Heroism and Relativism
My friend Scott Allison, who has co-authored a couple of books and regularly blogs on the topic of heroism, recently replied to a critical post of mine from a little over a year ago.
In my original post, I took Allison to task for the way in which his studies merely report what other people say about their heroes, rather than pushing the conversation forward by challenging some of these (to my mind, at least) not-very-heroic heroes. More than that, I argued that Allison’s most serious problem is his willingness to conclude that heroism is like a good meal, that it’s in the eye of the beholder.
Allison’s response is that it’s the job of a good social scientist to be impartial:
There isn’t as much consensus about what defines a hero as one would think. Most people agree that heroes perform great actions, but one observer’s idea of a great action may be very different from that of another observer. Just as evil-doers dismiss the idea that they are evil-doers, heroes themselves often dismiss the idea that they are heroes. As such, my co-author George Goethals and I have adopted a view of heroism that is identical to that of Baumeister’s definition of evil: It’s in the eye of the beholder.
This definition is very unsatisfying to people who claim to know the objective definition of heroism. Goethals and I have asked hundreds of people to list their heroes and our position is that it’s not our place, as social scientists, to judge people as “wrong”. If tennis players report that tennis great Roger Federer is their hero, we are not going to tell them they are mistaken. If aspiring actresses list Meryl Streep as their hero, we will report it without condemning their judgment. Our goal is to try to understand their reasoning behind their choices.
Now I want to see see if I can push on Allison’s central claim a bit more, in the hopes of clarifying the argument against relativism that I’ve been making.
I teach and write about human rights, a topic that can be quite divisive. Given Allison’s comparison with studying good and evil, I think a comparison to studying human rights and human rights abuses is apt. One of the central critiques of human rights is that they are Western in origin and thus that non-Western cultures will adhere to a different set than Western cultures do (or they won’t think of rights in the way Westerns do at all).
To study human rights as a social scientist, then, Allison would argue that I ought to impartially report that some people view human rights as a stopgap against governmental abuse while others view it as nothing more than a useless construct that hamstrings governments from making decisions they might need (or want) to make. On my reading, one of these views is incorrect and often results in acceptance of the worst sorts of abuses people can perpetrate against other people. And, having studied human rights for years, I have a great many reasons to support this conclusion of mine (that they exist and that “culture” isn’t much of a reason to condone abuses). I might, in that case, report people’s critique of human rights and then make an argument that attempts to refute it and thereby buttress the contemporary human rights regime (or at least continue the debate).
But Allison’s suggestion seems to be that an impartial social scientist ought simply to report on people’s thoughts about human rights without weighing in. As he says, “our position is that it’s not our place, as social scientists, to judge people as ‘wrong.’” Human rights, then, would simply be in the eye of the beholder. Some people would claim they exist, some people would claim that they don’t … and the good social scientist would simply say, “Here are some interesting claims people make about human rights, which leads to the conclusion that they’re in the eye of the beholder.”
But the conclusion that human rights are in the eye of the beholder — existing for some but not for others — is actually supportive of the conclusion that they don’t really exist. Why? Because it accepts (certainly implicitly but maybe explicitly as well) the claim of those who reject human rights (and thus might embrace human rights abuse).
That’s why, I want to argue, any claim of simply reporting — of saying, “we heard a lot of different opinions and there’s just no way to make a claim that some are right and others are not” — always endorses the lowest bar or least powerful claim about the topic under scutiny. If someone claims that Stalin is a hero or a cactus is a hero and a researcher says, “well, heroism is in the eye of the beholder,” then the researcher’s implicit argument is that absolutely anyone or anything is a hero because there’s no way to judge one person’s claim from another person’s without taking sides, being partial.
On my way of thinking, these researchers are simply wrong when they claim that evil or human rights or heroism is in the eye of the beholder. It’s one thing to report on what they’ve said and then to explain why someone whose hero is Stalin or a cactus is thinking wrongly about heroism. It’s quite another to say, “Here’s what these people said about the heroism of Stalin and cacti … and maybe they’re just as right as someone who named Holocaust rescuers as heroes because, after all, heroism is in the eye of the beholder.” Allison’s research might suggest that people have a lot of different ideas about heroism, but it might also suggest that people simply aren’t thinking very critically or carefully about heroism.
The same is true of evil; evil-doers might certainly claim that their actions aren’t evil … but that doesn’t mean that evil is in the eye of the beholder; it might simply mean that people don’t want to think of themselves as doing something evil. As a reseacher, I might say, “Person X, who participated in a genocide, claimed that his behavior wasn’t evil. This demonstrates not that he’s right or that genocide is right for some people and wrong for others, but simply that people are quick to look past their own shortcomings, to find ways to justify their own behavior, or to avoid making harsh judgments about their own decisions or preferences.”
There’s no reason reporting that a human rights abuser doesn’t believe in human rights yields the conclusion that he might be just as right about his belief as someone who works to defend human rights. Good social science doesn’t need to embrace relativism.
And Allison seems to recognize this at the end of his reply, even as he still pulls back from embracing the notion that social science can report on the results of a survey while still making a broader point about the topic at hand:
Goethals and I have found that as people get older, they become more discriminating in their choice of heroes. People tend to outgrow celebrity and sports heroes who only show signs of competence but not much morality …. As a social scientist who should remain objective about my reporting of heroes, I shouldn’t express my opinion about the natural maturation process leading people to place greater weight on morality than on competence when choosing heroes. But I can’t resist saying I’m glad to hear it.
Allison’s mistake — which seems to inform his reply and his work more generally — is he’s convinced that anything he might write about the shift from LeBron James to Martin Luther King, Jr. would simply be his opinion. But what Allison calls a “natural maturation process” is absolutely begging to be studied by social scientists!
Why do people turn to moral heroes as they get older, rejecting the celebrities they idolized in their youth? What makes this a maturation — a word that implies something positive is taking place — rather than simply a change? Are there ways for people to make more mature decisions about their heroes earlier in life? And if, as he says, he’s glad about this natural maturation process, why is Allison so unwilling to make an argument about why it’s a sign of immaturity about heroism to idolize LeBron?
As I’ve argued — on this blog and in my forthcoming book — we can learn a lot about ourselves by carefully considering our choice of heroes. But this careful consideration requires more than simply listing them and then saying, “Everyone has a different hero and so there’s no way to say one person is a hero and another person isn’t.” If King is the choice of someone whose thinking about heroism has matured, a great place to start our careful consideration is to reject the notion that LeBron and King are somehow equivalent and to consider what makes King a more worthy hero than LeBron.
I bet we could come up with a lot of interesting reasons that could then be debated and tested using good social science methods.