The Splenda of Truth: Remarks on Relativism

Those who are greatly upset by, and concerned about, relativism usually say that they are principally concerned about the truth. If this is the case — if indeed the ultimate aim is to defend the truth — then it would make sense to be upfront and honest about the truth of what relativism is and is not. Otherwise, there is something amiss and asymmetrical about the whole situation.

Sadly, this messy lack of symmetry is where I see things today in discussions amongst anti-relativists. In fact, one of the most relativistic aspects of today’s discussions about relativism is this: the term ‘relativism’ is used willy-nilly, with very little effort made to be clear about what, exactly, the term is meant to describe and show.

Relativism, in anti-relativist circles, has become something like a code word for “this is very, very bad; it encourages all the things you don’t like about the world and is becoming very influential; you should be very scared and angry and use it, negatively, to convince people that you are on their side, the good side.”

Maybe it is useful for some people to use the word ‘relativism’ that way. A pep rally jeer. An anti-mascot. (Cheerleader: Relativism? Crowd: No! HELL no!) Rally cries notwithstanding, one problem with this sort of usage is that it cannot make the claims it needs to make to support the judgement that it is so very bad in the first, or last, place.

In other words, there are a lot of relativistic anti-relativists out there; many of them, I suspect, unwittingly so.

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The quick argument from authority, at least amongst Catholics, is to cite Benedict XVI’s oft repeated one-liner, “the dictatorship of relativism.” Francis has reiterated it, too, as Elizabeth Scalia reported this in March 2103, which only seems to add fuel to the fire.

However, when one looks closely at the context of these claims, there is something very specific that each pope is referring to, individually and together. They are not using the term in a flippant or inconsistent way. In many ways, their use of the term — especially Francis’ effort to be faithful to Benedict’s original usage and intention —is a good model of how to be a serious anti-relativist.

On its own, in isolation, Benedict’s logic would go something like this: (major premise) Dictatorship is bad; (minor premise) Relativism has established a dictatorship; (conclusion) Relativism is bad. This sort of circular logic is not what Benedict’s claim was about when he said the following in his final homily as a Cardinal:

We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

When Francis affirms Benedict’s original claim, he shows that he understood the original claim (although it was translated slightly differently) and only makes use of it himself once it has been clearly described.

But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the “tyranny of relativism”, which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.

What kind of relativism are Benedict and Francis referring to? It would seem that they are speaking about a very general, but quite real, kind of egoism, rooted in pride and ending, ultimately, in a fundamental ontological disorder. In technical philosophical terms, this could describe any number of specific positions, but it is an apt way to think about all major schools of thought within modernity, and beyond.

Most of all, when captured within a politically salient tradition, it seems to refer most directly to western liberalism, libertarianism, and all liberty-based logics of social order that have proliferated in the past 400 years or so.

In other words, there is a sense in which the relativism noted by our present and past popes is very generic, so generic that it could simply be called “sin,” but it is also specifically oriented against the raison d’être of the politics of early, mid, and late modernity: the individualist state-neutrality of liberalism. If this is true, then, there may be more relativists than just the “liberals” of the left. The “liberals” of the right, today’s so-called conservatives, often invoke an identical relativism in the sense that Benedict and Francis intended it.

So, yes, relativism, in this papal sense of the term, is related to political liberalism, but, much to the chagrin of many conservatives, the liberalism of relativism has become politically ubiquitous within the US political context to the point of being mutually inclusive among the so-called “liberals” and “conservatives.”

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When I think of the word ‘relativism,’ without an appeal to authority, papal or otherwise, I think of its most obvious reference. Something about relatives and relations between them.

Relativism, in ordinary language, seems to point to the characteristic of being dependent on something else in order to be the case. My relatives, the people I am related to, are the people I depend on, in a very literal way, in order to exist. For something to be relative, then, only offers the preliminary impression of saying something like the following: What something is depends on its relation to something else in order to be what it is.

This not only strikes me as rather harmless idea, it also seems to be true. Could it be the case that relativism, rather than denying all truth, is instead descriptive of an important truth?

Maybe. It depends.

