Note: This is a slightly abridged (but otherwise largely warts and all) version of an article that I had published in Quadrant magazine in April 1999. It has not previously been published online (except that I am cross-posting on my own blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club). While my views have developed somewhat in the interim, there may be some advantage in republishing it for a new audience, especially at a time when there is much discussion of a “regressive left”.
In a recent mini-review of David Stove’s Anything Goes: Origins of Scientific Irrationalism (originally published in 1982 as Popper and After), Diane Carlyle and Nick Walker make a casual reference to Stove’s “reactionary polemic”. By contrast, they refer to the philosophies of science that Stove attacks as “progressive notions of culture-based scientific knowledge”. To say the least, this appears tendentious.
To be fair, Carlyle and Walker end up saying some favourable things about Stove’s book. What is nonetheless alarming about their review is that it evidences just how easy it has become to write as if scientific realism were inherently “reactionary” and the more or less relativist views of scientific knowledge that predominate among social scientists and humanities scholars were “progressive”.
The words “reactionary” and “progressive” usually attach themselves to political and social movements, some kind of traditionalist or conservative backlash versus an attempt to advance political liberties or social equality. Perhaps Carlyle and Walker had another sense in mind, but the connotations of their words are pretty inescapable. Moreover, they would know as well as I do that there is now a prevalent equation within the social sciences and humanities of relativist conceptions of truth and reality with left-wing social critique, and of scientific realism with the political right. Carlyle and Walker wrote their piece against that background. But where does it leave those of us who retain at least a temperamental attachment to the left, however nebulous that concept is becoming, while remaining committed to scientific realism? To adapt a phrase from Christina Hoff Sommers, we are entitled to ask about who has been stealing socially liberal thought in general.
Is the life of reason and liberty (intellectual and otherwise) that some people currently enjoy in some countries no more than an historical anomaly, a short-lived bubble that will soon burst? It may well appear so. Observe the dreadful credulity of the general public in relation to mysticism, magic and pseudoscience, and the same public’s preponderant ignorance of genuine science. Factor in the lowbrow popularity of religious fundamentalism and the anti-scientific rantings of highbrow conservatives such as Bryan Appleyard. Yet the sharpest goad to despair is the appearance that what passes for the intellectual and artistic left has now repudiated the Enlightenment project of conjoined scientific and social progress.
Many theorists in the social sciences and humanities appear obsessed with dismantling the entirety of post-Enlightenment political, philosophical and scientific thought. This is imagined to be a progressive act, desirable to promote the various social, cultural and other causes that have become politically urgent in recent decades, particularly those associated with sex, race, and the aftermath of colonialism. The positions on these latter issues taken by university-based theorists give them a claim to belong to, if not actually constitute, the “academic left”, and I’ll refer to them with this shorthand expression.
There is, however, nothing inherently left-wing about wishing to sweep away our Enlightenment legacy. Nor is a commitment to scientific inquiry and hard philosophical analysis inconsistent with socially liberal views. Abandonment of the project of rational inquiry, with its cross-checking of knowledge in different fields, merely opens the door to the worst kind of politics that the historical left could imagine, for the alternative is that “truth” be determined by whoever, at particular times and places, possesses sufficient political or rhetorical power to decide what beliefs are orthodox. The rationality of our society is at stake, but so is the fate of the left itself, if it is so foolish as to abandon the standards of reason for something more like a brute contest for power.
It is difficult to know where to start in criticising the academic left’s contribution to our society’s anti-rationalist drift. The approaches I am gesturing towards are diverse among themselves, as well as being professed in the universities side by side with more traditional methods of analysing society and culture. There is considerable useful dialogue among all these approaches, and it can be difficult obtaining an accurate idea of specific influences within the general intellectual milieu.
However, amidst all the intellectual currents and cross-currents, it is possible to find something of a common element in the thesis or assumption (sometimes one, sometimes the other) that reality, or our knowledge of it, is “socially constructed”. There are many things this might mean, and I explain below why I do not quarrel with them all.
