As a good cosmopolitan or citizen of the world, we commonly assert that all value terms are relative. We say this because we look at the multi-cultural world about us, and see that different cultures (what’s a culture?) have different sets of values. I can very well see how I could decide an issue like whether or not the world is round through an appeal to evidence, I reason, but I can’t see how I could resolve disputes over different theories of what’s right and valuable. There’s no apparent referent that would allow me to decide these things. Thus, when sitting in my chair, reflecting on these things, I say it’s all relative. I say that just as society determines the value of a dollar bill and that the value of that bill doesn’t reside in the bill itself, every society decides what is of value, what is just, what is good, what is beautiful. I then congratulate myself for being tolerant and being able to recognize this. If everyone just understood this, I think, there’d be no war. “You have your values, I have mine.”
I then walk out the door. A man mugs me on the way to work. He takes my wallet. I’ve lost my identification and now have to make calls to the bank and credit card companies. I find myself uttering “his action was wrong”, but then I remind myself that what he did was good according to his set of values and wrong according to my system of values. I’m slightly heartened by this wisdom. Next I go to work and discover that my family’s health benefits have been cut because the company hasn’t been increasing profit this quarter, but that pay has been increased for the CEO of my company. This strikes me as a contradiction, but I remind myself that those that run the company have one set of values and I have another. Our dispute really arises, I say, because we just have different interests. My daughter joins the Peace Corps and goes to another country. She’s abducted and sold into slavery. I remind myself that these are just conflicting sets of values concerning different cultural attitudes towards people and women.
In each case I try to console myself by saying that the different groups of people just have different sets of values. If that slaver just understood that my daughter doesn’t share his values, he wouldn’t abduct her. He’d recognize that he should recognize that his own values are his own and are not those of others, and wouldn’t abduct people who don’t advocate the value of abducting people. But then I’m stunned. I realize that in saying he should respect other systems of value, I’ve evoked a trans-e-valua-tive norm that he ought to obey. But my relativity thesis forbids me from doing this. How can I reconcile this? I thought my relativity thesis would bring peace, but only at the price of imposing a trans-cultural value… Respect for differing valuing systems.
And that’s really the problem. In my relativism I thought I could stand above the fray, outside of what my judgments commit me to, surveying all the different cultural systems of value. But I’ve found that my attempt to stand outside still committed me to a norm that wouldn’t be advocated by all of those different cultures. I now realize that I’m never outside and that while it is good to be tolerant, I still have to choose. I recognize that my choices might not hold up well under scrutiny, that I might turn out to be wrong, but I also realize that there’s no other way and that if I do turn out to be wrong, at least I can revise my positions on value and norms. I find that even if I’m baffled as to how we would ever decide which value system is true or just, I nonetheless have to attempt to formulate criteria. From this is borne an new concept: what peoples believe to be right and what is right. It might be that something is right even if no one has knowledge of it. And it might be that it is possible for us to be mistaken. All of our actions and judgments, when not sitting in the comfort of our home, suggest that we’re really committed to this; we just don’t know how we would ever acquire this knowledge and rational means for demonstrating such claims.