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June 17, 2005

dormitory relativism

Don Herzog: June 17, 2005

A while ago, David V. argued that relativism is hopeless, and helpfully distinguished it from nearby views.  But there's a version of relativism that I like.  Relax, I know better than to argue philosophy with David.  My version is all crass stuff about politics and social life, of no philosophical interest at all.  But it raises some illuminating questions about the promises and pitfalls of liberalism, or so I think.

Many years ago, one of my favorite undergraduates had grown up in a small town in Michigan's upper peninsula, with a devout and extremely conservative family.  They'd all fretted about her moving to Ann Arbor, that notorious hotbed of leftist excess.  But she was smart as a whip and eager to get a first-class education.  When the university awarded her buckets of financial aid, she decided to attend.

Ann Arbor didn't faze her
— the place doesn't really live up to, or down to, its reputation but she did find her freshman dormitory startling.  I won't pretend to recall her exact wording, but the litany ran something like this.  "Down the hall is a lesbian with short, spiked, bright blue hair.  There's an Orthodox Jew from New York, and, um, I haven't met many Jews before.  My roommate spent a year working with peasants in Guatemala and came back fired up about Marxism.  And the first time I said grace in the dining hall, a crusading atheist wanted to argue with me."

Living in close quarters with exotic strangers:  the perfect hothouse setting for the growth of dormitory relativism.  And I think it's a gorgeous flower, not a weed.

Dormitory relativism says, oh, it's all just taste or personal preference.  You like atheism, I like religion; you embrace the sexual revolution, I prefer staying a virgin; you're a radical, I'm a conservative.  As long as you don't leave the bathroom a mess and don't keep me up at 2:00 in the morning with your stereo blasting, we can get along just fine.  To vary the metaphor, dormitory relativism is the perfect peace treaty for getting along with people with sharply different views.  Instead of bitter arguments and hatred, we get amiable shrugs.

To be defensible — to stay crassly political and eschew any claims about ethics or justification or epistemology or ontology — dormitory relativism has to be an as-if, wink-nudge-nod collective understanding.  Dormitory relativism doesn't say, "there is no point arguing about these matters because there's nothing there but personal preference."  That's rotten philosophy.  Dormitory relativism says, "because we don't want to argue about these matters, let's pretend that they're mere personal preference."  Let's pretend that morality, politics, religion, and more are just like the ice cream parlor, where we think there are no  reasons or criticisms or arguments or justifications to exchange about flavor.  (I confess I don't even believe that about ice cream.  I think members of the boring vanilla lobby are in fact making a reprehensibly boring mistake.   They could and should be ordering chocolate, which is manifestly better.  The nature and depth of our devotion to chocolate is not adequately rendered by saying that we happen to prefer it.  A universe without chocolate is objectively worse than one with it.  But let that go for now.  When David organizes a new blog to discuss The Theory of Value and High-Fat Dairy Products, I'll weigh in.)

As long as people are more or less aware that dormitory relativism is an as-if pose, and as long as they know which settings to invoke it in, it's a big winner.  The mischief sets in when they get confused and give it the rotten-philosophy interpretation.  Undergraduates sometimes adopt this pose in class, to get off the hook of having to argue.  They start too many sentences with phrases like, "I guess my own opinion is that...."  And then they start getting ironic and frivolous about their own deepest commitments.  But they just need a brisk little sociology lesson.  Dormitory relativism is fine for the dorms, fine for the dining halls, fine for parties; but it's a big loser in class discussion, and a big loser in figuring out what to make of your life.

Compare a parallel mistake in economics.  Take the common claims:  "utility is subjective," or "preferences are given or exogenous."  Those might draw a disciplinary boundary:  here in economics, we take that stuff as given.  Fine by me.  Or they might be taken as a deep claim about what utility and preference really are.  No, sorry, that's a train wreck.  We can always raise further questions about utility or preference.  We can critically appraise why people pursue what they do; we can ask for explanations and justifications.  De gustibus est disputandum, even if economists aren't interested.

I'd press the same point outside the academy.  Dormitory relativism helps you get along amiably enough when you leave your homogeneous small town and head to the big bad city.  It helps you sleep peacefully knowing that the unmarried couple down the hall are probably having sex in a position you find revolting, that too many Americans are smoking marijuana, and that millions of Americans don't own a Bible and don't even care that they don't.  But you can't actually defend other people's rights to those choices by arguing that "really" questions of value are all mere personal preference, although a surprising number of people have fallen for that dreadful argument.  After all, if questions of value are really matters of preference, then the merits and proper sphere of toleration and autonomy are matters of preference, too.  Instead you have to get serious and argue about autonomy and rights.  In sorting out those matters, dormitory relativism is useless.


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Don has an interesting post up about dormitory relativism. Which I think is fascinating. But let's set that aside, and focus on the truly egregious statement that he makes: I think members of the boring vanilla lobby are in fact... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 18, 2005 6:23:48 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Herzog is, of course, entitled to his views on the subject. After all, to each his own, live and let live, that's what I say. [Insert "as-if, wink-nudge-nod" here.]

Except on the question of chocolate versus vanilla ice cream, about which he is entirely, unequivocally and irredeemably wrong – morally wrong, epistemologically wrong and ontologically wrong. The wrongness of his position is not merely a failure of reasoning or error in fact, it is perniciously and egregiously wrong and nothing short of being a detestable enormity for which he should be deeply ashamed, outcast from decent society and declared anathema. Right thinking people should shun him in public and small animals should growl at him as he passes.

Finally, now that Mr. Herzog has volunteered to “weigh in” on a discussion of The Theory of Value and High-Fat Dairy Products, I expect no more complaints from him about my puns!

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 17, 2005 8:45:45 AM

Posted by: noah


Vanilla bean here.

Posted by: noah | Jun 17, 2005 8:55:49 AM

Posted by: Carl

"Vanilla-- 'Coz there's nothing plain about it."

Posted by: Carl | Jun 17, 2005 10:11:32 AM

Posted by: Dooble

That dorm tolerance is not an in-principle view should be clear not just from the logical self-undermining argument, but also from the manifest fact that, even if the line is hard to draw, no one feels comfortable extending the pretending-away treatment to behaviors that are causing serious harms to others. That's a sign that the justification of the.treatment has to do with strategy (how best to change minds) and balance (being a dorm absolutist is a pain). And it makes the question what to tolerate substantive and difficult; am I being a cowardly ostrich in ignoring this behavior, or am I exercising wise respect and restraint?

Posted by: Dooble | Jun 17, 2005 10:30:11 AM

Posted by: Aaron S.

I wonder if what Professor Herzog describes as dormatory relativism isn't really just a pragmatic approach to getting by amiably with one's peers because they inevitably are a mosaic of ideologies and lifestyles all forced into tight living quarters. Perhaps this is just a form of toleration, although not the type that Andrew Jason Cohen details.
Dormatory relativism does not work when certain ideological minority groups feel threatened and endangered in virtue of being a minority group. They demand respect which often translates into a desire for others to be uncritical of their beliefs. Every gesture and murmur is quickly read-into and deciphered as an attack or some subtle tactic against them. One wonders if they actually seek to reacquire the status of the early Christians, because there is power in being perceived as persecuted.