In the extreme, however, our conceptions of reality, truth and knowledge are relativised, leading to absurd doctrines, such as the repudiation of deductive logic or the denial of a mind-independent world. Symptomatic of the approach I am condemning is a subordination of the intellectual quest for knowledge and understanding to political and social advocacy. Some writers are prepared to misrepresent mathematical and scientific findings for the purposes of point scoring or intellectual play, or the simple pleasure of ego-strutting. All this is antithetical to Enlightenment values, but so much – it might be said – for the Enlightenment.
The notion that reality is socially constructed would be attractive and defensible if it were restricted to a thesis about the considerable historical contingency of any culture’s social practices and mores, and its systems of belief, understanding and evaluation. These are, indeed, shaped partly by the way they co-evolve and “fit” with each other, and by the culture’s underlying economic and other material circumstances.
The body of beliefs available to anyone will be constrained by the circumstances of her culture, including its attitude to free inquiry, the concepts it has already built up for understanding the world, and its available technologies for the gathering of data. Though Stove is surely correct to emphasise that the accumulation of empirical knowledge since the 17th century has been genuine, the directions taken by science have been influenced by pre-existing values and beliefs. Meanwhile, social practices, metaphysical and ethical (rather than empirical) beliefs, the methods by which society is organised and by which human beings understand their experience are none of them determined in any simple, direct or uniform way by human “nature” or biology, or by transcendental events.
So far, so good – but none of this is to suggest that all of these categories should or can be treated in exactly the same way. Take the domain of metaphysical questions. Philosophers working in metaphysics are concerned to understand such fundamentals as space, time, causation, the kinds of substances that ultimately exist, the nature of consciousness and the self. The answers cannot simply be “read off” our access to empirical data or our most fundamental scientific theories, or some body of transcendental knowledge. Nonetheless, I am content to assume that all these questions, however intractable we find them, have correct answers.
The case of ethical disagreement may be very different, and I discuss it in more detail below. It may be that widespread and deep ethical disagreement actually evidences the correctness of a particular metaphysical (and meta-ethical) theory – that there are no objectively existing properties of moral good and evil. Yet, to the extent that they depend upon empirical beliefs about the consequences of human conduct, practical moral judgements may often be reconcilable. Your attitude to the rights of homosexuals will differ from mine if yours is based on a belief that homosexual acts cause earthquakes.
Again, the social practices of historical societies may turn out to be constrained by our biology in a way that is not true of the ultimate answers to questions of metaphysics. All these are areas where human behaviour and belief may be shaped by material circumstances and the way they fit with each other, and relatively unconstrained by empirical knowledge. But, to repeat, they are not all the same.
Where this appears to lead us is that, for complicated reasons and in awkward ways, there is much about the practices and beliefs of different cultures that is contingent on history. In particular, the way institutions are built up around experience is more or less historically contingent, dependent largely upon economic and environmental circumstances and on earlier or co-evolving layers of political and social structures. Much of our activity as human beings in the realms of understanding, organising, valuing and responding to experience can reasonably be described as “socially constructed”, and it will often make perfectly good sense to refer to social practices, categories, concepts and beliefs as “social constructions”.
Yet this modest insight cries out for clear intellectual distinctions and detailed application to particular situations, with conscientious linkages to empirical data. It cannot provide a short-cut to moral perspicuity or sound policy formulation. Nor is it inconsistent with a belief in the actual existence of law-governed events in the empirical world, which can be the subject of objective scientific theory and accumulating knowledge.
As Antony Flew once expressed it, what is socially constructed is not reality itself but merely “reality”: the beliefs, meanings and values available within a culture.
Thus, none of what I’ve described so far amounts to “social constructionism” in a pure or philosophical sense, since this would require, in effect, that we never have any knowledge. It would require a thesis that all beliefs are so deeply permeated by socially specific ideas that they never transcend their social conditions of production to the extent of being about objective reality. To take this a step further, even the truth about physical nature would be relative to social institutions – relativism applies all the way down.
Two important points need to be made here. First, even without such a strong concept of socially constructed knowledge, social scientists and humanities scholars have considerable room to pursue research programs aimed at exploring the historically contingent nature of social institutions. In the next section, I argue that this applies quintessentially to socially accepted moral beliefs.
Second, however, there is a question as to why anyone would insist upon the thesis that the nature of reality is somehow relative to social beliefs all the way down, that there is no point at which we ever hit a bedrock of truth and falsity about anything. It is notorious that intellectuals who use such language sometimes retreat, when challenged, to a far more modest or equivocal kind of position.
