The Myth of Relativism and the Cult of Tolerance
It has been twenty years since the late Allan Bloom shook the intellectual elite in this country with the opening line of The Closing of the American Mind: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student in America believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” In one sentence our dirty little secret -- we believe in the truth that there is no truth -- was out.
Why do we believe this? Bloom had that pegged too:
But relativism is not a new idea. Ever since Protagoras declared, “Man is the measure of all things,” people have been attracted to relativism. Human beings are attracted to relativism -- not because it is true -- they are attracted to it because relativism is easy.
I mean two things by “easy” and I mean to discuss those two things later in this essay. I will introduce them here. First, relativism is easy on the intellect. A person’s entire understanding of the entire workings of the entire universe can be stated in eight words: The truth is that there is no truth. Here is a truth, if it is true, simple enough for any simpleton.
Next, relativism is easy on the conscience. If there is no truth out there then there are no values out there either; rather, the only values out there are the subjective ones that we create and put there. Thus, it is possible for us to agree to have this value as a shared value: if you let me make my values, I’ll let you make yours. The allowance by a society of the creation of conflicting values between one human being and another is, in our culture, called “tolerance.” As we will see, tolerance is one, but only one, possible moral outcome of relativism.
But before we search the moral possibilities of relativism, let’s examine something a bit more basic. Let’s start with the truth.
Part 1: The Myth of Relativism
Relativism’s claim is that, with one exception, all things are relative. More accurately, the claim is that all things, events, and descriptions of things and events are based on the individual’s observation of those things and events. The exception to the assertion that nothing is absolute is the “fact” that all things are relative. Relativism is not just another thing or event or description; relativism claims to be the final word on the ultimate nature of every interaction of any human being with the world.
If relativism is true then “truth” can no longer be defined, as it is in the dictionary, as “the true or actual state of a matter” or “conformity with fact or reality.” If relativism is true then every description of the world (except the description that all descriptions are relative) is subject to the time and location, and to the mood and bias, of the observer. Every description is subjective. If relativism is true then the only truth is that there is no truth.
Until about two hundred years ago relativism was a little known corollary of the obscure theories of Epicureanism and Stoicism. Philosophers treated relativism like an iniquitous cousin -- one it was better not to be seen with -- especially in public.
Relativism’s big chance came in the early part of the 19th century. Judeo-Christianity, the then prevailing philosophical explanation of human existence in Western culture, was being refuted by the application of the newly discovered scientific method. The new science proved that the world was more than a few thousand years old; it proved that man was not the center of the universe.
The scientific method provided answers to some types of questions far more readily than others. It could, for example, explain how to aim and fire a cannon with amazing precision. Science could not, however, answer the much more difficult question of whether or not the firing of the cannon by one set of human beings at another set of human beings was justified.1 These abstract moral problems (e.g., when is killing a human being justified?) were the issues that relativism sought to resolve.
Relativism has become popular because relativism claims to have the answers to questions like “What is justice?” Relativism has filled the gap left by the deterioration of faith in the truth of religion and the inability of science to provide quick and easy answers to the most pressing and the most difficult questions -- especially questions dealing with human interactions. To repeat, relativism is popular because it is easy. But is it true?
The first difficulty we have in trying to answer that question is known in philosophy as the “problem of generality.” All of the arguments I know of which assert the truth of relativism are based on generalizations. (“All things are relative” is about as generalized as a generalization can be.) Generalizations try to say so much that they usually end up telling us very little -- or little worth knowing.2
Here is the important point: Not a single person that has ever existed has lived her life acting as if relativism were true. We live our lives by paying attention to the truth or falsity of particular statements. “You locked the keys in the car” is either true or false. We act upon the fact that it is one or the other. If it is true we call a locksmith; if it is false we look somewhere else for the keys.
We do not live our lives by repeating over and over to ourselves that the world has no intrinsic characteristics, that anything and everything may be different tomorrow. We cannot live our lives acting as if all things are relative.
There is another, somewhat related, problem with relativism. Once upon a time every first year philosophy student knew that relativism is self-referentially incoherent. Relativism claims that everything is relative -- but it leaves us wondering if that everything includes relativism, itself.3
The most difficult questions to answer -- not just for science, for anyone -- are questions about human interactions. In each and every mutual human exchange, the number of social, cultural, economic, behavioral, and moral variables is staggering. The social and the psychic sciences (which are the newest sciences, some of them less than a century old) have barely learned to accurately articulate such questions as, “What is justice?” or “Is there free will?” They may be centuries away from answering them.