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Most people who invoke the term ‘relativism,’ saying things like “It’s all relative,” usually inflect it to mean something stronger and more normative than the ordinary language I rehearsed above. They seem to trying to make a claim that, since things cannot be the case outside of their relations, then, there is nothing with integrity in itself, everything hangs on the fragility of its relation.

Relativism, under this formulation, is one step away from nihilism.

This stronger claim is not wholly offensive or necessarily false, either, depending on how it gets parsed out, but it can be used to make some claims that lead to the obnoxious sort of relativism that many anti-relativists, myself included, abhor.

Here are three different, but related, popular forms of relativism:

1. Metaphysical relativism. This is the view that the world itself, the reality of all things, is relative and therefore cannot exist with any objective sense of integrity. To be a metaphysical relativist is to, ultimately, question the very reality of one’s sensations, and to critique all things beyond it as being outside the relation. No one can set the boundary of what is real or not real. No one, that is, except a singular, intending ego.

2. Moral relativism. This is the view, often based on metaphysical relativism, that since moral duties, obligations, and desserts are relative and not based in a comprehensive account of morality, then, there is nothing that can define a universal ethics. It all just depends. (Some call this view consequentialism, but that would be a mistake, especially if one takes the consequentialist tradition in ethics seriously. Moral relativism is more radical and would deny the systematic claims of, for instance, rule utilitarianism as, well, relative.) Moral relativism also argues that moral codes or systems cannot be judged except in relation to themselves and their social and historical context.

3. Cultural relativism. This is the view that is usually based on the previous two views; it claims that peoples and their ways are relative to the relations and experiences that define them, not to any outside, and therefore unrelated, view of the matter. Therefore, cultural relativism claims that any culture or cultural practice cannot be judged acceding to the relative speculation of another culture. A certain kind of multiculturalism, an outgrowth of a certain kind of cultural anthropology, is based on this view. But not all.

(Memorizing these forms of relativism will do no good. The point is to use this taxonomy to understand what, for some people, relativism is about.)

It is important to acknowledge that each of these forms of relativism has something significant to say about reality, morals, and culture. It is also important to realize that these generic positions do not offer a perfect understanding of what someone who believes in relativism really thinks. Furthermore, many people who hold these beliefs do so without knowing what to call them and how to understand them. And I am not sure that they are mutually inclusive, they seem like they should be, but who knows.

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Relativism thrives in two places: (1) among popular and petty ideas in the US public at large, often passed on through schools and television, making its way into undergraduate classrooms everywhere, and also among a few unthinking dimwit professors who haven’t read a book since the 1970′s, and (2) among perennially worried and angry anti-relativists, often online and on talk radio, and often Catholic, who want you to think that relativism writ large, a vague, catch-all code word, saturated in politics and ideology, is everywhere, especially amongst those rancid and sour lefty academics.

I cannot speak for all of academia, nor would I like to, but I can speak for a couple hundred or so academics and, of course, for myself. For every academic who has even a slight or strong penchant for the politics of the left, from moderate to radical, I don’t know of a single relativist. None. And the probability falls as one moves further left. Sure, I’ve met a few who’ve said things that made me wonder, but with a few questions, it soon became clear that were not holding on to relativism to guide their way.

Among hard scientists and mathematicians, I’ve routinely observed that anything resembling relativism is met with near total distain, especially metaphysical relativism.

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A recent statistical study revealed that, among mostly analytic philosophers (3,000 were polled), the following points of consensus were found:

  • non-skeptical realism about the external world
  • scientific realism about theoretical entitites
  • atheism
  • belief in a priori knowledge
  • switching on the trolley problem (intervening so that 1 person dies instead of 5)

The first two bullet-points declare an unsurprising and obvious note of solidarity between Catholics and atheists (and most reasonable people): we’re not inclined to doubt the reality of the external world, nor the reality of theoretical things, like concepts.

In fact, it is not absurd to claim that the atheist point of view requires a stronger aversion to relativism than the religious one.

Catholics may, in fact, be more prone to relativism, in important respects, when looked at in relation to certain forms of atheism.