Certainly, there is no need for anyone’s political or social aims to lead them to deny the mind-independent existence of physical nature, or to suggest that the truth about it is, in an ultimate sense, relative to social beliefs or subjective to particular observers. Nonetheless, many left-wing intellectuals freely express a view in which reality, not “reality”, is a mere social construction.
If social construction theory is to have any significant practical bite, then it has to assert that moral beliefs are part of what is socially constructed. I wish to explore this issue through some more fundamental considerations about ethics.
It is well-documented that there are dramatic contrasts between different societies’ practical beliefs about what is right and wrong, so much so that the philosopher J.L. Mackie said that these “make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths.” As Mackie develops the argument, it is not part of some general theory that “the truth is relative”, but involves a careful attempt to show that the diversity of moral beliefs is not analogous to the usual disagreements about the nature of the physical world.
Along with other arguments put by philosophers in Hume’s radical empiricist tradition, Mackie’s appeal to cultural diversity may persuade us that there are no objective moral truths. Indeed, it seems to me that there are only two positions here that are intellectually viable. The first is that Mackie is simply correct. This idea might seem to lead to cultural relativism about morality, but things are not always what they seem.
The second viable position is that there are objective moral truths, but they take the form of principles of an extremely broad nature, broad enough to help shape – rather than being shaped by – a diverse range of social practices in different environmental, economic and other circumstances.
If this is so, particular social practices and practical moral beliefs have some ultimate relationship to fundamental moral principles, but there can be enormous “slippage” between the two, depending on the range of circumstances confronting different human societies. Moreover, during times of rapid change such as industrialised societies have experienced in the last three centuries – and especially the last several decades – social practices and practical moral beliefs might tend to be frozen in place, even though they have become untenable. Conversely, there might be more wisdom, or at least rationality, than is apparent to most Westerners in the practices and moral beliefs of traditional societies. All societies, however, might have practical moral beliefs that are incorrect because of lack of empirical knowledge about the consequences of human conduct.
Taken with my earlier, more general, comments about various aspects of social practices and culturally-accepted “reality”, this approach gives socially liberal thinkers much of what they want. It tends to justify those who would test and criticise the practices and moral beliefs of Western nations while defending the rationality and sophistication of people from colonised cultures.
The academic left’s current hostility to science and the Enlightenment project may have its origins in a general feeling, brought on by the twentieth century’s racial and ideological atrocities, that the Enlightenment has failed. Many intellectuals have come to see science as complicit in terror, oppression and mass killing, rather than as an inspiration for social progress.
The left’s hostility has surely been intensified by a quite specific fear that the reductive study of human biology will cross a bridge from the empirical into the normative realm, where it may start to dictate the political and social agenda in ways that can aptly be described as reactionary. This, at least, is the inference I draw from left-wing intellectuals’ evident detestation of human sociobiology or evolutionary psychology.
The fear may be that dubious research in areas such as evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive neuroscience will be used to rationalise sexist, racist or other illiberal positions. More radically, it may be feared that genuine knowledge of a politically unpalatable or otherwise harmful kind will emerge from these areas. Are such fears justified? To dismiss them lightly would be irresponsible and naive. I can do no more than place them in perspective. The relationship between the social sciences and humanities, on the one hand, and the “hard” end of psychological research, on the other, is one of the most important issues to be tackled by intellectuals in all fields – the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.
One important biological lesson we have learned is that human beings are not, in any reputable sense, divided into “races”. As an empirical fact of evolutionary history and genetic comparison, we are all so alike that superficial characteristics such as skin or hair colour signify nothing about our moral or intellectual worth, or about the character of our inner experience. Yet, what if it had turned out otherwise? It is understandable if people are frightened by our ability to research such issues. At the same time, the alternative is to suppress rational inquiry in some areas, leaving questions of orthodoxy to however wins the naked contest for power. This is neither rational nor safe.
What implications could scientific knowledge about ourselves have for moral conduct or social policy? No number of factual statements about human nature, by themselves, can ever entail statements that amount to moral knowledge, as Hume demonstrated. What is required is an ethical theory, persuasive on other grounds, that already links “is” and “ought”. This might be found, for example, in a definition of moral action in terms of human flourishing, though it is not clear why we should, as individuals, be concerned about something as abstract as that – why not merely the flourishing of ourselves or our particular loved ones?.
