December 26, 2008

Relativism... What?

I've been getting back into MMORPGs lately and was playing one that will not be named yesterday when some guy started ranting about Jesus. He was a non-christian and was upset that there was a christmas-themed special event and that everyone was making such a big deal out of it.
Everybody who was around tried to make him shut up, but I just kept fishing and didn't say anything. As an agnostic with a mild interest in (as well as discomfort with) religion, I wondered where this would go.
The ranting guy went off talking about Judaism next; he said, "at least Jews have a normal god," probably in reference to the strange composition of the trinity (father, son, ghost. You know.)

That's when I saw the need to jump in. I questioned his use of "normal." The word bothers me. I blame it on the psych classes and all of the education I've had on "social norms" and all that. I don't think normalcy exists. I don't know what it would be.

So I looked it up. Dictionary dot com came up first, so I've taken that and split it up by concept in the following way.
  • conforming to the standard or the common type: There is no standard religion. The most common one is, generally, Christianity. Judaism is number six.
  • usual: I'm not sure if this helps. It's about as mysterious as "normal."
  • not abnormal: This is not a definition. It's double-negation.
  • regular: See "usual."
  • natural: A religion is as natural as a highway overpass. It's constructed by people.
  • serving to establish a standard: This is a little tricky. So, the normal is what should be the standard? It is currently unestablished? Then don't talk about it like it's established!
The idea of standardization suggests that conformity is the goal. Standardized tests are for everybody. I'm therefore inclined to reject this definition.

"Normal equals common" is much better since it doesn't say anything about those uncommon types.

It does irk me when people refer to, for example, heterosexuality as normal. I think that this is because I'm assuming that they mean the first definition of normal, regarding standards. I need to make the cognitive switch to interpreting it as the "common" definition and hope that that* is what they meant.

So after I told the guy a much condensed version of the above, someone else chimed in and says something to the effect of "Your religion is yours. It's different for everybody." This sent me off again.

Relativism is an odd idea, but one that may be growing more popular with increasing individualism.
The premise of relativism is that things, usually perceptions (of morals, physical objects, anything really) are related only to the individual. This leads to some trouble.

The first consequence of relativism is that every statement a person makes is only a matter of his or her opinion. The truth values of a person's statements become irrelevant, and logic flies out the window. Saying "X is bad" really means "I think X is bad." And really, who cares what you think? It doesn't say anything about the world**, and since the world is what we're trying to figure out, this is useless.

The second big problem is interpersonal, and stems from the first. If none of your statements pertain at all to the world, you can't talk to anybody about the world. You're talking about different things because the thing, your idea, is related only to what's in your head. Even if by chance you're talking about the same thing as someone else, simply stating opinions does not allow for any learning to take place, except for knowing statements like "so-and-so (dis)likes X." Again, what good is that?

Issue number three regards improvement. This pertains specifically to moral relativism, but also ties in with learning. There is no way to measure moral change or differences (over time, cross-cultural, whatever) if there is nothing objective to be said about morality. A closely related issue is punishment. How can anyone be held responsible for what they do if they truly think that it was the right thing to do? Is it then right to punish someone who thinks differently than you do, or differently than the majority does, if they really thought they were doing the right action?

These are the issues with relativism that I could come up with right now. There's more lurking around in my head. I may be back to this topic soon. I can't think anymore.

* "that that" always bothers me (and the MSWord grammar check) but I'm not getting rid of it.
**For my purposes, the world consists of anything external to the self. Digg Technorati Delicious StumbleUpon Reddit Google Bookmark

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