..and another thing, relativism is fucking up our culture.

“Cultural relativism is the ever-popular theory claiming that, “any set of customs and institutions, or way of life, is as valid as any other”. In its appeal to tolerance-the seemingly incontrovertible “virtue” of the modern era-it has gained wide appeal amongst myriad disciplines, most notably in the social sciences. However, the theory is destructive in both theory and practice. In theory, cultural relativism emphatically denies rea­son and objective reality. In practice, it sanctions the worst manifestations of violence and oppression.” 1

Postmodern culture is inveigled by relativism, on the surface the doctrine appeals to moderate views and tolerance, but offers no means to counter intolerance and oppression. There are many problems with relativism’s uncritical assimilation into popular culture. Generally, people are ignorant and equally uncaring about the full implications of their ideas. Internal consistency is not and has never been a feature of popular thinking. So when you point out the logical conclusions of given ideas people will either shrug or simply seek to limit the application of their idea to restricted spheres. Relativism, however, seems to have become applied to all aspects of life and culture, the great danger of this is it disempowers challenges to it and reveals at it’s core a doctrine that both anti-discourse and anti-rational.

In ethics relativists argue that no one moral viewpoint is more privileged than another and that all moral and social norms arise out of the culture of our upbringing. While this may seem be a powerful response to cultural imperialism it does leave the relativist in a position where they are unable to support or condemn the ethical and social norms of their own or other cultures. The relativist may feel that preventing women access to abortion services in Ireland or the massacre and displacement of Rohingya Muslims by Aung San Suu Kyi‘s regime in Burma is wrong, but their feelings arise from their culture and as no one point of view is better than another they have no basis on which to challenge, object or even to feel that what happens in another cultural setting is wrong.

While it may seem fashionably broad minded to accept difference in matters of taste, way of life and sexuality or gender identity relativism has no reason to champion the rights and freedoms of people within these groups or condemn their denial. If all viewpoints are of equal validity then a true relativist has no grounds to argue that culture tolerance and equality are moral goods or that his viewpoint is correct and others, with views rejecting freedom and equality, are wrong. It is muddled and inconsistent thinking to advocate that all viewpoints have equal validity and moral rightness then to defend oppressed minorities and reject and critique the cultural majority for their oppressive and normative views. One person’s moral viewpoint is not less than yours because you are able to label it: “mainstream”; or uncritical; or social or individually damaging.

Perhaps if we introduce another moral concept, ethical utilitarian which at it simplest level suggests that what is moral is to be motivated to try create the greatest good for the greatest number. We can then argue that damage and religious or cultural offence caused by legalising homosexuality in the UK has been outweighed by the good  it has done for the LGBTQ+ community. However, the simple problem with this piecemeal adoption of philosophical ideas is that they contradict one another fundamentally. This is a good example where mainstream culture attempts to appropriate technical ideas to pull a shroud over it’s confused and contradictory norms and beliefs. Resorting to an appeal to a rational, universal principle, such as utilitarianism, is fundamentally rejected by ethical relativists who argue there is no universal basis from which morals arise, which is why all cultures have different taboos and goods. Furthermore, it is simple culture imperialism to believe that one set of moral ideas arising from one culture are better than another set arising in another culture, it is only possible to assert moral supremacy by reference to universal values which do not exist. To accept a universal moral concept like utilitarianism’s that what is right is to try to create the greatest good for the greatest number is to fundamentally reject relativism.

In terms of taste, art, music, sexuality, gender and other elements of manufactured, human culture this is no bad thing. Acceptance of other viewpoints and other modes of expression has mostly positive affects. If we accept the relativist argument that all is viewpoint, then while one thing may seem a certain way from one perspective it will inevitably appear differently viewed from by another, from another place or perspective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the viewer or reader constructs meaning through a complex interaction of sensory impression and experience. This is true for objects judged to exist external to the viewer and ideas and theories constructed imaginatively and intellectually by the viewer.

“Relativism holds that no opinion is better than any other opinion. Taken to its logical conclusion, it destroys the whole enterprise of rational discussion. If every opinion is as good as any other, then the opinion I come to at the end of a long, informative and rigorous debate is no better than the one I started with—so, what good did the debate do? Worse, relativism says that the opinion of a world-renowned expert on some topic is no better than that of the least informed person.” 2

“Independence of mind, politeness and objectivity are the virtues that we…need in order to look for [truth]. Relativist ‘true-for-you/false-for-me’ talk undermines these virtues. Let us banish it…without delay!” 3 The relativist theory that all knowledge is subjective has it’s foundations in idealism, whether or not people who, superficially, accept relativism agree with idealism or not.

