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Does Anyone Actually Believe In Relativism Anymore?

June 26, 2013

     Every fifteen minutes or so, another culture warrior will begin the hue and cry against “the relativism that pervades American society?” Young people are being taught by the Academy and Hollywood that “there is no truth,” that all judgments are relative, and that all values are equal to each other. This, in turn, leads to bad things like feminism, Marxism, multiculturalism, and Seinfeld. Relativism is a convenient whipping boy for those supporting “traditional values,” and, like Freddy Krueger, relativism keeps coming back.

     But is relativism really as popular as its opponents say? Is the zeitgeist of urban America really an atmosphere of philosophical and moral laisse-faire? I have my doubts that relativism is really as widespread and deep-rooted as its detractors say it is.

     First, relativism has already been refuted. Of course, a refutation will never completely kill off an intellectual fad. There is nothing in academia as powerful as an idea whose time has come and gone. Still, relativism has been subject to some quite damning critiques, and it would be foolish to think that it has escaped scot-free. Thomas Nagel provided an excellent refutation of relativism in The Last Word. At least, I think he did—I never got past the introduction. For those of us with short attention spans, Eliezer Yudlowski’s essay “The Simple Truth” provided an amusing, yet devastating take on relativism. And as everyone has pointed out, relativism is self-defeating. Whenever you say there is no truth, you are making a truth claim.

I disbelieved in objective truth before it was cool

     What about the academy? “Postmodernism” supposedly envelops the modern university in a black smog of moral relativism; and there was probably a time where calling yourself a relativist made you cool. But there haven’t been a lot of “I ❤ Richard Rorty” bumper stickers spotted in the faculty parking lot lately. My own home in academia, the world of Literature, is often attacked as a hotbed of ethical relativism. Even the English departments at Christians colleges (such as my own Wheaton College) are not immune from these attacks. However, a cursory glance at the scholarship,  teaching, and curriculum of most English departments reveals that the transgressive literary professors are hardly “moral relativists.” Quite the contrary. Theirs is a very defined moral code: Oppose racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, colonialism, support feminism, the LGBTQ community, racial minorities, third-world countries, economic redistribution. Their aims and or/their methods can be called into question, but the Academy is hardly relativistic when it comes to morals. When was the last time you heard an English professor talk about how awesome slavery is, or decry the rise of feminism?

     If relativism is dead (or mostly dead, anyway) in the English Department, it has been buried with a stake through its heart in the Science building. Scientists may flirt with a trendy ethical relativism in their blog posts (let’s hope they don’t), but they cast it aside when they enter the lab. No physicist has ever said that the law of gravity is true for me, but not for you. No biologist has ever suggested that the mating habits of the white rhinoceros were merely a social construct. If “Big Science” really were relativistic, they would not be quite so shrill whenever someone appears who wants to challenge the current paradigm of Darwinian Evolution. But they aren’t relativists, and so, naturally, they react.

I couldn’t help including something about Richard Dawkins here.

     What about Hollywood? Tinsel Town supposedly spoon-feeds relativism to the masses. I don’t deny that there are films which question the existence of truth or morals. But for the most part Hollywood seems fine with cranking out movies that rely on truth and morals. I don’t watch a lot of movies in theater; those that I do watch are not “important” films by French directors or anti-Iraq war message movies. I watch popcorn movies, usually ones with superheroes: Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America, The Avengers, Iron Man, Batman: Dark Knight Rises, Superman: Man of Steel. These movies bring in big crowds and big bucks. They are about as un-relativistic as you can get. Joss Whedon is Hollywood’s token postmodernist, and even he couldn’t insert any relativism into The Avengers (“Hulk question validity of logic!”). These movies rely on a strong moral sense within the viewer: Spider-Man, Batman, and Tony Stark are good because they help people; Loki, The Joker, and Norman Osborne are bad because they kill people. When Hollywood does try to insert relativism into a movie that people might actually want to watch, its laughable. Remember the part in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith where Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Anakin that “Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes”? Not only is this a self-contradictory statement, it also goes against everything that the Jedi Knights have ever taught about ethics or the Force. This is not going to convince anyone to become a die-hard relativist.