Here is the timetable so far: Human beings discovered numbers, the tools with which we make scientific predictions, over four thousand years ago. It took two thousand years before we could use those numbers to portray elementary geometric shapes like a triangle. It took two thousand more years before we could manipulate those same numbers to provide a useable, but still not totally accurate, description of gravity. Why, for heaven’s sake, would anyone think we should have a final answer to a monstrously difficult question like “What is justice?” when we don’t yet have a final reason for why our feet stick to the ground?
Relativism asserts its own universality as it proclaims the relativity of all other assertions. Every other sentence ever uttered or ever to be uttered is relative to some one circumstance or another … but not this one. That’s an awful lot to swallow and an amazing number of people have swallowed it.
A person may claim that relativism is true but he will never live his life as if it is true. In fact, he cannot live his life as if the truth is that there is no truth -- unless he wants to live a very short and very frustrating life. “You locked the keys in the car” is either true or false. If you want to go anywhere in your car you will figure out which one it is -- you will not argue that it is both or neither.
Part II: The Cult of Tolerance
It may be fun, at a Starbuck’s or in Philosophy 101, to argue that walls aren’t “really” solid or that tables might “really” be made of ice or that all things are “really” relative but as soon as we exit the café or the classroom we either immediately return to the reality of the really real world … or we die. The car speeding down the road at us might be an illusion or it might be made of marshmallows but no sane person acts as if it is. So, at least in terms of empirical truths, we leave the “truth” of relativism in the classroom or the coffee shop or we suffer the consequences.
Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be so obviously stated for moral truths. Moral relativism not only follows us out of the classroom and café; it chases us around the block. In our day and age the form of moral relativism that most pursues us is tolerance. It has not always been so.
The traditional moral relativist, beginning at least as early as Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, was a proponent of the strongman or the dictator or, in Nietzsche’s refined phrase, “the will to power.” The traditional argument was simple: if there is no objective right and no objective wrong then might makes right and weakness is wrong.
What is good is what the strongest proclaims to be the good -- what he wills to be the good. What is good is an “overman,” a dictator who knows how to use his will to and for power.4 Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were all “supermen” who attempted to impose their “will to power” on the masses.
In the middle of the 19th century the notion of tolerance, as an alternative to the traditional strongman approach to moral relativism, started to gain acceptance. Two things paved the way for this acceptance. (1) Democracy in the United States was proving to be politically viable and writers like Alexis de Tocqueville were spreading the word. America’s founding fathers appeared to have finally found a way for large numbers of people to govern themselves. These self-governing people could have cared less about a relativism that gave them another dictator or king.5 (2) But, these same self-governing people might have been interested in a moral relativism for the masses because, around this time, Darwin and other scientists were demolishing myths like creationism that had served as pillars of the Christian faith.
At this critical juncture, belief in Christianity was shaky but still widespread. If there were a form of moral relativism that mimicked the central themes of Christianity (love thy neighbor, judge not, etc.), there would be a huge number of educated people waiting and willing to entertain the idea. If that same idea were both easy to understand and attractive to the masses … it could be a grand slam. History was ripe for the appearance of the cult of tolerance.
The first use of “tolerance” in its current form, as diversity and openness to the life choices of others, was offered in 1859 (the same year that Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species) by John Stuart Mill in Chapter 3 of On Liberty:
Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable. Why then should tolerance, as far as the public sentiment is concerned, extend only to tastes and modes of life which extort acquiescence by the multitude of their adherents.
Sorry for the gobbledygook but I didn’t write it. Once you start reading explanations for and defenses of tolerance, you will find out, as I have, that almost all of them are illogical. Let’s look closely at this one because it was, essentially, the first one and is, probably, the most important one.
Notice that the first sentence actually says exactly the opposite of what it seems to say. It seems to say that human happiness depends on a diversity of modes of life so that human nature may be fulfilled. Mill misleads us by using the plural form throughout the first clause of the first sentence. (“Such are [plural] the differences [plural] among human beings [plural] in their [plural] sources [plural, etc.]”) In the second half of the sentence “diversity” and “nature” are both written in the singular to make it appear as if “diversity” is the stabilizing and determining principle of human “nature.” But what the sentence must mean -- the only thing it can mean if it is a rational statement -- is that there is no such thing as a shared human nature, that each human being has an absolutely specialized nature of his or her own.
