Sunday, July 31, 2005

"With good reason," Stein Ringen, TLS, on Reason, Rational Choice, and Relativism

An interesting review of a sociologist I'm not familiar with. Also, it looks like Boudon forges a path between pointless, self-defeating relativism and equally silly faux-rationalist "rational-choice" theory...I may check this book out. This bears on many of our discussions....

17 June 2005


THE POVERTY OF RELATIVISM. Raymond Boudon. Translated by Peter Hamilton. 202pp. Oxford: Bardwell. £45. 0 9548683 0 7.

Raymond Boudon is the pre-eminent French sociologist of his generation. He is also a man with a mission. He loves the idea of sociology but hates most of what is produced under its name, at least if it is theory. There are three great sociologists: Tocqueville, Durkheim and Max Weber. After that it has all gone steeply downhill. That includes the works of that other giant of French sociology, Pierre Bourdieu (who died in 2002), Boudon's long-time rival.

His mission is to purge the modern human sciences of the mythology they tend to burden society and politics with, and to start all over again from the heritage of his three great heroes. To that effect, he has over the last two decades published a raft of combative books, articles and dictionaries under a single motto: "une sociologie de l'action non confondue avec la tradition utilitariste". He cut his teeth as an empirical sociologist who revolutionized the mathematical study of class inequality, but later dedicated himself to philosophy. An exceedingly civil and mild mannered man, he writes stories of villains and heroes with a killer instinct.

In The Poverty of Relativism, he brings his assault on bad sociology to an English-speaking public. He writes against the "secular religion" of relativism, the view that "everyone's opinions are equally respectable". He writes for the view that all beliefs, be they positive or normative, are grounded in reasons and that therefore there is objectivity not only in facts but also in truth, beauty and values. What causes sociology to contribute to the mythology of relativism is that the mainstream has given itself over to a theoretical outlook that goes under the name of "rational choice". Most rational-choice theorists take Weber as their spiritual father but they have perverted the subtle work of that great thinker.

Boudon's new book starts with two forms of relativism: cognitive and cultural. Cognitive relativism is an idea that undermines the quest for scientific truth: namely, that there is no such thing as truths that are true, only truths that are taken to be true because they are useful or attractive. The villains in this story are Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962) and subsequently the French constructivists who took relativism to extremes. Not surprisingly, code-words like "construction" and "postmodern" get short shrift. Cultural relativism is the related idea that different cultures produce their own truths and that there is no such thing as human nature that is independent of culture. This story has many villains, all anthropologists, the leading one being Clifford Geertz and his anti anti-relativism.

The problem Boudon identifies is one of extremes. It is not that constructivism or cultural interpretations of truths make no sense but that what makes some sense is taken to extremes. Thus he cites, for example, anthropological work which under the influence of cultural relativism takes genital mutilation of women to be a legitimate expression of culture, and that "the negative feeling toward genital mutilation a Western observer normally experiences is the product of his or her own socialization".

From there, he moves on to values and what he calls "axiological relativism". We humans believe various things. For example, I may believe that equality is a good thing and therefore that the rich should pay taxes and the poor receive social support. In this case my first belief about equality is the more general one while my second beliefs, about taxes and support, follow as consequences of the first one. Such general beliefs are often called values. Axiological relativism is a theory that says that values are mere opinions. If this is so, one is as good as the other.

Boudon argues that it is more fruitful to think of values as beliefs and that as such they are not much different from beliefs about the physical world, for example - say, that the earth is round. Beliefs about values, no less than about facts, are true if there are good reasons to hold them to be true. Take the belief that democracy is a good thing. Most of us hold that to be true because there are good reasons for it; it is not because we happen to share an opinion. Values are, in Boudon's language, "axiological" beliefs. Beliefs about what is fair, just, right and so on are in that category. Are such beliefs mere opinions? Definitely not, he says. An example is the case of two French doctors who, in 1995, were found guilty of the transfusion of blood contaminated by the AIDS virus. A petition signed by many scientists, including several Nobel Prizewinners, asked that they be pardoned. Public opinion was strongly and massively against. Was this a difference of opinion? No, the scientists just got it wrong and the public right. The scientists wanted the two doctors pardoned because others were also guilty but not punished. But if that rule were applied, it would usually be impossible to get any guilty person punished. "The doctors should not be punished because also others are guilty" is the more flimsy belief and "the doctors should be punished because they are guilty" the more firmly based one.

If there is objectivity in values, what about artistic values? Here Boudon confronts Bourdieu who took opinions about aesthetics to be in the main "socially constructed", for example by social class. Art lovers are convinced that great works of art are beautiful or sublime; it's not all in the eye of the beholder.

