Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I haven’t figured out whether I agree or not with Robert Miller on the prevalence of genuine relativism . He is certainly right that there are almost no consistent relativists out there. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to be an absolutely consistent relativist, as it almost impossible to be an absolutely consistent skeptic. Even to say “All viewpoints are equally valid” is to express a viewpoint, and implicitly to reject the viewpoint that not all viewpoints are equally valid.

In some sense, to make any statements at all is to abandon relativism and skepticism, unless one has also abandoned logic altogether. So Miller may be setting the bar too low for himself by requiring that a person not be considered really a relativist if he ever makes absolute statements.

I have a suspicion that there is a lot more relativism in the bloodstream of society than Miller may acknowledge. It is only a suspicion, because it is hard to know what confused people really believe. My suspicion is based on several things.

First, while positivism may be discredited among philosophers, it has left a deep mark on how many people think. They are now much more unsure of anything that cannot claim to be “scientifically” demonstrable. They have been well tutored to distrust their own intuitions as possibly naive. They don’t want to be in the position of those who condemned Galileo or who supposedly “laughed at Columbus.” Of course, they know that Galileo and Columbus were proven right, so they accept that objective truth about some matters exists, but they have become very unsure of the possibility of knowing much really and for sure about many matters on which people in the past were fairly confident.

Therefore, morality tends to be conceived of not only in consequentialist terms but also in terms of physically measurable consequences. Before some manner of child-rearing can be confidently asserted to be harmful in its consequences, there must be scientific studies proving that it leads to poor performance in school, or less financial success later in life, or obesity, or something that is quantifiable and measurable. Is adoption by gay couples wrong? Show us the statistical evidence of harm done. What is wrong with teenage promiscuity? Venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies. That is measurable. Those are publicly verifiable facts. Anything else has to do with your “values” and is therefore between you and your God, priest, minister, et al., but of no possible concern to me or to the public at large.

Anything that is not “scientifically” demonstrable is suspected, even by ordinary people, of being mere “old-fashioned” prejudice, custom, taste, cultural preference, and so on. “Well, I’m old-fashioned, but I think . . . ” People do still have some strong moral feelings, and at some level they suspect and want to believe that these are not just feelings, but they also suspect that perhaps in many cases they are.

Positivism is not the only contributor to this lack of conviction coming from the side of “science.” Materialism of the kind preached by such people as Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Steven Weinberg, and many other prominent scientists has had a great influence among the more scientifically literate and, indirectly, more widely. This brand of materialism implies, and its advocates often openly assert, that morality is just a set of responses bred into us by evolution. We are “hard-wired” to feel certain ways.

Often, I suspect, when people assert that they or others have “rights” they are not making claims about an objective moral order that grounds those rights. What they have in mind is the idea that, in many areas of behavior, it is impossible really to know what is right and wrong (since there is no scientific way to settle the matter), and indeed there may not be an objective right and wrong, and consequently no one is in position to make rules for everyone else on those questions. They say “I have a right” but really mean “It’s none of your business,” “It is my private concern,” “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries.” Rawls? Never heard of him; just mind your own damn business and stop trying to impose your rules on me. That’s what they mean by rights. Of course, implicit in these “arguments” may be the premise that people ought to mind their own business. But that simply shows that it is impossible to be an absolute relativist.

Admittedly, everyone sees murder and embezzlement as wrong, because they do observable and even quantifiable damage. But, where the damage is not measurable, as in supposedly “victimless crimes” or behavior “between consenting adults,” people are very apt nowadays to write off the possibility of really saying anything objectively true about the morality of the deeds in question.

It may well be that in their heart of hearts such people still think there are objective moral norms. But they are not as confident about it, and certainly not confident enough to argue in the public square. In other words, even if not relativist in their hearts, they are intimidated by relativism to keep their mouths shut. And this, as Pope Benedict said, is a kind of dictatorship of relativism. A dictatorship can be enforced by a small number of people on a much larger, but cowed, population. Consistent and convinced relativists may be few, but the moral outlook of the many has been considerably softened up by the assaults of relativism.

Of course, this is just my opinion.

Stephen M. Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware and the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith and A Student’s Guide to Natural Science .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles