Dictatorship of Relativism
By Crispin Sartwell
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, speaking just as he and his
colleagues were retreating to select a new pope, spoke against the "dictatorship
of relativism" in the world today. It's a memorable phrase, though odd
because relativists take themselves to be the opposite of dictators: their idea
is that you shouldn't believe anything so seriously that you would enforce your
beliefs on anyone.
a college prof, and like most of my ilk, I know what Ratzinger was talking
about: in my classroom and especially in the papers my students write,
relativism has the paradoxical and annoying status of a dogma.
Relativism comes in various forms. Cultural relativism is the view that
the belief-systems of individuals are constructed within a social context and
can only be evaluated within that context. In its most extreme form, relativism becomes radical subjectivism: the view that anything
anyone believes is "true for that person" and that no person's belief
is better than anyone else's.
Whether my students believe such a thing with regard to mathematics, for
example, I'm not sure. But they say they believe it about every question in
philosophy, the discipline I teach. Most papers I get start out with a subjectivist
disclaimer. "Since the beginning of time, philosophers have argued
justice. Whatever anyone believes about justice is justice to them, it's a very
opinionated issue." (Sadly
for this subjectivist, I had told my class that I would fail every paper that
started with "Since the beginning of time...")
Cultural relativism does have some salutary effects. In that same class
in political philosophy, we discussed Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. Hobbes
describes the "savages" of America as living in a state of nature, a
brutal war of every man against every man. He thinks that it is impossible for
people to live decently except under the thumb of a powerful government. Had he
started by trying to understand the cultures he was condemning as savage, he
might have questioned the universal validity of his own fascism.
subjectivism has nothing to recommend it; it reduces all talking to mere
quacking. Everything you say or hear means anything you like, which entails
that it means nothing at all. Even worse, it means there is no sense in
complaining about the grade I just gave you.
My students do seem
sincerely to believe what we might term "temporal relativism": Plato's
ideas would never work in today's world, they aver (and aver) because people
now would disagree with them. They identify consensus with truth.
One would think that such
enthusiasm for unanimity ill becomes radical subjectivists, but perhaps
unanimity is the only thing that could make subjectivism seem innocuous.
Unanimity is the only hope for a world in which no one can communicate with
anyone else at all.
The good part about all
this is that my students are trying to be nice, trying not impose their views
on people, trying not to act in a way incompatible with democracy and
The bad part of it is that
most of my students don't care very much about ideas and have no serious
I don't try, in the
classroom, to demonstrate that there are objective or eternal truths though I
think there are. But I'd like to suggest at least that some reasons for
believing are better than others and that these can emerge in a dialogue or
Because the real
danger and the actual use - of relativism is that it encourages lethargy: it
relieves you of having to justify or even think about what you believe and the
reasons you believe it.
There are, in short, worse
dictatorships than the dictatorship of relativism: Hobbesian dictatorships, for
example. But there is no thinking without passion, and there is no passion in