They are right, says Boudon. Artistic values are, like other beliefs, based on objective reasons. Shakespeare's plays are great art because they are great art, not because someone happens to be of that opinion. Reality TV is vulgar because it is vulgar. How do we know? We can find out by not being content to just observe opinions but by investigating the reasons they stand on. Shakespeare's plays are great because they dissect matters of human concern and do that with insight and artistry of form and language. The greatness is in the plays, not in our opinions about them.

In the final chapter, Boudon returns to the culprit of rational choice. That is a theory of human behaviour. Motives are taken to be given; what people want is always to maximize their utility. If that is so, behaviour can be explained as that which is the most useful.

Boudon ties this theory to a tradition that goes back to the French positivist Auguste Comte (not a hero) who excluded the subjectivity of actors from scientific consideration. This is the tradition Boudon wants to liberate the human sciences from. In that tradition, most of what is important and interesting in life and society simply does not get considered; it is relegated to assumptions. What then remains is a pretty trivial and technical task of calculating what people are likely to do in this or that situation, given the assumption that behaviour is always motivated by one and the same intention.

But human behaviour, says Boudon, is not about utility, it is about reasons. Some of the things people do they do because it is useful, for example when we buy washing powder. Other things we do because we have decided that it is the right thing to do with no calculus of utility to ourselves, for example to vote in elections. People think what they think for reasons and do what they do for reasons. The human sciences must therefore embrace embrace again, of course; that is, return to the ways of the three heroes: "Tocqueville, in the same way as Durkheim and Weber, never makes collective beliefs the product of cultural forces" - the ambition of understanding not only what people do and think, but why they do what they do and think as they do. The scientific project of exploring the human must be about beliefs, motives and values as well as behaviour.

Boudon is now back to his mission, and that mission is for this lover of sociology an important one. The human sciences, he says, are falling into disrepute, which, of course, following the logic of his argument, is because there are reasons to hold them in disrepute. Why should anyone care about a human science that is unaware of human passion?

He refers to the German case, where government science funding is being shifted from the Geistwissenschaften to Biology.

Are there reasons for this assault on relativism, or is it just a straw man erected for the purpose of polemics? Boudon is perhaps not always a scrupulously fair critic and he can be as nasty to his villains as he is loving to his heroes. But that notwithstanding, relativism is a strong and unfortunate influence in modern social science.

Rational choice is relativism. It is such in precisely the way that Boudon warns us about, by taking a valid theory to extremes. The classical theory it is derived from is a theory of reason. Descartes called it "good sense". Good sense is not a matter of maximizing utility, it is that tempered by a sensitivity to decency and propriety. Decency and propriety is not the language of rational choice. It is the language of Max Weber whose rationality was in part a matter of rational values. But in modern rational-choice theory, rationality has collapsed into a macho bravura by which what is rational is what is useful, no questions asked about what it is useful for.

Relativism is also influential in empirical sociology. One example is the theory of relative poverty. Here, people are classified as poor if they are more poor than others but with no exploration of whether or not they are poor. Or take the leading school of British sociology of class inequality, which insists that our reading of trends in class inequality should be on the basis of relative inequality only.

That has led to the remarkably implausible conclusion that in the second half of the twentieth century, when everything changed in class relations, nothing changed in class inequality. These are again cases of mistakes by extremity. Relative poverty and relative inequality are a part of the greater story but only a part. Therefore, nothing can be said about the greater story of poverty or inequality from that kind of information alone; no more than anything can be said about rationality as such, based on observations of instrumental rationality alone.

Raymond Boudon, who pours scorn over the fad of rational choice in the social sciences, is all but an anti-rationalist. It is precisely a rationalist programme he wants the social and human sciences to revert to. But his rationalist programme is based on a notion of reason, not rational choice. People strive for meaning in life and for good living conditions. It is all of that, the human condition, we should try to understand, not the trivial little part of it that consists in running around and making choices all the time.

3 Thoughts:

Blogger A.T. said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Sunday, July 31, 2005 9:28:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Hi, Allen:

Well, that definition of cultural relativism is right on the money. That's what it is: no such thing as a non-culturally-constructed human nature. Weaker forms would argue that whatever the biological substrate we call human nature, social or cultural differences are more important.

I don't see what you gain by substituting in "truth" here, except changing the discussion from one about cultural relativism to one about epistemological relativism, which are two different things, though related.

Furthermore, the descriptive and normative must be disentangled. It's simply factually true that descriptive cultural relativism exists, throughout history. However, just as the "naturalist fallacy" is something to be avoided, so, too is something we might call the "culturalist fallacy" -- both are examples of what is a basically conservative argument: what is, is right. Well, sometimes, regardless of its provenance (biological or cultural); sometimes not.

Human nature is indeed something that shouldn't be considered an atomistic thing or reified into one. It's a statistical feature of our current evolutionary "moment" -- one which may go back through all of recorded history (6000 years) -- during which not a heck of a lot of evolutionary change could occur, due to the long generation time of humans, but obviously a ton of cultural and social change has occurred.

