Students sick with absolute relativism

CHICAGO (U-WIRE) — It was the first day of class in moral philosophy, and Professor Sidorsky was trying the same experiment he had used for many years to start the class. He wrote, “Murder is wrong” on the chalkboard and took a poll to see who agreed with the statement. Everyone raised his or her hand. He then added “is true” at the end of the previous proposition, and asked again. Less than a third of the class raised their hands. The professor looked dismayed, and I now understand why: The second poll confirmed the increasing tendency to ethical relativism in college students.
Relativism of all kinds is more widespread and deeply ingrained than I could have imagined. Besides ethical relativism, the view that no actions are objectively moral or immoral regardless of the circumstances, cultural relativism and epistemological relativism are also quite popular in academic circles.
Cultural relativism, which is closely related to the ethical kind, is the view that no cultures or cultural practices are superior or inferior to any others. The third type of relativism, epistemological, basically holds that there is no such thing as objective truth, that all knowledge is in some way just a social construct.
In recent years, this last type of relativism has been usually held to be the basis for the other two. It is the fundamental tenet of postmodernism and has been famously defended by Richard Rorty, the high priest of contemporary relativism.
There are many extremely convincing arguments against Rorty and his ilk. At the very least, it should be clear that you cannot say “There is no objective truth” without refuting yourself — for that claim to carry any weight, it must be objectively true or false itself. This is not the place, however, for the philosophical arguments against the different types of relativism; I’ll leave that to the professionals.
What interests me is why so many students have been receptive to relativism. It is certainly neither from common sense nor from an informed decision after having read the philosophical literature pro and con. In fact, philosophy students are among the least likely to be relativists. Rather, it seems to me students accept relativism since they view it as the foundation for tolerance.
Not only is tolerance one of the most cherished values in our liberal society, but Columbia, like many universities around the country, drums this idea even more strongly into its students. We are taught to have tolerance for people who differ from ourselves, for people with different backgrounds and beliefs. To be called intolerant is to suffer a great ignominy.
Many left-leaning students, it would seem, view any type of absolutism as a threat to tolerance. They point to the fact that notions of cultural superiority, such as that of the “white man’s burden,” have historically and repeatedly been used as justification for imperialism and oppression.
But what many students fail to realize is that relativism is diametrically opposed to their desire for tolerance. For relativists, tolerance can be called “good” only with respect to their particular culture or perspective. They cannot say some other people’s intolerance is objectively wrong. All they can say is “Our culture supports tolerance, while that culture doesn’t, but neither view is better than the other.” They have no right to criticize other people’s intolerance, no matter how heinous.
Absolutists, on the other hand, can rationally defend the value of tolerance. Like John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin, they can argue for the value of pluralism while denying relativism. Further, unlike relativists, absolutists are not required to support tolerance in all circumstances. They realize that vehement intolerance is the correct response to evil and injustice.
Now, you might be thinking, “Perhaps students’ relativism is well-intentioned but misguided, but so what? It is just a harmless philosophical theory.” To the contrary, this is a clear case where abstract philosophy can have important practical effects in the real world.
If there is no objective truth, everything becomes purely an issue of power. To paraphrase Mussolini, “Since nothing is really right or wrong, we Fascists have a right to use whatever means to gain power.”
If you cannot say, for instance, that slavery, genocide or the oppression of women and minorities is categorically wrong, then you cannot justify intervention. Without objective truth, everything is permitted.
Not only is relativism a self-defeating position for supporters of human rights, but it has actually been used to justify persecution. In South Africa, for example, relativist edicts were used to justify apartheid: “Whites have their way, blacks have theirs.” Currently, many oppressive regimes around the world appeal to cultural relativism when the United Nations accuses them of abuses.
For the past few hundred years, the majority of great thinkers who wished to improve the world have appealed to the Enlightenment ideals of truth and reason, as captured in the slogan “The truth shall set you free.” Thus, it is all the more puzzling that relativism and anti-rationalism have been increasingly taken up by those on the Left. For if there is no truth, where does that leave freedom?

Justin Shubow’s column originally appeared in Thursday’s Columbia College Chronicle.