Taking Relativism Seriously

Why is there wavering in my voice when I say that something is ‘wrong, period’? It may be that in the back of my mind I hear someone retort, “But that’s just your opinion” or “Who are you to say?”, skeptical charges to which I have no immediate reply. Or it may be that I expect my interlocutor to go to great lengths to point out to me that somebody who can make that sort of proposition has to be smug, overconfident, and immodest, none of which, he will assuredly imply, are very becoming.

It is common today to hear people speak about wanting to get other people’s perspectives. By definition, perspectives are ways of seeing the world from different spatial (or cognitive) locations. Getting more perspectives thereby gives us more ways of seeing the world. And the more ways we have of seeing the world, the more likely we are to see things more clearly or, if not more clearly, then more complexly. Doubtless, it is an aesthetic capacity: think about how many ways there are of looking at a blackbird. Along with perspectives, one also hears plenty of talk about opinions, interpretations, and readings on radio call-in programs, in college classrooms, and in the public square. Having an opinion seems to imply that neither I nor anyone else can have a final say on the issue. We acknowledge from the start that the things before us are open-ended and bound to change; that opinions are (or may just be) expressions of our feelings, preferences, or tastes; and that I can have my opinion, you can have yours, and there needn’t be any conflict between thine and mine. Indeed, it is perfectly natural for you to opine that P and for me to opine that not-P without there being any contradiction here: for it is P according to you and not-P according to me. Not only is there no contradiction; there is not even a disagreement between us. So, the pay-off of speaking of perspectives, opinions, and the like is that we can tacitly endorse tolerance and, in so doing, keep everything neat and tidy.

The view I have been describing above normally goes by the name of relativism. The tell-tale sign? You say something about a state of affairs only for the next person to challenge your authority by saying something which brings to your attention the fact that you are of a certain race or gender or that you belong to a certain class, social standing, or nation. (I suppose the challenge to the Martian’s universalist claims would be that she is, after all, a Martian.) By the relativist’s lights, you say is or ought, but you mean who. In this way, your interlocutor “unmasks” universal propositions for what they really are—particular interests motivated by particular ends. You either don’t realize (or don’t let on) the extent to which your statements and factual judgments are really shot through by what the philosopher Simon Blackburn in his book Truth: A Guide sheepishly calls “dark forces,” or you don’t acknowledge how partial and personal your seemingly impartial and impersonal views actually are. Either way, you are hoisted on the relativist’s petard.

Needless to say, I reject relativism, but I am not certain that reason, as it is traditionally conceived, will do much to change things. This may sound like a clear case of pessimism, an excessively sober view of the limits of reason, or perhaps a textbook example of Platonic elitism, but it needn’t be any of these at all. My thought is that whatever authority practical reason has—the sort of reason, I mean, that is concerned with moral conduct, political affairs, and values in general—is slight in comparison with traditional authority and with the authority that we implicitly associate with our everyday practices. Rarely indeed has engaging in philosophical argument changed somebody’s mind or gained her rational assent. Normally, she simply opts out or grows silent. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues in Cosmopolitanism, our views of the social world tend to change when our individual habits and our communal practices change. Over the past twenty years, homosexuality didn’t, in the public eye, become any less of a perversion or a sin; it simply became more familiar, more recognizable, and, in consequence, less distasteful. In light of this, my suggestion will be that if we wish to make relativism look considerably less appealing to plain persons and if we are nevertheless convinced that practical reason can do some good in the public domain, then we had better develop a conception of public practical reason that can do the trick.

To see why, I want to begin by discussing three traditional, and not unrelated, conceptions of reason: reason as objectivity, reason as justification, and reason as demonstration. My aim will be to give a rough account of why they prove ineffectual against the sort of relativism that one finds in the public sphere.