“In philosophy, Idealism is the group of metaphysical philosophies that assert that reality, or reality as humans can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically, idealism manifests as a scepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing…Beginning with Kant, German idealists such as Hegel, Fichte, Schelling and Schopenhauer dominated 19th-century philosophy. This tradition, which emphasized the mental or “ideal” character of all phenomena, gave birth to idealistic and subjectivist schools ranging from British idealism to phenomenalism to existentialism. The historical influence of this branch of idealism remains central even to the schools that rejected its metaphysical assumptions, such as Marxism, pragmatism and positivism.”4

At a very fundamental level relativism depends on idealism to refute objectivity in all it’s forms. If we cannot know whether the non-mental, physical, “real” world does in fact exist or that we cannot know it directly (since the sensory organs, which are non-sentient, collect the raw data from our surroundings and then pass that information to the brain which then ‘constructs’ a picture of the world which is demonstrably shaped by our experience and beliefs). Then not knowing this concrete, physical world beyond our mental construction of it, our experiences of reality are not only shaped by our viewpoint but our viewpoint is not open to question by another. No one can stand in our place and see the universe through our particular experiences. Furthermore, how can one viewpoint be more privileged than another? In this way it is incompatible with relativism to assert the truth of any proposition. There is no authority we can go to to validate our theories or beliefs about the nature of the real world. There isn’t even the real world, or an object therein, to refer to since the only information was can have of the real world comes to us, at best, from a secondary source (our own sensory experience).

In popular discourse idealism is generally rejected: “Of course their is a real, physical world. That’s just common sense. A real world that exists, even if I have no consciousness of it.” However, many of the corollary ideas of relativism are widely accepted. “My point of view is no more or less privileged then another’s. So my opinions are just as valid as any other’s.” You can only assert such a view by rejecting reason, science and expertise. You can only rationally reject study, science and reason if you deny the possibility of going to an object in question and directly assessing it.

Relativism may seem like a very reasonable and well intentioned theory. However, as we all know ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. Granting equal respect to everyone’s views sounds laudable but in reality it leaves the relativist with a moral and ethical framework he has no business defending or promoting as better than any other. Confronted with a relativist, I will take, at random, a stone from ground and place it on the table between us. “That,” I will say, “is a stone. You are a relativist and are unable to argue otherwise. From my viewpoint that is a stone and according to you neither my viewpoint or yours is better.”, “Indeed,” this relativist should reply, “and I agree that this is a stone.” I pick up another stone, in size, shape, weight and colour much the same as the first, with the further stipulation that is should in no sense be shaped or bear any other resemblance to a feline. “That, ” I say, “is a cat.” Sadly, as inane as my assertion clearly is, the relativist has no answer but to agree to disagree. Relativism is the death of discourse and the rejection of scientific progress.

“You can call a cat a dog, but you can’t make it bark.” This is not just a question of language usage. If we can agree the definition of terms we still cannot agree that my stone is not a cat. We can directly interact with a stone to establish whether it does or does not conform to our definition of stone or cat. We can in certain circumstances refer to a cat as dog, but it does not become what is defined as a dog, it will not bark. We could change the definition of what constitutes a bark to contain the noises that cats make and refining meaning and redefining objects is all very well, but if we do this constantly and without widespread agreement about the new definition and adequate grounds for changing we will never understand one another, communication will be impossible as will the transmission of knowledge, all academic endeavour and progress. You can call a cat a dog, but you have contributed nothing to our understanding of either cats or dogs and more importantly you have undermined what we do know.

All this philosophical discussion seems academic and uninteresting. On the contrary, this is not some abstract thought experiment. People you know are applying piecemeal parts of relativism everyday, whether they agree with everything that relativism means or not is immaterial: the effect is the same. “Let’s just agree to disagree; I don’t care if you are a world renowned expert who has spent their life studying this subject, your opinion is no better than mine; it is just your opinion that certain behaviours are moral reprehensible and other are morally neutral; you can bring out as many statistics, testimonies and direct experiences as evidence to support your point of view as you like, you can prove anything with facts, I don’t agree and you cannot tell me I’m wrong to believe what I do.”

Relativism has positioned itself as the opponent of authoritarianism and cultural imperialism. Asserting that no one viewpoint is, or should be privileged above another is characterised as a grounds for tolerance and acceptance. However, by actively denying the possibility of knowing external reality objectively it discounts the possibility of truth. When there is no truth, logically there are no lies, all is opinion. If we agree to disagree, since there is no objective measure to verify truth, then we have no grounds to defend or attack anything. Whatever the actual powers that be in society, the people who pull the levers of state, you can be sure they would  like nothing more than to be have a relativist opposition to their rule. Relativism is a disempowering cancer that society would do well to remove before it kills its host.

Further reading: The Guardian “The death of truth…”


1‘Critiquing Cultural Relativism’ Jaret Kanarek (The Intellectual Standard, Volume 2 Issue 2).
2‘Relativism Explained’ Brendan Larvor (Humanist Philosophers’ Group, 2005).
3Larvor, ibid.
4‘Idealism’, Wikipedia

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