The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

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.

Aquinas, however, agreeing with Aristotle, argued that the relative and the permanent were not necessarily opposed. Thus, although burial rites might not be the same in Egypt, Greece, Rome, or Germany, it was universally true that all peoples took special care with their dead. When sufficiently analyzed, the manifest and indeed praiseworthy variety in human things does not necessarily mean that all is relative. If there are a hundred different ways to do the same thing, this is not “relativism,” the view that there is no “same thing” to be doing. The permanent is rather embodied within the contingent and temporal.

When Machiavelli sought to refute Plato’s “best city in speech,” he insisted on looking at what men, especially politicians, really did. Under this principle, men suddenly become “free” to use the methods of the lion and the fox, the beast and the man, the law and arms, whatever was “successful.” They proceeded to do some pretty terrible things. But nothing that they “did” would have surprised Plato or Aristotle, who had already described these same things. The “freedom” to do these dire things did not confirm the relativist position that whatever one did was right because it was successfully done. It only proved that princes did different things in Egypt, Athens, and Florence, but in a standard pattern already described by the philosophers. Plato had already described “the Prince” about as well as Machiavelli described him. What was wrong in Athens was wrong in Florence, even if successfully done in either city. Place and time did not change the quality of what was done in any place or time.

In fact, modern relativism has its origins less in moral reflection than in epistemology or science. For example, the theory of “relativity” as an explanation of aspects of cosmic reality is sometimes seen as a universal principle valid in all fields. But the “theory” of relativity is not itself “relative.” Scientific theories useful or valid for one sort of object need not work equally well for other sorts of objects under investigation. The theory of relativity is not intended to deny that there is an order in the universe. It is rather a part of a search for what this order is.

More fundamentally, contemporary doubts about the possibility of universal truth have their roots in early-modern doubts about our knowing capacities. Beginning with Descartes’ methodological doubt, the focus of intellectual attention shifted from the order of cosmic and human things to the question of whether we could know anything about external reality at all. Modern thought is rooted in doubt about whether our senses are connected to our minds in such a way that what we encounter in our mind corresponds with what exists in reality. Clearly, if we cannot trust the testimony of our senses, then we are free of external reality and can proceed to create our own world. Once we have created our own version of what the world “ought” to be, we can “project” it outward onto a world empty of natural principles. This is basically the project of modern philosophy.

Conservatism can be confused with relativism if there is no provision within conservatism for transcendent philosophical principles, or for realism. What ought to be “conserved” is always what is valid and justified, not merely what is practiced. Yet, there is a presumption of right order in things that have long been practiced together, and also a presumption that there is danger in adopting new practices that create a break with the past. In one sense, relativism can lead to stagnation as a justification of the status quo. It can also undermine any system as well as legitimize any alternative. A conservative philosophy is not relativist but rather aware of the difference between legitimately variable conventions and the unchanging truths of nature, including human nature.

Further Reading
  • Kirk, Robert. Relativism and Reality: A Contemporary Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  • Krausz, Michael, ed. Relativism: Interpretation and Conflict. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.
  • Krausz, Michael and Jack Meiland, eds. Relativism: Cognitive and Moral. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.
  • La Follette, Hugh. “Truth in Ethical Relativism,” Journal of Social Philosophy 30 (1999): 146–54.
  • Stewart, Robert, and Lynn Thomas. “Recent Work in Ethical Relativism.” American Philosophical Quarterly 28 (April 1991): 85–100.
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