The Ubiquity of Shallow Relativism

The Annoying Dinner Conversation

There’s a repeating social experience I’ve made. It happens during conversation with non-philosophers—say, at a dinner, especially at the Oxford formal dinner table. I explain that I am (or rather, was) doing philosophy—political philosophy even, which to many sounds interesting enough. Conversation then often drifts on to some broadly political topic. But surprisingly often, the conversation takes a turn to debating moral relativism. I’ve had it dozens of times, enough to extrapolate the generic form this conversation takes. (To a lesser degree, it’s a conversation that I’ve had with new undergraduates and undergraduate interviewees.)

The opening overture to this conversation is often that I need to explain that my thesis is not, in any specific way, empirical. While my thesis is on legitimacy—and thus sounds as if it may be, say, about the European Union—it is not a case study of any particular country, or legal system, or “historical moment”, or any such. Alternatively, many believe, if one does philosophy, one must be dealing with some important historical figure(s), or time period, or one’s work must in some other way be an annotation of the intellectual Greats (preferably long dead). But that’s not true of my thesis either—it’s not concerned with any one thinker in particular, though I promise that it has lots of referenced put in footnotes.

What I try to do in my thesis, I normally go on to explain, is to provide a theory (or perhaps more humbly, an analysis) of political legitimacy—one which tells us how we ought to think about the topic. It presents itself as a true moral (or if you like, political) theory of legitimacy, though I of course think that there are many other respectable theories. This leaves a surprising number of non-philosopher conversation partners rather baffled. They find it difficult to understand how work of this kind could even be done. Practically, they wonder how “research” in this field is done on a day-to-day basis—does one simply sit down and … think? (The answer is no, you also procrastinate a lot.)

But more abstractly, many seem to think that there’s very notion of “research” in this area is nonsensical. Scientists are often confused, quite generally, by the idea that one could talk about legitimacy without any concrete empirical focus, without any data about what actual people think or do regarding legitimacy. And people with a humanities background often find it difficult that one writes on a topic without some authoritative text, author or time period. They cannot imagine what it would mean to write on legitimacy simpliciter without some attendant qualifier like “amongst the American founding fathers”, or “in Sartre and Heidegger”, or “in 1960s queer theory” etc.

This confusion might just be due to a lack of acquaintance with how a certain style of philosophy works, and perhaps the dinner summary of my own work is just comically inept. But very often, I’ve experienced that my counterparts offer a more general denial that the kind of work I’m attempting to do is even possible. They think that there is no such thing as the moral truth, and so any attempt to write a piece of work trying to find it is foolish. They are, in other words, moral relativists of some kind: they either believe that there is no moral truth to be had, or that there is only truth “relative to” a specific person or society (though these two positions normally come to the same).

(Philosophers: I’m deliberately skipping past lots of detail. You will already ache to make the fuzzy formulation of relativism I’ve offered more precise. However, as we’ll soon see, it’s not at all clear what most non-philosophers believe in this respect, so introducing these various categories looks beside the point. I should also note that my thesis does not defend realism, nor do I think it depends on its truth—I’m just independently committed to it.)

There are different kinds of dinner-table relativists, and they can be usefully grouped into three groups, though many people are some type of crossover of these categories. First, there are the natural scientists, who normally invoke some garden-variety falsificationism to the effect that morality isn’t falsifiable, and that therefore we cannot know, or that there cannot be, objective moral truth. Second, there are scholars and students from the Humanities and Social Sciences who have looked squarely at human nature, history and culture, seen that it’s incredibly diverse, and decided that any objective moral argument must therefore be bogus. The third group tend to be the politically opinionated people, who smell, in appeals to objective truths and timeless morality, the whiff of Western colonial arrogance, or of conservative morality enforced by the state.