What you consider "morally arbitrary" begs the question -- you define anything as morally arbitrary if it doesn't emanate from a supernatural, super-human force. I'd say that's off the mark. Given the nonexistence of such a force -- and I know you think you can prove the existence, but you have quite an uphill climb, and one that ends with the deus ex machina (pun intended) of "faith," the rope that falls right next to you whenever evidence, reason, et al, fail -- what can we say about human values, meaning, etc.?

Without a god -- which is exactly how we've been existing, whether you believe it or not -- human values have usually been determined by power: power dressed up in religious and/or ideological garb. What's so horrifying about democratically determined social-contract-enforced values? Values that may shift as the conditions of existence shift, but which include protection of minorities along with rule of majorities?

Your examples of abject horror all emanate from those societies in which all doubt had been banished -- Nazi Germany is the perfect example. I'd be more wary of those foolish mortals who think they've got a handle on God-given absolute moral Truth. No one with a healthy sense of doubt ever committed genocide.

Understanding what humans do, what their needs are, etc., is a reasonable first step in then deciding, collectively and without coercion, what our values should be. I have posted attempts to do so by Chomsky; and there are others. It is not impossible. Ironically enough, it's exactly what we've been doing -- or aiming to do -- ever since 1789 in this country. Read the Constitution: there's a reason God is not mentioned. The founders, whatever their varied beliefs or lack thereof, had no need of that hypothesis, and had the historical knowledge to realize that the certainty bred by any but the most deistic and non-enthusiastic of religious beliefs was what led to centuries of ceaseless slaughter in the "Old" World. It's telling that some haven't yet caught up to Jefferson, Paine, Washington, et al.

As far as "good" in "good reasons" goes, you are jumping after the wrong fish. The thesis of the book, as reflected by this review, is that ethical values can have the same epistemological truth-value as statements of fact. Thus, "Shakespeare was a fine playwright" stands or falls on the evidence of his plays, what defines a good play, etc. (I'm not sure I go along with Boudon on this, and I see no harm to consider aesthetic values to be relative -- no harm on the political level -- although it is a complex topic.) This statement, Boudon seems to be arguing (and we only know second-hand), is on the same epistemological level as "Einstein's explanation of gravity is superior to Newton's or Aristotle's."

So, I'm not so sure about aesthetics, but that discussion, while interesting and important, doesn't really matter to people's conditions of existence, or non-existence. Whether you like Mahler or Armstrong shouldn't matter all that much when 10,000 people starve to death a day, you see.

Anyway, "love thy neighbor as you love yourself," and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and "equal under the law," and so forth are perfectly reasonable, but still wholly radical, bases for human values. They require neither a God to ratify them, nor are they relativistic statements. If I have enough to eat, why shouldn't everyone else? What follows from that? Thence comes your reason-based ethics.

Finally, reasons can be found for irrational or emotional behavior, but to say that irrational or emotional behaviors in themselves are identical to reasons is sophistry. I can, after the fact, understand why I might have been gripped by some passion (in the Platonic sense) or other, but that doesn't mean that passion was itself reason, let alone reasonable.

You write: "That’s the problem, bottom line: that secular humanism has no absolute moral truth to offer. Sure, we can all agree on a general basic worldview, in order to agree upon something as universally beneficial as the Bill of Rights. But, then, even that’s only safe as long as a philosophy or religion antagonistic to those rights does not become a supermajority."

Right. Exactly. Which is what I and others are fighting against. I can see no advantage to claiming a nonexistant God is on my side; everyone thinks that God is on his or her side -- those that need that kind of ratification.

The truth is, social contracts -- like all contracts -- work only if there is a "good faith" (not that kind) effort to behave in the spirit of the contract. You can spend all day twisting words, but, in the end, laws are rough guides for human behavior. Without a common belief in the rights of man (and woman), which need not be embedded in some diety, yes, radical groups can use the organs of the state to overthrow the state. We're witnessing that now. You liked the CAFTA vote? Forget the content of the bill -- morally immaterial here. The nature, structure, and procedure of the vote was undemocratic. Period.

All democratic republics can be hijacked by extremists. That's why eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

How, exactly, are you going to convince the billions of people who have different views of God and religion -- none of whom can be reached by any rational argument, as faith is the bedrock, as you rightly claim -- that you and yours have actually gotten the right message from the right diety? What's the actual record of such "discussions" in world history? Not a pretty picture. That, in itself, is not an argument against the existence of God, but it's a good one against the wisdom of holding certain truths to be absolute, encased in a religious ideology.

Monday, August 01, 2005 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Oops -- in the paragraph of "good reasons" and Shakespeare, I meant, "One of the theses of this book..." and "aesthetic" where I wrote "ethical" at the top of the paragraph.

Monday, August 01, 2005 10:18:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home