Not everything is relative

A brief rejection of relativism


Max Weber. He looks so sure of himself that one could swear he believes in higher truths.

When people tell you that everything is relative, you would do well to reply that some things are not. One of the first relativists in philosophy was Max Weber. Like all thinkers, he had ancient forbears, such as perhaps Protagoras and certainly Seneca, who e.g. ascribed peoples’ passions and truths to the mere accident of their birthplace. More recently, Hegel believed that a society’s truths are merely the product of that particular society’s role in history, and that it can have no claim, through reason, to a higher status. But Weber was the first to systematize what would later be called moral relativism and become practically the all-encompassing adage of postmodernism. Weber, an acolyte of Marx, emphasized the notion of “values” (Werte), a word commonly used today but which smacks of relativism, since a value is generally something that is assigned, and it suggests an appraisal. A value is thus intrinsically bound up with the subject who holds the particular value. The word has entered common parlance in this context, and Weber himself assigned both reason and revelation to the realm of values.

Now, those who are relativists also tend to believe in progress in a positivist sense: the perfection of society, step by step, toward a utopianist goal. They do not realize the tension that exists between moral relativism and the notion of progress: a higher goal, toward which progress would have to proceed, implies a higher truth of some kind, which is antithetical to relativism. This quite obvious contradiction is one of several manifestations of the oikophobe (and of much of the political left). But there is rarely any attempt to resolve the contradiction on the part of relativists – and wisely so, since it cannot be resolved in any other way but by the rejection of one of the two original principles, relativism on the one hand, progress on the other. Ironically, it is an axiom of civilizational development that societies become less universalist and more relativist as they advance, because the logical conclusion of multi-culturalism – and as societies advance, they absorb more cultures – is relativism, and if sufficient numbers of people no longer believe in their own civilization’s truths, that civilization will begin to decay. The conundrum here is that the more successful a culture is at spreading itself, the more it will come into contact with others, so that this decay follows directly out of the previous success, and relativism follows out of universalism.

Relativism is such a paltry and inconsistent system of thought, so completely without intellectual rigor, that rejecting it should well be one of the first philosophy exercises for high school children. It is a theory that no one with the hint of a sound mind could ever take seriously – which is why it is taken seriously by so many millennials these days. Here are a few of the possible rejections.

Probably the most obvious and therefore oft-repeated rejection of relativism is that it falls by its own logic, as a sort of liar’s paradox: If relativism entails that there are no higher truths, and that anything goes, then the truth of relativism itself also falls, and we end up with a sort of moral nihilism that no one but the insane or the adolescent would ever want. Hand in hand with this riposte is the idea that even though relativism claims the truths of all cultures to be of equal value, relativism is itself an entirely Western idea, and relativism must thus reject itself as merely a Western notion with no validity beyond the West. And, indeed, if relativists were to travel around the world to the various indigenous cultures they think are so wonderful, they would soon find that, for the most part, the members of these cultures would find ludicrous the notion that all values are merely values, with none having a higher claim to truth. Because of this very specific cultural and philosophical background, relativism must reject itself as a sort of ethnocentrism, precisely that which relativists purport to be rejecting.

A gathering of members of Namibia's Ovambo tribe. They definitely don't think all cultures are equal.

Another possible rejection is related to laziness and cowardice. Relativism liberates us from having to think about right and wrong, which is part of what makes it so attractive to so many people. There is a very strong tendency among modern prejudices of wanting to have it both ways and of giving each side of an argument its due, even when this is a logical impossibility. This way, those who refuse to rank various sets of morals need not give themselves the trouble of defending any, which is always more intellectually demanding than claiming equality. Although it is very difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at universal moral principles, we must still recognize that these exist, even if we cannot see them very exactly, and so each and every one of us is called upon, in any given instance, to decide between the morality of one course of action, and that of another.

Waterhouse's Narcissus and Echo (detail)

A third rejection of relativism, connected with the second, concerns narcissism. Once a society’s feelings of superiority over other societies has been exhausted, one turns to superiority over one’s own kind, and one turns the Own into the Other: our set of principles is beneath me, one will say, and others are just as good, if not better. By claiming that all moral sets are essentially equal, one aggrandizes oneself as just, magnanimous, and above petty conflict. To anyone with even the slightest notion of the pulse of contemporary Western culture it should be perfectly clear that narcissist relativism holds sway in intellectual and pseudo-intellectual circles today – we have all heard statements to the effect that cultures are different but equal. This translates itself into postmodern internationalism where all sides are to be given their due. Today’s cognoscenti, who in moral and political conflicts want to have it both ways and to display their great capacity for nuance, are particularly prone to relativism as narcissism, a great motor for vanity. They will often not realize that, in many cases, admitting the error of one way makes it logically impossible to fault the other, because, depending on the particular constellation, only two options exist. To be for something also requires you to be against something, which can be dangerous (e.g. if you are for women’s equal rights and the rights of gays not to be persecuted, then you must be against mainstream Islam, which can have unpleasant consequences). These relativists are easy to recognize, because they are the ones who will instinctively react against any distinction of superiority or nobility between different entities. Theirs is a watered-down attempt at moral democracy, and the ironic thing is of course that their rejection of the superiority of any one entity stems directly from a desire for their own personal superiority. Thus one finds a peculiarly modern prejudice among relativists today, which dictates that no one can be better than anyone else. People with education (as far as this is to be obtained in our institutions in these educationally devalued times) and with manners will claim that they are not better than the uncouth, the vulgar, and the criminal, and they will be praised for their humility. But this is, of course, a very deceptive sort of arrogance, because insisting that one is not better than anyone else carries with it the implication that, no matter what one does or how one behaves, one is not worse than anyone else either. So a refusal to recognize superiority has as its corollary a sort of moral nihilism and an incapacity for the noble suffering and arduous self-improvement of the individual who suddenly realizes that he has erred and that he was, indeed, worse rather than better. Once such an individual recognizes that people can be better or worse than others, he will be ready to improve. This prejudice thus goes hand in hand with the revolting attitude one finds especially in the United States today, that no matter what one does or how one behaves, one should stay the way one is and that if others cannot accept this, it is they who should remove themselves. One might interject that one is only imitating Socrates in refusing to acknowledge one’s own superiority in a particular situation, but of course Socrates’ main purpose, at least in Plato’s earlier dialogues, was pedagogical and maieutic – the ironic Socrates knew perfectly well that he was better than his interlocutors.

Detail from Rafael's School of Athens: Socrates trying to explain something, patiently, but knowing full well that he is smarter than the others.

It is indeed indicative of this type of narcissistic relativist that his desire for superiority is oftentimes greater than that of those who freely admit the superiority of one moral set over another (which is a simple stroke of plain human psychology; so too those who insist that there is such a thing as a perfectly selfless act are invariably the most selfish). This sort of relativist seeks to be above “ideology”, which has become a dirty word precisely because of the relativist desire for personal superiority, even though those who reject ideology do not understand the meaning of the word and thus do not realize that non-ideology is impossible. The “non-ideological”, of course, are generally the most fervently ideological people one encounters, even if it be merely the ideology of the self-satisfied hipster bourgeois with no inkling of the foundations upon which rest his own beliefs, or of their logical consequences.