Really, “the problem of relativism” is steering a course between two disasters, isn’t it? — the disasters of ungrounded, ill-considered relativism, and the disasters of ungrounded, suppressive dicta. It’s a ubiquitous and disquieting tension, danger lurking this way and that, am I right?
Who can speak for whom when we steer words and gestures, or let ourselves be steered, trying to skirt mayhem and tyranny alike? It’s a tension that can only be worked out exchange by exchange, meeting by meeting, over coffee or over a blog. And in a mode (so far as possible) of mutual exposure, listening, response, good will and trust. Whose voice can we trust? If none, then we are consigned to the coercion and threat of brute power — or to the ruins of babel. We can abide neither.
Skeptical relativism, mayhem, takes hold when we lose ground with others, lose a sense of their words, a sense of mutual trust and accommodation.
Unmitigated absolutes, ugly universals, or other tyrannies take hold when we lose our ground with others, find only force the operative function, the ultimate stopper. We lose footing because crushed by alien dicta that so often lose their odor of dictatorship — so familiar and second-nature have they become.
How do we regain our ground with others? — well, through restoration of sympathetic reflection, questioning, witness and conversation — through listening and responding in good will and trust. So the condition of regaining our ground is to have already regained our ground — or to have faith that that ground is regainable, or that it can be delivered — or is delivered, in the grace of the presence of another, beyond mayhem or absolutes.
Ethics is neither relative nor universal in the moment of hearty embrace. And outside that immediate moment that is gloriously oblivious to philosophical doubt, a mild-mannered relativism often makes sense, not as an all-encompassing theory but as gracious and hospitable openness, apt to the moment at hand. And at other times we might have trust in an “intimate” universal as a point of ill-defined but alluring beneficent aspiration. “Wouldn’t the world be better if we all . . . ?”
But, pray tell, how do we ground these hunches, these hopes, this trust in a way between mayhem and tyranny?
By writing these hopes and fears out, for myself but not me alone, moment by moment, embrace by embrace, question by question, without looking back, and knowing there are no guarantees.