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.

*

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.”

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

  • Alyxander M Folmer

    When did “Moral Relativism” become such a bad word?
    All it means is that moral codes are purely subjective. There is no universal morality. That’s not “Radical” that’s common sense. If there was an objective universal moral code, we wouldn’t be having this debate.

    • SamRocha

      I think the problem specifically with *moral* relativism is at least two-fold: on the one hand it seems to endorse or rest upon the antecedent claim that there is no objective basis for the external world to exist; on the other hand, I think it is unable to deal with very concrete moral atrocities and perversity, such as genocide and rape. Those are, it seems, two very strong objections to it. I do not, by the way, think that it follows to say that moral relativism being false must lead to a moral fundamentalism to replace it. The answer seems to be somewhere in-between.

      • Alyxander M Folmer

        You’ll note that I didn’t say “Morals are BAD” or that I don’t have any. I said there exist no objective system of morality. We can try to find the moral system that does the greatest good for the largest number of people, but it’s still entirely subjective. There are four (known) fundamental forces of the universe. Morality is not one of them. This isn’t because reality itself is subjective, but because social concepts/ideals are.

        • SamRocha

          And I never said that “Morals are GOOD” or that I have morals. I said that there seem to be two problems with moral relativism. I agree, by the way, with your claim about the first problem (although I would include “realism about theoretical entities” in that category, which might still become troublesome), but I still think that the second one I raised is very hard to overcome. Personally, I have a perhaps idiosyncratic view about morals and ethics in general, but here I simply wanted to lay out the outline and contours of the matter here. In the realm of mathematical concepts, would you find the claim that mathematical (or logical) truths are subjective, too? That might help make sense of the issue here.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            “And I never said that “Morals are GOOD” or that I have morals. I said that there seem to be two problems with moral relativism.”
            -Fair enough, I thought that was the point you were trying to make, My mistake.
            I’m not sure what you mean by “(although I would include “realism about theoretical entities” in that category, which might still become troublesome)”
            In regards to the problem of dealing with atrocities: I think saying that “Moral Relativism” is unable to deal with issues like genocide and rape, is a bit like saying “Math is ill equipped to deal with issues of philosophy”. You’d be correct, but mostly because the two have nothing to do with each other. One is a constant fact of the universe, the other is a matter of perception used as a human coping mechanism.
            Philosophy makes you feel good, math simply tells you the way the world is, regardless of how it makes you feel.
            Likewise, Morals make you feel like a good person. Moral relativism simply is, and doesn’t pertain to how we may or may not “feel” about any given situation.

            Now you’ve probably already figured out my answer to your last question, but I’ll answer just for the sake of clarity.
            I do not believe mathematical facts are subjective. Gravity works the same way for everyone, no matter what ones personal opinion on the matter may be. :)
            I don’t see “Moral Relativism” as being in any way related to the concept of subjective reality.

          • SamRocha

            I see math and philosophy as doing identical things, actually, especially when you look at the philosophy of mathematics. So this might be where we disagree most strongly. But what I mean when I say that theoretical entities might give you trouble, is related to that point about math. Namely that atrocities like genocide seems to demand to be treated in a particular way. This is why, I suppose, holocaust denial is so perverse. It is not simply the denial of history, it is the denial of an act of moral outrage. In these cases, I think, moral relativism has very little to offer. Okin’s argument, via feminism, is also a strong case against it.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            If you had presented the scenario of Genocide in (for example) Rwanda to a European surf in the middle ages, after they determined that such an event was not coming their way, not only would they have not cared, they might have cheered.
            Today, the prevailing sentiment in the western world (which I support BTW) is that genocide is terrible and need to be prevented. I don’t LIKE genocide. I’ll give anything I can to try and prevent genocide. But there is no universal force at work which declares that genocide is wrong. PEOPLE decided it was wrong.
            If your questioning the meaning of life, most people don’t turn to abiogenesis and the fossil record for their answers. They turn to philosophy, religion, art, or any number of social coping mechanisms that humanity has invented for this purpose. That doesn’t chance the facts of life, or human origins, but it will get you through the long dark night.
            So when people need to cope with something and find some way to make-sense-of/label their traumatic experiences, they don’t turn to Moral Relativism. They find a moral code that will allow them to try and make sense of their experiences, and justify their feelings about them. This doesn’t change the fact that those moral codes are entirely subjective, but it gets those people through the dark times in their life.

