Thursday, September 25, 2014

Daugaard The Sophist?

This was a post I wanted to get to last week, but given Governor Daugaard will likely continue to condemn philosophy and the liberal arts, it remains timely.

Madville Times does a great job of refuting South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard's latest erroneous contention about the value of philosophy. If fact, Cory does such a great job that I would not even have bother with this post if Daugaard had not put out a weekly release with this sentence: "Everything is relative, of course."

The numbers Daugaard is referring to in the press release may need context, but they are not relative. Given Daugaard's distaste for liberal arts, one should not be surprised that the Governor is imprecise in his language use. All of us are at times, but no one in the South Dakota blogosphere has a paid staff hired to ensure usage is precise. It is more troubling that Daugaard sees nothing wrong with the phrase "everything is relative. In fact, not everything is relative.

Let's turn to philosopher Simon Blackburn.
Then, fortunately, there are countless small, unpretentious things that we know with perfect certainty.  Happiness is preferable to misery, and dignity is better than humiliation.  It is bad that people suffer, and worse if a culture turns a blind eye to their suffering.  Death is worse than life; the attempt to find a common point of view is better than manipulative contempt for it. –Simon Blackburn, Being Good, 134.
Terry Eagleton provides and even stronger statement:
All truths are established from specific viewpoints; but it does not make sense to say that there is a tiger in the bathroom from my point of view but not from yours.  You and I may contend fiercely about whether there is a tiger in the bathroom or not.  To call truth absolute here is just to say that one of us has to be wrong.

If it is true that racism is an evil, then it is not just true for those who happen to be its victims.  They are not just expressing how they feel; they are making a statement about the way things are.  ‘Racism is an evil’ is not the same kind of proposition as ‘I always find the smell of fresh newsprint blissful.’  It is more like the statement ‘There is a tiger in the bathroom.’  One could imagine someone murmuring consolingly to the victims of racism that he understands just why they feel the way that they do; that he understands just why they feel the way they do; that this feeling is of course entirely valid for them – indeed, that if he were in their shoes he would doubtless feel just the same way; but that in fact he is not in their shoes, and so does not consider the situation to racist at all.  This individual is known as a relativist.  He might conceivably be known, less politely, as a racist. – Terry Eagleton, After Theory, 106 
Off the top of my head, I can think of only two schools of philosophical thought that would accept "everything is relative" as true: the ancient sophists and their descendants, the postmodern deconstructionists. For whatever reason, Daugaard doesn't seem like one of the latter. 

Perhaps the Governor would know that if he brushed up on his philosophy instead of condemning it and trumpeting his wisdom about philosophy without understanding the subject. The latter quality does mark him as a sophist.

Just in case I didn't make it clear earlier: not everything is relative


caheidelberger said...

Relativism in Pierre! Aaaaaah! To the barricades! :-)

P&R said...

In your quote, I notice that Eagleton makes a significant substitution...

"One could imagine someone murmuring consolingly to the victims of racism that he understands just why they feel the way that they do; that this feeling is of course entirely valid for them – indeed, that if he were in their shoes he would doubtless feel just the same way; but that in fact he is not in their shoes, and so does not consider the situation to racist at all. This individual is known as a relativist."

Catch the change when he says, "...and so does not consider the situation to [be] racist at all."

At the beginning, he is discussing whether or not racism is evil and asserting that the truth or falsehood of this claim is absolute, not subject to perspective - not relative, in other words. By the end of it, he is discussing whether a given behavior and/or circumstance is racist - a very different question. But it is possible to say a given act or circumstance is not racist while still holding that racism is an evil.

It is also possible that, at least, the perception of an act or circumstance as racist IS relative. Racism is a matter of the heart, of the human will. Our only way of knowing that is through the actions of an individual. But the actor and the observer will often consider those actions in very different contexts, leading one to see the actions as racist and the other to see them as perfectly innocent.

Given the general ignorance of our history, for instance, it is possible for somebody to fly the Confederate battle flag thinking only that he finds it an attractive design - aesthetically pleasing and nothing more. It is also quite understandable that a Black man would see such an act as endorsing racism. The perception is relative. Is it racist? I would say, in this instance (where I presumably know the intention of the flag-flyer), no. It is insensitive and ignorant, but not racist. And neither the actor nor the observer in this instance would challenge the assertion that racism is itself evil. Nor would either, in this instance, be appropriately labelled a relativist since both hold to absolute moral truths.

Kal Lis said...

Not much time this morning, so I will give only brief responses.

First, the word "victim" implies that person has suffered on racism that is real not imagined. The person "not in the shoes" deserves to be considered a racist because he ignores injustice/suffering.

