Cultural relativism and uncertainty – Julian Baggini’s ‘Heathen’s Progress’

I’ve been interested for a while in cultural relativism, especially that found in morality and aesthetics. Julian Baggini, in one of his excellent ‘Heathen’s Progress‘ series of articles on belief for the Guardian, outlines an extreme form which he calls ‘dogmatophobia’:

What I call dogmatophobia is the liberal fear of being judgmental of the beliefs of others. Because everyone has a right to her opinion and no one has a monopoly on the truth, there is a tendency to think that any kind of assertion of a truth, other than of the blandest factual kind (“Paris is the capital of France”), is intolerant and morally imperialistic. Hence, people who assiduously avoid factory-farmed meat will go out of their way not to condemn ritual animal slaughter that causes needless suffering. People who would not tolerate even the sniff of sexism in their workplace bend over backwards to allow religious traditions their “right” to systemically discriminate against women.

This leads to the undesirable consequence that because we cannot be certain about everything, then we can be certain of nothing, an assertion which he takes to task:

Accepting that the world is full of uncertainty and ambiguity does not and should not stop people from being pretty sure about a lot of things. To criticise people who express a firm belief as suffering from a lust for certainty is therefore to see the speck in another’s eye while missing the plank in one’s own: an excessive lust for uncertainty that makes any conviction appear misplaced. The mark of a mature, psychologically healthy mind is indeed the ability to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, but only as much as there really is. Uncertainty is no virtue when the facts are clear, and ambiguity is mere obfuscation when more precise terms are applicable.

My interest has been particularly focussed on aesthetic relativism, which you might call an ‘anything goes’ attitude to arguing about the value of specific works of art, where, at its extremes, the infant squiggle could mean as much as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’m ambivalent about its use. On the one hand, the dizzying possibilities of challenging dominant forms of culture, such as the questioning and dismantling of the literary canon, are very welcome. On the other, I think the notion that culture, including science and belief, is merely opinion has damaged the ways in which we think and the values we hold.

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