            So if you’re arguing against moral relativism as a philosophy, I can understand. As a philosophical perspective it can be depressing and un-fulfilling. I’m not arguing for an a-moral philosophy though. I’m simply saying that in reality morality is no more or less than a (occasionally) useful human social construct. Without people around to dub an event either “good” or “bad” morality doesn’t exist.

            I also find that most people who want to make a case against moral relativism, usually want to promote a specific moral code as being somehow objectively “true”. The issue there is that it’s basically like telling somebody that, objectively, the best color in the world is Blue and anybody who doesn’t like Blue is WRONG.

          • SamRocha

            Actually, in this post, I am as much trying to outline the problems, as I see them, with certain types of relativism, as I am aiming to soften and critique those who hold on to this rather odd and unthoughtful anti-relativism. So it’s a balancing act. On genocide and other forms of extreme perversity: I want to think that there is a foundational basis for its “wrongness,” however, I would agree that morality is not going to do it. This is where my stance on morals get a bit tricky, but not for relativistic reasons, at least that’s not what I would frame them as. Regardless, and a bit outside the scope of this post, I think there are a few different senses of what we mean by ‘moral’, too.

          • http://www.ledgersmb.org/ Chris Travers

            ‘On genocide and other forms of extreme perversity: I want to think that there is a foundational basis for its “wrongness,”‘

            What about looking at social imperatives. For example, theft or murder. If anyone can be willy nilly killed by anyone else, or if what we are counting on as our tools, etc. can be stolen, then we cannot form communities. Note this is a hard question but it is one that can be investigated and answered over time.

          • SamRocha

            The sort of reply I tend to rehearse on this will perhaps shock the tired relativism debates: I want to claim that there is an essential, fundamental reason and order to why these things are evil, but morality lacks the foundational capacity to show that. For me, I reject morals not because they are too ambitious, but, instead, because they are not ambitious enough.

          • http://www.ledgersmb.org/ Chris Travers

            Are you perhaps implying that morality and even culture may be the expression of the reality, not the underlying reality? Interesting. I might frame it in relativistic ways, you might not, but that seems pretty close to where I am actually.

          • SamRocha

            That is very close to what I am trying to think about. I tip my hand at the end when I make the claim that Christianity is not a metaphysics, an ethics, or an anthropology.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            Christianity is not a metaphysics, (No, but it does contain plenty of metaphysical concepts)

            an ethics, (Again, it isn’t JUST a system of ethics, but it does contain one. *even if I question those ethics at times)

            or an anthropology. (Here we reverse. Christianity isn’t an Anthropology, but the study of cultural anthropology certainly involves Christianity.)

            I guess I’m not to clear on what you’re trying to say here.

          • SamRocha

            What I mean is that Christianity, at its core, is not about creating a particular version of metaphysics, ethics, or anthropology and demanding fidelity or orthodoxy to *that*. It is about something more fundamental, I would claim.

          • Mike

            I agree, WOE TO HIM WHO REDUCES Christ to a philosophy, to Gnosticism. God is first, a person not a theory, physical, metaphysical, mathematical or otherwise.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            Christ may not have been a philosophy, but he was definitely a philosopher. :)

          • SamRocha

            I wouldn’t insult him by calling him a philosopher…

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            How is that insulting? Most of the greatest minds of the era were Philosophers. The lessons of Joshua Bar Joseph were remarkably advanced for their time. If that doesn’t earn him the honorable title of Philosopher, I don’t know what does!

          • SamRocha

            I’m joking, in a self-depricating sort of way.

