Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Relative values

I'm back - for a while at least. So no messing about...

The other week I had an interesting difference of opinion with a relative of mine. Bear with me while I set the scene.

The difference centred on a book I had lent him:
Welcome to Everytown by Julian Baggini. Baggini is a populist philosopher, a middle-class liberal intellectual; he lives a very different lifestyle to most people in Britain. For six months he tried living as the typical UK person: renting a house in the most statistically average postcode, living off an average income, reading only popular newspapers, drinking in ordinary pubs, dining at the carvery, holidaying in Spain and watching only popular TV and films...

Everytown is an intellectual's take on Britain today, and especially our attitudes to the way things are. I thought Baggini's insights were interesting and more generous than might be expected - the main exception being his views on popular culture, which I judged as a fudge. In contrast, my relative thought the book was largely patronising - with the exception of Baggini's views on popular culture, which he thought were interesting!

That's a long introduction to the relative views of two relatives, neither of whom is necessarily right. But it got me thinking about why I disagreed so much.

For six months Baggini had exclusively consumed popular TV, films and books. (Examples being Pirates of The Caribbean, The X Factor and Harry Potter). To his surprise, he finds popular culture is better produced and of greater quality than his intellectual prejudices had credited. Much of it, he concludes, is superior to the second rate art-house nonsense that passes as intellectual quality.

So far, so good - I couldn't agree more.

But my relative interpreted Baggini slightly differently. His take was that Baggini was saying popular culture is
no better or worse than great culture - it was just different! Now that is a completely different thing. In my view, Baggini skillfully avoids actually saying this, but it is not an unreasonable interpretation as he tries desperately to appear more open minded than I suspect he is.

The view that popular culture is
no better or worse - just different - to great culture, is a mild example of what philosophers call relativism. And the problem with relativism is that what sounds reasonable in a few well chosen examples, begins to look silly as we apply the principle more widely.

My friend John, for example, might judge Zulu to be a great film (not unreasonable); Steve, on the other hand could say the same about Happy Gilmore (a truly dreadful film by anyone's standards). In the relativist view these two films, and the underlying judgements of John and Steve, are neither better nor worse, they are simply

But why stop at films, or indeed culture in general? Are not political systems relative to the historical circumstances from which we view them? And what about good moral standards, or fine food, or A-level essays, or responsible companies...

Once we allow that our judgements are merely relative, it opens up some very uncomfortable conclusions. In the hard-line relativist view, Fascism and Dictatorship are not intrinsically better or worse than Democracy - they are
just different. Our judgement of Stalin and Hitler has become a matter of relative moral prejudices.

Returning to our disagreement on popular culture, my relative argued that the music of the Beatles was no better or worse than classical music. That may be so - I'm not the best judge because music is not my area - but it cannot be on the basis that it is 'just different'.

On that basis any amount of absurdity is possible. Mills and Boon novels become just different to Jane Austen; Perry Como is just different to Mozart; the film Porkys is just different to Citizen Kane. Really? Really, really?

For all that my friends and colleagues chide me for being an 'intellectual' (
strange that it is now a pejorative term) I enjoy huge amounts of popular culture - I've watched Toy Story enough times to know the dialogue and I'm in much the same place with Gavin and Stacey. I'm also far from a connoisseur of high culture - I don't get opera and am pretty ambivalent about Shakespeare.

But that doesn't mean I think all culture is equal - frankly, it isn't.

The trouble with cultural relativism is that it dumbs down what are already low standards. A few well chosen examples may flatter our egos, but let's not pretend that Saturday night TV is an enhancing experience or that Harry Potter is the equal of Dickens. If we do, we are kidding no one but ourselves.


  1. If we don't point out the dangers of 'just different' then we do a tremendous disservice to people whose horizons are already being limited by populist education.

    I'm not a complete culture vulture, there are aspects of popular culture which I enjoy and I agree that the production quality is considerably better than the productions of some of the art house poseurs, but I know the difference and know that what marks the difference is important.

    I feel that the notion of 'equality' has been tampered with, to exclude more and more people from access to true education - that which teaches the skills necessary for independent thought - by offering easily accessible fodder.

    I feel so strongly that working class children are being sold short by the relativism current in modern education circles - and their parents don't have the knowledge or means to remove their children to a better educational environment.

  2. But isn't relativism hard to avoid when all human judgement is unavoidably subjective?

  3. Steve - relativism is hard to avoid but, I would argue that at some point we need to make qualitative judgements. I think intuitively we all know there is genuine difference between a good and a bad essay, good and bad behaviour etc And if we were pushed we could identify the criteria we use to arrive at that conclusion.

    It is entirely possible to assert the counter view, that 'this is all relative' - but to stay logically consistant it leads you into some very difficult territory. For example, I find it hard to accept there are ever any circumstances where gratuitous torture was justified - but a true hard line relativist would have to disagree with that statement.

    Put a different way, most of us bring up our children in a way that recognises there is a lot of room for preference and interpretation, but there are also some things that are plainly good or bad, better or worse, than others.

    Wright stuff - well thank you.

  4. Oh you argued that so well, Mark. No wonder you got such high marks for all your courses. I lose my thread very often but you did your introduction, argument and then your conclusion like text book stuff (note my use of the clever word *stuff*).

