"Liberals are relativists!"

The second most poisonous myth about relativism (I'm coming to the most poisonous shortly) is that liberalism = relativism.

Among the various charges laid against “liberals”, relativism is one of the most popular. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

In his inspiringly-titled Let Freedom Ring, Sean Hannity, political pundit at Fox News, suggests that one reason U.S. “liberals” are hostile to the teaching of the Declaration of Independence in public schools is that

…. liberals absolutely abhor and militantly reject the Founders’ belief in absolute truth. America’s Founders believed deeply in certain fundamental truths about life, liberty, and the nature of man. In fact, they believed – they weren’t just inserting lofty-sounding but meaningless platitudes in the document – that such truths were “self-evident.” By sharp contrast, the Left embraces moral relativism with an arrogant tenacity.

There you are: “liberals” – whom, incidentally, Hannity seems to equate with “the Left” – embrace moral relativism.

David Limbaugh author of Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity, also thinks “liberals” are, or are mostly, relativists. Limbaugh responded in an interview to a comment about “liberalism” by saying that while “liberals”.

…subscribe to moral relativism and no absolute truth, they betray their standards when it comes to judging Christians. They apply an absolute standard when it comes to Christians and they condemn us for our beliefs, so they're completely hypocritical on that…. The Judeo-Christian ethic is one that is undergirded by absolute truth. Liberals, by and large, don't subscribe to any such value system.

Limbaugh here accuses “liberals” of both relativism and hypocrisy: they proclaim relativism and non-judgementalism, yet here they are making moral judgements about Christian attitudes towards, say, homosexuality or the place of prayer in schools. Outrageous.

But are “liberals”, by and large, relativists?

Many people who describe themselves as “liberal” reject relativism. Here in the U.K., many people call themselves “liberal”. Among those I know, I’m not aware of any who would consider themselves relativists. But maybe things are different in the U.S. Maybe, over the pond, “liberals” do tend to sign up to the kind of hypocritical, non-judgementalist relativism of which they are repeatedly accused. But maybe not. Few of those who claim “Liberals are relativists” appear to have done much research into the moral beliefs of those they describe as “liberal”. Usually their evidence amounts to little more than a few anecdotes. Undoubtedly, some “liberals” do embrace moral relativism. Perhaps many do. But the suggestion that all, or most, of them are relativists seems poorly founded. Are most “liberals” relativists? I have no idea. But then neither, I suspect, do those making the accusation.

And yet the factoid that “liberals are relativists” has become heavily woven into the psyche of conservative America. Type “liberal” and “relativist” into Google and see what you get. I did, and quickly come up with a great deal of this sort of thing:

The modern liberal is a self-proclaimed relativist, who does not believe in unbiased truth. Naturally, such a person does not believe in fairness or honesty either, both being relative. I do not say this is true of 100% of liberals, but it is true of most of them. (source here)

On what evidence is this accusation made? None at all. In the U.S, the accusation “Relativist!” appears to have supplanted even “Communist!” in terms of its popularity, vitriol and baselessness.


I think it's actually even worse than you describe. In the examples you cite, the "pundits" are obviously using "relativism" to stand in for nihilism.

This bluntly, it's pretty obvious that the charge is false: liberals are not nihilists, they do make moral judgments, just not on the basis of some arbitrary revealed moral code or scripture but on the (subjective) dictates of their consciences.

The liberal-conservative conflict is not about whether to make moral judgments, but on what basis. Conservative pundits are writing to conservative followers, whom I strongly suspect are predominantly "High (submissive) Right Wing Authoritarians" in Bob Altemeyer's terminology.

Since such people have a very difficult time separating moral judgment from some absolute authority (and oy! how many times have I heard theists use this theme); to their minds "relativism" can't be anything but a synonym for "nihilism".

I think it's true that most liberals, both in the UK and the US, do not self-identify as relativists. I strongly suspect, however, that if you were to really query them and examine their actual beliefs, you'd find them pretty close to meta-ethical subjective relativism, or some benignly naive projective objectivism.

I think this lack of self-identification is symptom of conservatives' pernicious framing of moral discourse into absolutist/relativist terms--because to have a true "absolutist" morality (that is not relative to subjective belief), you have to have a privileged authority to establish that morality. And the conservatives are only to happy to accept that task.
Cassandra said…
Hi there (again).
The discourse is greatly hampered, if not completely characterized, by a confusion of definitions and ideas. While Americans use the term liberal for the left in general, in Europe we often mean classical liberalism as per philosophers Hobbes, Locke, de Montesquieu, etc.
Since the (real) left have voluntarily and enthusiastically adopted relativism/multiculturalism it is no surprise there's confusion there. But indeed, relativist adherents Stuart Sim, Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash have recently made no bones about it: they don't deal with individuals (central to classical liberalism) and all that isn't relativism, is fundamentalism. So that we know. See the discussion here: http://www.signandsight.com/features/1174.html

I'm not very impressed by the referenced article. It seems long on the author's own hostile characterization of opposing arguments, long on apocalyptic consequences, and short on actual evidence.