      • http://www.ledgersmb.org/ Chris Travers

        I think the big difficulty as you touch on though is defining relativism. Relative to what? That moral judgements are relative is pretty common sense. What they are relative to is something that we can argue about forever. Are they relative to eachother? What role does culture play? What role do physical limitations play?

        The problem is not with an acknowledgement that morality is relative but in the intellectual laziness which fails to answer what a given moral construct is relative to.

        Let’s pick a hot-button issue where I can offend everybody: same-sex marriage. Now, a naive relativist assessment would hold that people have a right to do whatever they want if they don’t harm other people and therefore it needs to be recognized. A naive absolutist assessment might be that same-sex sexual contact is wrong, that it was wrong in Sparta, that it is wrong among tribes that ritualize it, and so forth and therefore it should not be recognized.

        But the issue doesn’t stand on its own. It fits into a large number of other attitudes. What is the relationship between marriage and procreation? To some extent that is relative to the relationship between retired parents and their children. In fact it seems no exaggeration that expectations of retirement shape expectations of marriage. In a culture where we expect children to be only there as they want to be, where the spouse is the key source of support, where childrearing is made expensive (and not very valued), and where divorce is in most of the country easy to get even if contested, can one really argue that recognizing same-sex marriage does harm? But on the other hand, what right do people have to say that is a universal truth? What right do Americans have to say to Singaporeans that their attitudes towards homosexuality are wrong, given that Singaporeans expect children to take care of their parents in retirement?

        Understanding how the issues link together cross-culturally prepares us to better understand what the options are in our own culture. Will we continue a shift towards isolated individualism, perhaps making it harder to have children in the name of gender equality? Or will we start to try to rebuild those bonds between parents and children that in most societies are the most fundamental bonds that society is built on? From this viewpoint same-sex marriage isn’t an issue at all. The argument is (and needs to be about) the general shape of society.

      • http://www.ledgersmb.org/ Chris Travers

        I think rape is actually a very bad example. The problem is that what constitutes rape, how it is defined, and how it is addressed societally, very much is a matter of social construction. This is because consent is also socially constructed. This is why you have such variety in the US over laws regarding how rape is defined. There may be commonality (and for reasons of social imperatives) but there is also remarkable variety. That there are social imperatives to criminalize rape does not mean that the specific forms of the laws exist are highly relative to culture.

        Regarding genocide, there’s an important principle involved here, which is that issues between ethnic groups needs to be solved between ethnic groups, just as problems between families, and the necessity of their solution, gives rise to the Polis in Aristotelian thinking. Attitudes towards genocide may indeed be relative but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to see groups of cultures come together in collective self-defence.

        Again, the idea that truth is universal and absolute or relative tot he individual is a false choice. If there is a value to intermediate institutions, then a great deal of morality must be relative to those. That there are universal imperatives does not undermine that case. So I guess I am relatively relativistic.

        • SamRocha

          I agree that the extremes of truth are poor representations of it, however, in the case of any clear perversity, I am unwilling to reduce its phenomenology as evil to social constructions. I do, however, also see morality as being incapable of accounting for evil on its own. So it’s tricky and there is room, under the right formulation, I think, to be a relativist without being the sort of relativist that so many seems to find intolerable.

          • http://www.ledgersmb.org/ Chris Travers

            > I am unwilling to reduce its phenomenology as evil to social constructions.

            I think the obvious question is, when you see widespread recognition that something is harmful and thus morally wrong, why is there a widespread recognition. The recognition may be socially constructed but it must be in the service of something else. Recognizing that this must be looked at ensures, I think, that things are not *reduced* to social constructs.

            The obvious first step, btw, is to look for counterexamples and look for other related controls in those places that were counterexamples.

            In the end I keep coming back to Cicero, an author who I have struggled greatly with and found him to be right more often than I would like to think, that there are functional requirements for people to live together in cities, and violations of these break down society. While Cicero was arguing against allowing bankruptcy protections (somewhere I do not follow him), this suggests there may be common reasons for similar social constructs. Pursuit of these common reasons can be a very interesting and productive endeavor.

