It’s (Not) All Relative

In an excellent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Hope College professor William Pannapacker attempted to analyze “the roots of popular rage against academics.” Among many other factors, he blamed widespread anti-intellectualism, particularly the sort driven by “the notion that knowledge is always political and that perspectives are always relative.” A response post on the National Review’s Phi Beta Cons blog praised Pannapacker’s article but argued that this particular sort of anti-intellectualism was based not in true populist sentiment, but in the widespread adoption of a mindset of moral relativism and politicized knowledge that was promoted by the academy itself.

Now there are plenty of interesting points being made here, but I’d like to focus on one: the idea of moral relativism, and the malign influence it has on intellectual dialogue on campus. Moral relativism, in my understanding, is the philosophical viewpoint that there is no objective, absolute set of moral rules that exist independently of the vagaries of human culture. All moral judgments, in this view, are products of local cultures, preferences, and biases. As such, moral relativism is often invoked in discussions of cross-cultural morality and multiculturalism. One can see why: if moral relativism is a correct position, what business does the United States have trying to protect women’s rights in Afghanistan or Pakistan, where the local culture has developed rules which run counter to the Western conception of human rights? My fall IHUM focused extensively on this argument, and no small number of my classmates agreed with the relativist view.

While I’ve found that most Stanford students accept the idea of an objective morality, at least in some dimensions, moral relativism still pops up with some frequency on campus, and not just in the cross-cultural context I mentioned above. I believe that a sort of moral relativism also contributes to the widespread dislike for religion on campus. Many students seem to recoil instinctively from any belief system which asserts an objective system of morals and demands compliance with it. There is a strong tendency here to see any assertion that another person’s behavior is objectively wrong as an act of intolerance, an attitude which I believe stretches the definition of “tolerance” to the breaking point and effectively stifles most discussions of morality. This perspective also predisposes us to avoid challenging others about their behavior – even our closest friends, and even when that behavior is potentially harmful. This is to be expected: moral relativism, at the heart of it, forces its adherents to give up any claim to moral authority over others, as it denies the existence of the objective rules by which this authority could be defined and exercised.

Beyond these practical concerns, there are, in my opinion, a couple of key problems with the moral relativist viewpoint. The less relevant point is that moral relativism tends to reject certain objective moral norms, but unknowingly create others while arguing for this rejection. In the scenario above, the very argument that each culture should be left alone to act as it sees fit—within the bonds of that culture’s conception of morality—is an attempt to create a universal moral norm, that of cultural autonomy. If there is truly no objective morality, why should the U.S. feel bound to accept this norm? Shouldn’t we be free to develop our moral philosophy of intervention and apply it?

The other problem, which is most relevant to the discussion at hand, is that moral relativism, taken to its logical endpoint, essentially shuts down any real discussion about morality. There’s no point in having a rational conversation about moral issues—that is, almost every issue worth talking about—if the last word is always going to be “Well, that’s your personal opinion, but there’s really no objective answer, so mine is just as valid.” It is this frustrating ability of moral relativism to shut off debate that generates anti-intellectualism: why listen to the academic “experts” on philosophy, literature, theology, or ethics when everything is relative anyway?

It is also, unfortunately, easy to see why moral relativism is such a seductive viewpoint. It’s effectively used as a feel-good ending for any disagreement: everyone’s perspective is valid. No one’s feelings are hurt. Moral relativism is a wonderful insulator: it protects us from ever having to make changes in our behavior or thinking because any moral argument that challenges our current ideas can be dismissed as just another alternate opinion. It creates an attitude of comfortable “agnosticism of everything,” a zone of uncertainty which protects us from ever having to grapple with the toughest questions of human existence, or at the very least allows us to retire from the fight without reaching any conclusions but still feeling fine.

So I have to ask: in a university so ostensibly concerned with discussion and debate, do we really want to give ourselves such an easy way out? Should we be so quick to assume that our most important questions don’t have answers? Not if we want academic inquiry to be taken seriously, and not if we want to make any progress on solving our campus’s most intractable moral-intellectual problems. And that’s not “just my opinion:” that’s a fact.

Kevin Baumgartner ’11 is a proud Bio major & pre-med; his other in­terests include Catholic theology, theater, a capella, and chicken strips. You can reach him at [email protected].

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