e ., saying something like “ H u m a n i t i e s
This week you will have one discussion focused on the challenges of egoism and/or relativism discussed in Chapter 2 of the textbook. Your instructor will be choosing the discussion question and posting it as the first post in the discussion forum. The requirements for the discussion this week include the following:
- The total combined word count for all of your posts, counted together, should be at least 500 words, not including references.
- You must answer all the questions in the prompt and show evidence of having read the resources that are required to complete the discussion properly (such as by using quotes, referring to specific points made in the text, etc.).
- All postings are expected to be thought out, proofread for mechanical, grammatical, and spelling accuracy, and to advance the discussion in an intelligent and meaningful way (i.e., saying something like “I really enjoyed what you had to say” will not count). You are also encouraged to do outside research and quote from that as well.
QUESTION FOR THE FORUM DISCUSSION, WEEK ONE
What are some beliefs which illustrate the relativity of beliefs? In other words, note how different groups hold to different beliefs. How do they justify those beliefs? What is the relation of those beliefs to their own history and traditions? how have those beliefs changed, recently or historically? Discuss those changes; and then draw a conclusion as to what they tell us about the relativity of beliefs. Are there any beliefs that have never changed across time?
Perhaps ancient Egypt held to the same beliefs for thousands of years; but it’s doubtful!
Some possible themes:
Beliefs about the status of women.
Beliefs about the meaning of racial differences.
Beliefs about the status of gay people.
Beliefs about the relationships of human beings to the animal world and to nature.
Beliefs about the scope of education, and rights to an education (in some countries, it is still considered unnecessary for girls to go to school…).
Beliefs about the role and status of disabled people in society.
Beliefs about the obligation of a society to its less fortunate members.
AND SO ON: The key is to discuss such changes objectively, to get to the idea that ‘change happens’ and that beliefs are indeed relative to time and place!
DO NOT use this Forum as an occasion to criticize moral stances with which you disagree (‘abortion is merely relative because it is a form of murder and is wrong’)…that is not our purpose here! It is to attempt to understand how beliefs differ from group to group and from time to time.
NOTE THAT THERE ARE TWO READINGS FOR THIS ROUND; ONE FROM MIDGLEY, AND ONE FROM HARARI (IN ANOTHER SET OF ATTACHMENTS BELOW)
For the Forum, present a discussion of relativism and of those relativistic beliefs. Note how beliefs have changed over time, or how they differ among groups. How do beliefs change? Is it solely because of ‘argumentation’ or do other factors come into play (for example, many people’s beliefs about gay marriage have changed recently because they have discovered, in a more open society, that their nephews or even a son might be gay… and they are human beings after all!). The greatest change in recent history has had to do with the status of women. Only fifty years ago, people thought that a ‘woman’s place is in the home’. You could discuss such changes as these. Find ways that society — here or across the world — has changed with regard to its belief systems ‘recently’ or historically. There are ethical changes with regard to almost any topic! (Race, religion, gender, marriage, war, justice and punishment, voting rights, etc. etc. — again, almost any ethical topic has seen changes over time. Or place: How do other countries deal with race, religion, ethnicity, voting rights, etc.?)
You do NOT have to criticize the beliefs in question, so much as to indicate what these changes are. You do NOT have to decide whether they are for better or worse; the function of the exercise is to become aware of the relativity of beliefs, not to criticize those changes. Let’s not make it an occasion for complaints….
What does Midgley’s article contribute? It shows that it is difficult to ‘judge’ across time and place, but that, somehow, we can’t help it. But it’s best simply to be aware of it, first of all! That is the purpose of this particular discussion.
NOTE that the Midgley reading is attached, in case there is any initial difficulty with the embedded text. ALSO, DON’T FORGET THE HARARI TEXT ‘FURTHER DOWN’ BELOW!
And, by the way, Midgley does NOT hold that all actions are merely ‘relative,’ or that ‘anything is all right if people believe it to be so — that is NOT what she is saying! Read the text carefully…..
FORUM NOTES, CONTINUED: WHAT IS REAL RELATIVISM?
What is it that makes cultural practices ‘relative’? TIME AND CHANGE ITSELF! Everything changes…. see the reading below by Yuval Noah Harari, and please utilize it, too, in your contributions for this week.
I think the important thing to realize is that neither ‘absolutism’ nor ‘relativism’ is an actual philosophy as such, but that they are what we might call stances toward truth. Absolutism says that such-and-such a ‘truth’ always holds, no matter what the circumstances. For example, many people will say “Thou shalt not kill” is an absolute rule — and then declare that they believe in capital punishment, thereby contradicting themselves. A rule is absolute only if it really does hold all the time, without exception. There aren’t that many absolutists in the world, actually!
Real relativism means: Nothing remains true except change itself; only change ‘always goes on’. Real relativism means: Everything changes. Once, women were considered incapable of holding political office; today (or shortly, we have a female vice-president (and other countries have had female presidents, prime ministers, chancellors…). Once, racial intermarriage was considered immoral, if you can believe that…..and gay marriage was illegal. Everything changes!
Indeed, relativism means that every belief and cultural practice has a context, so that what holds in one circumstance may not hold in another. But this can become a quite complex observation; that perspectives are historically ‘produced’ does not imply that ‘one is as good as another.’ As Midgley indicates: How do we acknowledge our own history, and yet engage in open dialogue with another? Questions like these go far beyond a simple-minded opposition between ‘political correctness’ and ‘natural’ emotional responses. We are working at a different level….
So relativism recognizes that everything is a ‘result’ of a process, of an interaction among already existing elements. That is why we study history; it is why we study physics; it is why we study evolution. “Becoming’ is the central focus of modern thought. How did the forms that constitute current reality arise? Here is a new, mutant form of staphylococcus; it’s evolved, very recently, as the result of the overuse of antibiotics. The ‘form’ of the bacterium is relative to our own overuse of pharmaceuticals. On a human scale, ethical systems are different for different cultures, sometimes because of practically random elements in their own history. It’s very cold, and people need to be warm, and so you share your wife with the visiting guest (considered rude not to, in some ancient cultures). Being a relativist doesn’t actually mean being ‘approving’ of every cultural practice, no matter what, but of seeing that every single one of them is ‘relative,’ i.e., has a history which locates it in a finite segment of time and space. We are creatures of time: that’s what ‘real’ relativism means!
The attached pages from Noah Yuval Harari’s excellent, fairly recent book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, gives examples of some of those changes in Western history from the Middle Ages to the present. Please don’t misunderstand it; he is NOT criticizing Christianity (nor Islam) as such (nor Amnesty International, for that matter), but only showing how dominant institutions and beliefs and ‘attitudes’ change over time. So it illustrates the idea of ‘real relativism’ very well.
I wasn’t able to scan them into a single document, so there are three separate sheets….so the Harari texts are in three are in separate windows. Thanks Prof. Mink
P.S. Here is a brief passage from YNH’s text:
“To study history means to watch the spinning and unravelling of those webs, and to realize that what seems to people in one age the most important thing in life becomes utterly meaningless to their descendants.” (P. 147, Homo Deus)