Culture, Politics, and Science

“Values shouldn’t be easy to hold,” advises Dr. Leigh Johnson, but that does not mean we should avoid challenging them or even forming them in the first place. Instead, Johnson advocates against lazy relativism, in which people choose not to engage the tension between competing values and instead end the conversation at “everyone is entitled to their beliefs.” She finds such conversations not only counterproductive but also illogical. Two competing values, especially if they are directly opposite each other, cannot possibly be simultaneously true—and there is no way for us to believe that both of the opposing sides are right, or else we do not really hold the value we claim. Johnson says that the current American political punditry demonstrates our propensity for lazy relativism, and she urges us to create discourses about our values without fear of “disturb[ing] the peace of parlor conversation.” Even though it makes us uncomfortable, we must recognize and work through our competing values, especially because our values influence how we perceive the world.[1]

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a very complex explanation of learning and enlightenment, with many different applications to the social sciences. In terms of the relationship between democracy and normative arguments, though, Plato’s story illustrates the process of our beliefs and values being influenced by our environment. If our political situation, democracy, is the environment, then we learn and internalize values from that environment such as beliefs in equality and freedom of speech. Plato argues that our environment is created not only by those with authority, but also by our interactions with our peers. If we fear retribution from our peers over expressing judgments that are incongruous with their judgments, then we will choose not to express them at all. He later addresses the effects of democracy specifically. People living under a democracy are free to do what they wish with their time and resources, so no one’s judgment of those actions matters because it does not affect another individual’s freedom. A person who is completely free has no reason to prioritize one value-based argument over another, especially if values could fetter their way of life, and is quite susceptible to lazy relativism.[2]

Of the three scholars, Tocqueville addresses the connection between democracy and normative arguments most directly, and his argument follows the context that Plato has set up. Because everyone in a democracy is at once equal and unassociated with a specific class, everyone’s voice is also equal and is not tied to a specific group, so the individual “withdraws narrowly into himself and claims to judge the world from there.” The individual can easily create conclusions about any puzzle because he is the only one who has to accept the conclusions, and he can easily reject anyone else’s conclusions. Additionally, America has not undergone a revolution of thought, so Americans have never had to confront their beliefs with explosively new realities and evaluate them deeply. Because American values are safe in this sense, Americans are not compelled to make arguments for their values or the way they believe those values should be exercised.[3]

Based on my own experience, all three authors are correct about Americans’ reluctance to express ethical arguments, but Johnson’s and Plato’s reasoning seems to fit best when it comes to the motive for avoiding such arguments. I think that many of us are afraid not just of offending people but of alienating ourselves from other people. However, I think respectful and thoughtful discussions of values are important, especially when we find ourselves at an impasse on an issue with deeper ethical meaning. Such discussions require us to distill our values, and doing that work can be an opportunity not only to solidify our relationship with the other person but also to clarify our own ethical beliefs for ourselves—and that’s valuable.

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[1] Leigh Johnson, “Lazy Relativism,” Read More Write More Think More Be More, 2009, accessed 2017, http://www.readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore.com/2009/11/lazy-relativism.html.

[2] Allan Bloom, Plato’s Republic, New York: Basic Books, 1968.

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Harvey C. and Delba Winthrop Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

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