society.