All Claims Are Equal

One of the most prominent strawman attacks of postmodernism and of relativism more generally is the statement countering the claim that all claims are equal.

I know of no one outside those attacking the claim believe this. I’ll give a couple of examples to illustrate why the attack is preposterous — a culinary case and a socio-political case.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Visit a recipe site, and search for macaroni cheese recipes. You’ll get hundreds if not thousands of recipes. Are they all equal? No. It depends on your tastes and preferences…even your audience. There are variations in the type of pasta, the type or types of cheese, whether to add additional ingredients, whether to prepare on the range or baked in the oven, and so on.

For your children, a prêt-à-manger out of the box preparation as opposed to the Gruyère and truffles verion you’re reserving for your next soirée.

Is there a best recipe? No. There are only preferences.

Is there an objectively best recipe? No. There are only preferences.

Can I create any recipe? No. Read on.

And they called it macaroni…

To have a recipe qualify as mac & cheese, there are at least to requirements for inclusion into the domain: Macaroni (or any pasta product or substitute) and cheese (ditto but with cheese products). I’m only pretty sure that no one countering that relativists claim that everything is equal is also arguing that one can make mac & cheese with, say, tacks and bricks. So, one has to question either the intelligence or the integrity of someone assuming someone else would defend this argument. Context matters. And just the choice of a contextual boundary is subjective (and relative).

Good Enough for the Government?

This works for recipes, but what about for government? Obviously Democracy is the best possible form of government because reasons, duh. And people. And agency. And other words I can imagine and associate in my defence.

As with mac & cheese, we need a defined purpose. The problem is that there are not only different purposes, there are different actors, each with their own needs and desires.

At no time is anyone arguing that public policy created by a council of gerbils is the same as that of people or or some artificial intelligence, just as no one is proposing that we throw mac & cheese against a wall in the manner or reading entrails to arrive at a meaningful end. Though, to be fair, given some policy choices I’ve seen, I might have voted for the mac & cheese method.

So, what are you trying to say?

By now a reader should have disavowed the notion that relativists do not recognise domain boundaries. It could be very legitimate for a non-relativist (objectivist?) to call something out as having improper domain boundaries, whether over-specified, under-specified, or just mis-specified, but that’s not the same claim.

A person may justifiably make the claim that such a such is not valid because it does not account for some other absent cohort. Perhaps it leaves out the dead or the unborn, or the animals, or the broader biosphere, if only by proxy. This is not to say that this would be easy or convenient, but it is certainly rational.

Most implemented government systems not only privilege humans over everything else, it virtually excludes everything else. But this is not the main point, which is that if a place and people have a functioning form of government, whether it is better or worse is up to the participants to decide, and there is not likely to be a consensus view. It should always be expected that there will be detractors for any number of reasons. There may be large contingencies of detractors. It could easily be that a government is divided into two worldviews, as in the United States, Canada, and the UK — each side claiming that they’ve got the solution, each side denying relativism in order to defend their version of truth.

Stephen Hicks’ Strawman

I’ve been reading and listening to Conservative Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism. He’s made it free on YouTube and as PDF. It’s important to note that the book is a decent read, but Hicks makes little attempt to remain in a neutral voice. It’s clear that he is critical of it, so his explaining is not to articulate to the generally interested; rather, it’s to impose his worldview on the topic matter. Read or listen, but keep this in mind. If you lean Conservative, you’ll eye-roll in unison with him; if you lean to the Left, the eye-rolls will have a different significance, as he mows down one strawman after another.

In this clip (bookmarked from the full audiobook), he attempts to make the case that postmodernists—which is as motley a crew as a group of atheists—eschew the notion of rationality for the comfort of feelings. Sure, I suppose some postmodernists do make this argument, but it is hardly a universal position. Taking myself as an example, I have no illusion that most people can register let alone understand their feelings.

I recall being in a corporate-sponsored (human resource-sponsored) interpersonal communications class where the instructor made the claim that one should defend your position by invoking feelings:

  • Your loud voice frightened me.
  • I feel sad when you shout at me.
  • I feel anxious when…

My reaction then is about the same as it is as I write: Whilst I may not understand what the other person may be feeling, there is little reason for me to believe that this person has identified and named this feeling. There is also little reason to presume this person is conveying to me a correctly-interpreted feeling in lieu of a more hyperbolic version for maximum effect. Moreover, some people seem to be offended by pretty much anything. And there’s one thing I’ve learnt along the way:

A person looking to be offended is pretty much guaranteed to be offended.

So, absent context, I have no reason to take this person at their word. Call me a curmudgeon, if you please.

Like Jordan Peterson, a personality who promotes Hicks, standing up and knocking down strawmen seems to be their raisons d’être, but this is sloppy philosophy and lacks the integrity these people claim to admire. In any case, forewarned is forearmed. Caveat emptor.

EDIT: The more I read of Hicks, the less I like it. He misunderstands or at least misrepresents postmodernism in a big way. I am not sure whether it is intentional or through ignorance, but a certain expected academic neutrality is absent to the brink of malpractice.

Here is a fuller critique of Hicks’ misrepresentation of Postmodernism.