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Posted by on Feb 21, 2007 in moral relativism | 9 comments

“Relativism or Authoritarianism – you choose!”

Allow me to introduce two terms of art: Liberal and Authoritarian.

Authoritarians believe young people should be raised to defer more or less uncritically to some external Authority (e.g. a religious Authority) on moral and religious matters.

Liberals by contrast recommend individuals should be raised and educated to think critically and make their own judgement rather than more-or-less unquestioningly take on board the pronouncements of some external (e.g. religious) Authority.

That does not require Liberals embrace relativism and “anything goes” non-judgementalism. Yet Authoritarians endlessly smear Liberals as relativists. It’s about time this myth was nailed.

To see why it’s a myth, compare empirical science. It too is very Liberal. It too emphasizes the importance of independent critical thought. But to acknowledge the importance of getting scientists to think autonomously rather than uncritically defer to others is not to take the relativist view that all scientific theories – including even the theories that the sun goes round the Earth and that Mars is inhabited by giant wasps – are all equally “true”. It’s not to say that science is just a matter of making up ones own scientific reality (as if, were we suddenly to change our minds about the Earth moving, it would immediately grind to a halt). Nor is it to embrace the non-judgementalist view that one scientist ought never to judge the theory of another. Obviously not, in fact.

Notice that if this sort of scientific relativism were true, there would be no point to independent scientific investigation. Experiment and observation would be a waste of time. If every scientific opinion was as good as every other, than the judgement that a scientist arrived at after careful thought and study would be no better than the one they started with.

Clearly, to suggest that scientists ought to think independently rather than just uncritically defer to, say, the Authority of Aristotle or the Bible (as they tended to before the Enlightenment), is not to embrace relativism and non-judgementalism about scientific truth.

Exactly the same is true of morality. Indeed, it’s precisely because Liberals think there really is a non-relative truth to discover about what’s right and what’s wrong that they place so much emphasis on questioning and critical thinking. If we simply invent or make up morality, why bother being so scrupulously careful about getting it right? If every moral opinion is a good as every other, then the judgement I arrive at after much careful thought will be no better than the one I started with. If relativism were true, there would be no point bothering with the sort of critical thinking Liberals recommend.

So Liberals are not committed to moral relativism. They are, in effect, opposed to it.

Authoritarians tend to insist your choice is Authoritarianism or relativism. That’s how they scare the public into siding with them. “You don’t want moral relativism and anarchy, do you? Then you’d better side with us Authoritarians!”

This is a myth that’s currently distorting the whole morality debate. I would say the myth has infected the thinking of 9 out of 10 religious conservatives. Weirdly, so seductive and pernicious is this myth, even some Liberals now accept there’s some truth to it.

There’s no truth to it. You can reject both relativism and Authoritarianism. And you should.


  1. Whilst applauding your efforts to combat authoritarianism there is a light non-corrosive relativism that many liberals embrace and why shouldn’t they? Berlin endorses this stirring quote from Joseph Schumpeter at the end of “Two Concepts of Liberty”: “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.” Is this relativism? If so, many liberals are relativists.

  2. When I talk about relativism here, I’m talking about the sort that Authoritarians are obsessed with – what I earlier called “politically correct” relativism – which is politically justified (on the grounds that e.g. only relativists can be tolerant) and which is often tied to a hypocritical non-judgmentalism (hypocrisy being exactly what is accusing the PPFA’s President of in my latest blog, and also what David Limbaugh accuses “liberals” of (Limbaugh quoted in my blog 16th Feb).As I said before, there are some more respectable sophisticated forms of relativism, but I am not talking about those here…

  3. But is this sentence true for Berlin or Schumpeter: “it’s precisely because Liberals think there really is a non-relative truth to discover about what’s right and what’s wrong that they place so much emphasis on questioning and critical thinking.” I’m not so sure. It seems to me that both these liberals and many others were aware that most judgements they held have no foundation. To us “treating the other as an end rather than a means” may seem a great idea but how do you convince someone else of its truth? The motivation for “Emperor’s New Clothes'” forms of relativism is in many ways exactly the same as that held by many liberals. Where can we find this non-relative truth? The onus being placed on discoverable moral truths is unnecessary. In fact a belief in moral truth may lead to a certain dogmatism that on-reflection it may be wise to combat.

