Re: Ethics in a void (Re: meaning of life (RE: (repost) ))

From: Charlie Stross (
Date: Thu Jan 25 2001 - 05:59:17 MST

On Wed, Jan 24, 2001 at 09:08:37PM -0800, Samantha Atkins wrote:
> If it is all utterly subjective then disapproving of even a society
> committing the worse atrocities becomes utterly subjective. On a more
> personal level my opinion that person X should not kill me just because
> they wish to has no justice claims at all and is merely and only my
> preference. Would you agree with such notions? If not then why not?
Yes, I agree with that notion. I'd also go further and say that if you
want to defend yourself under such circumstances, you ought to do so.

Clue: being a cultural relativist does not mean being a doormat.

> > You appear hostile to cultural relativism -- which, as far as I'm
> > concerned, is a vitally important viewpoint that needs to be nurtured
> > and cherished. (It's the best way of distinguishing fanatics from
> > people who you can negotiate with: the presence of relativism is an
> > indicator of flexibility.)
> Really? So you believe the opinions of primitive witch doctors on the
> causes and cures of diseases say are every bit as good as the latest
> from scientific medicine? So it doesn't matter to you at all in
> practice which is used to treat you if you fall ill?

This is a common straw man argument, deployed against cultural relativism
by people who don't understand it.

To take your witch doctor example seriously, we can agree that our
hypothetical primitive witch doctor thinks his nostrums are valid. We also
(I think) agree that he's wrong. But we're actually cheating, because this
isn't a social comparison at all: in reality, we have access to a corpus
of medical and biological knowledge that our witch doctor doesn't even
know exists, and -- more importantly -- we can verify that our system
is internally consistent and appears to produce results.

Which is why I call this a straw man argument. We can verify, against
an agreed standard ("I use modern medical techniques, I carry on existing")
that our own medical practices give better results.

> What do you mean
> by "nourished and cherished"? If it means that you can't judge one as
> more valid than the other in any aspects at all without being
> un-nourishing then I have a problem. Flexibility in matters of what
> does and doesn't work or is and isn't true is not always desirable.

The whole *point* of the scientific method is that it uses flexibility --
the willingness to revise beliefs in light of new evidence -- to achieve
superior results to dogma. This is an instance of the sort of flexibility
I'm talking about.

> Such flexibility would lead to teaching creation science as being just
> as valid as evolution in our schools. Would you consider that a good
> thing? If not, why not and and on what basis?

On the contrary: "creation science" is promoted by people who aren't
willing or able to contemplate the possibility that their world view
is open to criticism. They demand a privileged position, based on their
belief in a received (biblical, literal) truth. Their demands for equal
time are actually the camel's nose under the tent: what they _really_
want is to ban that Godless Darwin Nonsense(TM).

They are, in fact, my pet poster-children for the evils of cultural
absolutism, and the need for a _genuine_ relativist stance. (They want
"creation science" teaching in schools? They want us to teach that
evolution is "just a theory"? Fine. We'll teach kids that _both_ ideas --
Biblical creationism and Darwinian evolution -- are just theories. But
first we'll give them a grounding in elementary logical fallacies,
and we'll also show them how to accept/reject a theory on the basis of
experimentation. Then we'll give them some petri dishes, a culture of
E. Coli, and some penicillin, and let them experiment with the evolution
of antibiotic resistance. If they want, they can run a control experiment
in which they get their local Baptist minister to pray over a culture
dish in the hope that God will grant its' occupants the mystical power
to survive antibiotic exposure.

So yes, on the basis above I'd be happy to see creation science taught
in schools. I don't think the creationists would, though ...

> My opposition to relativism (or not) depends hugely on what is and is
> not meant by that term in real situations.

It occurs to me that you may be used to hearing the term "cultural
relativism" used by the sorts of people who believe that our whole
existence is nothing but a text, and that if they appoint themselves
editor-in-chief they can award themselves a passing grade. Such people
also frequently assert that the whole edifice of scientific enterprise
is nothing but an exercise in literary tail-chasing, or a tribal
ritual. Sorry, but I'm not one of those folks, and I don't have much
respect for them either. I think they've unconsciously swallowed the
solipsistic bait that I rejected in my original posting on this matter.

-- Charlie

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