Let me be clear: I do think that relativism is a respectable intellectual position. It can be defended subtly and competently. (Specifying what precisely it claims would be part of that enterprise.) But that’s rarely the version of the theory one encounters “in the wild”. Furthermore, I am not demanding that non-philosophers live up to the same degree of argumentative stringency that philosophers do, whose job it is, after all, to aspire to intellectual rigour. That people hold certain beliefs for bad reasons in areas which isn’t their expertise is just normal—everyone does.

Still, I’ve found that relativism is one of the topics were the arguments and positions one finds non-philosophers holding are particularly out of tune with what most philosophers would consider good arguments. Moreover, in my experience there also is a particularly egregious mismatch between the proportion of non-philosophers and philosophers who are relativists. The overwhelming majority of the former seem to be relativists, while a majority of philosophers (56%) “accept or lean towards” moral realism, a position which rejects the core relativist claim that there is no moral truth.

So there’s something to be explained here—both sociologically and philosophically. Going backwards from the three groups of relativists I’ve encountered, let me give some hints as to why I think that each of these groups tends to claim they’re relativists (even if they don’t use the label), and why I think they’re mistaken. I’ll end with some reflections on whether any of this matters.

The Political Relativists

Let’s start with politically—or more broadly, socially—motivated relativism. The opposite of relativism—which I will simply call anti-relativism, or more vaguely, “objectivism”—is generally associated with a number of regressive political movements. Those that scream the loudest about “values” and insist on knowing what they truly demand seem to be the intolerant, the repressive traditionalists, generally those who wish to use the state to impose their views on others.

More could be done here to disentangle these various perceptions. Some people will associate anti-relativism with religion and religious intolerance; others will think objectivism represents the left-overs of a colonially prejudiced mind-set, one that implicitly favours white, heterosexual male conceptions of morality over any others. Whatever the precise way we’re going to tell this story, I think that the association of anti-relativism with these various cultural forces, and inversely, the identification of progressivism with its philosophical anti-dote, explains quite a lot of the wide-spread appeal of relativism. That’s understandable, but I think it blinds many to what anti-relativism really commits us to.

First, it could be part, and likely is part, of the moral truth that we ought to respect and tolerate others. It could also be forbidden, as a matter of objective morality, to impose your views on others. In short, it might simply be that the moral truth is itself progressive, anti-colonial, left-liberal, or what-have-you. Objectivism is a meta-claim about the nature of moral truth, and is not in any way wedded to a particular account of the truth (not even a religious one).

Furthermore, “objectivism” about values does not commit you to the claim that each and every one should live the same way, or according to the same standards, or that one way of living is superior to others. A plausible morality will leave a large role to choice, both individual and societal. So there can be large variations in the social conventions between different societies, all of which are equally permissible. (In much the same way, an objective theory that says that everyone ought to pursue their own freely chosen happiness condones a large variety of individual life choices.)

Another issue has to do with the supposed arrogance of the advocate in objective values. The objectivist, many seem to suspect, must see themselves as part of a club of “true believers” who have sole access to the truth, while all others are heretics. Such an attitude seems crass and also politically problematic. But this perception again is a failure to draw some crucial distinctions. One has to distinguish (i) a meta-belief about whether a certain problem has an “objective” solution from (ii) one’s particular belief regarding how that problem should be solved. Similarly, we have to distinguish the confidence one has with regard to these two beliefs. It is entirely possible to believe that (i) morality is objective—that is, some moral claims are true, and some false, independent from what any of us believe—while also believing that (ii) knowing about morality is very hard, and that one is not at all confident that one’s own view is correct.

Compare this situation to two scientists who disagree over the best explanation for some physical phenomenon. Presumably, both agree that they’re disagreeing about an objective matter—that is, they agree that there is ultimately one correct explanation if we had all the relevant evidence (level (i)). Taking this position on the meta-level, however, does not entail much at all about your confidence on the other level. You’re likely to be more convinced of your own explanation than your opponents’ view (otherwise you wouldn’t really have a disagreement). That is, for the time being you think that your explanation has a better claim to objective truth. But all this is compatible with being humble and open-minded about alternative explanations, and with admitting that your opponents’ explanation also has its strengths; nor does it entail that you seek to censor or silence your critics. Indeed, you might think that precisely because there is an important truth of the matter, that as many and diverse perspectives as possible should be heard.