          • SamRocha

            I agree, and I think that *that* project is something I will work on for a very long time, but it is quite beyond the reach of this blog post, or perhaps any blog post, for that matter. But, if there is interest, I may try and outline some thoughts on morals and morality in general…

    • http://www.ledgersmb.org/ Chris Travers

      I think the question is “relative to what.” The non-relativists tend to assume there is a fixed origin that can be used to evaluate moral issues. The relativists tend to assume that the only origin that makes sense is the individual. But this is false choice offered by the system of thought which presumes that the only public institutions that matter are the individual and the central government.

      If one adopts a view that intermediating institutions are important, then moral truths may indeed be relative to those institutions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that morality is beyond critique by outsiders, but just that one has to find common assumptions before one can talk, and that things must be put in context before critiquing.

      • Linear

        Excellent comment — it succinctly conveys the balance and false dichotomy beautifully.

        I know it’s just an analogy, but it also seems notable to me that a central government is immediately coercive, while a “fixed origin” morality is not. This becomes relevant in the predominant cases where X may be the moral choice but forcing someone to do X is not.

    • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

      That is neither radical nor common sense. If moral relativism is true, then there is absolutely no reason to live by any code and I should shoot you.

      • Alyxander M Folmer

        Sure there is. Just because “morality” is not objectively verifiable doesn’t mean it’s meaningless or without it’s uses.
        Point 1) Shooting me would be disadvantageous, and would likely result in you going to prison. That’s probably reason enough to follow the local ethical system to the best of your ability.
        Point 2) If the only reason you’re not running around shooting people is because somebody told you not to, then you have bigger issues to deal with then abstract questions about the nature of morality.

        All “Moral Relativism” means is that there is no universal “moral” code. This should be pretty obvious, because if there was we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and politics would be considerably less complicated.

        • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

          If it is not universally objective, then there is no reason to pay attention to it at all.

          Point 1 is meaningless because under moral relativism, you can’t support having law or prisons. Each human being would be a law unto themselves.
          Point 2 is meaningless because what is right for you isn’t right for me, under moral relativism.

          All this proves is that you haven’t bothered to think out the logical consequences of allowing moral relativism to rule.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            -Not true. Your morals and those of a Tibetan Buddhist are going to be different. Both of you are trying to be “good” people, but have different ways of going about it. Neither ethical system is objectively verifiable (he can no more “prove” his religious beliefs then you can “prove” yours).
            However, that does NOT mean that either ethical system is without use or meaning. The flip side of moral relativism is that neither of you are “wrong” either, because the only way you can possibly judge a moral system is against another moral system.
            It’s like telling somebody that your favorite color is Blue. If they say their favorite color is Green, which of you is “wrong”?

            “All this proves is that you haven’t bothered to think out the logical consequences of allowing moral relativism to rule.”
            – Point 1- I’ve put considerable thought into this, which is why I’m not the one having a knee jerk reaction to a hot-button phrase.
            I’m religious. I have a moral code too. I just acknowledge that it is no more or less “objective” then every other religious moral code on earth.
            -Point 2- I never said anything about institutionalizing “moral relativism”, however one could make the argument that the idea already became incorporated into the law of the land with the first amendment. (You’ll note we still have laws and aren’t killing each-other in the streets.)

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            “Both of you are trying to be “good” people, but have different ways of going about it.”

            If there are different ways of going about it, then there is no definition of “good” to try to be. At all.

            ” Neither ethical system is objectively verifiable (he can no more “prove” his religious beliefs then you can “prove” yours).”

            I believe in my religious system precisely *because* it is objectively verifiable. If it was not objectively verifiable, there would be no reason to believe in it.

            “The flip side of moral relativism is that neither of you are “wrong” either, because the only way you can possibly judge a moral system is against another moral system.”

            And thus, if my moral system says that I need to kill everybody at random, I can’t be wrong.

            “It’s like telling somebody that your favorite color is Blue. If they say their favorite color is Green, which of you is “wrong”?”

            Neither- I fully understand. Nobody is ever wrong, and thus, nobody should ever be punished for doing anything. The conclusion is quite obvious.

