Every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges of the like faculty in another. I judge your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentment by my resentment, of your love by my love. I neither have, any other way of judging about them.
It’s as if we all are wearing tinted glasses, the particular tint of your glasses being a function of your upbringing and cultural background. People from different culture have glasses that are tinted different colors from ours. Consequently their view of reality will be different.
The catch is this. No one can take off their glasses and see reality as it really is in itself. No one can view truth or reality, except through the distorting lenses of their own cultural biases. Some claim that those who believe in moral absolutes are simply blind to the cultural influences that have shaped their ethical opinions. Others think that they can view reality as it is in itself, when in fact they can only see a prejudicial and subjective view of reality. Since we are incapable of freeing ourselves from the cultural influences that have shaped our ethical views, what kind of judgments should we form about other culture . We should stop pretending that our ethical judgments and opinions reflect anything more than the contingent historical forces that have shaped our lives.
Though his books on Pyrrhonism, Aenesidemus promote the suspension of judgment (epoche) by contrasting:
‘Gunpowder in water does not act the same gunpowder next a flame. A fact known does not operate the same as a fact unperceived. When it is known, it comes into contact with the flame of desire and the cold bath of antipathy. For how could one say, with regard to touch, (for example) that animals are similarly affected whether their surfaces consist shell, flesh, needles, feathers or scales? And as regards hearing, how could one say that ‘perceptions are alike’ in animals with a very narrow auditory canal and in those with a very wide one, or in those with hairy ears and in those with ears that are hairless.
Perfume seems very pleasant to human beings but intolerable to dung beetles and bees, and the application of olive oil a beneficial to human beings but kills wasps and bees.
Pictures seem to the sense of sight to have concavities and convexities, for example, but not to the touch, and let us imagine someone who from birth has lacked hearing and sight. He will start out believing the existence of nothing visible or audible, but only of the three kinds of quality he can register. It is therefore a possibility that we too, having only five senses, only register from the qualities belonging to the apple those which we are capable of registering. But it may be that there objectively exist other qualities.
Lamplight appears dim in sunlight but bright in the dark. The same oar appears bent in water but straight when out of it. The same sound appears one way when accompanied by a rarefied atmosphere, another way when accompanied by a dense atmosphere. The individual fillings of a piece of silver appear black, but when united with the whole they affect us as white. Since all things are relative, we will suspend judgment about what things exist absolutely and in nature.
The sun is certainly a much more marvelous thing than a comet. But since we see the sun all the time but the comet only infrequently, we marvel at the comet so much as even to suppose it a divine portent but we do nothing like that for the sun. If, however, we thought of the sun as appearing infrequently and setting infrequently, and illuminating everything all at once and suddenly are eclipsed, we should find much to marvel at in the matter.’
Things sweet in anticipation are bitter in actual taste; things we now turn from in aversion are welcome at in another moment in our career. Independently of deep changes in character, such as from mercifulness to callousness, from fretfulness to cheerfulness, there are unavoidable changes in the waxing and waning of activity. What a man foresees and fails to foresee, what he appraises highly and at a lower rate, what he deems important and trivial, what he dwells upon and what he slurs over, what he easily recalls and what he naturally forgets … all of these things depend upon his character. Everybody lives within his or her own world. Of course ‘my world’ has much in common with your world but even those common things appear a little bit different for me and for you. The reason is that everything becomes content of our mind, but not for everybody in the same way. In practice, our dealing with our daily experiences is strictly personal. It is dependent on our inborn disposition and the quality of our abilities. The result is unique for every individual. And most important is that the circumstances in which we live are more or less different, even if two so-called identical twins grow up in the same family and at the same moment.
Man’s loyalty to his own ideology or ideas makes him a slave of his own thinking about reality. This slavery makes it impossible to run his life in a free and inventive way. His principles urge him constantly to act in accordance with the criteria of his idealistic blueprint. Regularly you meet people of principle with high ideals. They seem to live with high human standards but in practice it appears to be nothing but unfeeling theory. Almost everyone has some intolerance and an obstinate attitude towards other ideas and opinions. They are blinkered so that they cannot see that there are many ways to live to a good life. Such behavior again is a proof of the negative effects of valuing ideas and making ideals and ideologies of them. Perceptions, which seem to reveal the true nature of the world, are opposed by invoking perceptions, which seem to demonstrate the limits of perception.
There are however vices of reflection as well as of impulse. We may not look far enough ahead because we are hurried into action by stress of impulse: but we may also become over interested in the delights of reflection: We become afraid of assuming the responsibilities of decisive choice and action, and in general be sicklied over by a pale cast of thought. We may become so curious about remote and abstract matters that we give only a begrudged, impatient attention to the things right about us. We may fancy we are glorifying the love of truth for its own sake when we are only indulging a pet occupation and slighting demands of the immediate situation. Our forecast of consequences is always subject, to the bias of impulse and habit. We see what we want to see, we obscure what is unfavorable to a cherished, probably avowed, wish.
Leo Groarke, ‘Ancient Skepticism’, 1997
Jan Vis, ‘The significant of things’, Philosophical Reflections.
James R. Bebes, Department of Philosophy, ‘Ethical Relativism’, 2003