politically motivated, is a confused and often pretty poisonous point of
view. Here's the transcript from an Australian radio interview I did on the subject.
Relativism was in the news recently along with female circumcision,
which involves cutting off parts of a woman's genitalia, including her
clitoris. Some Sudanese people routinely practice female circumcision on
young girls. It's part of their tradition. But many Westerners are
horrified. Female circumcision, they say, is cruel life-blighting
surgery. It's morally wrong.
Now it's here that the relativist steps in. 'Ah, wrong.' They say.
'Wrong for you, perhaps. But you're assuming that your truth is the only
truth. In fact what's true for you is false for those Sudanese people.
There's no objective fact of the matter as to which moral point of view
is correct. All moral perspectives are equally valid.' 'And so', says
the relativist, sternly pointing their finger at you, 'it's wrong of you
As I say, this sort of relativism is pretty popular in certain circles.
Indeed, to reject it is to risk being branded politically incorrect, or
politically correct baloney. Here are four reasons why.
First, for us Westerners to think that what's right or wrong is
ultimately not just a matter of opinion, but a matter of objective fact,
is not to assume that we must have unique and privileged access to those
facts. Sure, in the past, we've often just arrogantly
assumed that we know best, and that we have the right to force our
particular moral point of view down everyone else's throat. The church
has had a particularly poor track record in this respect. Of course
we were wrong to assume that. We now realize that we
should be more open-minded and tolerant. We know we get it wrong.
We know that there can often be a great deal to learn from other
cultures. But of course we can embrace all this good, liberal stuff
without signing up to moral relativism. To say that there's an objective
fact of the matter about whether or not female circumcision is wrong is
not to assume that our Western opinion is inevitably the right one.
Those who reject relativism need not be jack-booted bullies intent on
ramming their beliefs down everyone else's throat.
Second, the relativist who points a finger at the Westerner who judges
female circumcision to be wrong and says 'It's wrong of you to judge'
ends up condemning themselves. For of course they are doing exactly what
they are saying you shouldn't be doing. They are judging you, and saying
that you are doing something morally wrong! So all that politically
correct finger wagging is downright hypocritical.
Third, relativists tend to apply their relativism pretty inconsistently.
Take some remote forest tribe, for example, that does something that we
Westerners think barbaric and wrong. "You shouldn't judge" says the
relativist. 'In their culture, this sort of behaviour is perfectly
proper. And their opinion is just as 'true' as yours.' But of course, if
some big multinational comes in and hacks down the forest and kicks out
its inhabitants, the relativist will be down on them like a ton of
bricks. 'That's wrong' they'll say. But of course they can't say that,
can they? If they are going to be true to their relativism, then they
have to say that if the corporate culture deems it acceptable to destroy
the rainforest and barbeque its inhabitants, then for them it is
acceptable, and who are we to judge?
Finally, notice that it's only if we reject moral relativism that we are
free to promote tolerance and open-mindedness as universal virtues. Take
some religious culture that thinks it okay to be deeply intolerant. The
relativist is going to have to say that, hey, if these religious zealots
think it right to chop up those with whom they disagree, then for them
it is right, and who are we to judge. The relativist can't consistently
condemn the intolerance of others. It's only those who reject relativism
that are free to do that.
So the truth is that relativism really doesn't have much going for it.
We can be good, right-on liberals without embracing relativism. And, at its
worst, relativism is politically correct baloney of a rather nasty sort.