            Point one is due to your lack of understanding- if your religious system is not objective, then it is false. If it is relative, then it is false.

            Point two- laws against killing are against the first amendment if moral relativism is true. So is every other law- including the first amendment itself.

            The only way moral relativism can possibly make sense is in a nihilist system where good and evil, right and wrong, simply don’t exist at all.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            And my point is that without people there to define it, the good/evil dichotomy DOESN’T exist.

            If your belief system says that you need to kill the unbelievers (Which most of the Monotheist religions have at one point or another) then within the bounds of your own society, you’re going to be considered a hero for doing so. That doesn’t mean that others won’t disagree with you and attempt to stop you, because their belief systems say otherwise.

            Two groups in conflict over a “Moral” issue will both declare that they are fighting for “good”, and that their opponents are “evil”. Now, you could choose a side that you agree with more, but that doesn’t make them “good” that just makes them “more like you”.

            Relativity is not “false”, relativity simply is. Republicans favor a small government and social restrictions, Democrats favor large government and social liberalism. You can pick a side, make a case for one v.s. the other, and fight tooth and nail to see your team win. That doesn’t change the fact that both have valid models for their “Ideal” government. Neither one is “Good” or “Evil”, just different. Yet people often associate the partisan divide as a moral divide, because from their own subjective viewpoint their side is “right” and the other side is “wrong”.

            “I believe in my religious system precisely *because* it is objectively verifiable. If it was not objectively verifiable, there would be no reason to believe in it.”

            -Really? Have you personally managed to find the definitive proof that thousands of years worth of apologists and theologians have failed to locate? Cause if you have, you need to market that stuff!

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            “Have you personally managed to find the definitive proof that thousands of years worth of apologists and theologians have failed to locate? ”

            Yes I have, but they’ve located it to. Everybody who has ever been enslaved to sin, has proven that Original Sin is a fact.

            But that isn’t what we were discussing. We were discussing the idea you keep putting forth that Original Sin doesn’t exist. If original sin doesn’t exist, neither can morality. If good and evil don’t exist, it becomes impossible to do good- impossible to do anything OTHER than kill my neighbor and take everything he owns.

            Because in the end, in a world without good and evil, the only motivating factor is greed and self interest.

            And you keep claiming that you WANT to live in such a world.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            “Yes I have, but they’ve located it to. Everybody who has ever been enslaved to sin, has proven that Original Sin is a fact.”

            -Point1- That’s not proof. That’s not even evidence, it’s religious rhetoric.
            -Point 2- “Original Sin” is a purely Christian concept. Thus that logic only really applies to Christians. I’m no more bound by your original sin then you’re bound to fight in Ragnarok.

            “But that isn’t what we were discussing. We were discussing the idea you keep putting forth that Original Sin doesn’t exist.”

            -I actually had no idea that we were talking about original sin, I thought we were talking about moral relativism. However, as an Asatruar, no I don’t believe in original sin.

            ” If original sin doesn’t exist, neither can morality.”
            - How do you arrive at that conclusion? Moral systems and codes of Law existed long before the stories of Genesis were ever created. Just ask the Hindus, their religion predates every other (still-living) religious tradition in the world.

            ” If good and evil don’t exist, it becomes impossible to do good-
            impossible to do anything OTHER than kill my neighbor and take
            everything he owns.”
            -Good and Evil exist as IDEAS. This isn’t Star Wars, there is no invisible Force that objectively verifies good and evil. Yet we manage not to just murder each other out of existence.
            You turn to the Bible for moral guidance. Others turn to the Quran, or the Eddas, or the Bhagavad Gita. None of these has an exclusive claim on “morality”.

            “Because in the end, in a world without good and evil, the only motivating factor is greed and self interest.”

            -Or the betterment of mankind, because some of us aren’t raving lunatics that are only kept in check by a book, and we can see the big picture.

            “And you keep claiming that you WANT to live in such a world.”
            -No, I’m saying we DO live in that world, and it’s not as bad as you make it sound.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            If Original Sin is purely a christian concept, then why does addiction exist?

