Rational Argument is Cultural Relativism?

Here’s another thing I’m curious about: this idea (if it is an idea, as opposed to a mere ad hoc ploy snatched up for the purposes of evasive argumentation) that rational argument is the same thing as cultural relativism. Is that an idea? In the sense that several or many people think that, as opposed to one idiosyncratic person commenting on a Note and Comment?

Well I suppose it is an idea, yes, come to think of it, but surely it’s an idea that belongs to the, how shall I say, the fervent moral majoritarian fundamentalist right wing crowd, not the multiculti diversity-celebrating Islamophobia-spotting crowd. That’s a favourite ploy with the fundies: doing things by contraries, declaring opposites to be identical and themselves to have won the argument. They like to say atheism is a religion, and secularism is another, and “Darwinism” another, and “radical feminism” another, and fill in the rest of the blanks. The gentle and reasonable Bishop of Rockford sees things that way, or pretends to for the purpose of firing his flock to rush out and tell lies about Democrats and libbruls. ‘The seven “sacraments” of their secular culture are abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation.’ Same kind of thing. “Secular culture” has sacraments, atheism is a religion, and rational argument is cultural relativism. Sure: coercive domineering theocratic types do like to claim that rational argument is identical to relativism and boils down to saying anything goes, everything’s good, all must be tolerated, if it works for you it’s groovy, there are no rules, take your pants off and stick around for awhile. But they like to claim that for their own nasty coercive theocratic reasons: they like to claim it so that they can claim that there is nothing between authoritarian inarguable Holy Book-ratified take it or go to hell dogma, and whoopee let’s bugger all the infants. They like to claim that (apparently this needs spelling out) so that everyone will pale with terror and cling to the dogma for dear life lest they find themselves copulating with a newborn. But that is a tactic, a ploy, a trick, not a genuine or legitimate argument, and it’s not true. Rational argument is not the same thing as relativism. That’s common knowledge, isn’t it? I’d have thought so, but perhaps I’d have been wrong. But take a look at, oh, I don’t know, Mill’s Subjection of Women, or Rawls’s Theory of Justice, or Sen’s Argumentative Indian; they’re none of them examples of cultural relativism, but you can find traces of rational argument here and there in all of them.

The crux here is my “The “up to a point” has to be defended and defensible, it has to be justifiable, it can’t be just a because God says so” answered with “NAMBLA are certainly prepared to have an argument about whether it’s bad to have sex with 12 year old boys, and the reason that they can’t is going to have to depend on some absolute statement of (im)morality.”

Why? Why is the reason going to have to depend on that? Any more than, for instance, the arguments for gay marriage do? It’s noticeable that most of the arguments against gay marriage are not very good, are not conspicuously rational*, and that’s probably why they’re not thriving all that well with rational people. They flourish with theocrats (maybe partly because they don’t flourish with rational people: it’s part of the whole anti-“elitist” schtick that fundamentalists go in for) but they don’t flourish with people who are at least somewhat reachable by rational argument. Surely it would be the same with NAMBLA’s projected argument about whether it’s bad to have sex with 12 year old boys, or any other moral issue. Either they’re rationally arguable, or they’re not, in which case they’re arbitrary, and their force becomes extremely questionable. Since I’m arguing here that precisely such arbitrary unjustifiable unarguable moral commands are coercive and should not be automatically respected or tolerated or celebrated or deferred to merely on the grounds that they belong to another culture, I fail to see why or how that makes me a cultural relativist, and I’m curious about the whole idea, and curious about leftists who apparently think their view is progressive and mine is conservative. Very curious.

*Harry Brighouse posted a request for “a really good article, by someone philosophically sophisticated, which argues against gay marriage” at Crooked Timber the other day, because he didn’t have much. That would seem to indicate it’s not an abundant commodity.

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