According to the objectivity conception, any person is capable of detaching himself from his particular interests in order to ascend to a standpoint that is, in the words of the philosopher Thomas Nagel, “a view from nowhere.” The objectivist insists not only that anyone, in principle, can look at things in a disinterested way but also that anything we discover from such a vantage point must apply to everyone or to what there is. In answer to the objectivist, the relativist could reply in one of two ways. First, he might claim that there could be “dark forces” of which one remains unaware, forces that make getting the sort of picture of the world that the objectivist is urging simply impossible (perhaps, unbeknown to you, your unconscious is the spring behind your inquiry). Alternatively, he might grant that we can have a “view from nowhere” but then suggest that such a view has no bearing on our moral conduct. In support of this claim, he might say, for example, that Kant’s supreme moral principle, the categorical imperative, may apply to Western Europeans, but “universalizing maxims” have nothing to do with how people in traditional societies live. “Yes, but ought they?” As if to drive home his point, he might conclude that saying that the categorical imperative carries normative force no matter what one’s experiences are has a decidedly ethnocentric ring to it. In short, for the relativist reason construed as impartiality is a non-starter.

Should you claim that modern science gives us a view of the way the natural world is independently of our conceptions of it, this still leaves in doubt the further claim about whether we can make the same claim about the realm of values. The thought, pitched this way, is that facts are not like values at all. Perhaps conceding this much (though perhaps not), you might try a different tack, now urging that reason has to do with justifying what we believe and how we act. Consider how we justify our behavior. I think Appiah is right to hold that rarely do we offer reasons for actions that we may undertake. Typically, our aim is to explain our behavior (or to exculpate ourselves) after the fact or when things fail to make sense. Could we adduce reasons beforehand? Do we have the capacity to engage in moral deliberations? Of course. No doubt, when the chips are down, when we are in a pinch, or when we are wrought by ambivalence, we will find it necessary to do just this. However, even if it were possible to conceive of a world in which rational agents always deliberated long and hard before they acted, it is still possible that some of them would take up the relativist cause. The cultural relativist may believe that foremost in his moral considerations is a concern to make sure that he does what his culture will endorse. (And even that is not necessarily inconsistent with his acting on a moral principle that furthers the interests of all human beings.)

Still, it could be the case that we can ultimately get what we are after—namely, a knock-down argument against relativism—“on the cheap” for it is often held that relativism is self-refuting. As the third traditional conception of reason would have it, the latter is a process of thought that preserves the truth of our conclusions. Reason, accordingly, helps us draw valid inferences, and, by the rationalist’s lights, relativism falls short of this standard. This conclusion naturally follows from two separate arguments: the first being what Blackburn calls the “recoil argument,” the second what we might term the “argument from multiple cultures.” The recoil argument holds that the relativist’s view has to double back upon itself since, in order to get things going, he has to make a universal claim to the effect that “All cultures have their own views of the good.” But if such a claim is true, then on the relativist view it has to be false. Whence the contradiction.

The second tack taken by the philosopher Russ Shafer-Landau in his introductory book of metaethics Whatever Happened to Good and Evil is also fairly straightforward. There, he asks: how does the cultural relativist deal with the fact that an action can, in principle, take place in two different cultures at the same time? Surely, this jurisdictional problem is at the heart of plenty of moral conflicts. For instance, Native Americans’ desire to practice their own religion may be at odds with federal law. Insofar as such actions take place in two different places at once and insofar as the moral judgment of one can be incompatible with that of another (smoking peyote, say, is immoral and illegal according to federal law, but not so according to religious practice), relativism yields another contradiction.

Summoning the spirit of nihilism from deep within himself, the relativist may now suggest that the canons of reason do not ultimately determine his view of life. Walt Whitman’s dictum from Leaves of Grass seems appropriate here: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am great. I contain multitudes.” That is not to say that he has no possible replies, no places to turn; in fact, he has plenty of room to revise this admittedly straw-man view of relativism. But it is to say that most plain persons, as with many of the characters in the Platonic dialogues, will simply stop playing along. “All right, you got me. I’m not totally rational. So what?”

So what indeed. What went wrong in our approach to refuting relativism? Nothing if one is a philosopher who takes getting things right and being logically consistent quite seriously. But a whole lot if the only game in town is public discourse and if one of our chief aims is to change people’s minds. Aporias are well and good in some places, but they are fighting words in others.