Posted by: Aaron S. | Jun 17, 2005 11:26:40 AM

Posted by: JeffS

Well, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur could not have said it better – or maybe it’s a tie. Only here’s the thing: you’ve already won. Dorm Relativism has replaced the clashing worldviews of the 60s as the new mode of close quarters interaction between ideological foes. In fact, the trend towards particularistic identification (“I’m going to Heaven, so who cares if you end up in hell? Just please keep the floor clean while you’re in my way. Thanks.”) on today’s universities has been well reported.

And the result of dorm relativism? …Voila! Today our political camps live side by side, arguing furiously past each other, because they are not in the least bit interested in persuading one-another or understanding how, why, on earth one can hold such “crazy” fundamentalist conservative or “repulsive” decadent liberal views or whatever. But to transcend this give-a-crap mentality would require actually having it out – confronting your suite mate or classmate (politely) about why she holds views you find abhorrent. In other words, caring about her as a real person and not an obstacle in the hallway or a “constituency” to outvote. And we don’t do that anymore, lest an argument break out. Live and let live. But there’s a glimmer of hope: the atheist who struck up an argument about saying grace. Not exactly the stuff songs are made of, but it’s a start.

Posted by: JeffS | Jun 17, 2005 11:48:16 AM

Posted by: Aaron S.

ah! I think I've finally hit on my objection in a less verbose manner. Is there an appreciable difference between Dormatory Relativism and good-neighborliness?

Posted by: Aaron S. | Jun 17, 2005 12:35:33 PM

Posted by: murky

But what about the PC fantasy: Your dorm mate is the son of a despot and going off to the School of the Americas upon graduation. Oughtn't you to make it your concern what he thinks about poor and indigineous peoples, human rights, etc? (I guess this is a version of passing young Hitler in a trench in WWI)

Posted by: murky | Jun 17, 2005 12:48:59 PM

Posted by: mtnmarty

David V.'s post on the misuses of the term relativism convinced me not so much that relativism is hopeless but that moralism is hopeless.

Even if we aren't relativists and we believe that moral standards exist, it doesn't help us at all because we can't agree about all of our "Fanaticism, Authoritarianism, Intolerance, Moralism, Absolutism and Rigorism".

Its not so much that moral standards don't exist, its that they are impossible. One simple example, wouldn't any moral theory worthy of the name tell us how much of our effort and resources we owe to others and how much to ourselves?

How are we ever going to figure that one out? Isn't the root of many of our politcal differences due to different views of what we owe our fellow travelers ( some say nothing, some say a little, some say a lot.)

In mathematical terms, David V. has offered an existence proof of moral standards( well, we can define it and we believe in it), when what we need is an algorithm for defining its content.

Is there any pragmatic difference between moral relativity and moral scepticism about moral knowledge?

Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 17, 2005 2:25:01 PM

Posted by: tristero

"It ["de gustibus non est disputandum"] helps you sleep peacefully knowing that the unmarried couple down the hall are probably having sex in a position you find revolting."

Don, my problem for the longest time was not being able to sleep because the unmarried couple down the hall was having sex in a position I could only envy.

But seriously, perhaps somewhere earlier you explained what's so bad about all this because you make no case here that "de gustibus non est disputandum" is so awful (and "dormitory relativism??" Talk about rhetorically painting your opponent into a corner! That's just about as bad as branding "scientific" creationists IDiots, as a thoroughly impolite commentator did not so long ago, to universal disgust). I'm not saying such a case can't be made. I'm simply saying you haven't made one here. Nor have you made a case that on a personal level, this kind of live and let live attitude about your neighbors is such an awful way to run/decide one's life most of the time.

Sure, there are limits and we can all think of examples. My favorite is Leo Strauss's only great comment: "If everything is relative, then cannibalism is just a matter of taste." But that doesn't invalidate the general principle: certainly, I don't think everything's relative, but most decisions that humans make with their lives are nothing I need to judge as good or bad. "Whatever floats your boat" in no way implies a disinclination to make moral decisions when they need to be made.* It simply means that the present topic - preferred flavor, preferred gender of spouse, religious observation - doesn't require a moral judgment or opinion. Therefore, simply because I couldn't care less what my neighbors are doing in their non-connubial boudoir, that in no way means I don't care, and passionately so, about recent egregious breeches of the Geneva Convenvtion regarding torture sanctioned by the highest government officials.**

In fact, I think I could probably make a case that it is the ability to distinguish between behavior that clearly rises to the level of moral decisiveness and behavior that doesn't that defines what we mean by character.

*Unless of course you're a literalist, in which case you will have a lot of problems with that phrase before you address the relativism issue, beginning with what boat floating has to do with morality.

**Okay, alleged egregious breeches, but - just between us? - we all know the military's been torturing and murdering a little too much for comfort. Hey! I'm talking about Mugabe. Who did you think I meant?

Posted by: tristero | Jun 17, 2005 3:39:58 PM

Posted by: mtnmarty


So, all the supporters and appeasers of slavery over the years, Aristotle included, were men of bad character?

Or does it only show bad character when there is a "live" possibility of changing a practice?

I'll reveal my low character but saying it makes perfect sense to me to speak of cannibals of low character and cannibals of high character. Cannabalism is a matter of taste, character is not.

Character, by one definition, is moral or ethical strength. In other words, character shows courage in moral matters, not just moral discernment.

Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 17, 2005 4:12:46 PM

Posted by: janet

This argument is very similar to one I made during a conversation a few weeks ago. The key distinction I made was between respecting other people's opinions or behavior, and treating other people with respect.

In a pluralistic society, the on-going conversation should not be about how to promote tolerance per se, but on which types of behaviors are the business of the community as a whole and which types are not. For example, I might disapprove of the way you raise your children, but unless you're abusing them I'm not empowered to interfere. (Attempts at persuasion are another matter.) The question then becomes, what constitutes abuse, and how does a pluralistic society agree on what constitutes abuse?

Posted by: janet | Jun 17, 2005 4:19:13 PM

Posted by: mtnmarty

Isn't the whole point that they don't.

That is what has the moderates and liberals completely freaked out about the fanatics. That is why David V. is obsessive about universalism.

The idea of a mulitplicity of societies with differing moralities in the same geographic space simultaneously having "ultimate" legitimacy is completely foreign to them. They have a hard time giving up the evolution of the state and the monopoly on the legitimate use of force that goes with it.

To the fanatics, nasty, brutish and short lives don't seem as bad universalism. The fanatics may still be a small minority, but who can argue that they currently have the wind at their back.

Why else are they such a topic of conversation?

Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 17, 2005 4:33:53 PM

Posted by: tristero

As for your main point, of course it's true that "de gustibus non est disputandum" can't address effectively the world's most intractable problems. You don't blame a screwdriver because it won't do awl you want. (sorry, couldn't resist the pun.)

But, more importantly, because we're actually seeing it in action, neither does "in loco parentis" work well, as the Defense and State Department are slowly learning (and they're getting this useful education on my tax dollars, mind you). You would think this would be patently obvious, but apparently it is not to the fine minds that determine US foreign and domestic policy.

For example, the doctrine of pre-emptive unilateralism (aka, PU) was declared an official US foreign policy position. The Bush administration - whose main reality-based justification for invading Iraq is now thorougly discredited (ie preventing wmd goiing to terrorists) - has fallen back entirely on America's manifest destiny to give everyone our cooties - excuse me, I meant spread democracy - as the main excuse. In short, the present administration is treating the rest of the world like a pack of obnoxious, uncontrollable freshmen whose behavior they must strickly limit and proscribe. It works with the world exactly as it did on my freshman class: poorly.