One comfort is that, even if we had a plausible set of empirical and meta-ethical gadgets to connect what we know of human nature to high-level questions about social policy, we would discover significant slippage between levels. Nature does not contradict itself, and no findings from a field such as evolutionary psychology could be inconsistent with the observed facts of cultural diversity. If reductive explanations of human nature became available in more detail, these must turn out to be compatible with the existence of the vast spectrum of viable cultures that human beings have created so far. And there is no reason to believe that a lesser variety of cultures will be workable in the material circumstances of a high-technology future.
The dark side of evolutionary psychology includes, among other things, some scary-looking claims about the reproductive and sociopolitical behaviour of the respective sexes. True, no one seriously asserts that sexual conduct in human societies and the respective roles of men and women within families and extra-familial hierarchies are specified by our genes in a direct or detailed fashion. What, however, are we to make of the controversial analyses of male and female reproductive “strategies” that have been popularised by several writers in the 1990s? Perhaps the best-known exposition is that of Matt Ridley in The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993). Such accounts offer evidence and argument that men are genetically hardwired to be highly polygamous or promiscuous, while women are similarly programmed to be imperfectly monogamous, as well as sexually deceitful.
In responding to this, first, I am in favour of scrutinising the evidence for such claims very carefully, since they can so readily be adapted to support worn-out stereotypes about the roles of the sexes. That, however, is a reason to show scientific and philosophical rigour, not to accept strong social constructionism about science. Secondly, even if findings similar to those synthesised by Ridley turned out to be correct, the social consequences are by no means apparent. Mere biological facts cannot tell us in some absolute way what are the correct sexual mores for a human society.
To take this a step further, theories about reproductive strategies suggest that there are in-built conflicts between the interests of men and women, and of higher and lower status men, which will inevitably need to be moderated by social compromise, not necessarily in the same way by different cultures. If all this were accepted for the sake of argument, it might destroy a precious notion about ourselves: that there is a simple way for relations between the sexes to be harmonious. On the other hand, it would seem to support rather than refute what might be considered a “progressive” notion: that no one society, certainly not our own, has the absolutely final answer to questions about sexual morality.
Although evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are potential minefields, it is irrational to pretend that they are incapable of discovering objective knowledge. Fortunately, such knowledge will surely include insight into the slippage between our genetic similarity and the diversity of forms taken by viable cultures. The commonality of human nature will be at a level that is consistent with the (substantial) historical contingency of social practices and of many areas of understanding and evaluative belief. The effect on social policy is likely to be limited, though we may become more charitable about what moral requirements are reasonable for the kinds of creatures that we are.
I should add that evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are not about to put the humanities, in particular, out of business. There are good reasons why the natural sciences cannot provide a substitute for humanistic explanation, even if we obtain a far deeper understanding of our own genetic and neurophysiological make-up. This is partly because reductive science is ill-equipped to deal with the particularity of complex events, partly because causal explanation may not be all that we want, anyway, when we try to interpret and clarify human experience.
Either there are no objective moral truths or they are of an extremely general kind. Should we, therefore, become cultural relativists?
Over a quarter of a century ago, Bernard Williams made the sharp comment that cultural relativism is “possibly the most absurd view to have been advanced even in moral philosophy”” To get this clear, Williams was criticising a cluster of beliefs that has a great attraction for left-wing academics and many others who preach inter-cultural tolerance: first, that what is “right” means what is right for a particular culture; second, that what is right for a particular culture refers to what is functionally valuable for it; and third, that it is “therefore” wrong for one culture to interfere with the organisation or values of another.
As Williams pointed out, these propositions are internally inconsistent. Not only does the third not follow from the others; it cannot be asserted while the other two are maintained. After all, it may be functionally valuable to culture A (and hence “right” within that culture) for it to develop institutions for imposing its will on culture B. These may include armadas and armies, colonising expeditions, institutionalised intolerance, and aggressively proselytising religions. In fact, nothing positive in the way of moral beliefs, political programs or social policy can ever be derived merely from a theory of cultural relativism.