In any event, arguments against specific conceptions of relativism are not very good arguments for some particular alternative. I'd very much like to see positive arguments from the absolutists? objectivists? however you want to characterize yourself for your own position, not just against specific alternatives.
Stephen Law said…
Cassandra - thanks for interesting link.

Sim sounds like exactly the sort of academic "post-modern" relativist we've been hunting for.

But he is an atypical lefty, surely? Most lefties wouldn't agree with him, I guess.

I certainly don't (or am I not a "real" lefty?)
Professor Law,

Did you read a different article than I did? I don't--even after a second reading--know anything at all about Stuart Sim or his book, "Fundamentalist World"--although I'm in no doubt that Cliteur holds both man and book in considerable contempt.

On the other hand, the abstract of Sim's paper, The inhuman: Lyotard and the assumptions of scientific advance, does seem eye-bleedingly stupid.
Stephen Law said…
Dear Barefoot Bum, Sim sounds like a hard-core relativist in this passage, doesn't he? (though of course it may not be an accurate description of Sim):

For Sim, every single set of ideas that is not completely relativistic is fundamentalist. So the only way to escape from the indictment of "fundamentalist" and "fundamentalism" is to adopt the postmodern relativistic outlook that Sim himself favors.

What Sim wants to encourage is a kind of skepticism toward all ideas of authority. Sim favors radical skepticism ("the more scepticism the better"). Defending Enlightenment values of democracy, free speech, and the rule of law as "universal principles" is one more kind of fundamentalism that has to be rejected.
Professor Law,

As you note, the passage might not be an accurate representation. Without even a single substantive quotation, I'm utterly unable to have any opinion whatsoever on Sim himself or his book.

As you might have (correctly) inferred from my earlier comments, I don't give the humanities the same benefit of academic methodology that I give scientists.

I'm very skeptical about work in the academic humanities. This is not to say that I simply disbelieve everything, but I do want to see the whole argument and sufficient data every time to draw any conclusion from any work.

My skepticism isn't due to perceived ethical failings within the humanities vs. the sciences (although I have seen anecdotes of unconscionable intellectual slack), but rather because the subject matter of the humanities is inherently more ambiguous and ungrounded in experiment.
I think I also should say that as a professional engineer and an amateur scientist, I tend to use words such as "skepticism" in their scientific sense. Both the humanities and the sciences draw terminology from each other, but often change the substantive meaning.

"Skepticism" is a perfect case in point. It's original use in ancient Greek philosophy seems to connote a radical epistemic nihilism. In the sciences, however, it simply means not believing an idea except insofar as you've actually tested it against experiment.

Now Sim might well mean "skepticism" in the original philosophical sense. I don't know. As a scientist, however, the idea of being skeptical about Enlightenment values is entirely unproblematic. In the scientific sense, of course I should be skeptical. Even the Enlightenment values are not unquestionable dogma; I should investigate what the are and test them against my own understanding and my own moral intuitions before I approve of them, even (and perhaps especially) if it is my own understand and intuition that are changed by the persuasive power of the work.
Gah. My grammar and spelling are usually much better than the previous post would imply. Apologies.
"Stuart Sim answers Paul Cliteur, defending postmodernism and arguing that scepticism can contribute to a new European story."

Although I don't agree with everything that he has to say, it seems apparent that Sim's description of his own work differs substantially from Cliteur's evaluation.

(h/t to Cassandra's blog, The Lighthouse)
Anonymous said…
Congratualations Stephen Law! You are *not* a Liberal. I was a little afraid to post this comment for the chance you might be some kind of double agent.

But you were already obviously not Liberal. Who else would write about the legal case in Britain cliaming Judaism to be racist? A Liberal would find this wholly antithetical.

You are one of us it seems, dear sir, whether you like it or not.

Or let me put it to you like this, Sean Hannity might consider any moral absolutist to be a conservative, and I know I would consider any moral absolutist to be very much not Liberal.

Climate change, abortion, and gay rights are non-issues once you cross that threshold of honorable Universalism. Make an argument for the goodness of gay rights on the basis of an absolute claim about its consequences, and you have just tunneled irrevocably down the non-Liberal rabbit hole.
Stephen Law said…
Oh sure if you *define* "liberal" as a moral relativist or nihilist, then I'm not one.

But I don't. A liberal, as I and indeed most liberals use the term is someone who encourages freedom of thought and expression and encourages individuals to think, question and make their own moral judgements rather than defer to some external authority.

That doesn't entail relativism, clearly. There's an interview here in this topic:


Also my book The War For Children's Minds goes into the distinction in very great detail if you are interested in actually finding out more.

PS I didn't claim Judaism was racist - I did suggest some Jewish schools were applying racist entrance criteria.