Given a choice between dormitory relativism and Bush's "in loco parentis", the choice is obvious: Neither.

Far more subtle intellectual tools are needed to address the problems we need to deal with. Fortunately such tools exist. Unfortunately, no one seems to be capable of wielding them. The most important tool is what Raymond Aron called in his masterpiece, Peace and War, "prudence," essentially steering a middle course between the Scylla of realism and the Charybdis of idealism, knowing full well that for all its intellectual inconsistencies, it beats every alternative.

Granted Aron is dated. But a little bit of prudent behavior from the Bush administration is long overdue, both abroad and at home. It is something also our christianist friends should also consider as an alternative to their lust for worldly political power. And as a rule of thumb in our personal lives, the social code of the dorms combined with a healthy dose of prudence sounds like a pretty decent start towards constructing a fine personal morality. Add some God-talk, 'cause it can't hurt and may actually do some good - the brand's unimportant - and keep the punishing parents in reserve for only when you absolutely need them, which is not very often.

And then quit worrying about all the contradictions this creates and get on with your life.

Posted by: tristero | Jun 17, 2005 4:40:24 PM

Posted by: tristero

"So, all the supporters and appeasers of slavery over the years, Aristotle included, were men of bad character?"

I'm sure he was kind to dogs. What's your point? That people are complicated and character multi-faceted and partially determined by historical context? I so admit. And?

Posted by: tristero | Jun 17, 2005 4:43:55 PM

Posted by: mtnmarty


And so we should quit complaining about fanatics, that's all.

Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 17, 2005 4:52:38 PM

Posted by: tristero

mtnmarty: I don't see how that follows from anything I've said. In fact, I said just the opposite, that when it matters, you make a moral judgment and that much human behavior doesn't rise to the level where a moral judgment is called for. In fact, what I'm saying is that refusing to give in to fanatics is all of a piece with that.

As for your point about character, clearly the one definition you bring up simply can not be complete (nor is mine, duh; add the clause "is part of what" before the word "defines" if that floats your own boat better). By your definition Mohammed Atta was a man of character because he and his supporters surely felt he "showed courage in moral matters."

Arguing whether Mr. Atta showed character implies that discussions of character either are pretty pointless or your definition is quite incomplete. Now, I would happily agree with the former but for the fact that the right wing makes a huge to do about character and that they have it and the rest of the world doesn't.

So I assert that it shows considerable character either to ignore prudes or get morally outraged when they try to impose their own sexual priggishness on the rest of us. And I'll leave it to others to tweeze out a formal definition of character that includes these people and utterly excludes Messrs Atta and Falwell. If it can't, it's worthless.

And that's why I brought up what you conflate into "moral discernment" and why I think it's so important.

Posted by: tristero | Jun 17, 2005 6:16:23 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Sure, there are limits and we can all think of examples. My favorite is Leo Strauss's only great comment: "If everything is relative, then cannibalism is just a matter of taste."

Which reminds me of the cannibal who became a hermit because he was just fed up with people.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 17, 2005 6:26:26 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Okay, I’ll, um, weigh in seriously here for a moment to agree both that relativism as Mr. Velleman defined it in an earlier post is incoherent and useless and also that normative discourse has to seriously address autonomy and rights. But as Mr. Herzog queried in a different thread recently, then what?

Isn’t ‘dormitory relativism’ also just a lazy sort of moral skepticism; that is, not so much an incoherent “everybody’s right” as it is a vague “nobody’s right because it’s the concept ‘right’ that is incoherent”?

No theory with which I am acquainted purporting to establish moral judgments objectively and extrinsically to the purely contingent, shared positive morality of most people most of the time withstands the skeptic’s or, for that matter, the sociopath’s challenge; namely, why should I accept any claim of autonomy or rights on your part? “I understand,” the sociopath (or philosopher) continues, “that you and yours have these shared moral views but they’re frankly alien to me. I understand that it might occasionally be in my self-interest for me to play along, too. But why when nobody’s looking and I’m sure to get away with it shouldn’t I do whatever the hell I want to do?”

It seems to me that all we can do is declare such people simply outside the moral realm and impose our will on them. That solves our practical problem but it doesn’t answer the question. It merely makes us the, ahem, Moral Majority.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 17, 2005 7:06:28 PM

Posted by: mtnmarty

So, D.A. what about the possibility that a rising moral majority in the world that believes that freedom of religion is a bad thing and decides to oppose its will on you.

Or, will you confess the majority "faith" whatever that majority happens to be?

I'm thinking of a modern Antigone that says "these freedom of religion and toleration laws that you have passed, these are not the laws of Zeus. They are not the laws of justice"

We pulled off a "moral majority" of toleration worshippers for a few hundred years, but the forces of religion are waxing in the world, are they not?


Call me outside the moral realm, but if there is going to be an end of the world, wouldn't you just as soon be around to see it?

Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 17, 2005 7:25:55 PM

Posted by: mtnmarty

But seriously, D.A. and Tristero,

I just can't see how you can look at history, from the Pharoahs, right up to today, including the Nazi's and still think that "Well, we people of good character really all agree about the important moral issues."


The war criminals all say exactly the same thing.

Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 17, 2005 7:52:34 PM

Posted by: Dylan Barrell

I have to agree with mtnmarty...even if you can agree that there is a moral standard you will never be able to agree on the content of that standard...therefore what you end up with is the equivalent of moral relativism.

There is no proof that can be given for the set of actions that are moral or even the set of actions that is immoral there is not even an algorithm that can be used to determine it in the face of ever changing sets of possible actions...

There are merely axioms that must be accepted as starting points from which logical conclusions can be drawn...and the set of axioms you choose (a preference) determines what you will conclude are the set of moral and immoral actions.

Posted by: Dylan Barrell | Jun 17, 2005 10:14:20 PM

Posted by: Dylan Barrell

Sorry forgot the concluding paragraph there...my bad...

So if what you are suggesting Don, is that we discuss the relative (sic) merits of the sets of axioms, then I agree with you.

Posted by: Dylan Barrell | Jun 17, 2005 10:19:46 PM

Posted by: le sequoit

All in all, a relatively half-hearted attempt at fleshing out an argument here.

raspberry sherbet

Posted by: le sequoit | Jun 17, 2005 10:30:18 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely


I said no such thing, nor did I imply any such thing. What I attempted to do was sketch a rationale for what Mr. Herzog calls dormitory relativism that is intellectually defensible. If Mr. Herzog or anyone else around here has an answer to the skeptic's challenge, I await it.

But what counts as the moral realm, in which moral discourse is both possible and necessary, is not demarcated by a continuous linear boundary. Rather, it is roughly defined by many overlapping and often vague borders, like a Venn diagram with dozens of domains unclearly marked at the edges. If the skeptic’s argument holds for the individual, even for the sociopath (who is so called, truth be told, precisely because he does dwell outside any of those domains), it holds more for those moral judgments that are included only in a single or a very few domains – the so-called fringe beliefs, etc., and even more for those merely in a substantial minority. How do we decide which of these is right and which is wrong?

Unless and until we have a better account of what it is we are doing when we are engaged in moral discourse and a better sense of what counts in determining whether a moral judgment is correct or not, it seems to me (it is my opinion, to use Mr. Herzog’s disfavored phrase) that those ‘relativist’ dorm residents are on firmer intellectual ground than we might wish to believe.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 17, 2005 11:43:10 PM

Posted by: mtnmarty


I guess I was confused because you used the term "we" and "impose our will" and then "moral majority". To me that implied that you thought there was a consensus position on morals of a majority that could impose its will.

