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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Whatever Happened to Relativism?

Updated: May 15, 2023

You can still hear preachers say it across North America, throughout the Anglosphere, and likely well beyond. If you’re a regular churchgoer, you’ve doubtless heard it before, and you’ll likely hear it again.

“In our culture nowadays,” we are solemnly warned, “people feel free to do as they please. ‘Do your own thing!’ they say. ‘Have it your way!’ the commercials tell us. ‘You have your reality and I have mine’—say the postmodernists. ‘Everything is relative since Einstein’”—and so on.

The invocation of Einstein is what philosophers call a “category mistake.” Einstein’s theory of relativity has to do with the interchangeability of mass and energy, and not anything to do with morality.

The reference to postmodernity, however, is worth pausing over.

The hippie culture of the late 1960s and 1970s popularized cultural relativism, an idea going back decades through literary and social critic Edward Said to anthropologist Margaret Mead, theologian Ernst Troelstch, and others reaching back into the nineteenth century. Cultural relativism deplored the West’s facile moral judgment of other cultures according to Western standards—as if those standards were simply universal and absolute.

Each culture, so it was claimed, stands on its own. Behaviours of people within that culture should be judged only by the standards of that culture.

Such a position would then be radicalized by suggesting that individuals are laws unto themselves. Autonomy literally means that very thing.

So when young people wanted to deviate from the norms of their parents, they could have challenged the regnant conventions and condemned them—as many did. Others, however, took a more peaceable route and asked instead simply to be allowed to “live, and let live,” “agree to disagree,” and, yes, just “do your own thing.”

The relevance of postmodernity here comes as we recall one of the key attitudes of the postmodern: doubt about any overarching claims to authority, doubt about any Big Story (what the intellectuals called “metanarratives”), and doubt about any universal standard by which any particular person’s ethics could be condemned.

Postmodernists, if they are consistent with this fundamental postmodern mood of doubt, are cultural relativists in the sense that they cannot see any abiding, global categories that transcend every group and every society—or, at least, they cannot see how one could conclusively argue for any set of such categories in a way that justified confident judgment.

Postmodernists, to put it another way, do not disbelieve in so-called absolute truth. There are lots of absolute truths, postmodernists would aver. It’s just that we cannot ever be certain about them—beyond what philosophers call analytic statements and the rest of us call “truths by definition,” such as “all bachelors are unmarried” or “2 + 2 = 4,” or statements about immediate sensations (one cannot be less than certain that one is feeling pain if, in fact, one is feeling pain).

What we might call a hard cultural relativism would be rooted in nihilism: the conviction that there is no moral direction to the universe, there are no transcendent ethical norms by which everyone and every culture can and ought to be adjudicated. Absent those, therefore, all we have left is this culture and its values, on one hand, and that culture and its values, on the other.

Consistent postmodernists, however, would be soft cultural relativists. They would say that no one is in an epistemic position to deny absolute moral truths. What human being could plausibly claim certainty, or even strong confidence, about such a sweeping conclusion? Absent any such confidence about transcendent ethical norms by which everyone and every culture can and ought to be adjudicated, therefore, all we have left is this culture and its values, on the one hand, and that culture and its values, on the other.

The discerning reader will have noted, however, that any individual deviating from the norms of his or her culture could thus, on postmodern terms, be duly criticized. “You aren’t observing our norms” would be a contextually valid criticism.

As I said, the postmodern mood of doubt about norms would have to be extended to the radically individual level in order for us to arrive at “do your own thing, “you do you,” “it’s all relative,” and the like. And that’s the state at which we have arrived today, say the preachers.

Except—we haven’t.

Perhaps you have noticed that people nowadays don’t sound like this. Occasionally, sure, people will use such expressions. Typically, though, it’s to gently fend off a relative, friend, or even mere acquaintance who presumes to condemn someone’s speech or action. “Hey, now,” comes the reply, “let’s just live and let live.”

No one, however, really thinks in terms of cultural relativism when it comes to ethical enormities, whether child molestation or the torture of pets. No sane person, at least, thinks it’s okay to murder whom you will, or steal what you like, or lie all the time. People who do hold such values we are strongly inclined to incarcerate in hospitals or prisons as positive dangers, not as mere dissidents.

So much, then, for any consistent form of cultural relativism.

The situation today is even less a culture of “do your own thing.” Perhaps you have noticed that social media tends strongly toward moral absolutism, not relativism. Perhaps you have noticed on Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, or even TikTok the popularity, even prevalance, of moral language that is, in truth, moralistic—that is, ethical expressions that are unapologetically categorical, by which I mean confidently condemning.

If being moral is holding to ethical norms, being moralistic is wagging your finger at other people for not observing those norms. And we’re talking now about a mighty tide of moralism sweeping across our society.

One editorial cartoonist put it succinctly: I’m right. You’re wrong. Go to hell.

And people are indeed consigning other people to social hell: de-platforming, un-friending, blocking, un-following. Disagree with me enough and I will consign you to social media oblivion. Twitter-wise or Facebook-wise or Whatever-wise, you are dead to me.

What’s happened? How did we get to such a judgmental culture when the logic of postmodernism would entail instead a widespread social humility prompting a demure reticence about condemning?

I think we’re in a post-postmodern situation now. I’m truly sorry about that expression, but for lack of a better one, I think it fits.

Or perhaps here is, indeed, a better one: The New Moralism. I think we’re experiencing a strange resurgence of the Romantic confidence in intuition as primary guide to life and love.

What is that? And how did we settle on that option?

That’s what the rest of this series will explore. Let’s think better about it.

Join a live webinar and discussion on Postmodernity & The Moralism on May 25, at 1:30PST. Registration is now open, save your seat!

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