Perspectivism and the Necessary Injustice of Values12 Dec 2005, Posted by Writings in
There are certain things that are so close to us that we rarely pay attention to them, and when we do we misinterpret them, like the bacteria living in our eyes that when we happen to notice them (yes, they are visible if you pay attention) we frequently mistake them for things outside us. It is the same with what is good. It is something that it only requires close attention to be revealed.
As if our regular inattention to things open to view wasn’t enough, the correspondence theory of truth and the Augustinian view of meaning led us towards the wrong path for centuries. Yet, as simple as it may seem, the only thing that is required to learn what is good, is simply to observe how the word is used and under what circumstances. There is nothing metaphysical, nothing profound, about the pair ‘good/bad’. It is simply a generic term used carelessly that has been mistaken for denoting an object.
Put briefly, perspectivism is the position that claims that all cognition is perspectival, meaning, that it is always from somewhere – our body, our web of beliefs, desires, our historical context etc. Such a position seems unobjectionable; hardly anyone would doubt that if our senses were different, we would be looking at a different world. However, this position has profound consequences both for knowledge and for our topic. If one adopts such a view, the idea of a world as it is in-itself becomes unintelligible. For it demands of a picture of the world as it would be from no perspective – in other words, it demands the view from nowhere. Correspondence theory should go down the drain too, for the correspondence theory presupposes the world in-itself. This is what our beliefs should ‘correspond’ with in order to be true. I won’t go into details here, for our interest lies elsewhere. What about values? Well, valuing is as perspectival as knowing; Nietzsche in Human All Too Human has an interesting section about this:
“You shall learn to grasp the sense of perspective in every value judgement – the displacement, distortion and merely apparent teleology of horizons and whatever else pertains to perspectivism; also the quantum of stupidity that resides in antitheses of values and the whole intellectual loss which every For, every Against cost us. You shall learn to grasp the necessary injustice in every For and Against, injustice as inseparable from life, life itself as conditioned by the sense of perspective and its injustice. You shall above all see with your own eyes where injustice is always at its greatest: where life has developed at its smallest, narrowest, neediest, most incipient and yet cannot avoid taking itself as the goal and measure of things and for the sake of its own preservation secretly and meanly and ceaselessly crumbling away and calling into question the higher, greater, richer”1
Why is he claiming that this injustice is necessary? And why are antitheses of values contain a ‘quantum of stupidity’? The answer is simple. A perspective does not do justice to all the sides of the object of which it is a perspective. This is the reason why Nietzsche claims:
“There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be.”2
However, we should not be led astray and think that the ‘good’ is an object, and the more perspectives we have on it, the more would we recognize it in every case. Rather, let’s look at ordinary cases where there are value conflicts, and the nature of the good will reveal itself.
In any conflict, there are usually at least two sides. For example, my family owns a country house by the sea, which I use for living/studying quarters. Recently, the rail of the balcony (the obstruction that is built so that you just can’t walk off the edge of the balcony) fell off due to old age and the balcony was left without an obstruction. I fell in love with the balcony without the rail, for you could see more of the sea without anything being in your way; the only drawback being that if you keep walking towards the sea-view there will be nothing to stop you from plunging in it. Now I can live with that – I don’t recall falling off cliffs though I like standing at the edges, I’m not afraid of heights and I’m no somnambulist – my parents can’t. They are concerned about my safety, and feel embarrassed that their balcony has no rail. From my perspective, what is good, is that the balcony stays as is. From theirs, the rail should be replaced.
Here’s what’s wrong with the old way of looking at what is good. According to this way, what is good is good for all. This error derives from the object-fixation we have. A red ball is a red ball and that’s that. It doesn’t matter who I am or from where I’m watching it, under ‘normal circumstances’ all observers will agree. It just isn’t palatable that a predicate would differ according to the observer. In fact, this accounts for the banishment of secondary qualities from the realm of the ‘real’. They changed according to the observer and could not be quantified and hence, not be mathematically manipulated. However, from the time of Heraclitus we were aware of the subject-dependence of the good: “To fish, sea water is salutary, to human beings it is deleterious” one fragment goes; another says that “a donkey would prefer hay from gold while a man would prefer gold from hay.”
So here’s the first step at shedding our old ways: Goodness is relational. If goodness is relational are there ways to resolve value-conflicts? Of course there are:
1) Reconciliation due to a solution which satisfies both parties.
2) Persuasion, which makes one party adopt the opinion of the other.
3) Loss of interest, where one party losses interest in the outcome.
4) Exchange, where one party gives in to the other for some other benefit.
5) One party enforces its decision, either through force or the threat of force, be it physical, economic, emotional etc.
Though the list may not be exhaustive I think it is safe to say that most conflicts between humans have been resolved with one or with a combination of the ways listed above. To go back to my example, I had proposed to built a custom rail which is detachable. However, there are certain conflicts which simply can’t be resolved and that is why war may be inevitable in such cases. There are of course, sublimations of war, such as contests in which the losers are treated as if they have fought the war and lost but without the casualties. Perhaps the height of a civilization can be measured by how it resolves and sublimates its disagreements.