I came across an interesting post at Cafe Philos asking are all aesthetic and ethical opinions “relative”?
I think Paul’s conclusion could be fairly summed up by this quote:
The notion that everything is just an opinion and that everyone’s opinions are equal is not always true. More care and insight goes into some opinions than into others.
I broadly agree with him, but had some points I wanted to add to amplify this. So I started writing a comment, and then it sort of expanded to post length so I thought I’d take up my own blog bandwidth rather than Paul’s!
The first thing I wanted to say was that to some extent it depends how we express our judgements, and in particular who we claim they’re true for. If we’re just expressing a personal preferences, that can, without contradiction, vary from person to person. E.g. my feelings about the taste of marmite probably differ from those of many people, but I can say “I like marmite” and you can say “I hate marmite” without that being a contradiction. But if I say “Marmite is delicious” or you say “Marmite is disgusting”, then there’s a sense in which we can’t both be right. The trouble is we tend to use these two different types of statement quite interchangeably. Sometimes out of casualness… but sometimes because we believe that everyone should react the same way as we do.
If we keep to the I-like-marmite kind of statement, then we can happily bounce along together and never disagree. But at the same time, we don’t actually learn much about the way the world is, because we’re not seeking out other people’s reactions.
I think making a “Marmite is” statement requires us to go beyond our own experience, to bring in objective data to support our argments, and take into consideration other people’s opinions, definitions and so on. If we are trying to make a claim about how other people should view something, then we need to do more than state that we view it that way.
Of course, this doesn’t matter much with marmite, because nobody is forcing other people to eat it/not eat it. But when it comes to obscenity, to pick up Paul’s example, then it does become important because people are trying to act as if their personal reaction was a universal desiderata. And I think there are some important principles – valuing informed experience over lack of experience, valuing the opinions of those who consider the opinions of others, acceptance of some greyness combined with a wish to minimise it, and so on.
But why should we go to all this trouble? Isn’t it easier to accept that everyone has different views. Well, it’s easier, but a lot less interesting.
I think relativism is a great excuse for not putting your own opinions to the test of real discussion with someone else.
If two people disagree about a “marmite is” or a “pornography is” issue, then you can either say that all you really meant was an “I like” statement. Or, if both of you are interested in truth and willing to be wrong, you can start trying to establish whether pornography or marmite are good or bad.
The willingness to be wrong is crucial here. Relativism allows us all to be “sort of” right. But if it means we’re not prepared to consider that some of our views may be wrong, it becomes dangerous. I believe that all the opinions I hold are true, but I also think that it’s virtually certain that at least one of them is wrong. (Hat tip to Alonzo Fyfe at Atheist Ethicist, who keeps mentioning this rather important but uncomfortable truth!) I want to find out which of my views are wrong, even if finding that I’ve been wrong about something I sincerely believe is embarrassing and uncomfortable.
Collision with someone else’s equally sincerely held views of reality is one of the best ways of putting your views to the test. Saying that everything is relative and everyone’s entitled to their own opinion is a great way of avoiding collision of worldviews. It’s also a great way of getting the subjective and objective hopelessly mixed up. And of stopping learning anything meaningful about the world we live in.
Someone said that if you want to increase your success rate, you need to increase your failure rate. I think something similar applies to opinions. If you want to have a lot of well-founded opinions, you need to give the world lots of opportunities to prove you wrong!