On the Intolerance of Relativism

From French philosopher Chantal Delsol, in her book The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century:

If every group contents itself with assuming its identity without ever wanting to impose it on others, one might think that the result would be social harmony along the lines of a gentleman’s agreement. The age of religious and ideological conflicts would be replaced by a long-lasting tolerance made possible by relativism: no group possesses the truth any more than any other.

That there are many relative points of view, however, does not in fact bring peace because relativism is by nature intolerant: it destroys the founation on which any common discourse must be based. Under relativism, we move from one type of quarrel to another: from fighing for universals to fighting for particulars. In the society of late modernity, abuse is hurled no longer in the name of ideologies, but in the name of identities. Individuals rally around their lifestyle preferences, their cultural attachments, or their status as historical victims. I am no longer an advocate of this or that revolution: I am young, or a Basque, or a woman, or an environmentalist.

Page 127 (emphasis added)

On the surfact it seems ironic, but truly nobody is more intolerant than a thorough-going relativist. He has to be, because he is, as he confesses on his silly bumper sticker, intolerant of intolerance.

But that means he is intolerant of any truth claim other than his own, and his own he roots in a contradiction caused by despair.

He must be, by the nature of his position, opposed to any truth claim. In other words, he must be opposed to every statement that anybody other than himself makes.

Why? Because truth is intolerant of falsehood. It has no room in its universe for the false. The false, after all, does not exist except in a broken relationship between subject and predicate. And broken relationships bring death and suffering.

Truth, therefore, is intolerant of falsehood. Relativism, on the other hand, is intolerant of truth because of the intolerance of truth for falsehood.

With Truth you can carry on a discussion as long as you humble yourself before her Authority. With relativism, any discussion will be a silly dance of experimental rhetoric, and the experiment will be to see what you can get away with while you dance.

The goal of relativism, when she speaks, is to provoke truth into a reaction so it can point at her intolerance and convince people to turn away from her inflexibility and unkindness.

Of course, the relativist can’t actually oppose every truth claim in practice, and he doesn’t really have to because there is no need for the relativist to be consistent.

He can shift with his preferences as much as the moral relativists of the 20th century did, adapting Pragmatically to the culture in which they speculated, from Imperial, Weimar, and Nazi Germany, to Mussolini’s Italy, to Progressive America, to Soviet Russia, to Hollywood.

The one thing the relativist shares across every culture is his impulse to collectivism and his quest for the total state.

Therefore, his relativism remains an impractical parlour game until he enters an academic classroom, creates a work of art, or runs for office.

Then, beware, you who oppose the Tolerant.


4 Responses

  1. Within communication, definitions play the same role as postulates do in Euclidean geometry. They are statements accepted as being correct without proof. If you cannot accept an independent definition (such as Oxford’s), then there is no basis on which to have a rational discussion. By building a particular bias into the definition of ‘relativism,’ any further discussion will necessarily degenerate into a series of a priori statements – much like a discussion of what the definition of ‘is’ is.

  2. From the Oxford English dictionary:

    • noun the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.

    With the possible exception of a few radical Reconstructionists, I know of no Christian who is not a relativist in practice.

    Christian Reconstructionists want to return modern society to one based on the law and morality of Ancient Israel. Since slavery was common in Ancient Israel, some Reconstructionists want to allow modern slavery. Since blasphemy was punished by death in Ancient Israel, some Reconstructionists want to return the death penalty for blasphemy. They would return the death penalty for “crimes” such as working on the sabbath and disobeying ones parents.

    It is easy to claim to believe in moral absolutism: that morality is independent of historical context. But, other than a few hard core Reconstructionists, few Christians are – in practice – moral absolutists. When absolutism reigned among Christians, it led to the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch burning, Luther’s violent anti-Semitism, and church-endorsed slavery.

    Scripture says, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ…” If you believe that slavery is now immoral, then you are a relativist.

    Scripture says that “it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” If you believe that it is now immoral to prevent women from participating in the church, then you are a relativist.

    (Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were not relativists. They were all sure that they had an absolute understanding of what was best for society.)

    There are, of course, many other significant changes in the standards of morality within Western civilization that began with the Enlightenment. Change continues. Even though many Christians claim to be moral absolutists, most are – thankfully – relativists.

    • I can’t reply in detail right now, but I have to do so later. I have two basic disagreements with your position and a string of subordinate ones.

      First, the definition provided by the Oxford English Dictionary is disturbingly sloppy. Of course, everything turns on the two phrases, “in relation to” and “not absolute.” They have created a false dichotomy.

      Second, you have thought within their false dichotomoy between context and absoluteness. You seem to be arguing that for there to be an absolute moral law, all its details must be etched in stone. I don’t want to presume or be arrogant, so let me ask: have you read very much on the natural law written before, say, the 1900’s.

      As a historical application of philosophy, your assertion that Hitler, Stalin, etc were not relativists seems derived from your understanding of absolutism vs. relativism. But since, I believe, you misunderstand both of them, your conclusion was probably inevitable. Marxism, Socialism, and Nazism are rooted entirely in the works of relativistic philosophers, but to develop this point is the purpose of my articles on the blog so I can’t go into it here.

      I would argue that you should to come to a better understanding of what absolute vs. relative morality are. If I am using the terms incorrectly myself, please show me how.

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