The idea that someone living in the United States in 2014 doesn't know the baggage that comes with the Confederate flag is a bit of a stretch. To take your thought experiment to the next level, would you consider it a moral failing if the person flying the flag in ignorance refused to take it down after being politely confronted about the flag?

P&R said...

It's not that much of a stretch - ignorance of even basic history is widespread. Routinely we see stories of how many natural citizens could not pass the basic tests we give those who wish to be naturalized, how basic historical facts are misunderstood or just unknown, etc.

I would consider it a moral failing if he didn't take it down, but not necessarily racist. There are other moral failings out there. My hope would be that, learning it communicates racism rather than mere aesthetic taste to a significant number of people, he would be horrified and take it down immediately.

I didn't say the "victim" had never suffered racism. Nor did I say it was unreasonable for him to perceive racism in this act.

My point is that it is possible for somebody to perceive as racist an act that is, from a different perspective, neither intended nor perceived as racist - that the perception of racism is relative even if the individuals involved both accept the moral absolute, "racism is evil." But Eagleton steals a base on this. His example in effect asserts that, if one does not PERCEIVE racism in a situation where someone else does, one does not consider racism a moral evil. This is simply not true.

P&R said...

On a completely different note, it is quite a stretch to go from the Governor's statement, given its context, to asserting he is a moral relativist.

The statement is in the context of numbers - numbers of pheasants, to be precise. And in that regard, it is relative. Is it an up year, or a down year? Depends on the year you're comparing it to. It's all relative.

We use numbers often to do exactly this - relate one thing to another. And when comparing statistics it is not absurd to use the cliche "everything is relative." Neither should we extrapolate from such a statement in such a context that the speaker is advocating moral relativism, existential relativism, or any of the other sorts of relativism being addressed by Blackburn or Eagleton (or Aristotle, or Plato, or Augustine, or Aquinas, or Luther, or Calvin, or....)

Steve Sibson said...

So is it absolute truth that only whites can be racists?

Kal Lis said...


To start with the second comment. The good The point the post makes is that the numbers need context but that does not mean "everything" is relative. It simply means the numbers need context.

Further, the number of birds killed is like the tiger in the bathroom. A specific number was killed in a year and the number was either greater or less than the previous year. The reasons for the increase or decrease need context but the numbers themselves are not relative.

As for the Governor himself goes, I have yet to see anything to convince me that he is not the most Machiavellian politician in the state in my lifetime.

AS for the Eagleton quotation, the context he sets up is that the victims are real. The person says he would feel the same way if they were in his shoes but he or she is not so he or she doesn't care. That person is acting as a racist. Either you're misreading him or I'm misreading you because I don't see how Eagleton goes to where you say he does.

Kal Lis said...


Show me where Eagleton or I have made that assertion and then we can go on.

P&R said...

The guy in Eagleton's example is not challenging the assertion that racism is evil. He is arguing that a particular circumstance or action that might reasonably be perceived as racist by someone who has been victimized by racism - that this act or circumstance is in fact not racist, or not perceived as such by him.

That is, he is arguing that a given act or circumstance does not actually violate the moral standard - very different from a relativist claim that there is no standard.

But Eagleton steals that base, asserting that contesting an accusation of violating a standard is tantamount to rejecting the standard as such.

Steve Sibson said...

Kal, it appears Eagleton is among the Cultural Marxists who charge whites as oppressors and colored as victims:

According to UCLA professor and critical theorist Douglas Kellner, "Many 20th century Marxian theorists ranging from György Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and T.W. Adorno to Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton employed the Marxian theory to analyze cultural forms in relation to their production, their imbrications with society and history, and their impact and influences on audiences and social life."[3][clarification needed][4] Scholars have employed various types of Marxist social criticism to analyze cultural artifacts.

Kal Lis said...


The person who is being addressed in the example is a "victim" of racism. The word connotes and denotes actual harm. There is no stolen base.

Kal Lis said...


A healthy dose of Marxism would do you good. Your love of glittering generalities and ad hominems needs exposure to new ideas

P&R said...

Being a victim of racism does not mean everything one considers racist is in fact racist.

Now, if Eagleton has his hypothetical non-victim saying "...indeed, that if he were in their shoes he would doubtless feel just the same way; but that in fact he is not in their shoes, and so does not consider racism evil at all." instead of "...does not consider the situation to racist [sic] at all." then we could call such a person a relativist, since he is making the determination as to what is or is not evil based on his situation and perspective. As it stands, Eagleton's hypothetical non-victim affirms that racism is evil, but disputes whether a particular circumstance or situation is racist.

That is not a relativist. Perhaps that is an insensitive lout, perhaps mistaken, perhaps naive, perhaps even a racist. But we must also bear in mind that the non-victim may be correct in his assessment that the situation is not racist. Regardless, though, he is not a moral relativist.