Hola, readers! This post is about the most refreshing and liberating conclusion I’ve reached in a while: that I am not forever doomed to a life of indecision and subjectivity.
The message that many liberal arts majors receive is that there are many perspectives on a subject, multiple correct answers to the same question, that there is no fact of the matter outside of science and math, blah blah blah. This is a message which I embraced as a result of four enriching years at a great school. I felt this huge humility knowing that my thoughts were no more correct than anyone else’s. That some custom is wrong in my culture does not mean that it is wrong in another culture. I was feeling like one tolerant and progressive SOB, embodying the mindset of “live and let live”. I generally thought that “right” and “wrong” were standards which were established by the intellectual leaders and majority of any given society at a time.
Moreover, I was particularly sensitive about credence level and belief formation. How sure do I have to be about something to form a belief? 90%? 75%? It’s a touted intellectual virtue to reserve judgment on any given proposition if you don’t have all of the information or aren’t pretty darn sure. (Can I say that I know that my car is in the parking lot? I parked it there this morning, but aliens or a tow truck could have come since then. For that matter, I could be a brain in a vat with no actual car and no such history of actually parking it–it could merely be an experience with no connection to reality.) Skeptical/Matrix considerations aside, it’s a completely legitimate view that we ought not form beliefs unless we have some degree of certainty about them.
My thought process was this: there are many ethical standards throughout the world. Each such society with a given set of standards contains many good people. I’m about as far away from an American exceptionalist as you can get. My beliefs are just as well-formed and correct as anyone else’s. Therefore, it must be the case that we are doomed to subjectivity and indecision. If you are a good person and think X is wrong, and I am (presumably) a good person and think X is right, there must be no fact of the matter. It must be a matter of perspective, orientation, upbringing, or other variable factor.
If you’ve broken into a cold sweat because the glaring red words LOGICAL FALLACY are flashing in your mind, you are far ahead of where I was when I formed this mindset. That there are differences among ethical standards does not necessarily mean that one is not better than the other. To make this logical leap creates an invalid argument–the cardinal sin of any philosopher. It is absolutely plausible (and, in fact, logically possible) that many different ethical standards exist, but that some are better than others. Ask me if I reached this realization in one of the several logic classes I took during my undergraduate career. Nope. I was half-asleep on a plane, staring at the clouds when I nearly pissed myself with happiness and relief at this realization.
Yes, I learned in Ethics that cultural relativism (the idea that different cultures have different ethical practices) does not entail ethical relativism (that there is no ultimate standard for moral behavior). I knew this fact in theory. But somehow, through all of that great liberal arts schooling, I failed to apply it to my own life and belief formation.
So go forth and form opinions with confidence. Say that you “know” something or that something a person did was “wrong” without feeling the least bit guilty. Don’t trample upon the beliefs of others–respect is always required in this arena–but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have convictions of your own and that they can’t be objectively better than others. I feel greatly empowered as I can now claim that swiss is officially superior to cheddar in every way, dammit–and that I can say this without qualifying that it’s simply a matter of perspective.