Tolerance gone rogue: Troubles with relativism (Part 2)

“I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.” So said a young adult, quoted in the New York Times as representative of a generation of moral individualists.

The quote came from a set of interviews conducted with young people back in 2008, but not much has changed in the intervening decade. An atmosphere of moral individualism still prevails, and the notion of a shared moral framework seems a thing of the distant past. Most young people, having rejected blind deference to authority, have swung to the opposite extreme and adopted a position of radical relativism. “Who am I to say what’s right and wrong?”, they ask, assuming that moral choices are simply a matter of personal taste.

What they fail to see is that relativism need not accompany the clutch of tolerance-related values that are so important to our public life and social cohesion. Contrary to popular reckoning, it’s entirely possible to embrace pluralism, cultural diversity and social harmony without also embracing relativism.

In his book The War for Children’s Minds, philosopher Stephen Law suggests that relativism is part of a cultural trend towards non-judgmentalism. This trend has its benefits, as it inclines people to avoid making hurtful and prejudiced judgements. The downside is that it inclines people to avoid making any kinds of judgements at all. Relativists are just as wary of well-considered, balanced, and rational judgements as they are of hasty, partisan and bigoted judgements.

Relativism is connected to multiculturalism in much the same way as to non-judgmentalism. Multiculturalism recognises the valuable contributions of diverse cultures — contributions that have historically been neglected. Many of us wish to celebrate this diversity and to acknowledge the unsung achievements of oppressed minorities. At the same time, it should be obvious that minority cultures don’t ipso facto possess a consistently clearsighted view of reality. Relativism, to its discredit, undermines the authority of anyone who holds others to account for their false or unjustified beliefs.

It’s been suggested that in repudiating criticism of other cultures, relativism lends a veneer of philosophical respectability to a progressive multiculturalist agenda. Sadly, this is both a very flimsy view of philosophical respectability and a very poor approach to promoting multiculturalism and progressive politics more generally. Philosopher Paul Boghossian explains:

    if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed… it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful. The only remedy… is to accept an overt double standard: allow a questionable idea to be criticized if it is held by those in a position of power… but not if it is held by …. [people who are oppressed]. Familiar as this stratagem has recently become, how can it possibly appeal to anyone with the slightest degree of intellectual integrity…?”

Since relativism seems to drive people to hypocrisy (to say nothing of absurdity and self-contradiction), its prevalence is puzzling. Why are so many people stuck at the relativist level of epistemological understanding? Journalist David Brooks (whose article furnished the opening quote of this post) observes that young people “have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations”, nor, I would add, to discriminate among competing claims for moral legitimacy.

Ultimately, the relativist’s ‘anything goes’ attitude is rooted not in generosity of spirit, but in a lack of discernment. And this is why I consider relativism to be tolerance gone rogue.

Let’s take a look at an example from a class discussion among Years 10 and 11 students (transcribed in appendix 6 of Jason Pietzner’s thesis). The teacher asked: “Is it right to say that truth can be open to interpretation?’ and Bella replied: “Yes, because everybody has their own perception of what is right and wrong, so they can have their own perception of what they think is truthful, can’t they?”. Olivia concurred: “Two people can believe wholeheartedly in completely different things about the same subject”. Emily chimed in: “It’s their truth” and Olivia added that it’s “right for them.”

Cartoon by Randy Glasbergen

The ascent of relativism (and with it, the erosion of shared moral frameworks) is worrying, because it’s only through shared evaluative reasoning about ethical matters that we’ve been able to reach a social consensus about the ignominy of such things as unjust wars, slavery and other human rights violations. We need to ask ourselves whether we are truly prepared to risk reversing this progress.

Let me offer a final example of student dialogue in which relativism was being mooted. This example is drawn from one of our own workshops here at The Philosophy Club. The kids, aged nine, were discussing the nature of truth. Max said: “If everyone agrees, that’s the truth.” He was getting at the idea of inter-subjective agreement as a path to knowledge: the idea that a community of thinkers can negotiate and co-construct a shared understanding of their shared reality. He went on to say: “But if people don’t agree, the truth can’t be known.”

To this, Holly responded: “Even if people don’t agree, it can still be the truth. We can have proof.” Holly has grasped a key epistemological insight: agreement among members of a community doesn’t signal truth unless the whole community is using evaluativist norms (in other words, seeking to evaluate reasons and evidence). Failing that, any agreement among members of the community may have nothing to do with truth, and everything to do with peer pressure, groupthink or the bandwagon effect.

Cartoon by xkcd

If we as educators value truth, we really need to help our students move beyond relativism. But how?

I’ll hazard some answers in my next post.


The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.


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