Why might you wish to believe that the "dorm relativists" or mild "moral sceptics" are not on firm intellectual ground?

If you didn't have some propensity for moral consensus why would it have occured to you that there would be a coherent position other than moral scepticism?

Whenever I hear people talk about morals they are arguing.

Where did an idea like moral universalism even ccome from?

Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 18, 2005 1:10:20 AM

Posted by: Zehou

Dormitory relativism is, I take it, a new name for what philosophers have been calling "student relativism" for some time now. In any case, here are the views on the table in the present discussion:

1. Dormitory relativism is a pretense that is harmless--and perhaps even useful--in the dormitory; and the very real danger--that folks in the classroom will forget that it is a pretense or will pretend to forget for the sake of escaping intellectual labor or uncomfortable communications--can be easily disarmed by course instructors.

2. Dormitory relativism is never harmless: not in the dormitory, where folks ought to be learning how to address--not ignore--their differences, and certainly not anywhere else, where warning signs now seem to be too little, too late.

3. Dormitory relativism is closer to recognizing the real scope of morality than anything else: non- (dormitory) relativists bring moral concepts to bear on situations in which doing so is inappropriate, either because what's at stake isn't sufficiently serious and/or because doing so would be counter-productive or even harmful.

To my mind, (2) is closest to being right, since it is not always an easy thing to bring undergrads to see that what they are tempted to endorse and/or pretend to endorse in the classroom is the result of running together something or other obviously admirable or useful (the virtue of tolerance, e.g.) with something or other obviously false (an implausibly strong form of relativism that is grossly incompatible with its proponents actual evaluative practices).

I wonder if Don is inclined toward (1) because he is an especially talented classroom instructor, or because his students at UM are especially bright and open-minded?

Posted by: Zehou | Jun 18, 2005 8:54:28 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely


I said “we” because there is no clinical evidence of sociopathy on my part (none I’m willing to admit to, anyway!) and so I include myself, even with my admittedly fringe libertarian notions, inside those fuzzy Venn circles.

I do believe there is a rough consensus on moral values and judgments if only because if there were no consensus at all (that is, if our moral instincts and pre-reflective moral judgments were not substantially similar much of the time) there could be no such thing as moral discourse at all, let alone anything left over to argue about. True sociopathy is very rare. We don’t engage in real (as opposed to philosophical) arguments about whether it is wrong to torture children for fun, to pull out one trite example. Mr. Velleman and I disagree strongly about abortion not because we disagree about whether it is wrong to kill other people but because we disagree about what counts as a person. Everyone is against murder and theft insofar as these are defined as the unjust taking of a life or property because everyone believes that injustice is wrong. That's what it means for something to be unjust.

But that doesn’t get us beyond the tyranny of the majority. Moral philosophers have been wont to be able to show that there is something about X that makes X right or wrong beyond the fact that most people believe X to be right or wrong, thus to be able to say that regardless of how slavery was viewed in earlier human history, slavery is always and everywhere wrong and always has been. That’s the motive force behind the desire for what you call moral universalism. Alas, they have not been, shall we say, wildly successful. Thus, I do believe the dormitory ‘relativist’ is on firm ground, or rather I would believe that if I thought (which I do not) that the average college undergraduate has given sufficient thought to the subject in the first place and was not merely navigating the waters of dorm life with a sort of acculturated pragmatism.

None of that per se gainsays Mr. Herzog’s original point. Those of us inside that moral realm in society at large must try to resolve moral disagreements in a way undergraduates may prudently seek to avoid doing. Moreover, inside that realm there are better and worse reasons for asserting that X is right or wrong just as inside the legal realm there are better and worse reasons for holding that Y is illegal or unconstitutional or inside the realm of baseball Z was a hit or a fielder’s error, etc., etc. In each such case, different sorts of things will count as evidence and as reasons and, for better or worse, the final decision may well remain far from certain even when all the evidence is in and the reasoning has been exhausted. Indeed, it often (perhaps always) will remain uncertain if the epistemic grounds for moral decisions are contrasted to purely empirical or purely formal (e.g., mathematical) questions. Still, we must muddle through as best we can even if at the bottom of all those better and worse reasons there is nothing but the sorts of purely emotive preferences Mr. Herzog rejects on thus far unstated metaethical grounds.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 18, 2005 9:05:13 AM

Posted by: Paul Torek

If sociopaths can be rational without being moral, but the "moral majority" successfully imposes its will on them (instead of, say, voting for them), I'm at a loss to see why that is not a satisfactory answer. If sociopaths would be so kind as to give themselves away by seriously asking "why shouldn't I be a sociopath?" - well, we should be so lucky.

As for the forces of religion waxing in the world, I'm not too worried about an end to toleration. Local deprivations of toleration, yes, but not a lasting worldwide reversal. The fanatics do all agree with tristero that adding some God-talk may actually do some good, but strangely none of them agree that "the brand's unimportant". And few of them agree on any one brand - which is our ace in the hole.

Posted by: Paul Torek | Jun 18, 2005 11:06:18 AM

Posted by: Steve Horwitz

I want to follow up on Zehou's comments above:

Dormitory relativism is never harmless: not in the dormitory, where folks ought to be learning how to address--not ignore--their differences, and certainly not anywhere else, where warning signs now seem to be too little, too late.

Indeed. Don's bifurcation of the dorm room and the classroom is problematic here. (I would suspect he would agree and that his use of "dormitory relativism" was a convenient rhetorical flourish for the underlying idea.) My students, who are not of Michigan caliber, far too often and too easily slide into that same relativism in the classroom, fearful that actually taking a hard position might generate negative social repercussions either in or out of the classroom. The degree to which we encourage "dormitory relativism" as a way to "go along to get along" outside the classroom is probably correlated with its spillover into the intellectual space.

Why not, at least in the context of a college residence hall if not in other communities, challenge it at a deeper level? Why cannot members of a residence hall (standing in for other communities) find ways to move beyond treating moral positions as if they were ice cream preferences while still managing to play by rules that enable the civility and mutual respect necessary for living together? We expect tough classroom discussions to accomplish that lofty goal, why not in other forums as well? By accepting literal and metaphorical forms of "dormitory relativism" do we do a disservice to students by stunting their ability to engage in meaningful and tough dialogues in a variety of settings, including ones where they, literally, have to live with the consequences of what they say and the moral and political views they hold?

I oversee a program for first-year students that, in theory, attempts to do just this by asking students who live together to also take one of their four courses together in the fall of their first year. These courses are specifically designed for this program and intended to blur the line between the classroom and dormroom so as to avoid exactly the dichotomy that Don has set up. The dynamic of a classroom of 32 where they all live together is a very different one - the stakes are higher and you can't escape the consequences of the content of your intellectual positions when you walk out of the classroom, because you have to live in a community with those same folks.

When it works well, the spillover goes both ways: being asked to engage in real substantive dialogue in the classroom enables students to avoid the "dormitory relativism" shrug and challenge each other in meaningful and civil ways in the residence hall, whether that's a late night discussion of politics or a hall meeting on the sorry state of common areas. Conversely, they can see how the challenges they face in living together as a community can be intellectualized and brought into the classroom as examples of the sorts of societal problems or even the communication skills we are attempting to explore there. Learning how to deliver a good argument in writing or orally in the classroom *matters* for being able to function as a member of a community where people disagree about things.

