The philosopher Allan Bloom once lamented: ‘There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.’ Perhaps Bloom overstated his case, but as a university teacher myself, I think he’s onto something.
Do people who proclaim that ‘truth is relative’ or that ‘everyone has their own truth’ really believe this? Even Bloom adds the caveat: ‘…or says he believes’. As anyone with two neurons to rub together can see, the thesis is self-defeating. If it’s ‘true’ that truth is relative, then the assertion itself is also relative and cancels itself out. Relativism about what is morally right and wrong less obviously defeats itself, since it is not entirely clear if the claim that “moral standards are relative” is itself a moral claim. But in practice, moral relativism is an equally self-defeating position. For instance, moral relativists will typically condemn the belief in universal moral standards as a form of ‘cultural imperialism’, the implicit assumption being that cultural imperialism is bad. But if moral standards are relative, then so is the claim that cultural imperialism is reprehensible. In any rational discussion, relativism is the intellectual equivalent of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, the deterrent used by nuclear superpowers during the Cold War. Pressing the red button will destroy your enemy, but ensure your own destruction as well.
Perhaps a relativist may simply shrug at such logical niceties and happily continue to advocate for relativism, like the Dude in The Big Lebowski: ‘Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man’. However, even the staunchest relativist doesn’t really swallow his own medicine. Try gratuitously accusing such a person of being a child molester, and they will indignantly protest their innocence. Not as a matter of subjective opinion, as one perspective among other equally valid ones, but as a hard and objective truth. Postmodernists may proclaim that ‘truth’ is a product of power structures and that modern science is just a ‘narrative’ of white European males, but those radical views are thrown out the window when they go to get cancer treatment, or when they board a plane to travel to postmodernist conferences. As Richard Dawkins once said: ‘Nobody is a social constructionist at 30,000 feet.’
It’s the same with moral relativism. People may pretend that judging other cultures is a form of imperialism, and some are disturbingly mealy-mouthed about horrible practices such as genital mutilation or child marriage. But if we were to discover a tribe that, say, willfully tortures innocent children – or any other sufficiently extreme example – they would be equally outraged, and would balk at the notion that the immorality of such practices only exists in the eye of the beholder.
It’s reassuring to know that relativists are not as foolish as they sound. But that doesn’t mean relativism is harmless. Even just pretending that there are no universal standards of right and wrong has pernicious effects. The real purpose of going relativist is always self-serving and opportunistic: to evade criticism and accountability. It’s not so much a sincere belief as a convenient trump card to play whenever it suits you, and then to discreetly tuck away when no longer needed. The philosopher David Stove called it the Ishmael Effect, named after the narrator from Moby Dick. At the end of Melville’s novel, the ship sinks and everyone drowns, except for the narrator of the book: ‘I only am escaped alone to tell thee’. Like Ishmael, the relativist exempts himself from the fate to which he condemns everyone else.
The trouble is that, even though self-serving and self-defeating, there is something about relativism that sounds good. In everyday life we are all familiar with situations in which different people have different perspectives on an issue, and there’s no objective fact of the matter about who’s right. Moreover, criticizing someone can feel as if you’re imposing your beliefs on others, thus infringing on their freedom. Conversely, moral relativism, if you don’t think about it too hard, appears commendably tolerant, humble and self-effacing. And indeed, it’s true that we shouldn’t be too quick to condemn seemingly abhorrent cultural practices if we only have a superficial understanding of their rationale and history. Being overly judgemental can be annoying, as we know from Jesus’s parable about the woman who’s about to get stoned by a mob. If you argue that someone is objectively in the wrong, you sound like one of those sinners who are eager to cast the first stone.
But despite claims to the contrary, sometimes people are objectively wrong, and it’s pernicious to pretend otherwise. In his splendid new book Mental Immunity, the philosopher Andy Norman writes that bad ideas can be regarded as mind parasites, and proposes strategies to inoculate our minds against them. Just like biological parasites can invade our bodies and make us sick, mind parasites can infect our minds and make us stupid. From that immunological perspective, relativism is a major disruptor of our mental immune system. Objective standards of right and wrong are our main defences against bad ideas. If we lose those standards, then anything goes. By disabling our natural immunity, relativism makes us vulnerable to a whole host of bad ideas (because who’s to say that an idea is really bad?) and prevents us from picking up good ones (because why learn anything new if it’s all relative anyway?). It is also corrosive to our social norms, because it undermines the very notion that we are accountable for our beliefs and behaviours, and that we need to be able to justify them if challenged.
In that sense, relativism is not just some bad idea, but the mother lode of bad ideas. It’s about time we stamp it out.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Max Holister, Nick Brown and Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen for their editorial suggestions.
(Published on the blog of the American Philosophical Association, July 30, 2021)