Relativism by Maria Baghramian

Relativism is, roughly speaking, the idea that statements can be true or actions can be right for one person and not another, because people have different points of view, possibly because they grew up in different cultures or live in different societies. So you and I might be in similar circumstances, but if you belong to the Mafia, it might be right for you to beat up your competition, although it wouldn’t be right for me to do the same thing. 

There are many kinds of relativism. Professor Baghramian considers relativism about truth, rationality, logic, concepts and morality. She says that “we can admit one of the philosophical intuitions informing relativism: that our encounters with the world, our beliefs and judgments, are always perspectival” (p. 313). But she argues that some perspectives are better than others. The morality of the Red Cross is better than the morality of the Mafia, not just from her point of view or the Red Cross’s point of view, but in some objective, non-relativistic sense. 

Baghramian calls her view “pluralism”. She acknowledges the existence of various points of view, and agrees with the relativist that there is no way to choose between some of them, but believes that our common humanity allows us to see that some points of view are clearly better than others. 

I think that Professor Baghramian would agree that we cannot say that one perspective is better than another one, without speaking from some perspective or other. That’s why I think that “perspectivism” might be preferable to pluralism (and relativism). We each have our own physical perspective, and each of us can employ many different perspectives, that is, consider the world from different points of view.

From my single physical perspective, I can evaluate an idea from the perspective of morality, physics, practicality, simplicity, rationality or personal satisfaction. But any perspective can only be evaluated from some other perspective(s). That doesn’t mean that some perspectives are objectively better than others. But it does mean that we can offer reasons for preferring one to another.  (1/24/12)

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