            You are as bound by Original Sin as everybody else- you just use the false concept of relativism to hide it from yourself.

            Neopagans like the Asatruar are just fakes pretending to be wise, when they aren’t even really connected historically to the beliefs they pretend to hold.

            If you truly believed in Ragnarok, you’d believe in Original Sin, it’s just a different name for the same concept.

            The existence of Original Sin doesn’t depend on the book of Genesis, it depends on human nature and the universal objective good and evil. Call it original sin, call it bad Karma, it’s all the same.

            Good and Evil exist as much, much more than ideas. Unless, of course, you agree to let me shoot you, because that isn’t bad if good and evil are just ideas.

            Your germans you worship DID manage to almost murder us out of existence. It took massive firebombing to stop the people who believe in your philosophy, just 70 years ago.

            If you believe in the betterment of mankind, then you have already conceded the existence of good and evil- for you can’t have betterment without a way to judge the difference between getting better and getting worse. If morality is merely relative, there is no better and no worse.

            We don’t live in a world where there is no better and no worse, no good and no evil, no right and no wrong. You just don’t want to admit these things are objective and the same for everybody, because you’re a perpetual adolescent who can’t even be bothered to read the basic literature of the religion you’re pretending to follow. Odin knew that good and evil exist- he gave his eye to learn which was which.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            Addiction exists because there are many chemical compounds upon which the human brain can be come reliant. I fail to see how this has anything to do with the conversation at hand, much less an incident with a talking snake…
            I could argue that you use the myth of original sin so you don’t need to cope with a universe in which we are solely responsible for our own actions. (IE, a world in which human moral perspectives are relative, and subject to change.)

            “Neopagans like the Asatruar are just fakes pretending to be wise, when
            they aren’t even really connected historically to the beliefs they
            pretend to hold.”
            -That’s the Pot calling the Kettle black. You’re barely connected to the roots of your Bible. (Seriously, go talk to a Rabbi. You’ll learn some things about your book)
            -P.S.- Schmuck.

            Putting aside your slight about the sincerity of my belief,
            Ragnarok has exactly NOTHING to do with original sin. I have no idea where you came up with that, but those are two ENTIRELY unrelated concepts.

            “Original sin” is a very specific reference to the acquisition of sentience in the book of Genesis. If you understood the mechanics of Karma you would know the two have very little in common. One is the story of a god cursing an entire world because somebody decided to disobey him. The other is a religious reckoning of cause and effect, regarding ones progress through life’s lessons and the cycle of reincarnation.
            You still insist that there is some universal moral code. Please, tell me what moral code the entire world agrees upon? Why haven’t we heard of this?

            “Your germans you worship DID manage to almost murder us out of
            existence. It took massive firebombing to stop the people who believe
            in your philosophy, just 70 years ago.”

            Wow, ok you went there.
            Note #1- Hitler was a Christian who started his own church. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_Christianity)
            Note#2- I don’t worship Germans. I follow the Aesir.
            Note#3- As long as we’re digging into history, lets talk about the bloody crusades and the inquisition. Christianity is hardly a “peaceful” religion.
            Note#4- Godwins Law. You’re the reason it exists.(http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/godwins-law)

            It is completely possible to attempt to improve any system without “moral” connotations. You don’t need a biblical guide to good and evil to improve the engine efficiency of your car. In reality though, that’s beside the point because I never said that a society should be without morals. I simply said that all societies have morals, and those morals often conflict. Since there is no universal system (No matter how many times you say there is, without providing any evidence for your claim) the only way we can judge those moral systems is against other moral systems. There is no independent force against which we can check our progress or accuracy. We simply have to muddle through and do the best we can.

