306 Research Portfolio Post #2: Culture, Politics, and Science

In the readings by Dr. Johnson, Plato, and Tocqueville, democratic principles based in individualism and equality prejudice citizens against making normative arguments about values and the ends we should pursue.  Johnson’s perspective on values and relativity, and Plato and Tocqueville’s claims about the oppressiveness of democracy prompt me to reflect on my own experiences in a democratic reality and how I might reconcile these with values in research.

Dr. Johnson addresses values through the concept of “lazy relativism” in which people disengage from debate and assert that truths exist for every person.  Johnson argues that extreme relativism is incompatible with normative beliefs.[1]  If one truly believes in a value than a view that opposes that value cannot be equally valid.[2]  In a democratic system, it is often easier for political debate to veer away from moral judgements.  However, it is impossible to remove values from social life.  Johnson emphasizes that it might be more productive for us to stand by and defend our values, even when an absolute truth is impossible to discover.[3]

Plato argues that the values of freedom and equality in the democratic system undermine traditional value claims of better/worse.[4]  Citizens in a democratic system are naturally hostile toward authority.  Although democracy appears “to be the fairest regime” it contains its own oppressive authority through its dogma of equality.[5]  Plato asserts that through democracy and resistance to aristocratic authority, democrats resort to insolence, anarchy, wastefulness, and shamelessness.[6]  More importantly, Plato characterizes democracy much like that of lazy relativism saying that a democrat “shakes his head at all this [pleasures] and says that all are alike and must be honored on an equal basis.”[7] In other words, Plato disapproves in the concept that all men’s values should be valued the equally since men might have varying levels of philosophical understanding.

Tocqueville reflects on the American philosophic method of equality and argues that democracy is a form of intellectual oppression under a different name.[8]  He distinguishes the psychological difference between aristocratic and democratic value systems and points out that we come to accept truths engrained in us by society.[9]  In this way we give up some of our freedom to come to greater philosophical understandings.[10]  In the democratic system we appear to embrace our freedom by giving the majority authority, rather than a selected few in power.   However, we actually sacrifice our freedom to the consensus of the masses.[11]  In other words, trust in equality rather than god becomes like a religion.  Subscribing to the authority of the majority surrenders the intellectual freedom for which we strive in democracy.

In many ways, Johnson’s lazy relativism is correct in that we must defend values that we hold true.  However, such a position prompts us to take on normative assumptions about the world.  In research we must not take on normative questions directly but we can still address them indirectly in the larger implications of our research.  It is important especially in interpretivism to acknowledge the democratic systems that shape how we even define research like Plato and Tocqueville.  The readings provided ample reasons that we should resist value based discussions since values, especially democratic ones of equality, are simply constructed within our social world.  Still, it is important to unpack the values that shape democracy and their complex relationship with academia, rather than to quit because we can never be truly removed from the social world.

[1] Johnson, Leigh M. “Lazy Relativism.” Read More Write More Think More Be More, 02/07/17, 2009. Accessed 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Plato. The Republic. On the Character of Democracy, 1978.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Vol. 2: Mansfield & Winthrop, 2000.

[9] Ibid, 407.

[10] Ibid, 408.

[11] Ibid, 409.

One thought on “306 Research Portfolio Post #2: Culture, Politics, and Science”

  1. Annie – This is a very thoughtful post, and you’ve done a great job summarizing the perspectives of these three authors. Well done.

    One claim you make that I think all three authors would disagree with is the suggestion that “The readings provided ample reasons that we should resist value based discussions since values, especially democratic ones of equality, are simply constructed within our social world.” Now, I see where you are coming from here, and yet, while all three would contend that many of our ethical ideas are ‘socially constructed,’ to them this does not mean that they are necessarily untrue, nor that they cannot be subject to rigorous examination and real evaluation. We can at once believe that our ideas have a history and are partly born of convention, and at the same time argue them out and debate their merits in a meaningful way. If I’m reading your post accurately, there is a suggestion here that normative ideas are ‘mere’ constructs – and I think these particular thinkers would recognize some truth to that claim, while still believing in the possibility of better and worse evaluative judgments. In any case, you’ve articulated a very real difficulty here – and so thank you and we’ll have plenty of opportunities this semester to discuss these concerns again.

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