Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

The Tropes of Truth

Winter 1998

RELATIVISM: FEET FIRMLY PLANTED IN MID-AIR
Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl
Baker Books, 1998, 189 pgs.

Part of the fun of studying philosophy is that it is a very difficult, technical subject. If you know the meaning of "rigid designator," the "inscrutability of reference," and the "private-language argument," you can gloat in your presumed superiority to those who have no inkling of the complexities these phrases suggest.

In their fascination with the arcane, philosophers often lose sight of the fact that their discipline has the utmost practical relevance. The authors of Relativism do not fall into this mistake. Rather than addressing professional philosophers, they write with a popular audience in mind. They aim to show that false ideas about the relativity of truth foster moral and political errors.

Their case against moral relativism begins with a definition. "Subjective truths are based on internal references and change according to our whims. Objective truths, in contrast, are realities in the external world that we discover and cannot be changed by our internal feelings" (p. 28). Moral relativism holds that ethical truth is subjective in this sense. "Ethical truths depend on the individuals or groups who hold them" (p. 28).

Our authors distinguish three varieties of relativism. The first of these, Society Does Relativism, points to the wide variety of customs among cultures as a reason to deny moral objectivity. The Aztecs sacrificed human beings to their gods; who are we to stigmatize them as immoral? "Since each culture has a different morality, none is justified in claiming that its own brand of morality is correct" (p. 37).

As if this were not bad enough, Society Says Relativism goes further. It maintains that an individual ought to act as the rules of the society in which he lives dictate. Society Does Relativism does not do this; it merely describes the morality of different groups.

But there is one doctrine yet more extreme. I Say Relativism reduces morality entirely to the preferences of the individual. "What is right for one person isn't necessarily right for another person, regardless of the culture in which they live" (p. 38).

Relativist thoughts are very much in the air, as some of the comments on the recent difficulties of our Beloved Leader indicate. "Who are we to judge the president's private behavior?" "Maybe Bill and Hillary have an understanding. Doesn't this, if so, make the president's actions all right?" Comments of this kind illustrate the revolt against fixed standards which our authors wish to challenge.

In their view, all three varieties of relativism are demonstrably false. Against William Graham Sumner, who appealed in Folkways to differences among societies to support Society Does Relativism, they make a commonsense point: "Just because cultures differ on moral viewpoints doesn't mean objective moral truth is a fiction" (p. 46). From the fact that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice, it does not follow that they were right to do so.

Indeed it does not, but this point does not refute Sumner; it merely notes that he has failed to make good his case. (Incidentally, Sumner held strong views as to what was correct moral behavior in his own society. He was the author of the libertarian classic What Social Classes Owe to Each Other.)

Our authors, alive to this point, endeavor to go further. "Sumner's view, however, is self-refuting. In order for him to conclude that all moral claims are an illusion, he must first escape the illusion himself. He must have a full and accurate view of the entire picture.... Such a privileged view is precisely what Sumner denies. Objective assessments are illusions, he claims, but then he offers his own 'objective' assessment" (p. 48).

This argument does not succeed. Someone, like Sumner, who denies that moral truth transcends culture is not himself advancing a moral doctrine. Rather, he is making a point about moral doctrines. Sumner may well be wrong, but he is not contradictory.

Oddly enough, Society Says Relativism does fall before a variant of the self-contradiction argument. According to that view, you should adopt a moral rule only if your society holds it. If so, then you should hold this very position only if your society holds it; it says that people should conform to the rules of their group. And most societies conspicuously do not; they condemn other groups for failing to accept their standards.

Beckwith and Koukl do not raise this point. Instead they offer a wide range of other difficulties, some more successful than others, designed to undermine this type of relativism. They argue, wrongly as it seems to me, that you cannot criticize the practices of your own society if you accept Society Says Relativism. Does this not by itself suffice to overthrow the doctrine? For surely we can and do criticize our own society.

But I think this goes too fast. Society Says Relativism allows us to criticize a society for failing to meet its own standards. And often social criticism proceeds in just this way. For example, one might criticize abortion by alleging its similarity to infanticide, a practice condemned in our own society.

The weakness of this argument does not show, and I do not for a moment believe, that Society Says Relativism is true. Readers will derive much pleasure and profit from going over in detail the authors' many points against it.

Rather than praise them for their insight, I shall instead (as you would expect) consider another difficulty with one of their claims. They equate I Say Relativism, the view that morality is relative to the individual, with doing whatever you wish. How, they ask, can an I Say relativist hold himself obligated to keep a promise if he no longer wishes to do so? I should have thought the answer obvious: Keeping the promise may be a rule he himself holds valid. The authors might respond by claiming that if the relativist breaks his promise, he by that fact shows he has adopted a new rule; but there seems little reason to adopt this suggestion.

As our authors abundantly show, the issue of relativism affects many essential political controversies. Like Richard Neuhaus and his First Things associates, Beckwith and Koukl take on Romer v. Evans, the Supreme Court decision that overturned a Colorado constitutional amendment banning the inclusion of homosexuals within antidiscrimination laws. They point out the relativist basis of the Court's decision.

"The philosophical ground for this reasoning [of the Court]...is that personal subjective relativism and absolute autonomy are the primary bases for deciding moral issues that touch on public policy. Therefore any legislation that presupposes a notion of what is morally good cannot be rational" (p. 113). This being so, the Colorado statute was in the Court's view based on animus against homosexuals and could not survive strict constitutional scrutiny.

Once more I have a bone to pick. The view that personal autonomy is in some cases an overriding good need not be based on moral relativism. One might hold it objectively true that autonomy is to be respected. This point our authors sometimes recognize but elsewhere neglect.

Rather than pursue the point further, though, I shall conclude by enthusiastic agreement with two other points Beckwith and Koukl raise. They rightly note that although autonomy is often praised, it is seldom defended by argument. Why is autonomy the supreme value? We are rarely told.

The authors also pose a devastating challenge to another often used tactic of moral evasion. Given widespread public disagreement over issues such as abortion and euthanasia, the Supreme Court, it is often alleged, must decide according to "neutral" constitutional principles.

Thus, in Roe v. Wade, Justice Blackmun held that since experts disagree on when the fetus becomes human, the State cannot adopt as its own a controversial moral position on the issue. But such a decision, the authors note, cannot be escaped. "The Court may have denied taking sides verbally, but the practical effect of its opinion is that the fetus in our society is not a human person worthy of protection" (p. 138).

Relativism is not always in my view right; but it is always worth grappling with. Readers interested in seeing how philosophy affects public affairs will find this book a valuable guide.

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