That does not mean that there are no implications at all from the insight that social practices and beliefs are, to a large degree, contingent on history and circumstance. Depending upon how we elaborate this insight, we may have good reason to suspect that another culture’s odd-looking ways of doing things are more justifiable against universal principles of moral value than is readily apparent. In that case, we may also take the view that the details of how our own society, or an element of it, goes about things are open to challenge as to how far they are (or remain?) justifiable against such universal principles.
If, on the other hand, we simply reject the existence of any objective moral truths – which I have stated to be a philosophically viable position – we will have a more difficult time explaining why we are active in pursuing social change. Certainly, we will not be able to appeal to objectively applicable principles to justify our activity. All the same, we may be able to make positive commitments to ideas such as freedom, equality or benevolence that we find less arbitrary and more psychologically satisfying than mere acquiescence in “the way they do things around here”. In no case, however, can we intellectually justify a course of political and social activism without more general principles or commitments to supplement the bare insight that, in various complicated ways, social beliefs and practices are largely contingent.
An example of an attempt to short-circuit the kind of hard thinking about moral foundations required to deal with contentious issues is Martin F. Katz’s well-known article, “After the Deconstruction: Law in the Age of Post-Structuralism”. Katz is a jurisprudential theorist who is committed to a quite extreme form of relativism about empirical knowledge. In particular, his article explicitly assigns the findings of physical science the same status as the critical interpretations of literary works.
Towards the end of “After the Deconstruction”, Katz uses the abortion debate as an example of how what he calls “deconstructionism” or the “deconstructionist analysis” can clarify and arbitrate social conflict. He begins by stating the debate much as it might be seen by its antagonists:
One side of the debate holds that abortion is wrong because it involves the murder of an unborn baby. The other side of the debate sees abortion as an issue of self-determination; the woman’s right to choose what she does to her body. How do we measure which of these “rights” should take priority?
In order to avoid any sense of evasion, I’ll state clearly that the second of these positions, the “pro-choice” position, is closer to my own. However, either position has more going for it in terms of rationality than what Katz actually advocates.
This, however, is not how Katz proposes to solve the problem of abortion. He begins by stating that “deconstructionism” recommends that we “resist the temptation to weigh the legitimacy of . . . these competing claims.” Instead, we should consider the different “subjugations” supposedly instigated by the pro-life and pro-choice positions. The pro-life position is condemned because it denies women the choice of what role they wish to take in society, while the pro-choice position is apparently praised (though even this is not entirely clear) for shifting the decision about whether and when to have children directly to women.
The trouble with this is that it prematurely forecloses on the metaphysical and ethical positions at stake, leaving everything to be solved in terms of power relations. However, if we believe that a foetus (say at a particular age) is a person in some sense that entails moral regard, or a being that possesses a human soul, then there are moral consequences. Such beliefs, together with some plausible assumptions about our moral principles or commitments, entail that we should accept that aborting the foetus is an immoral act. The fact that banning the abortion may reduce the political power of the woman concerned, or of women generally, over against that of men will seem to have little moral bite, unless we adopt a very deep principle of group political equality. That would require ethical argument of an intensity which Katz never attempts.
If we take it that the foetus is not a person in the relevant sense, we may be far more ready to solve the problem (and to advocate an assignment of “rights”) on the basis of utilitarian, or even libertarian, principles. By contrast, the style of “deconstructionist” thought advocated by Katz threatens to push rational analysis aside altogether, relying on untheorised hunches or feelings about how we wish power to be distributed in our society. This approach can justifiably be condemned as irrational. At the same time, the statements that Katz makes about the political consequences for men or women of banning or legalising abortion are so trite that it is difficult to imagine how anyone not already beguiled by an ideology could think that merely stating them could solve the problem.
In the example of Katz’s article, as in the general argument I have put, the insight that much in our own society’s practices and moral beliefs is “socially constructed” can do only a modest amount of intellectual work. We may have good reason to question the way they do things around here, to subject it to deeper analysis. We may also have good reason to believe that the “odd” ways they do things in other cultures make more sense than is immediately apparent to the culture-bound Western mind. All very well. None of this, however, can undermine the results of systematic empirical inquiry. Nor can it save us from the effort of grappling with inescapable metaphysical and ethical questions, just as we had to do before the deconstruction.