Suppose, then, we were to make a fresh start by asking how relativism came to be the default position among educated and uneducated people in industrialized countries. (I beg off considering the role, in some locales quite small, in others quite significant, that theism of the ethical objective stripe still plays in the US.) Here is the breezy answer: the present incarnation of relativism coincides with the rise of postmodernism, and insofar as both are nothing but fashionable nonsense, they should be dismissed out of hand. Rather satisfying, to be sure, but none too convincing all the same. Worse, it’s not even the whole story. If, however, we try to take relativism seriously as I think we should, then we had better provide an explanation of its existence and then we had better account for its lasting appeal. Having explained its existence and captured its appeal, we should now be able to see more clearly what ethical problems beset relativism. My hope is that such a story will lessen the appeal of relativism for the budding and the world-weary skeptic alike.


One of the truisms of the modern world is that there are a lot of people out there who do not live the way that you or I do. This insight was doubtless more vivid for people living in Western Europe during the eighteenth century than it is for us today. But since that time it has become even more abundantly clear not only that people are bearers of cultural traditions and cultural practices but also that in the present day we are more acutely aware of the diversity of such traditions and practices than ever before. Time and time again, cultural anthropologists have confirmed this in their field investigations. But confirmed what exactly? Well, that pluralism in general and value pluralism in particular is the way of the world.

At first blush, it seems quite difficult to square the proposition that there are universal moral principles that obtain once we grant the diversity of ways of living as well as the plurality of values. The fact of pluralism, it seems, is the first factor which accounts for the rise of relativism: with all those cultures out there, you having yours and I having mine, it’s best not to try to harmonize or unify them. So thought Isaiah Berlin.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that value pluralism has often given rise to moral disagreements. And this is the second thing we see in modernity: the prevalence and trenchancy of moral disagreements among competing parties. Does sharia law apply to Muslims living in the UK, or are all Muslims bound by the law of the land? Is affirmative action unconstitutional—is it, that is, righting a historical wrong, or does it violate the constitutional rights of an individual to be treated as an individual and not as a member of a group? And what of abortion, capital punishment, and gay marriage? What too of the US’s role in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in the Middle East? If these conflicts and others like them are bound to lead to intractable moral disagreements, if no first principles can be adduced, and if no rational assent is to be had, might it not be wise simply to conclude that we should “agree to disagree”? Given that we can come to no consensus as to the right conception of a good life, perhaps we should simply forget about human flourishing, let each of us have our (or our tribe’s) various conceptions, and work to implement laws that protect us from each other. Agreement is a hard bargain; maybe it is enough that we can both get things off our chests without anybody losing—or winning. Supposing as I have done that moral disagreements are as intractable as many people make them out to be, then relativism seems to give us all we can reasonably ask for. It is a healthy dose of reality, just the right thing for a leaner, less optimistic age.

There are two more factors that are sufficient, I think, to explain the prevalence of relativism today. The first is that we are still reckoning with the past—particularly with the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Though I’m not sure that it is the right one, the lesson commonly drawn from the history of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, fascism, communism, and totalitarianism is that we have paid a very high price for seeking to impose our own values on others. Principles of prudence and caution are thus in order, and there is no better brake to cross-cultural oppression than tolerance of difference.

The final, and probably the most pressing, factor explaining the emergence of modern relativism is the fact/value split. Notwithstanding postmodernist skepticism, most of us would agree that science and eye-witness testimony can give us fairly reliable empirical evidence concerning what is the case. And yet we are much less certain about the realm of values. The worry, raised most perspicuously by the sociologist Max Weber when he wrote that the modern world is “disenchanted,” is that values are merely subjective projections onto a valueless world. After all, facts are clear, distinct, and objective whereas values are but opaque, indistinct, and subjective.

In his books Liberalism and the Limits of Justice and Democracy’s Discontents, the political philosopher Michael Sandel clues us into why this is a moral and political problem. According to him, the voluntarist conception that has become common sense since the 1950’s holds that persons exist over and above the ends they freely choose and the values they seek to affirm. For this reason, the proposal that there could be a shared conception of the good life that trumps freedom so conceived (or, rather, that images persons as inherently social or political animals) sounds too much like putting people in straitjackets. Relativism, it turns out, is inconsistent with the republican view that there could be a shared conception of the good life that governs how we understand ourselves in our communities, but it is entirely consistent with the liberal view that all of us are free to pursue our own ends regardless of whether those ends are choice-worthy so long as we do not interfere with others’ pursuit of their respective ends.

