The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 29, 2017

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James V. Schall, S.J. - 09/12/11

Relativism is the “absolute” denial that permanent things, either of reality or of the mind, exist. Relativism posits that anything will look differently from different points of view in space, time, or position. There can be no knowledge of what something really is that does not appear otherwise from another viewpoint. Each position is decided by its place within the system. All systems are independent of and irreducible to each other.

“There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative,” observed Allan Bloom. Even if this “belief” in relativism is incoherent in itself, it still will have moral, political, and intellectual consequences that need to be reckoned with. Certainly, relativism is a common popular opinion in need of examination. Many people live by its presumed validity.

Relativism is of importance to conservatism in part because Edmund Burke is sometimes considered to be, in effect, a “cultural relativist.” That is, Burke’s view that bad or immoral customs or practices could gradually grow milder or become so attenuated that they no longer bore the heinous connotation originally associated with the custom or practice might be seen as a form of relativism. Burke is thus said to presuppose the same lack of a solid basis on which liberalism is founded, except that Burke achieves the same relativist results more slowly.

But Burke was in fact a natural law thinker, not a relativist. His emphasis on gradual change or adaptation veered away from the relativism toward a belief in certain timeless and universal truths. He merely maintained that slow or gradual change from an invalid to a valid position was often to be preferred, and would often be more successful, than that which was violent or rapid. Burke’s was a principle of prudence, a strategy of how better to work toward a valid practical principle when starting from something culturally disordered, as defined by the canons of natural right or natural law.

Relativism has roots in the classical world. Herodotus noted in his travels that marital and burial rites varied widely from place to place, as did money, language, and dress. The Egyptians and the Greeks did not do things in the same way. The more one knew of the varying ways that people lived their lives, the more chaotic and unruly they seemed to be. If each culture, city, or nation had its own “ways,” with no common standard of judgment about their validity, then all ways appeared to be equally good or equally bad.

The Sophists, moreover, claimed to be able to teach anything to anyone. They could teach whatever the student would pay for. They were skilled in teaching differing doctrines, even in teaching what was wrong, if indeed anything was wrong. They seemed to lack any principle that would distinguish the false and the true. Because of the variation in things, there was no essential difference between what was said to be wrong and what was said to be right.

Aristotle mentioned this same problem in the case of justice. In Book 5 of his Ethics, he described both natural justice and conventional justice. He even noticed that natural justice seemed to be somewhat changeable. It was, he thought, easy to see why many people would think that all things were conventional, that nothing seemed to be “natural.” For, after all, the same thing was said to be right in Gaul and wrong in Germany. Likewise, Tacitus noticed that the ancient Germans evidently thought that thievery was not wrong, just as the pirates, whom Alexander the Great chased off the Mediterranean, thought that all was rightly theirs on the high seas if they could take it. These famous examples implied that attitudes towards the justice of theft or robbery were merely cultural or customary.

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