One of the myths of our time is that the average college freshman takes into the classroom a belief in moral and cultural relativism. I have my doubts. I don’t doubt that a college freshman might be given to saying things like, that is only your opinion, or, well, that’s my opinion, given the unfamiliar stimulus of a first year philosophy class. But outside of that stimulus, I don’t see much evidence for either form of relativism. On the contrary, there is a lot of evidence for a naïve faith in the rightness of the established order on up through and including such absurdities as grading. As far as romantic reveries in which the subject is placed on a parity with the objective world, this seems contraindicated by the strong increase in busness majors and the clamor from both parents and students for a secure job after graduation.
The myth bugs me on several levels, one of which is the assumption that relativism is a sophomoric sophism that dissolves in the light of the overwhelming proofs for universal truths and values. The latter are represented, of course, by the teacher, so infinitely more sophisticated in philosophical argument than the childish, unconscous echo of Protagoras.
The place to start wth those phrases is not to juxtapose them to glorious universal truths, but to question the idea that the conjunction of “my” and “opinion” has any sense, outside of the semantic possibility that allows possessives to modify nouns. There are, after all, few self-generated opinions among the sane. It is a rare existence that stops itself long enough to question the opinions of others that it has absorbed all its life, much less finding better ones. And those rare existences mostly shift to opinions that have also had their long career in the belief community. Although I am an opiniotated person, I can’t really say that I have a lot of my opinions proper, any more than I can say that there is part of the atmosphere consisting of my air.
In fact, doubt about the capacity to invent opinions – rather than embroider pre-given beliefs – is I think one of the important, humbling stages of self knowledge.
Then there is the irritating smugness by which relativism is usually dismissed from the city. The argument goes that if you don’t have objective, universal values, you have no footing to condemn Auschwitz. That’s a pretty preposterous argument, and it is founded on a very contemporary view of relativism in which respect for other beliefs is the universal rule. But why I should be relativistic about the stars and the trees, and take my hat off for the respect rule is usually not analyzed. In fact, one of the motives in my case for relativism is the realization that Dachau was not built by moral or cultural relativists, but for them – for putting them away and destroying them. The Nazis were all about universal truths, and ruthlessly punished those who they felt violated the natural order of values. To think that relativism, with its endemic questioning of any absolute, was a Nazi doctrine is preposterous.
What the Nazis did, of course, was to pursue methods that were in exception to the moral rules they ardently believed in. In this, unfortunately, they were not very original. In the United States, from 1945 until the present, the population has accepted and resourced the making of a terrific force of nuclear missiles aimed at inflicting millons of civilian casualties. That doesn’t mean that Americans have adopted flexible relativistic norms – rather, it means that, like in all belief systems that build a great superstructure of moral and cultural universals, the foundations are riddled with ingenious exceptions and emergency situations.
I used to call myself a relativist, but in fact the more I have looked at this issue, the more I think it is one of those philosophical death pacts, those double binds, in which both sides are fucked up. It is hard to see how a relativism can get off the ground without formal rules for recognizing belief systems – rules, in other words, that are norms. And of course, as a relativist can easily point out, in every society that claims to adhere to universal norms, one can expect a lively sub-system of exceptions. In those societies that have philosophy, the subsection called ethics is usually involved in both proclaiming universal values and justifyng the everyday exceptions to them that make life possible.
This kind of enjambment makes me think that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way the relativist issue is discussed in philosophy. It makes me think that it is a sucker’s game.