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Posted by on Feb 19, 2007 in moral relativism | 6 comments

most irritating myth about relativism?

I believe individuals should be raised and educated to think critically and make their own judgement (especially on moral and religious matters) rather than more-or-less unquestioningly take on board the pronouncements of some external Authority. This isn’t a left or a right-wing view. Nor is it anti-religious (many Liberals are religious). It’s anti-Authoritarian (and it’s as much against Stalinist indoctrination as that of the Church).

Of course, Authoritarian religious people reject this sort of Liberalism. Many loathe it. They associate it with both the 60’s and with the Enlightenment (e.g. Kant)

Those who share my Liberal view – let’s call us Liberals with a capital “L” – are routinely condemned by religious Authoritarians as relativists. So annoyed have I got by this endlessly-repeated accusation that I devoted a chapter of the War For Children’s Minds to it.

Here’s just one example. Jonathan Sacks, the U.K.’s Chief Rabbi lays the blame for our moral malaise firmly at the feet of the Enlightenment, and particularly at the feet of Kant, about whom Sacks writes,

[A]ccording to Kant…[t]o do something because others do, or because of habit or custom or even Divine Command, is to accept an external authority over the one sovereign territory that is truly our own: our own choices. The moral being for Kant is by definition an autonomous being, a person who accepts no other authority than the self.

Sacks rejects this Kantian emphasis on the moral autonomy of the individual. In particular, says Sacks, a Kantian approach to moral education requires “non-judgementalism and relativism on the part of the teacher.”

No it doesn’t. To insist that individuals be educated to think, question and make their own judgement is not to insist that all judgements are equally “true”.

After all, scientists are also encouraged to think question and make their own judgements – it doesn’t follow that all scientific theories are equally true, does it?

Unfortunately, so often is this myth repeated, it’s entered the zeitgeist. Lots of people now assume that if we want to avoid moral relativism and moral anarchy, we need to move back in the direction of traditional religious, Authority-based schooling. As if the only alternatives are relativism or Authoritarianism.


  1. As if the only alternatives are relativism or Authoritarianism.I very strongly suspect that some form of relativism actually is the only alternative to Authoritarianism.

  2. Hi, Im from Melbourne.These related references give a unique understanding of relativism and its virtues. Especially when compared to those who claim to possess the one “truth”—such as that chap in Rome (all of his right wing inherently fascist supporters) and his best friends the Islamicist (inherently fascist) counterparts1. http://www.daplastique.com4. 5. http://www.aboutadidam.org6.

  3. wow, Kant a moral relativist?you don’t hear that one very often …

  4. It’s conventional Catholic philosophy that Kant thought that reality and morality are subjective. I’m not very familiar with Kant, but I have read a couple of introductions and the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals and even I can recognise how deluded that view is (don’t even start on Ayn Rand’s “Kant didn’t believe in rationality”).Kant’s description in the Groundwork of how universal (objective) values can be arrived at through individual rational processes (SL’s “Liberalism”) is (unusually for him) very clear. Rousseau thought much the same thing – that individuals left to make rational judgements would inevitably end up at the same truth.

  5. Hi teaI don’t think Sacks is silly enough to believe Kant is a moral relativist. I think Sacks’ view is, once you embrace Kant’s Liberal/Enlightenment position, that makes relativism inevitable.I guess that’s barefoot bum’s thought too?If so, that’s what I’ll target next.

  6. I don’t know that I fully agree with Kant. But to be honest, I know that I don’t really understand Kant– at least not in English translation, and I’m too old to learn German so I can not understand him in the original.As a scientist, I understand that the best current model for human cognition is that our minds are fundamentally goal-deciding and goal-seeking; to that extent, a person physically cannot cede his ultimate moral authority (goal-deciding behavior) to another. Even an Altemeyer “Authoritarian” must first “decide” on his own to follow an authority. (I do have some subjective judgments about such a choice.)I put “decide” in scare quotes because of course most people (perhaps not even myself) make many of these decisions on the basis of conscious reasoning. However one consciously or subconsciously decides on goals, though, is a product of what’s in his or her own mind, regardless of how it got there.I have more (perhaps slightly off-topic) at Psychological Egoism.

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