The Culturalist Relativists

Let’s move on to the second group. Many of the relativists I’ve encountered are anthropologists, sociologists, historians, literature students, or some such. There is a kind of strategic relativism which makes sense if you work in these fields. If you want to understand the social and moral rules of a society, a time period or an author very different from ours, it is often best to set one’s own moral standards aside, or to relativize them to a degree that they don’t affect one’s own approach. This expresses a hermeneutic empathy, an attempt to come to grips with someone else’s work on its own, which can often be crucial to correctly understand a given textual, historical or anthropological context. Interpretive approaches that over-commit to objectivity have long been out of favour in these disciplines—you’re a moraliser, or a “presentist”, or a Whig historian otherwise. So coming from these fields, there’s again good sociological reason why you would think that some type of relativism is correct.

Unfortunately, these various reasons to approach other belief systems in their own terms do not directly translate into a more general reason to be a relativist. An anti-relativist does not need to believe in the inner necessity of moral progress; she need not believe in the moral superiority of the present time, or the moral norms of the observer; nor, as I sketched above, does she need to believe in “timeless” social conventions which are superior to all others. Quite generally, one can find great value in these fields, and even endorse strategic relativism as a useful interpretive technique, without believing that moral norms are relative.

Furthermore, even if you do believe that past societies (authors, individuals) were significantly wrong, both in their moral beliefs and their political practices, anti-relativism does not immediately entail anything about the degree to which one should judge the members of these societies. As an analogy, we now know that many early models of the atom are incorrect. So we should say that the physicists that proposed these models were wrong. That does not take away, however, from the fact that we think them to be important scientists who deserve attention and praise. The moral analogy is not quite as simple: it might be that certain moral wrongs cannot be excused, even if you sincerely believed that you acted rightly. But at the very least, there is considerable logical space between judging someone to be wrong and judging them to be evil.

There is, of course, an argument for relativism in the vicinity here which is quite powerful. This argument starts from the observation that people—both across time and across societies—have severely disagreed about morality. Indeed, the evidence of cultural variation in morals is overwhelming. From this it seems easy to infer that morality must be relative in some sense. Unfortunately, presented this simply, the argument won’t do. Speaking generally, from the fact that people disagree about X you cannot infer that there is no truth regarding X. (Substitute any scientific topic for X to see this for yourself.) The degree to which you can observe cultural variation does not significantly change this basic fact. I’m not saying this argumentative gap cannot be bridged—relativists might well be able to do so. But in most conversations, the step has been taken to be obvious, while it isn’t.

The Scientistic Relativists

Indeed, at this dialectical point in the conversation I have often found that the objection to anti-relativism does not really rest on the observation of disagreement, but on some previous background dismissal of objective morality. The conversation might go, for example, like this:

“There’s so much variety in people’s/societies’ moral norms.”

“Yes, but disagreement by itself cannot show that there’s no objectivity.”

“Okay, but when people disagree about morality, they’re not really disagreeing about anything. They’re merely stating their opinion—it’s nothing factual.”

The rejoinder isn’t great, as it simply presumes what needs to be shown (that morality is subjective). But at any rate, note that nothing in the argument now really depends on the fact of disagreement. After all, the argument would continue to stand even if everyone agreed in their moral views. It’s here that we get to the third group of relativists who I’ve found to be a loose alliance of natural scientists (though not generally mathematicians). There can be no such thing as objective morality, they will typically argue, because (i) people do not give (and cannot give) empirical evidence in favour of their moral views, or (ii) because morality can be explained by evolution or self-interest, or in some other way be scientifically explained through biology.