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The late feminist political philosopher, Susan Moller Okin, published a very provocative essay in the late 90′s asking the question, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women.” She revealed, with a great deal of debate to follow, that there was something incompatible between the multiculturalist position that endorses cultural relativism and the feminist position that defends the notion that women are the moral equivalent of men. This argument, of course, reveals another incompatibility between feminism and moral relativism, too.

As a purely anecdotal note, of all the feminist theorists and academics I know — and I know many — none of them subscribe to relativism.

Add to that the prophetic Black intellectual tradition and, again, I know of zero relativists, past or present.

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Pragmatism you say? I think Richard Rorty got very close to relativism, but his book of essays, Philosophy and Social Hope, shows some clears signs that he wasn’t one. Among C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, there isn’t a relativist to be counted.

And what of postmodernism and poststructuralism? If you’re talking of the serious variety, the kind that bred the theological turn in French phenomenology, then you will find a radical sense of relationality or subjectivism, but you won’t find the easy relativism variety.

The real relativists, it seems, are the ones Benedict and Francis warned us about: Those of us who hold on to our pride and egoism and try to make the world in  our own image.

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In the end, I think the that relativism, in its worst and most terrible sense, is intellectual laziness. That many people are relativists today says less about intellectuals and more about the rampant anti-intellectualism that is becoming the norm. The problem with the dumbed-down relativism that doesn’t even recognize itself in the popular world is less a problem with any given ideology and more an issue of the stupidity that passes as sanity.

The world of relativism is a flat and tidy idea, within which there is no need to take things seriously or to understand with any depth or rigor. This is a world that can put up with our culture.

The one place where I know of several relativists of this lazy sort, is in schools and colleges of “Education.” Or, as I said earlier, among arts and humanities folks who have been living under a peace and love rock for thirty years. In administrative and bureaucratic centers and offices that often spew soft and silly ideas about schooling, teaching, and the professoriate, you will find relativists, too. And, also, among pseudo-intellectual journalists and talking heads in the media.

But these are rare. Loud, but very rare in real life. The rest of us, I think, are pretty much non skeptical realists in our day to day life, at least when it comes to the basic stuff.

Relativism of the kind I’ve outlined — bare-knuckled, reality denying, morality disinterested, culturally accepting no matter what — is not going to eat you alive and kill your family and unite with all the other bad pet terms and ideas and roast your puppies alive to the tune of kumbaya. It barely exists. No one runs around preaching the gospel of relativism, not in those terms.

Relativism of the sort that Benedict and Francis warn us against, however, is not rare at all.

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Relativism is a quick, low-calorie substitute for real work of telling the truth. A diet pill. For those who use it, it prevents them from having to deal with the real thing. For those who oppose it, and all its works and empty promises, relativism has become a buzz word, an equally cheap substitute for what is really going on.

Look, relativism was dead on arrival and took some time to die out. Or, if we take Benedict and Francis’ version of it, it’s been around since the Fall.

Thundering around against it, in the academic senses I mentioned, only goes to show how little one understands about what is really dangerous out there. Scientism and materialism.

The truth is not hard to see, if you are willing to treat it with respect and remember that there is more to the truth than getting all the details right. The relativism battle that rages and foams in the Catholic ghetto often ends up distorting the truth as much as relativism itself. And, like the production quality of EWTN, this sort of display only shows the world how lame we often are.

Thank God for my lame and blind and borderline crazy Church! A place for Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. We’ve always been a collection of misfits and odd ducks, with a few flashes of brilliance, but even more flashes of knuckle-headness and downright perversity. But we have what we have. We have a story and a testimony and a light that is not meant to specialize in blowing up straw-made relativists. We are supposed to light up the world, even when the light shines darkly.

The real thing. Not a substitute. Not a handy-dandy list of naughty and nice vocabulary. Just the truth, shown in beauty and brokenness and love.

The truth is that Christianity is not a petty and defensive metaphysics, ethics, or cultural anthropology. Christianity is, first and foremost, a mystery and a sacrament. Our call is not to be objectivists or absolutists or fundamentalists, or the converse.

We are called to be holy.

Read the sequel.


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