            ” You just don’t want to admit these things are objective and the same
            for everybody, because you’re a perpetual adolescent who can’t even be
            bothered to read the basic literature of the religion you’re pretending
            to follow. Odin knew that good and evil exist- he gave his eye to learn
            which was which.”
            - I am quite aware of the Lore, thank you. It is actually my JOB to be aware of the Lore. I am well versed in Eddic philosophy, and fully aware of the fact that it is just as much of a social construct as Biblical philosophy. I find it to be less offensive, but that’s my subjective opinion. Which brings us back to the point I was trying to make in the first place. You can believe the Bible is a moral guide, and I can believe the Eddas are a moral guide, but in the end both options are nothing but personal opinions. Subjective. Relative.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            “Addiction exists because there are many chemical compounds upon which the human brain can be come reliant. I fail to see how this has anything to do with the conversation at hand, much less an incident with a talking snake”

            That’s because all you see is the talking snake. I see a basic truth of human nature- that sin is addictive, that the human brain becomes reliant upon it, and that those addictions have been passed down in our genetic code since the beginning.

            To understand the truth of myth, you’ve got to go below the surface. That’s true whether it is Odin at the Well or the Talking Snake in the Garden; objective good and evil exists regardless.

            Ragnarok has a LOT to do with original sin, as does Armageddon. Two sides of the same coin, if you understand the myth. If you are just superficial and do not bother to understand the underlying objective truth, they appear different.

            The crusades and the inquisition were SECULAR attempts to protect the common good from outside forces. Actual attempts- no different than the bloody angel of the Aesir, which you’re apparently also ignorant of.

            You don’t seem to have the first clue about the Lore, at all. Your subjective opinion is based an an utter lack of understanding of the Lore, and you’re a failure at your job if you think the Lore is subjective or relative at all.

            You aren’t good enough to be an Asatruar because you don’t understand that the Lore is objective, not relative.

  • Bob

    Chesterton (I think in Orthodoxy) meditates on how the Church/Orthodoxy is attacked from all sides and that people will basically give up everything to fight the Church: they will stop believing in sin, in love, in truth. I find this sometimes in conversations with people (because to be honest – in contrast to your post – MOST people I argue with – when pressed – will eventually end up ascribing to some sort of relativism). Once you start pushing people to consider their world view and using their own worldview against them and taking it to its logical conclusions, then almost by default they will proclaim, “people should just be allowed to do what they want as long as it doesn’t affect others.”

    • SamRocha

      *That* would be the sort of relativism the the popes warn against, which we all suffer from, I think, especially in these modern times when freedom is seen as an end in itself.

  • arty

    Sam:
    You read Reno’s piece on desire over at FT today? It’s pretty apropos to your ideas here. Anecdotally, in support of your argument, when I run across “relativism” it is nearly always of the laziness (“yeah, whatever”) variety, not of the thought-out sort. What I do observe, though (and this is in the Reno piece), is the triumph of a sort of practical nihilism that pretends to be life envisioned as satisfaction of an endless and ever-changing series of desires.

    • SamRocha

      I’ve been slow today, this whole month, really, so I’ll have to catch-up on that this evening. Thanks!

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    “this in March 2103″

    I knew it. Elizabeth Scalia IS River Song!

  • Mike

    Sounds like some people on the so-called right side of the political aisle, use relativism in a pejorative sense, which has the immediate effect of reducing the substance of their argument to an ad hominen argument. We should be much more full of care for our audience when we say that relativism is bad. We should also not forget that consequentialism (the ethics of “no hurt no foul”), relativism’s (there is no absolute truth) off-spring, may be just as corosive to the brittle Christian foundations of our society. We hear alot about how bad relativism can be but not about how counter-productive is consequentialism (except from Mark Shea, who seems to be on top of it.)

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      I fail to see how “Harm None” is corrosive. Seems pretty solid to me.

      • Mike

        You’re right it isn’t, if it doesn’t harm anyone, including people who are not directly affected. But if there are people who are harmed indirectly then it does harm. Also if there are people who are harmed but disagree that they are being harmed then it begins falling apart in places. “Harm none” is also rarely applied to oneself whereas it ought to be. The ethics of “no harm no foul” also tend to reduce “harm” to direct physical harm and exclude indirect physical, psychological and sociological harm. But, as a sentiment, you’re right it is not corrosive.


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