If Mill had been honest (and not trying to sucker wavering Christians) he would have written something like this:
Such is the difference between me and everyone else in my pleasure, in my susceptibility of pain and in how I want different physical and moral agents to react to me, that unless I can live my life anyway that I want to, I will not be happy nor fulfill that nature which is uniquely mine.
Read Mill’s original sentence again. The only way that it makes any sense at all is if it applies to each individual human being; it only makes sense if every human being is radically free and radically different from every other human being because each has had unique experiences of either pleasure or pain from similar sources.
So the first step in understanding the cult of tolerance is grasping the fact that it is grounded in a very egocentric view of human existence. When I insist that others be free to pursue their goals and desires, I necessarily reserve that same privilege for myself. “Let all others be whatever they will be,” sounds vaguely Christian and quite progressive but it also, and necessarily so, means “Let me do whatever I want to do” -- which is exceedingly selfish and utterly immature.
The second step in understanding the cult of tolerance is to see how it mimics Christianity by pretending to be non-judgmental. Christianity teaches that it is wrong to judge others. The cult of tolerance seems to teach the same thing. But the reasons each of them gives for not judging others are vastly different. Christianity teaches that there is one, and only one, way of living that is moral: the Christian life is the moral life. Christians acknowledge that a perfect Christian life is (depending upon the particular brand of Christianity) either very difficult or impossible (at least without God’s help).
The Christian is commanded not to judge her brother -- not because there are no moral rules held by Christianity to be both universal and objective, there are plenty of them -- she is commanded not to judge her brother because it is highly unlikely that either she or her brother have reached the point of perfection in their lives when either of them would be able to judge the other.
In other words, Christianity sees and acknowledges an important truth about moral judgments: objective and accurate moral judgments are hard to get right most of the time and impossible to get right all of the time. The Christian is told not to judge, not because there is nothing to judge, she is told not to judge because it is doubtful that she is qualified to judge. This is a vastly different moral position than those found in the cult of tolerance.
Roughly speaking, the cult of tolerance has two kinds of adherents (1) the multiculturalists and (2) the politically correct. Each of these sects within the cult of tolerance offers its own reasons for why we should not judge others. These reasons conflict, not only with the Christian reason, they conflict with each other.
One of these conflicting reasons is the raison d’être of the multicultural branch of the cult. The other reason, which we have already encountered and will get back to in a minute, is the explanation espoused by the politically correct sect.
The multiculturalist claims that we should not judge others because moral values are culturally relative; i.e., what is right in one society may be wrong in another. This is what Mill seems to be hinting at in the second half of the quotation from On Liberty we saw above. Right and wrong are traditional values that change as societies change and that vary from one society or culture to another.
The concept of right and wrong is, itself, parochial. The enlightened multiculturalist understands that his culture’s values are just as arbitrary as his neighbor’s. If pressed for an explanation for why he follows his culture’s mores, he will tell you he chooses to obey them as an obeisance to his tradition -- that and nothing else.
Notice how condescending this person’s attitude is -- not just to his own culture -- to every culture. Every intelligent and committed Christian, Hindu, Moslem, or Jew (Buddhist’s are a slightly different story) that follows the moral teaching of her religion, not only believes that her values are objectively valid, she can offer arguments, with varying degrees of cogency, for their validity. (Notice also that many of these values and arguments are the same from religion to religion. This fact should tell us something.)
The multiculturalist, in effect, pats the believer on the head and says, “Aren’t you a clever little girl! You claim you have reasons for your ‘right’ and your ‘wrong.’ ‘Objective reasons?’ You call them ‘objective reasons?’ That’s so nice. But I’m too busy to hear them right now. Now go run and play with those people with those other beliefs and those other ‘objective’ reasons; but be sure not to upset anybody.”