     Even the middlebrow filmmakers aren’t pandering to an “anything goes” ethic. Quentin Tarantino, the guy who makes the important artsy slasher movies that I don’t watch, is a good example. His latest two smashes, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, both rely on the viewer believing that Naziism and slavery are objectively wrong. Tarantino the transgressive thinker may or may not say he’s a relativist, but Tarantino the filmmaker has a definite moral compass.

“There is no truth. There’s just me making a lot of money off of films that all get great reviews from critics.”

     When we find someone who does identify themselves as a relativist, they have a devilishly hard time being consistent with their own beliefs. The brilliant philosopher Simon Blackburn, in his book Think, has a section on ethical relativism, He takes on the problem of how relativists can deal with clashes of different moral systems.

“Once we see a solution as one of many equally good solutions so some problem, we can appreciate that it is ‘just ours.’ And we are no longer minded to moralize against the others…But suppose a society solves its problems in ways that do grate upon our concerns. Suppose, like the Taliban in contemporary Afghanistan, they deny education to women…[Blackburn goes on to list several other examples of oppression]…These systems are some kind of solution to the problem of how to live. But we do not have to see them as equally good (‘just different’), or even as tolerable at all. We can properly see them as trespassing against boundaries that matter to us. They offend against boundaries of concern and respect that we believe ought to be protected…In saying these things, we voice our own sympathies and concerns and values. But that is what practical reasoning is bound to be. There is no reason to feel guilty about it, as if it would only be with a certificate from God, or from the Normative Truth…that we have any right to hold our opinions. Our ethical concerns are well seen on the model of Neurath’s boat. We must inspect each part, and we have to do so while relying on other parts. But the result of that inspection may, if we are coherent and imaginative, be perfectly seaworthy. And if, relying upon it, we find ourselves in conflict with other boats sailing in different directions, there is no reason to lament that we are not seated in some kind of dry dock, certified by Reason or God. They are not in any such place either.” (296-7)

    Nor is Blackburn. He conveniently leaves off what actually happens when the two ships actually collide. To extend his metaphor, it seems, in this ethical system, that conflicts between different moralities are simply decided by whoever has the biggest ship. Christianity has a kayak. Atheism has a log canoe. Islam has a fancy new bass boat with a huge outboard motor. Who is to say that one of these systems is objectively “better” than another?

     Well, how about Simon Blackburn? Earlier in Think, in the chapter titled “God,” he writes, “If I check into the Mysterious Mist and come back convinced that God’s message to me is to kill young women, or people with the wrong-coloured skins, or people who go to the wrong church, or people who have sex the wrong way, that is not so good.” (190). Nothing about boats here. Simon Blackburn pretty clearly believes that these things are wrong, even though this results in a disagreement with Simon Blackburn. Even though Simon Blackburn doesn’t attempt to ground his ethics in some sort of universal moral sense, or biology, or even pragmatism, Simon Blackburn acts as though there was an objective standard of “good” against which he can measure different acts. Simon Blackburn pulls off the difficult feat of being more relativist than himself.

     Why do people still continue to rail against relativism? A lot of what is called relativism is something else entirely, such as multicultural imperialism, or pragmatism, or Leftism. Leftist ethics may be pervasive throughout Hollywood and “The Academy,” but they are hardly relativist. Tim Keller, in his Reason For God, has noted that most young urbanites he meets are not relativistic, but instead possess what he calls a “free-floating morality.” They believe strongly in certain moral propositions, but don’t have an adequate foundation for those beliefs.

     Relativism most often shows up, not as a serious belief, but as an arguing tactic. Whenever someone is losing an argument, they often change the rules of the argument. Saying “that’s just your opinion,” may be a good way to score a few points in a quarrel, but it doesn’t amount to anything like a worldview or philosophy of life. For the more traditional among us, there are plenty of intellectual and ethical battles to be fought. But relativism is hardly one of them. Fighting against a vague “relativism” is the equivalent of hiring a specialist to drive ghosts out of the attic when the pipes have burst and the basement is flooded.

     Current Listening: Soft Will by Smith Westerns, “Heart Attack” by Demi Lovato, “Feel So Close” by Calvin Harris, “Clarity” by Zedd, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk, “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars. (I’ve been in a car with no CD player, thus the sudden influx of pop music.)

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 29, 2013 12:12 am

    Good stuff here. Your writing style is approaching a pleasant parallel to GKC.

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