    One man's meat and other cliches apply here I think. One of my friends is the most intellectual person I know. She sailed through Oxford, got her Doctorate at quite a young age and now is a top lecturer and writer.
    Well, she once bought this framed photo of a bit of privet hedge and then spent the whole afternoon telling me it was as good a piece of artwork as, say, something by Leonardo. Of course I spluttered a lot but was not up to the argument and we agreed to disagree.

    That is the best thing about a 'proper' education - it can help you express your point of view in a very clear way. You have this - I sometimes have it - but some people never have it.

    Conclusion - anyone who thinks the Beatles were as good as, say, Mahler or Beethoven is just wrong.

  5. Have you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Basically a treatise on "What is quality?"

    The Beatles? As good as Mahler or Beethoven? Different for sure, but how do you compare apples and oranges? Better songs than Schubert? At least you're comparing songs. What makes a song good? Matching the emotional expression of the music to the meaning of the words? Tunefulness? Complexity? What is the purpose of a song? To entertain via emotional manipulation? If you don't cry for Kate Bush's "Woman's Work" you have no soul. How do you feel about Eleanor Rigby?

  6. Cogi - Yes, I've read Zen and ... very good it is too, as is his follow up book, Lila

    I need to do a post on how we can compare and judge between competing virtues; and when trying to do so is pointless.

    This is getting heavy!

  7. Exactly. I'm thinking it's pointless to compare The Beatles with Beethoven or Mahler, in the same way that it would be to try to compare Eminem with Sousa.

  8. More food for thought.

    My 'relative' take on this.......Is relativism about embracing subjectivity ....and the idea of being able to judge something as better or worse by some well considered criteria just objectivity? But then again - deciding upon the criteria will be a subjective process surely.

    'Culture' has such a wide scope - it serves many purposes - enjoyment, challenging views, informing, asthetic pleasure...I wouldn't dare attempt a comprehensive list. Dickens might be perceived to be better quality than Harry Potter by literary critics but their criteria is quite specific. If by 'better quality' we mean 'more intellectually challenging' then my personal inverted snobbery might struggle with such elitism.

    If I have been stimulated by something because I enjoyed it or it provoked thought I am not worried about how others might perceive it in the intellectual (or any other) pecking order. Recently I watched a really (probably terrible by most peiople's standards) popular culture programme where fifteen women had to choose a date. However, I got some pleasure from it as I found it a fascinating study of human nature and prejudice, the gender sterotyping etc.....so it's all in the receiving - which is subjective and relative.

    If some cannot access certain 'cultural masterpieces' because they are not academic or 'clever' enough...that culture will have no benefit to them whatsoever - so it's no good to them whereas something that someone else would not gain pleasure from, they will. I am just repeating myself here.

    With respect to moral standards, for example...there are definitive criteria about human rights and which behaviours are acceptable and which are not - after years of moral speculation. So I guess there is a bit of a criteria driven 'right and wrong' 'better or worse' standard with respect to morality - based on harmful impact. Extreme political views...whichever way, tended to become corrupt through power and lives were lost. So we respond emotively to Hitler and Stalin in a way that the objective theory behind communism or fascism might not muster. oooo I've lost myself now. lost that point!!!!

    I have rambled away from your original post....because...as always...you set me off thinking! My head is off in all directions!!!

    Thank you!

    No doubt I will ponder more. i might even read the book, if you recommend it.

    I find there's rarely a conclusion for me - always just more questions! (P not J)!!!

  9. Molly - a feast of thoughts!

    The key thing about relativism (in its general sense, not just in relation to culture) is that - put crudely - there are no half measures.

    Yes, all our perspectives are different and culturally influenced etc, but at some point we have to chose - there either are some objective standards of quality / virtue or there not. It doesn't work to say for example that relativism is OK in books or music but does not apply to our stndards of human rights - it's all or nothing I'm afraid!

    I say - and I just have to assert it, because it can't be 'proved' in a scientific way - that there are some objective standards and that some things are BETTER than others. Defining those standards might be difficult, but there ways we can devise that are at least persuasive (future post I think).

    Most philosophers arrive at this conclusion because they recognise the alternative is a moral anarchy - and most people act this way beacuse it intuitively makes sense.

    All of this, however, should not be confused with the idea that 'difference' can be culturally enhancing and has a value in itself - that is an entirely different issue.

  10. Well I want a new concept with its own name please. I'm not happy with all or nothing because as a perceiver...I hate closure! I revel in the grey area and the possibility that there is no finite judgement (as a new angle can come along). I guess that makes for perpetual learning.

    We apply better and worse to lots of situations, products etc. We make analytical judgements all the time. E.g. that car is more fuel efficient than that one. But in subjective judgement matters - like how culture is received or persoanalities for example I am more comfortable with just 'different'. And that's about preserving self esteem!!! That's hippy liberalism for you.

    Maybe my concept needs to be about when to apply analytical judgement with better and worse and when to go all subjective and be happy with different. mmm interesting. I'll call it 'Eh?'

    I await your post.....with interest.

    And would you recommend the book...I'm more psychology than philosophy.

  11. FF - I missed your comment; and so complimentary too.

    Art is very difficult area because it involves preferences as well as good taste (value judgement). I think I'd have sniggered at the privet hedge mind.
    And agree about a 'proper education too (value judgement again) - for all I love learning now, I think my schooling was pretty uninspiring and I missed so much as a result.

  12. Sorry to have sounded a bit stroppy. I did put a first sentence in with string (you know those sideways triangles) with some silly phrase like 'pokes Mark to say look at me' - but I didn't realise that those string emblems make things disappear.