How far the artificial and face-to-face world of the residence hall extends to the anonymous world of the larger social order is a good question (my own view: not all that far). But even if the democratic dialogues of these smaller communities cannot be applied as models of governance to complex, anonymous, highly diverse political communities at the macro level, they remain invaluable competencies for all the sorts of face-to-face micro-orders we exist in day-to-day (e.g. families, firms, and the other institutions of civil society).

Giving "dormitory relativism" a free pass, even as valuable as it is as maintaining a veneer of "peace," probably does more harm than good in the larger picture.

Posted by: Steve Horwitz | Jun 18, 2005 11:39:33 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

My own undergraduate experience, insofar as fading memory permits accurate recollection, suggests that the administration and faculty would do better to take a hands-off approach as much as possible. Back then, In Loco Parentis had been abandoned, dormitories were almost entirely self-governing (thus often approximating a “state of nature”) and just about any sort of behavior short of physical assault, theft or vandalism was tolerated.

In those days, students openly smoked pot on the quad and the notion of curtailing alcohol consumption was as foreign as the notion of a speech code. Hell, you could smoke cigarettes in the classroom! No one gave a damn who was ingesting what or sleeping with whom, although dorms were still sexually segregated on paper if not in practice, and I’m sure homosexuals were still largely closeted back then. The only dormitory room infraction that warranted intrusion from the campus police was the smell of chicken soup – proof that the highly illegal hotplate was within. (“Open up in there! We know you have a hotplate!” “No, no, I swear! It’s only chicken scented pot smoke you’re smelling!”) This was, I hasten to add, not at Antioch or Michigan or Berkeley but in a deeply traditional Southern liberal arts college.

Yes, those were the good old days. The notion that subject matter experts in biology or French literature therefore know all that much about how to live one’s life is too silly to take seriously. Moreover, whether it breeds relativism or skepticism or some as yet unnamed moral perspective, the existential result of managing to live and let live for some time in such a minimalist state warms my libertarian heart and bodes well for graduates’ future views on the proper role of the state.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 18, 2005 12:08:18 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

I don't want to throw out dormitory relativism, but I am happy to refine it.

I haven't lived in a dormitory myself since the late Mesozoic Era. But in my day, dormitory relativism flourished -- but was also compatible with torrid late-night discussions about politics, religion, sexuality, you name it. Somehow when it was midnight, and a group of people -- by no means necessarily all friends -- clustered around, everyone easily shrugged off dormitory relativism and had at it. And that was great, too.

So the dormitory/classroom line is clearly too crude. There may be moments in classroom life where dormitory relativism is fine, too -- I'll leave that to others. But I am not willing to follow Zehou's suggestion that it is all things considered harmful, or Steve Horwitz's suggestion that it should disappear (if indeed that is what Steve is urging). I'll add a thought that wasn't in my original post. Even the freshmen who don't understand that dormitory relativism is an as-if inversion on the real (philosophical) thing can profit from it: they gain actual experiences of getting along reasonably amiably with people with repellent views. After they've had those experiences, it may well be easier for them to find their way to a reasonable position about tolerance and autonomy.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Jun 18, 2005 12:19:09 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

I, too, experienced those extended, late night debates and am glad of it. (Indeed, my participation on L2R is in that regard a nostalgic experience.) So what happened and who is to blame if those debates no longer rage on college campuses? Are the students already so conditioned by high school PC standards of behavior that they are like penned animals that refuse to leave their cages even after they are opened? And whose fault is it that high schools have become that way? To what extent are the universities with their speech codes and the like at the very least perpetuating this phenomenon? Or are we misunderstanding both what was then and still is now the norm on campuses for undergraduate behavior and attitudes? That is, are we simply that minority in campus communities both then and now who sought/seek out that sort of confrontation and discussion?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 18, 2005 12:38:49 PM

Posted by: tristero


"Dormitory relativism is never harmless: not in the dormitory, where folks ought to be learning how to address--not ignore--their differences."

I honestly don't understand what you are talking about here as it bears no relation to anything I actually experienced in college. I think if we are going to entertain such a notion as "dormitory relativism," we first need to know what actually goes on in dormitories and not what we imagine goes on. Otherwise, we are pointlessly sneering at a straw freshman. So I'll go first. :

Having lived in a dormitory in Columbia in the early '70's (Furnald Hall), at the end of the heyday of student radicalism on campus, I can assure you no one "ignored their differences." I simply cannot understand why an environment such as the one I experienced can be judged to be "never harmless." I know for a fact it was just the opposite, in my case, and for many of my classmates.

Many of the folks from my time in Furnald went on to successful careers in literature, medicine, political science, music, law, and who knows what else. Ignore our differences? Not for a second. Address our differences? Constantly. Moralize about stuff like sexual preference, choice of leisure time intoxicants, or religion? Why bother? They were at best interesting and at worst, puzzling eccentricities.

I fail to understand why the experiences I had, and the attitudes I formed as a result of them, cannot be used to help create a morally good life. Is it sufficient? Of course not - while I was at Furnald, I recall never having to confront a rape, a suicide, or a violent clash of ethnicities which would have strained our community as badly as it strains every other one. But it doesn't follow that there is cause to dismiss all the ethical norms that I and others developed there as somehow worthless or even harmful.

To back this up, here are some details of what happened at Furnald Hall, circa 1972. During my time living in a dorm, my life and interests were as different to the people I met as they were to me. Differences of lifestyle and interests were hardly ignored. Indeed, our differences were the topic of endless, fascinating discussions. Across the hall from me was a Talmudic scholar with a mutli-volume Talmud in his room, in Hebrew of course. We talked constantly about what he was studying and what it meant to be an Orthodox Jew. To his left was a physics student, a brilliant fellow, who explained some of the more esoteric jokes in a Tom Pynchon novel I was reading. His room was a filthy, stinky mess and the subject of much discussion among all of us on the floor as to what to do to get him to clean up. (Sorry, I don't remember what happened, probably nothing as it wasn't life-threatening, just disgusting.)

There was plenty of sex in our dorm. I abstained except, of course, when my girlfriend visited from her campus far away, and where we made up for the distance by sheer late-teen intensity (but we could never match my direct neighbor and his girlfriend who loudly enjoyed themselves on the nights she slept over in a way that amused everyone who wasn't studying for an imminent exam). There was also more pot than alcohol (by the time I had reached college, I had been there, done that, and recall that my total lack of interest in intoxicants was matched by an equal lack of interest in my refusal to partake; i.e., I felt no peer pressure to get high). There may have been harder stuff, maybe even heroin. I never saw it so I can't say. However, I am confident, given the people that I knew, that if it had become known that someone on our floor was using, some kind of effort would be made to get that guy/girl some serious help; it would not have been ignored.

There were also several politically active people. We sometimes had very enjoyable arguments. And while I knew of no political conservatives on my floor, I became very friendly with a fellow who was at least as right wing as the John Birch Society (y'see, I had broken up with S. and had a crush on this guy's sister, so as a way to get close to her...)