Of the major religions, Christianity is the most susceptible to this rendition of the siren song of tolerance because it prides itself on not judging others. If the Christian does object, either to the argument of, or to her treatment by, the multiculturalist, she is likely to hear something like this, “You are judging me and judging your fellow human beings. And you call yourself a Christian?” Most Christians simply don’t have an answer for the multicultural branch of the cult of tolerance.6
The cult of tolerance is Christianity without the guilt, without the work; it is Christianity without the faith, the hope, and the love. The cult of tolerance is selfishness disguised as Christianity.
Christianity commands, in effect, “Do not judge, least you err, and are then objectively judged by God for that error.” The politically correct branch of the cult of tolerance presents itself as a watered down version of Christian morality. The politically correct members of the cult of tolerance threaten, “Do not judge because there is no objective morality by which you can judge and if you do judge we have subjectively agreed to judge you for your judging.” In other words, political correctness goes beyond multiculturalism in as much as the politically correct sect demands that we abandon our traditions and accept a new social contract based upon the “fact” that there are no objective moral standards.
Unlike traditional moral relativism where the strongman rules because “might makes right,” politically correct moral relativism claims to be democratic. In truth, it is far from it. Tolerance, in its politically correct guise, is the imposition of a standardless standard upon the masses.
In a frightening way this standard is self-enforcing and self-reinforcing; i.e., the standardless standard of politically correct moral relativism asserts itself as both the strongman of traditional moral relativism and the strongman’s precept that “might makes right.” Political correctness reinforces itself by enforcing itself as the ultimate moral concept upon the masses. It does this by prohibiting the practice of any standard that challenges its legitimacy and its supremacy.
Prayer in public school is a classic example. If moral standards were determined democratically (we voted on which principles were right and which were wrong), then, at least in the United States, a brief portion of every child’s school day would be spent in some kind of prayer. In surveys, Americans consistently and overwhelmingly approve of school prayer. Nevertheless, there is not a public school in the United States in which the administrators do not get highly nervous if a student so much as nods her head in a manner that might be construed as a prayer.
Some conservative pundits blame this on “liberal judges” but a careful review of the legal decisions regarding prayer in school shows a hodge-podge approach by the courts. Prayer is not allowed in America’s schools for one reason: Not enough Americans want to expend the energy to challenge the reign of political correctness; and because they do not, the Christian command to “love thy neighbor” slowly deteriorates into the politically correct cop-out of “leave thy neighbor alone.” If some children pray then some other children might be offended. Therefore, nobody prays and nobody is offended.
This is how political correctness reinforces itself as the standard of behavior by enforcing itself as the standardless standard of behavior. This is what happens when a society agrees to a social contract to have no social contract -- the society leaps into a cultural vortex which spins down and down into a moral black hole.
This brings us to the fourth and final step in understanding the cult of tolerance; in some ways this is the most important step; it is also the most difficult step to explain: Members of the cult of tolerance defend and justify their position with emotional, as opposed to rational, arguments.
There are members of the cult of tolerance who actually feel that tolerance is grounded in love and respect for others. They feel that toleration is equivalent to understanding. I know there are such people -- lots of them -- some of them capable of an impassioned defense of these feelings. And while they may believe that their defense of tolerance is some sort of rational construct, when you push them, as I have pushed them, you will discover that they are actually defending their feelings. They almost never offer a logical argument for their assertion that tolerating another person or another culture is the same as understanding that person or culture. They would be hard pressed to do so because toleration is not understanding.
Here is an example: to “understand” Islam by “practicing” it for a few days (this is now a requirement in some of America’s public schools) is to understand very little. Instead it is to feel -- rather, it is to pretend to feel -- what a Moslem feels when he practices the ceremonies that make up his religion.
If I want to understand Islam I do not pretend to be a Moslem for a few days, then stop the pretense, and then claim that I understand Islam because I have playacted the role of a Moslem. Such behavior cannot lead to understanding. Such behavior might make me feel a little better about myself -- without taking the much more difficult step of actually understanding either Islam or myself.
Like it or not, a Moslem performs Islamic rituals because he believes that Islam is true and that the practice of the prescribed rituals will bring him closer to God and to the truth. If I want to understand Islam I must start by accepting the fact that the Moslem believes this.
Remember, the keys are either in the car or they are not. This is the form that truth takes in real life. The difference between the examples of car keys and Islam is this: truths like car key locations are very simple and easily decided, whereas, truths of morality and religion are not. Most people just do not like moral complexity. Those who enter the cult of tolerance avoid the difficult process of making an actual choice and get to feel good about it.
