There's nobody here but us chickens.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Moral relativism II; neighbourliness and conduct

More in Left2Right on relativism, this time of a special breed.
Living in close quarters with exotic strangers: the perfect hothouse setting for the growth of dormitory relativism. And I think it's a gorgeous flower, not a weed.

Dormitory relativism says, oh, it's all just taste or personal preference. You like atheism, I like religion; you embrace the sexual revolution, I prefer staying a virgin; you're a radical, I'm a conservative. As long as you don't leave the bathroom a mess and don't keep me up at 2:00 in the morning with your stereo blasting, we can get along just fine. To vary the metaphor, dormitory relativism is the perfect peace treaty for getting along with people with sharply different views. Instead of bitter arguments and hatred, we get amiable shrugs.

To be defensible - to stay crassly political and eschew any claims about ethics or justification or epistemology or ontology - dormitory relativism has to be an as-if, wink-nudge-nod collective understanding. Dormitory relativism doesn't say, "there is no point arguing about these matters because there's nothing there but personal preference." That's rotten philosophy.
Read the whole thing, if only for gratuitous ice-cream analogies.

The comments thread that follows is spasmodically interesting, but I want to pick up on a comment by Steve Horwitz:
Don's bifurcation of the dorm room and the classroom is problematic here. (I would suspect he would agree and that his use of "dormitory relativism" was a convenient rhetorical flourish for the underlying idea.) My students, who are not of Michigan caliber, far too often and too easily slide into that same relativism in the classroom, fearful that actually taking a hard position might generate negative social repercussions either in or out of the classroom. The degree to which we encourage "dormitory relativism" as a way to "go along to get along" outside the classroom is probably correlated with its spillover into the intellectual space.

Why not, at least in the context of a college residence hall if not in other communities, challenge it at a deeper level? Why cannot members of a residence hall (standing in for other communities) find ways to move beyond treating moral positions as if they were ice cream preferences while still managing to play by rules that enable the civility and mutual respect necessary for living together? We expect tough classroom discussions to accomplish that lofty goal, why not in other forums as well? By accepting literal and metaphorical forms of "dormitory relativism" do we do a disservice to students by stunting their ability to engage in meaningful and tough dialogues in a variety of settings, including ones where they, literally, have to live with the consequences of what they say and the moral and political views they hold?
I think I agree more with Mr Horwitz than Mr Herzog. But in reality, I think that at times I do practise dormitory relativism. Many of my friends and family hold opinions that I disagree with (not violently, but not negligibly either) that I will often gloss over rather than tackle head-on. It seems tiresome and pointless to play welfare-state shuffle or taxation frenzy (actually, if that was a real game, I would SO play it) with someone who just doesn't see the world on your terms. Is there a clue in the word 'dormitory'? That is, when we shunt up to the family level or winch in people who are not just entering adulthood, and forming and fusing opinions, but who are relatively entrenched and perhaps defined by their ideas, are we on a different playing surface entirely? But just how entrenched are we, at any age? One of my elderly relatives is characterised by an involvement with the world and a widening of ideas that has only increased with age. Is this the wisdom that accompanies our later years? Perhaps it is exceptional, and wisdom as commonly understood is instead the focusing and greater articulation of a single world-view, corroborated by evidences selectively remembered over a great span. Is it simply self-gratification for youth to yank the beards of the wise, or is it necessary - even if it is too late to make any real impact on the way they organise their lives? To give an example, would even the most militant atheist do missionary work in hospices?