Together, value pluralism, the prevalence of moral disagreement, our reckoning with the past, and the fact/value split are necessary and sufficient, I think, to explain the birth of modern relativism. But an account of why something comes into existence is hardly sufficient to explain why it persists. Here, I tread lightly in my investigation of relativism’s appeal. I assume, following Hegel, that the world that we currently inhabit is not entirely at odds with our rational norms. In some way or another, some of our human desires are in fact satisfied by relativism, some of our norms expressed in our institutions. How else to explain why plain persons and humanities professors have glommed onto relativism? How else, in other words, to account for its lasting appeal than by conceding this much at least?

It behooves us to consider, then, what about relativism has gripped us and why it has done so for so long. I can think of three reasons for why this might be so, though I would be willing to admit others besides. I have already mentioned the first reason. It is that relativism seems to be of a piece with a commitment to tolerance. No more need be said on this front. The second reason is that relativism sounds plausibly democratic. Albeit commonplace, the argument that our entitlement to having certain opinions entails the equal plausibility of different opinions is undeniably invalid. Sound familiar? Whereas the premise is true, the conclusion is ostensibly false. Despite our realist belief that there are better and worse judgments about the world (better in the sense that a certain judgment picks out what is the case, worse for the opposite reason), the commitment to democracy, together with an anti-intellectualist wariness towards elitism, seems to recommend relativism. There is a final reason that keeps relativism in the limelight—namely, the multicultural affirmation of identity politics. At least over the past twenty years, we have seen a shift from truth to identity: roughly speaking, a shift from an investigation into what we know of what there is to an expression of firmly held beliefs about and an overriding interest in who we are. And who we are normally amounts not just to listing our cultural and ethnic affiliations but also to identifying what requirements would need to be put in place in order for people to be able to be who they are. Relativism grants the legitimacy of this move and safeguards us from the need for further reflection. In a word, relativism endures because it gives us a good deal of what plenty of people want: a tolerant, democratic, multicultural world.

There are, however, good reasons to think that relativism is a rather stingy philosophy for people living in a confusing time: stingy because it ultimately offers us an impoverished ethical vision of the world and of our place in it. I am constantly struck by its inability to answer the question: why care? Why bother when the matter before us has nothing to do with fulfilling our individual or collective interests? No relativist will be able to get off the couch when you tell her that there is genocide in Darfur, that the conditions of women living in Iran fall well below any reasonable mark, or that there is widespread poverty in Africa. In order to fetishize otherness, the relativist has to presuppose a lack of shared ideals across cultural divides. Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that the relativist has to believe that there are no causes were fighting for, nothing that will move him to reach beyond his tribe in an effort to work out a shared, more universalist ethical vision of the world. In the grips of relativism, we are unable to imagine real social change.


Looming in the background of my discussion of relativism has been the worry over what the philosopher Frederick Beiser, in his excellent book on the Enlightenment, aptly refers to as the “fate of reason.” It is my view that for quite some time the health of reason within modern industrialized countries has been less than robust. This, I think, is borne out by the fact that reason construed in terms of objectivity, justification, and demonstration typically fails to do much in the way of changing plain persons’ minds about the desirability of endorsing things such as relativism. My approach, then, has been to rethink public practical reason along the lines of diagnosis. That is, my aim was to provide an explanation for the existence of relativism and to account for its lasting appeal and to do both with the hope of pointing out the principle ways that relativism has deformed our moral lives. In the very least, I think that this manner of approaching the subject matter counts as being a form of moral education for it is concerned with helping people make up their minds and with helping them change their minds about an issue of deep ethical significance. If they are not left with a sour taste in their mouth after reading a story such as this one, then we should feel no further obligation to convince them of why they ought to be moral in the first place. Doing that surely falls outside the scope of moral philosophy. Of course, there is much more to be said on behalf of a public conception of practical reason, a conception which could make positive contributions to our moral worldview as well, but it goes without saying that this way of doing philosophy would bear very little resemblance to philosophizing with a hammer.

Andrew Taggart is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His work has most recently appeared in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy and in a collected volume on the Frankfurt School.

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