There are heavy-weight philosophical objections hiding behind (i) and (ii) that a moral anti-relativist has to answer. But again, I’ve normally encountered these objections in rather pitiful forms. The first type of objection, for example, very often seems to rest on a badly jumbled form of scientism, which I take to be the claim that knowledge can only come from (empirical) science. (At this point Popper, rightly or wrongly, is often introduced into battle.) But such an understanding of science runs into some obvious objections. We do not seem to know the basic axioms of mathematics in an empirical way, for example. In trusting the results from science, we also seem to rely on a number of background assumptions—e.g., the reliability of our sense perception, or claims about what makes a scientific theory good—which aren’t clearly empirical either. It’s admittedly difficult to fit morality “into the universe”, put such arguments should start from a more subtle account of the role of science.

With regard to (ii), I’ve very often encountered the claim that morality can be reduced to self-interest, and is therefore bunk. Just empirically, this is a highly implausible claim, as we observe altruistic behaviour all the time, even if it might be comparably rare. Only if you make the definition of self-interest so broad as to be meaningless can you label these kinds of behaviour “self-interested”. (This is a conversation I’ve had surprisingly often with undergraduates.) The evolutionary argument is stronger. But first, it is not immediately clear whether all of morality can really be explained through evolutionary pressures; and second, it is not clear why the origin of some beliefs being explainable via evolution precludes them from also reflecting objective truths.

Does It All Matter?

You can see that I’ve been quite worked up over this in the past, and I am the first to admit that I’ve become unreasonably angry over this topic. I tended to think that the issue mattered greatly. I could not understand why anti-relativism was so quickly (and with such great certainty) dismissed by so many, and I found the contrast to the otherwise intelligent and considered opinions of my counterparts jarring, including my own students.

I’ve calmed down a bit now, for two reasons. First, and I’ve already hinted at this at various points, relativism in its practical expression is mostly socially and morally benign. On most cultural battlefronts, I’m with the relativists against the anti-relativists—with the progressives, the liberals, the tolerant, the epistemically humble, the interpretive hermeneuticists, the empiricists; and against the traditionalists, the arch-religious, the intolerant, the insufferable know-it-alls, the moralising Whig historians, the anti-science mystics. Indeed, it might well be that believing in relativism, comparatively speaking, leads you to be a better person—more humble, more understanding of others, less socially rigid, less willing to impose one’s views on others.

Indeed, it’s perhaps shallow anti-relativism that would be significantly more dangerous than shallow relativism—e.g., imagine a case where we all profess to believe in objective moral values, but where our attitude towards them is in fact deeply cynical and transactional. If our social choice is between badly understood relativism and badly understood anti-relativism, I tend to think the former is preferable. (To be clear, I don’t believe that, as a matter of pure philosophical theory, relativists are either particularly dangerous or particularly benign, as relativism by itself does not entail any first-order moral claims.)

Second, I doubt that most of the people I talked to really were relativists. This is more controversial, so let me explain. Each of us has a complicated, wide-ranging set of beliefs. Some of these form part of our core commitments, while some are relatively superficial. Almost everyone’s entire belief set is widely incomplete, and in particular, very likely to be contradictory in some crucial ways. It is not at all clear whether most dinner-table relativists really are relativists if you started from their core beliefs and tried to reconstruct the best, most coherent set of principles they’re committed to: what we believe, and what we’re ultimately committed to, can differ. Conservatives from time to time bemoan that we live in an age of moral relativism, but I don’t think this at all true. It’s simply that people believe in different moral truths, and they nowadays eschew the language of truth.

In other words, relativism is not—I suspect—normally commitment which is very deeply anchored in most people’s beliefs. It’s best explained through various sociological effects, and a misunderstanding of the philosophical alternatives, but it’s not a belief which will normally go terribly deep. The same general result, of course, is true of my own beliefs, which will have their own weird gaps and inconsistencies. In short, it’s shallow relativism that is ubiquitous, not relativism full stop. So all in all, self-proclaimed relativism is probably not such a pressing issue. I should have worked myself up over something more important—say, politics, or football.


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