Two floors down lived an exceedingly talented music major. I was one of the first to which he confided he was gay. We talked about our sexualities constantly, explicitly, and exhaustively. I, and perhaps he as well, quickly realized that there was nothing about gay sexuality that was substantially different from straight. However, it was quite clear that politically and culturally, the differences were major, and the discrimination he would be facing as a gay man were profound, and utterly groundless. There was also a Larouche nut on the floor- at the time Larouche was a lefty - and he managed to get everyone angry at him for one thing or another, especially his politics. A few times, what were called "fundamentalists" visited us seeking converts. Most folks laughed at them but, probably out of sheer masochism, I invited them in to my room once and talked for hours. I decided that they lived on a different planet that had nothing to do with reality, an opinion that I have yet to find occasion to reject in my subsequent encounters with similar folks.

Things may be different today than they were when I was a student, but I doubt that they are very different. Students will always have more sex than the grownups want them to. And they'll drink too much or drug too much, and unfortunately some will crash and burn.

Furthermore, I'm sure some folks found the Furnald dorm experience that I enjoyed so much thoroughly revolting (and believe me, when a zillion cockroaches were discovered behind a bulletin board in the hall one night, I was quite repulsed). Indeed, I recall a version of the "dormitory relativism" argument which was used to complain about coed dorms and floors. Quite sensibly, the students themselves were given a choice of where they could live. That solved that problem. And if living in a dorm was agony regardless of its coed-edness, there plenty of alternatives, too. My Bircher friend was in a fraternity with other like-minded students. He paid a tiny bit more, I think, for a bigger room, than I did.

Once again, the experience of living in a dorm is not sufficient for developing a mature personal ethics . But I see no reason whatsoever why it cannot be a significant well of experience upon which to draw when constructing one. Nor is dorm living necessary for ethical growth, but I'd like to hedge that a bit. It certainly helped me grow in positive ways I never expected. So maybe not necessary, but at the very least something similar can often be a Very Good Thing.


"I just can't see how you can look at history, from the Pharoahs, right up to today, including the Nazi's and still think that "Well, we people of good character really all agree about the important moral issues."

I invoke Godwin's law and declare victory. Better luck next time!

Posted by: tristero | Jun 18, 2005 12:45:10 PM

Posted by: tristero

Heh, While I was writing the above, others "got there first" with their own dorm experiences and I didn't see them until after I posted. I stand by the rest of what I wrote, tho.

Posted by: tristero | Jun 18, 2005 12:50:21 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

When I was in living in a college dorm room, someone spray painted "FAG!" on my door when I was living with a flamboyantly gay roomate (not a lover). He also had loose razor blades left on his seat at a poetry slam.

Some bastion of tolerance that place was. I expect most of you folks never saw the intolerance because it wasn't directed at you. Trust me, being in college and being gay makes you a target. It's no better than the rest of the world.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Jun 18, 2005 1:10:27 PM

Posted by: Steve Horwitz

A few points:

1. I'm not suggesting, Don, that we abolish the distinction between the classroom and the dorm room. After all, life is not all intellectual activity and faculty and students both need their spaces. What I *am* suggesting is that they should be more inter-penetrable and that there should be *some* norms that apply to both. (Having lived in East Quad for two years when I was at Michigan, I saw that inter-penetration in the RC, even though I was not an RC student.) Dormitory relativism goes too far in one direction in encouraging the stock response of "whatever," which tends to dismiss the possibility of real dialogue and too easily spills over into the classroom - at least where I teach and with this generation.

2. I do think that a culture of, for lack of a better term, "political correctness" does affect my students' willingness to really dig in to issues. They *are* afraid of not only offending one another, but of being come down on administratively if they say what they think is the "wrong" thing. I don't think that fear is a real one on this campus, but what matters is the perception, because that's what affects what happens in the classroom. They've been raised to not be able to distinguish the intellectual and the personal, both those who say the "wrong" things AND those on the receiving end. If students in "protected" groups pitch a fit anytime a majority student says something about gender/race/sexuality that could be construed as negative, then of course the other students are going to watch what they say and we're back to "whatever." (BTW, this is why, I would argue, that the claims of bias against conservative students in the classroom are largely crap - much of the time the reality is that conservative students are being intellectually challenged to back up arguments and they confuse that with a personal attack.)

Creating a classroom and dormroom environment where people can really engage issues at a level beyond ice cream preferences is damn hard work with my students. Most/many of them do not come out of high school with the intellectual and psychological disposition to be able to argue deeply, vigorously, and honestly and then go hang out afterward. Much of the dormitory nostalgia above is based on relationships that were intellectual vigorous in those ways but that were not taken "personally" so that you could disagree profoundly and still be good friends. That last part is what's missing too often today. The "staying friends" part dominates, thus we get "dormitory relativism" and the shrug because many students don't know how to disagree and engage those differences at a deeper level without taking it personally.

3. As far as "in loco parentis" goes, write Congress and ask them to repeal the drinking age/speed limit link so we can get it back down to 18 and regain some sanity on college campuses. If there's one thing that would reduce the degree to which colleges "intervene" in what should rightfully be the space of students, it's lowering the drinking age to 18.

And do keep in mind that one difference between the "in loco parentis" of years ago and today is that it is not that colleges somehow see it as their "duty" to act that way, but that both *students and parents* are asking us to.

Last spring, a student of ours died while walking home drunk after drinking both on campus then at a local village bar (he apparently stumbled/fell into the river). At a community meeting afterward, a number of students demanded that the university provide bus service back to campus from the local bars. Their reasoning was that part of college was the "right" to get drunk and it was the university's responsibility to make sure it didn't have horrific consequences. These are the same students who scream bloody murder when Security catches them with a beer in their dorm rooms, or when anyone from the "administration" is seen as telling them what they can and can't do. To make matters worse, there are parents making the same argument. Those are the days I want to fold up the tent and go home.

I'm wary of generalizing from students at a top-of-Tier II liberal arts college, so take all of this for whatever it's worth.

Posted by: Steve Horwitz | Jun 18, 2005 2:07:28 PM

Posted by: Larry

Steve Horwitz: (BTW, this is why, I would argue, that the claims of bias against conservative students in the classroom are largely crap - much of the time the reality is that conservative students are being intellectually challenged to back up arguments and they confuse that with a personal attack.)

I agree with much of what you say, Steve, but I'd question this. From what I've seen (certainly not everything, granted), the reality much of the time is that it's primarily conservative students and their viewpoints that get challenged, the "challenging" is itself qualitatively more hostile, and the challenges too often rely upon the sort of implicit accusations of rascism and bigotry that are inherent in much "political correctness" and that are hard to distinguish from personal attacks.

Posted by: Larry | Jun 18, 2005 2:26:20 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Jasper, I can only tell you that I know of no such incidents occurring in my college when I was there. Then, again, homosexuals were largely in the closet then, a point I made precisely to imply that neither my college nor the world outside had much tolerance, let alone acceptance on the issue of homosexuality, which was then still considered a psychiatric illness. If college campuses are still no better than the world outside from your perspective, I’m sorry to hear it; but my view is that the university should neither strive to make any of its students uncomfortable and insecure nor comfortable and secure in matters of sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, political views, etc. It should simply leave them alone outside the classroom.

Mr. Horwitz, the legal drinking age in my state was always 21. And marijuana sure as hell was illegal back then. Didn’t mean a thing. State and local police ventured on campus only when they were called, which was damned infrequently and almost always regarding an act committed by someone other than a member of the university community. As a parent about to send a child to college, I decidedly do not want the school to act in loco parentis. However, I recognize that I am in the minority on this issue among my fellow baby-boomers, all of whom still regale each other with war stories from our misspent youths and almost none of whom are willing to accord the same degree of independence to their own children. I am unsympathetic to the argument that we learned from our own mistakes on this count and am far more inclined to view the matter as sheer hypocrisy.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 18, 2005 3:09:44 PM

Posted by: Zehou

Tristeno wrote: "I honestly don't understand what you are talking about here as it bears no relation to anything I actually experienced in college [in the late 70s]."

