Is It Relative?

Throughout my teaching life I fought an ongoing battle with ethical relativism. My job was to help young people take possession on their own minds: to help them learn how to think. But everywhere I turned in the ethical domain I ran into the mindless question “Who’s to say?” In ethics, so it is said, it’s all a matter of opinion. You have yours and I have mine — and mine are just as true as yours or even Plato’s. So I heard. It’s difficult to get people to think about things when an easy escape is ready at hand: “that’s just your opinion.”

And yet.

Surely the events of the past few weeks and months — if not the past four years — have taught us something about ethics and the notion that it’s all a “matter of opinion.” We have been witness to a series of events involving the violation of most, if not all, of the basic ethical and religious values that have sustained us as a people for centuries. Lies, violence, bigotry, hatred — the list goes on.

And it is precisely the ethical principles involved here that are at the heart of the matters: principles such as respect for persons and fairness, universal ethical principles that separate us from the other animals who act purely on instinct.

One would think that having endured the travesties of recent months we would have learned that there are things that matter, things that go beyond simply my opinion or yours. We have lived through the reductio ad absurdum of ethical relativism. here are things that matter, things that make us “civilized” and take us out of ourselves and into the lives of others where we find there are things that can be done to make the world a better place — and displace the hatred and fear that have haunted us of late.

Or so one would think.

7 thoughts on “Is It Relative?

  1. I think there are Absolutes, despite the current vogue for claiming , thats your opinion.
    big difference in whose opinion are we discussing?
    Morals can be a relative ,subjective experience, but I think there are “universal Truths”
    which are valid now or a thousand years from now…..Our responsibility is to separate “so called opinions:, from certified Truths…..I uphold the Socratic maxim… The Unexamined life is not a life worth living….

  2. Hugh, well said. The words ethical, professional, decent, empathetic, leader…are not top of mind to define our outgoing president. Keith

  3. Dr. Curtler,

    I find it interesting that the topics you have written and spoken about for decades always seem relevant to the present moment. Your most recent statement about relativism surely stands among these.

    Relativism. A viewpoint so exhilarating to the first-semester sophomore, yet one that crumbles like dried leaves not long thereafter — if, but only if, it is carefully considered. Thus, the importance of thinking about thinking.

    Like all forms of subjectivism, relativism has a false foundation — the lone, isolated individual, living without community, commitment, or conscience. This is a myth, and a hurtful one at that, fit only for the mind of a psychopath. Even a sociopath needs to account for the views of others, if only to manipulate them.

    The foundations of morality, ethics, and rational thought are intersubjective. They reside in the often implicit, though occasionally explicit rules that guide our normative understanding of our thoughts, feelings, and conduct. These are learned and refined through daily interactions with others. These interactions elicit self-awareness (to some degree), emotional responses (both internal and external), and determinations (habitual or thoughtful) about how to act in a range of circumstances.

    Humans, as a species, appear to be pre-wired for intersubjective openness. We learn how to act, think, and feel through a lifelong experience of interacting with others. For most people, being able to comprehend at least the general intentions of others and to sense the emotional states of others comes quite naturally. (A small percentage of people appear to be “wired” differently, in the first place, or severely abused as young children. For them, assessing the intentions and emotions of others, if not impossible, is exceedingly difficult — as is communication itself.)

    All forms of subjectivism, call them “relativistic”, “nihilistic”, “postmodern”, “post-this” or “post-that”, ignore the fundamentally intersubjective nature of humans, either as a species or as individuals. In these viewpoints, intersubjective foundations of the human experience are regarded either as “inauthentic” or they are dismissed altogether, as in “Homo economicus”. Completely ignored or utterly obfuscated is a simple fact: for the most part, people have not, do not, and cannot live and function according to the tenets of relativism, outside a small number of socially constructed and extreme situations.

    The truly foolish thing about relativism in all forms is that in the name of disavowing Truth, it ends up making the most outrageous truth-claim of all — that there is no Truth. The performative contradiction here is obvious.

    Alexander Pope made the point some time ago (1709). He wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” As I recall, Dr. Curtler, you had these words posted on your office door. Discussing these matters with students over the years, I often said, “Consider relativism, but consider it carefully. A little goes a long way.”

    Nonetheless, relativism is appealing to those who lack or who pursue their own agency, for if one cannot rationally choose between facts and fiction, between lies and truth, between good and bad, then all that matters is agency itself — that is to say, power. This, I think, is relativism’s only real appeal — it is politically useful.

    Relativism seems always in favor among many who ruthlessly seek or who ruthlessly employ their own power. It serves the interests of those who possess power, because it is useful if those over whom they exercise their will have no independent foundation from which to criticize the uses of power.

    The affinity between relativism and authoritarianism is no accident. It has often been said that the first victim of fascism is the difference between fact and fiction, between truth and lies. George Orwell made much of this.. As the historian, Timothy Snyder (On Tyranny) has said more recently, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.”

    It is also no accident, given the events of the past 4 1/2 years, that President Biden spoke of the survival of precious democracy and of the importance of distinguishing between facts and lies. The entire history of the Trump administration was characterized by a continuous assault on both democracy and truth. Promoting the former requires protecting the latter.

    Is it not astonishing that a newly-inaugurated President had to say such things in the first place?

    As your post makes clear, the philosophical discussion of the results of relativism is far from “merely philosophical. That discussion reaches to the core of the incipient fascisms that plague us, in this country and elsewhere.

    Thank you once again for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment.

    With regards, respects, and best wishes,

    Jerry Stark

  4. Thinking of you often and hoping that this dreary winter soon weans into the promise of springtime. Scenes of the snow and ice have now replaced the political news, though here in Ecuador there is a new presidential drama as we tip closer to the second round of voting.

    The rainy season is here, and when a downpour ‘catches’ me, I think of my Colorado friends who often stated, ‘Yes, it rains but you don’t get cold!’ Wish I could send some of this mild weather up there.

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