  4. I agree that we should reject the authoritarians’ definition of relativism, as well as their false dichotomy. But I think the authoritarians are intentionally framing the discussion as between authoritarianism and relativism because relativism actually means something: individual conscience, socialization, acculturation; all of which the authoritarians want to exclude a priori from the discussion.If Liberalism (as you define it) is to escape charges of disingenuousness, I think it’s important to reject the framing itself, and not throw out a perfectly good term on the authoritarians’ unjustified elevation of the narrow sense of nihilism to the paradigmatic interpretation.More on my blog: Caging and framing `relativism`

  5. Having read your earlier post this thought strikes me: could one of the explanations for the way students leap to “politically correct” relativism is because they are often taught epistemology before they are taught any moral courses. The sceptical tools you are taught become some of the most interesting weapons, especially for a student keen to question those in authority. Is this not a great tradition in philosophy? Perhaps there is an element of hypocrisy to this kind of moral relativism, but also is there not value in demanding of others why their arguments should overcome sceptical doubt?

  6. 1. Toby, isn’t your sort of relativism is just the view that moral beliefs can’t ultimately be justified? But of course that’s not, yet, relativism about the truth of moral judgements. It’s one thing to say we cannot know what’s true (scepticism). It’s another to say there is no non-relative truth to know (relativism).A possible response to the point I made in the blog is: “There IS a relevant difference between science and morality – scientists can agree on what’s true, because the evidence pretty much settles it – that’s not true of morality. Ultimately, moral positions can’t be justified.”But notice that, even if this is true (and I’m not sure it is) this is moral scepticism, not moral relativism.2. re Toby’s last comment: I agree young people should be raised to be critical thinkers – i.e. raised not to accept certain religious and moral points of view unquestioningly. My key point is: this doesn’t require we raise them to be relativists. In fact it really requires the rejection of relativism, as I explained in the text.I should also add that even a Liberal teacher/school can argue for a particular moral or religious belief, of course. They just shouldn’t demand uncritical acceptance. I am not recommending we gag teachers and prevent them expressing a religious or moral point of view.3. I think barefoot bum’s earlier comment that, actually, the retreat to Authority doesn’t help us avoid individual responsibility to make a moral judgement (and, I might add, doesn’t help us defeat either moral scepticism or moral relativism) is right on the money. I’ll turn to that shortly….

  7. Where I am in total agreement with you is that we clearly do take moral positions. I’d also go further and say I’d prefer to live in a world where a liberal, tolerant, conscientious morality convinced many. My major problem is I don’t see what relation this viewpoint has to non-relative truth.I think the following line of argument is very attractive:1)We cannot know what’s true in morality.2)If we cannot know what’s true in morality then either a) there is no non-relative truth (nrt) or b) there is nrt but we can’t know what it is. A nice bi-product from 1) is If no-one can know what nrt is then 3) authoritarianism is foolhardy. A problem following from 3) is people believe your politically correct relativism: If authoritarianism should be rejected then 4) Any action should not be judged. Yet I agree with you this is as unattractive as authoritarianism ultimately because it is a view which is quickly marginalised by the majority and also smacks of hypocrisy. Yet even if 2a) is true an empirical fact is 5)We have beliefs.Another truth is 6)If we express our beliefs and offend others enough they will say so and vice versa. Another truth is 7) Some people have beliefs which manifest in actions which do not concur with the beliefs of individuals in power to the extent that it is felt their liberty should be removed. What is useful about accepting 5), 6) and 7) and going no further is you accept that those in power and those who break the law can be criticised by others even if moral truth is “nonsense on stilts”. Furthermore you need to determine to what extent you’ll protect 6) and the society will use 7), and my hunch is because of 1) and 3) you should do so minimally. This buys in to liberalism and accepts that 2a) might well be the case even if you have to accept a paradox by holding it true.

  8. You seem to make it the hallmark of liberaldom that it encourages critical thinking (which requires a commitment to a standard conception of truth) – but we can certainly identify liberal/left groups of intellectuals who were relativists about truth or ethics. Liberal and left are (like feminism, postmodernism) ‘blanket’ terms, and they capture a lot. It is a bit too easy to group them all up and say that liberals are committed to a notion of truth that has some non-relativised component.

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