The issue is whether dormitory relativism is, as Don put it, a "flower" or a "weed." You report that 25 years ago in your dorm, the attitude or pretense under discussion here was nowhere to be found. But that has no bearing on whether the attitude in question is a flower or a weed, right?

Posted by: Zehou | Jun 18, 2005 4:08:39 PM

Posted by: YoungCity

Two quick comments:

1) Moral universalism does NOT commit us to the claim that Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, etc. had bad character. It commits us only to the claim that some of their conduct was not justified. It is still open to us to say that this very same conduct was excused, and therefore, does not reflect (as?) poorly on their characters as the same conduct would reflect on the characters of most present-day people.

2) It seems much too quick to simply say, "Oh, well of course there's no objective starting point for moral reasoning. We all begin with axioms that reflect nothing more than our preferences." Some moralists have argued that, by simply engaging in practical deliberation at all, we must of necessity make certain presuppositions. Kant and those who have extended his thought argue along these lines. Others have argued that, by engaging in practical discourse with others, we must also make presuppositions. Habermas and other proponents of "communicative ethics" have pushed this line. I'd butcher their arguments terribly if I tried to reconstruct them here, but I think anyone who wants to defend the "Oh well, it's all just preference at root" view has to rebut Kant, Habermas, and their many followers. I also think it's wrong to say, "This kind of thinking has been around for a while, and it hasn't produced convergence around a single answer, so it's bound to fail." While Kant is, of course, long gone, serious extentions/elaborations of his central framework have only taken place within the last couple of decades. As for Habermans -- his "A Theory of Communicative Action" was what -- 1980? WAAAAAY too soon for pessimistic meta-induction.

Posted by: YoungCity | Jun 18, 2005 8:00:14 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely


I know next to nothing of Habermas and intend to keep it that way on “life is too short...” grounds. I am critical of what I know of the critical crowd and the closest I ever got to the Frankfurt School was many a fine evening drinking too much in Sachenhausen. But, as you say, it’s too early to tell about such things. However, I think we can safely deny that there hasn’t been much serious work on Kant or Kantian themes until the last several decades, whatever the various merits of Kantians, Neo-Kantians and/or Post-Kantians may be.

I don’t deny that “by simply engaging in practical deliberation at all, we must of necessity make certain presuppositions,” and I wouldn’t deny it if you substituted moral for practical. But the same thing can be claimed about simply engaging in a discussion of law or officiating a baseball game. Of course those inside those frameworks make certain presuppositions. I said as much above. That simply doesn’t address the skeptic who stands outside that context and asserts that the difference between X being right or wrong is ultimately no more substantial than the difference between a play being scored a hit or an error. Telling him that he is just refusing to play the game is just a dodge when his point is that it really is just a game however popular it may be.

As for why normative ethical theories have been around for a long time but haven’t “produced convergence around a single answer,” however, there’s a good reason for that: there is no single answer. Ignoring for the moment the recently resurgent interest in virtue ethics, the longstanding twin contenders for the title, deontological and consequentialist ethics, have been smacking each other around the ring for too many rounds now for the smart money to be willing to bet on a knockout, but they’ve also managed to batter and bloody each other pretty well in the process. My own purely amateur and admittedly idiosyncratic view is that any thoroughgoing account of our moral lives will have to view these influences as both symbiotic and mutually limiting, but that even that would not answer the metaethical question of whether there is anything objective beyond our mere preferences going on however much they may be expressed in varying degrees on various occasions in either deontological or consequentialist terms.

Then again, as the kids used to say on the internet, your mileage may vary.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 18, 2005 11:11:18 PM

Posted by: A Scott Crawford

Although I suspect that D. Herzog is using the dorm analogy in a loose manner in order to establish a higher principle, I think the irony of using the University of Michigan dorms and Ann Arbor has been overlooked.

The U of M has an official code of conduct for its students, including those staying in dorms. This is worth linking:


In addition to the general University wide code, UofM students living in dorms are asked to agree to an additional set of rules downloadable from this link:


Furthermore, the University asks this be considered a CONTRACTUAL and binding agreement on students living in dorms.

A further important detail regarding living in a dorm in Ann Arbor is that the University has it's OWN armed "police" force... glock 9mm, for those interested... The U of M, and it's gun toting cops, consider University property to have a legal jurisdiction INDEPENDENT of the City of Ann Arbor, an important detail for those of you who are pot smokers, as smoking a joint in Ann Arbor will land one a $25 fine, while doing the same on campus is charged as felony possession (add "with intent to sell" if you've pre-rolled too many party favors... a mandatory minimum in the State of Michigan).

Add this up and "dorm relativism" doesn't smell as sweet as it would have twenty years ago. Should a hypothetical frosh in the UofM dorm say something that in the arbitrary opinion of her floors student RA was sexist, racist, bigoted, threatening, or the cause of "emotional" harm to another student, they would be presumed guilty until a "conflict resolution" panel decided otherwise, as the testimony of the student RA is, in practice, ALWAYS believed over that of the accused student.

Thus the first rule of "dorm relativism" is that SOME undergraduate students (RAs) subjective opinions are not to be questioned by other undergraduate students under their authority, and that these students feelings ("emotions") and personal biases define the bounds of allowable discourse. Freshmen are taught that rules don't apply to bootlickers and quislings, only to those who displease successful and proven bootlickers and quislings.

The second rule of "dorm relativism" is that questioning authority is dangerous. Those who remain silent cannot be punished. Those who correctly learn and memorize the expected answers are rewarded.

The third rule is that the logic of "dorm relativism" requires the "expected answers" be treated as tautologically "correct". Bourgeois follies such as "truth", "facts", "justice", "honesty", are only useful if they support the "expected answers". Otherwise they're mere "social constructions", anachronisms, and etc. In Ann Arbor, 2 + 2 = 5 by default.

Here is my point. "Dorm relativism" is an ideal that does not exist in practice due to the manner used in the attempt to convey it. It is moot whether or not the ideal is attainable, as the current system has no practical reason to change or reform or question itself. As the UofM defines success, it is successful. It is a rich university, attracts top students and academics, and its reputation is good. All things considered, does it matter if the UofM is betraying its own ideals in practice? As long as no one tells the Emperor he's naked, why shouldn't he be correct to believe he's as well dressed his Court claims?

Posted by: A Scott Crawford | Jun 19, 2005 1:44:49 AM

Posted by: mtnmarty


Re: Godwin's law

If I were a universalist, I would quote the following

"There is a tradition in many Usenet newsgroups that once such a comparison is made, the thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. In addition, it is considered poor form to invoke the law explicitly"

Or I could just take the relativist position and say I'm exempt from Godwin's law.

But actually, I'll just use situationist ethics and plead for mercy. I've recently seen the movie Downfall and it just slipped out.

Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 19, 2005 1:45:12 AM

Posted by: mtnmarty

Young City:

Actually moral universalism doesn't even require slavery to be wrong, its just requires that IF its wrong, its wrong for everyone equally.

But that's not what I wanted to ask you about. I like Habermas' other, less formal, writings much more than his Theory of Communicative Action. He is outstandingly insightful.