Moslems, like Mormons, Catholics, Moonies, and Jews, are what they are -- not because of what they wear or what they eat -- they are what they are because of what they believe to be true. They may be wrong in those beliefs; but unless we understand that they believe what they believe is true … we do not understand them at all.
In short, those who claim that tolerance leads to understanding have not thought through what it means to understand. Those who have joined the cult of tolerance have opted, as human beings are inclined to do, for very simple answers to life’s most important and most complex questions.
Almost all of us -- including, I believe, all but the most deluded members of the cult -- know what tolerance really is. We’ve known it most of our lives. We’ve known it ever since the moment our mothers told us we had to go outside and play with that pain in the rear of a little sister; we’ve known it ever since we wanted a bike for our birthday but got a little red wagon with which, we were told, we could haul that same sister; we’ve known it ever since that very same sister was always getting into our stuff when she had no reciprocal stuff worth getting into.
That is tolerance -- which, by the way, comes from the Latin tolerãre -- a word that means “to suffer” or “to bear.” Real tolerance is never easy. It is not often fun. But it is real, as real as finding your car keys. It is just a lot harder ... to bear.
Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. His latest award-winning novel is The Order of the Beloved . His memoir, Underground : Life and Survival in the Russian Black Market, has just been released.
1. The science that refuted some of the basic tenets of religion was grounded in a brand new methodology of verifiable experimentation -- and experiments take time. So, at least initially, science was unable to answer the very questions it had shown that religion had gotten wrong. As an example, although the first geologists could prove that the earth was older than the approximately twelve thousand year old estimate of the Bible, their own estimates of the earth’s beginning were notoriously off. They had not yet collected enough data to give an accurate date. Eventually, science gives answers, but it does not give quick or easily determined answers.
2. Statements such as “All things are relative” or “The truth is that there is no truth” cannot be, what Poincarè termed, “real generalizations.” I.e., they are not generalizations whose veracity might eventually be secured by direct observation. What, exactly, are we looking for in our observations that could confirm or deny these statements of relativism? (Cf. the statement “All swans are black.”) Statements like “All things are relative” suffer from what is called “the paradox of confirmation.” This is true (of all statements like “All things are relative”) from every viewpoint of induction that I have seen, including those of J. Nicod, J.M. Keynes, R. Carnap, D. Stove, and even Karl Popper.
3. Every statement of relativism leads, sooner or later, to a logical paradox that is very similar to what is known in philosophy as Russell’s paradox. Named after the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, the paradox goes like this: Nearly all classes of things are not themselves members of the class. For example, the class of cows is not a cow. Nevertheless, if we generalize, and speak of a class as a class, then a class can be a member of itself. The class of classes is a class. (Picture the Russian matryoshkas -- those nesting dolls.) The question Russell then posed was: Is the class, of all classes that are not members of themselves, a member of itself? If yes, then no, and if no, then yes. Voilà! Paradox.
4. The “will to power” was a crucial doctrine for both Nietzsche and Heidegger -- the two “world class” philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nietzsche consistently railed against the “herd morality” of tolerance while he argued that any new morality must be based on a will to power. Heidegger apparently believed so much in the übermensch that he joined Hitler’s Nazi party.
5. This is part of the reason that nobody bothered to read Nietzsche until after his teaching was reconstructed, having first been “deconstructed,” by the left. Nietzsche’s true teaching is demonstrably undemocratic and radically right wing.
6. Unfortunately, the Moslems do. Islam may be the most clannish, the most brutish, and the least sophisticated of all the major religions, but its adherents are not all idiots. Many are smart enough to understand when they are being placated and insulted in the same breath. Some are ruthless enough to do something about it. Unlike Christians, who when slapped in the face are directed to turn the other cheek, Moslems are directed to slap back -- and slap hard.
Those who contend that it is conservative Christians and conservative Jews which cause the Moslems to hate the West need to look at Anzar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran or go to MEMRI.org and read the sermons and interviews of “moderate” Moslem clerics like Sheikh Abd al-Muhsin al-Abikan. The problem intellectual Moslems have with the West is the moral nihilism that they claim has infected our culture as a direct result of multiculturalism. I wonder how many staff members at the state department have read that memo?