Yussef Al Tamimi, June 3, 2015
This post is not meant as a critique, but as an examination of how Scheler’s view on ethical relativism works out in intercultural dialogue. In the selected text for this lecture, Scheler argues against the idea that value-estimations are relativistic. Instead, he posits an objective realm of values which every community and every person enters gradually and differently. Scheler thus argues for a perspectivist stance in ethics (Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values, p. 304).
How does this work out in a dialogue between people from different backgrounds? It is clear that in Scheler’s ethics there are common values which are shared by everyone. So, if two communities have completely different religions, this is not a sign of relativism, but a confirmation that both communities are trying to reach the spiritual value-realm, each in their distinct way. More specifically, Scheler uses the example of murder and sacrifice to illustrate that murder (which he understands as the annihilation of the being of a person) is essentially rejected by all societies throughout history. Hence, the annihilation of a person is rejected by all communities.
This leaves us with a couple of difficulties when applied to intercultural dialogue. Firstly, are cultural differences only variations in the language or intention of a community? I.e., in the case of murder, is what is understood under murder only what a society means by murder? I think there are instances in which we can say that a certain act is murder even though the community in which the act was performed perceives it as a sacrifice. In these instances, can we say that these sacrifices are ethically wrong? Scheler repeatedly states that communities can err in the way they value (e.g. p. 88). But how do we prove that? How do we talk about that? How do we convince others? This is difficult because for Scheler values are not a matter of (rational) conviction, but they open up to us through valueception. So how can we improve the valueception of others through dialogue; is that even possible? I think Scheler leaves a possibility open for this by saying that love and hate can extend and narrow the value-realm. Although it may take a long time, through conflict and harmony in dialogue people can change one another’s position in the realm of values. In this way, intercultural (or rather, interperspectivist) dialogue can help bring different perspectives closer to one another.
Next to that, Scheler does not seem to really give attention to our own presuppositions when examining others. For example, when describing religious studies or the ‘history of religion’ (p. 293), he speaks about it as though it were a study that could be practiced objectively. Ironically, in the same passage, Scheler himself is much fairer when describing Christian beliefs than when describing non- Christian beliefs. I believe that our presuppositions and background play a major role in sciences as well as in dialogues. This background is, on the one hand, necessary to be able to commence in a dialogue or a study, but at the same time it is a challenge for us to be aware in what way our own background is altering the way we hear or perceive what/who is in front of us. For a dialogue to work it is important that both parties do not enter into the conversation with their own narrative about the other set in stone and not ready to ‘see’ the other side.
All in all, I believe Scheler’s perspectivist position in ethics makes it possible to enter in a dialogue with others about ethical issues. However, I think Scheler wants to emphasize that this is not a process that takes place overnight, but that changing a community’s value-estimations is a delicate process and should be motivated primarily from within the community itself rather than outside of it.