I'm perfectly willing to replace presuppositions for preferences. The point isn't that everyone just argues for what they like, its that none of us can figure out the right moral presuppositions.

Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 19, 2005 2:10:38 AM

Posted by: mtnmarty


I'm curious as to how this discussion of the moral axioms would work. Continuing the mathematical analogy, scientists can argue about which axioms make for the best models up against observations, but what form does a mathematical argument about axioms take ( assuming they are non-contradictory)?

Likewise, how would a discussion of the moral axioms ever tell us that they are incorrect? If we know how to judge the axioms ex post, why didn't we incorporate that knowledge a priori?

The trouble I have is that the track record for common sense intuitions up against scientific knowledge seems to be pretty
poor. (atoms, what atoms?)

But for moral knowledge the only tests we seem to have are our intuitions.

Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 19, 2005 2:29:20 AM

Posted by: mtnmarty


I'm trying to figure our what to make of the fact that you find the sceptics position unrefuted (although possibly refutable) yet your conscience seems to be pretty clear about your ability to muddle through. (as in..."I decided that they lived on a different planet that had nothing to do with reality, an opinion that I have yet to find occasion to reject in my subsequent encounters with similar folks.")

Don't you ever worry that maybe, just maybe the marxists were right and private property is all about theft, or maybe the Islamisists are right and the USA is the great Satan, or maybe Abraham just lost his nerve and God really did want Isaac sacrificed or maybe we're all polluting Native American land and the great spirit is crying tears over us, or maybe the point of life is just to get the Iraqi's stacked up in a nude pyramid and get a sweet snapshot for the friends back home.

I listen to the Euro's bag on Bush and I listen to the Neocons bag on old Europe and darn if I don't have a heck of a time telling who the socio's are and who are the paths.

They can't both be right and to hear them talk I've got to make a choice and if I guess wrong I'm pretty much getting in bed with evil or a barbarian.

So, since my own conscience won't let me dismiss ol' man Blaise Pascal's wager as easily as some, but the choices for Gods these days are friggin' enormous, unlike Pascal, the odds of winning seem pretty hopeless to me. My im/mortal soul is on the line and all I've got is sucker bets...

Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 19, 2005 3:01:29 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

No, these things don’t bother me all that much, mtnmarty. Perhaps they once did, but like the fellow in Monty Python who got turned into a newt, I got better. I’m much more concerned that someone who is not ‘right,’ whatever that may mean, manages to convince too many other people that he is, and that goes equally for the religionists and the philosophers in our midst.

I have no problem at all asserting that while none of the various theories you mention might be ‘right’ it is quite possible they are all wrong. (And I am certainly not suggesting that we abandon the law of contradiction, so I don’t mean to suggest I believe they might all be right.) But even or especially in that regard there is much to consider about how our notions of truth and proof and evidence and refutation do or should be applied when we are engaged in ethics talk, God talk, etc. Unrefuted isn’t the same thing as unrefutable, but what the skeptic might really be is not offering one of a number of competing theories but pointing to a limit to language and reason beyond which simply lies nonsense. (Even if some of us believe it is terribly important nonsense.)

Look, here are a few observable truths. Their theological beliefs or philosophical accounts aside, most people have pretty common beliefs and attitudes about injustice and toward the desirability of successfully pursuing certain objectives. Most of us will agree, even without any such theological or philosophical reflection or belief, that health and security, friendship and love, knowledge and wisdom, peace and prosperity, etc., etc., are desirable goals and that there are better and worse ways of achieving them. Most of us agree that somehow people are different from everything else in the world we find ourselves in and that certain consequences flow from that fact, including the conclusion or at least the operating assumption that we are moral agents worthy of moral regard from others and capable of moral responsibility in our own actions. But beyond those core attitudes and beliefs, how we work out the details and implications vary widely and sometimes wildly. These are the facts – facts, mind you – that make ethics both possible and necessary.

Now, does it bother me that all of this might merely be the result of some neurological hard wiring or deeply imprinted socialization and acculturation or even the mandates of a God who has seen fit to reveal Himself and His will in ways that permit significant disagreement over what exactly He really does expect or whether He even exists? Nope. Wouldn’t change those core facts one bit. Does it bother me we may never be able to discern which of these possible underlying sources is the ‘real’ one? Nope. Same answer. Even if we do someday learn how to change our hard wiring or manage to intentionally manipulate our socialization or convince God to change His mind (if we could in any of these, as it were, figure out how to “play chess without the queen”), whatever Brave New World we manage to create won’t help us one little bit trying to figure out how to live in the here and now. So why worry about it?

Finally, I sadly suspect we all get in bed with evil and barbarism, even when we sleep alone. And as for the consequences of picking the wrong God, I hold a theology of products liability – if a product doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, the blame lies not with the product but with the manufacturer.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 19, 2005 8:58:12 AM

Posted by: noah

DAR...very nice post. Up to your usual standard of urbane sophistry! (Just kidding)!

I for one would like to hear from the other side an explanation of why they think that the boundaries of your Venn diagram can be solidified. Someone referred on this or another thread to a mathematical theorem by DV regarding the existence of moral truth. Was that serious and does anyone have a reference?

Posted by: noah | Jun 19, 2005 9:29:48 AM

Posted by: Carl

I believe it was Locke who said that everywhere men are in agreement that we must seek the virtuous and avoid evil. Of course, he went on to say, everywhere men are in disagreement about what constitutes the virtuous and what constitutes the evil.

I think the root of dormitory relativism is a recognition that everyone else in the dorm is, like you, more or less trying to seek virtue and avoid evil, but utterly confused about what constitutes such things. This recognition of common aims is the core of dormitory accord and also the core of democratic ideals-- namely the idea that all Americans are powered by a search for life, liberty, and happiness, but unable to come to definitive conclusions about what the best way to go about such things is. Now, in order to have a workable democratic system, there must of necessity be agreement on those basic points, that people are seeking the good but the good is hard to figure out and honest people make mistakes. The problem with pre-democratic societies is that by-and-large no such feeling that "honest people can make mistakes" exists. The problem with absolutist societies is that they *know* the Truth, and if you don't see it their way, then you're a tool of the evil one.

Now, what allows a society to transition from absolutist to democratic, and is that transition a good one? In America's case, the transition was aided by the religious make up of the colonists-- namely that they were almost all Protestants, but it was really hard to figure out which kind of Protestant was the right kind to be. Since no one branch could argue unassailably that theirs was the only correct one, people eventually just decided to let the matter alone, so God was probably going to let all Protestants into Heaven anyway.

All this was basically just a historical accident, but it's had the effect of bringing about a spreading culture of democracy. Now, non-democratic cultures rightly see democratic cultures as a threat, since democracy will undermine what they see as the singular truth and replace it with a myriad of striving factions. Democratic theorists, for their part, have noticed this tendency, and see to feel bad that democracy is incompatible with absolutism, since the whole premise of democracy is supposed to be its universal compatibility.

I say, it's a shame that we can't all get along, but democrats should push forward nevertheless. Why? Because, as far as I'm concerned, it's evident that no moral system is so obvious as to preclude possibility that some other system could in fact be the correct one. Absolutists may not see it that way, and it is semi-contradictory for me to try to push my belief that beliefs shouldn't be pushed on to people onto them, but the point is that in this case, *we're right* and *they're wrong*, and if we just wait long enough, we'll triumph within the marketplace of ideas because of our rightness.

Posted by: Carl | Jun 19, 2005 9:47:12 AM

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