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Relativism and alternative approaches
Presented at the Vancouver Grand Masonic Day, October 18, 2000
by Bro. D. A. Asly
Political theories, in general, can be said to be based on at least two premises: first, an understanding of what people are, and second, an understanding of how they should live together. Modern Western political theories, in particular, stem primarily from one of two schools on freedom, as outlined in George Sabine’s essay on "The Two Democratic Traditions."1 The first gives primary importance to liberty, and is based on the Anglo-American tradition, with John Locke as its original proponent. The second gives primary importance to equality and is based on the French-Continental tradition, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau as its original proponent. Both systems have since their conceptions in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively, undergone considerable modifications. Nevertheless they remain relevant, as they are, in one guise or another, the foundations upon which all Modern systems of political thought, including that of Relativism and its alternatives, rest.
Relativism arises from the basic premise of positive liberty that everyone is the source of value. In other words, every value that is held by a person is, and ought to be, generated by himself. Thus every person has unique values, which apply only to him. The perhaps most attractive feature of relativism lies in the fact that it assumes "the coequality or noncomparability of divergent forms," or values; thus granting "permission to diversity and difference."2 In a world where the diversity of human morality and behavioral practices is constantly underscored as something that is important and to be treasured, and where group pressures often force individuals to abstain from making value judgments from fear of being guilty of elitism, it is understandable that a political philosophy that allows one to abstain from making such judgments should gain increasing popularity.
Naturally, this view of the individual can be extended to the communal level as well. Descriptive Cultural Relativism is the understanding that differences in the moral practices and beliefs of different cultures do exist, and that they may generate serious disagreement between different cultures.3 At first glance this seems to be nothing more than an account of a well-recognized anthropological fact. However, the logical step that follows leads to the conclusion that all cultural values, and systems of morality, are equal in worth as they are, in good keeping with the highest ideal of positive liberty, created from the unique perspective of the culture in question.
While both the communal and individual versions of relativism are attractive and continually gain more adherents, particularly among young aspiring intellectuals, due to the strong emphasis on egalitarianism, it nevertheless remains a fact that there are many philosophical problems that render the relativist perspective fairly obsolete in any society that struggles to be ethically conscientious. Two important alternatives to relativism that address its main problems are Charles Taylor’s ethic of authenticity, and Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism.4 While these are by no means perfect, it is to be argued in this paper that from a politico-philosophical perspective value pluralism is to be preferred above the ethic of authenticity, and that both are to be preferred above relativism.
To begin with, Relativism implies a paradox. Normative ethical relativists make themselves particularly guilty of committing the error. Generally they formulate their stance by either asserting the universal equivalence of all cultural practices, or more conservatively by advocating the withholding of judgment about unfamiliar practices.5 However, egalitarianism of this kind typically demands toleration. Seriously undermining the position of normative ethical relativists while at the same time revealing the fundamental weakness of their argument is the fact that neither toleration nor withholding judgment are universal or cross-cultural values.
The argument for withholding judgment reveals a second weakness of the relativist position. If relativism is true and withholding judgment therefore is imperative, then criticism of anyone elseís' values becomes prohibited.6 In other words, Relativism legitimizes evil. During the climax of the Nazi Third Reich it was standard practice to arrest and do terrible deeds to Jews, Gypsies, and others based on no other criterion than who they were. While most people would agree that this was atrocious, relativism prohibits the placement of value judgment on those activities.
A third problem with relativism is that it isolates people from each other. If all values are unique and equal in worth, and if nobody may criticize anyone else, then there is no such thing as human values by which mankind is united. Instead, all that exists is a vast number of enclaves of individuals or groups that all hold separate, unique, and noncomparable perspectives on what constitutes morality or value. Thus there are no values that hold humanity together as such, and the only factor preventing various races of mankind from being classified as different species altogether would be the biological fact of interbreedability. Obviously, this is as absurd as the simplicity of relativism that draws to it so many adherents.
Charles Taylor of McGill University addresses these problems by developing the idea of the ethic of authenticity. The ethic of authenticity is framed as a continuation of an inquiry inaugurated by Lionel Trilling in his Norton Lectures at Harvard University entitled Sincerity and authenticity.7 It deals with a number of problems of modernity, one of which is the relativist perspective. Taylor recognizes the value that positive liberty holds for relativism and appreciates that we are free when we make our own choices about what to value. However, he thinks that some values are more authentic than others.8
Moreover, Taylor maintains that to be authentic is to choose values that are true to one’s inner self. In other words, only those who choose authentic values can be true to their inner selves, leaving those who do not choose authentic values open to accusations of falsehood. As a corollary to this idea stands the notion that those people who commit deeds of evil, so to speak, are untrue to themselves by choosing inauthentic values. Thus this position explains how evil is committed by some while it preserves the idea stemming from the tradition of positive liberty that all people are the source of good.
It is at this point that Taylor comes dangerously close to incorporating the meta-physical, thus exposing an important weakness of his ethic of authenticity. Taylor maintains that everyone possesses within his or her potential the ability to be true to his or her inner selves. Thus he continues, if everyone chooses authentic values, humanity will stand united in its values.9 This notion approaches occultism by assuming implicitly that not only is there an inner essence to human existence but that this essence also by necessity is universally shared among mankind.10 After all if everyone’s authenticity were unique, Taylor would not be offering an alternative to, but rather a recapitulation of, relativism. Of course any commentary made on modernity from a religious point of view is automatically deprived of some of its credibility as any traditionalist perspective has a pre-eminent interest in subverting modernity. Perhaps this is why Taylor has not yet made his catholicism official.11 Perhaps the format of his radio lectures followed by the short work entitled The Malaise of Modernity simply did not allow for allocating the space to pre-empt this criticism, as suggested by Novak.12
A by far more serious problem with the ethic of authenticity is the danger of having the pursuit for positive liberty overshadow the importance of negative liberty to the point of coercion. If making authentic choices means being true to one’s inner self, or conversely being faithful to one’s true self means making authentic choices, then well-meaning individuals or groups may find it justifiable to coerce others for the sake of the good of their own true or inner self. Isaiah Berlin, taking the perspective of a coercing element writes that it [is] easy for me to conceive of myself as coercing others for their own sake, in their, not my, interest.... I may declare that they are actually aiming at what in their benighted state they consciously resist, because there exists within them an occult entity - their latent rational will, or their 'true' purpose - and that this entity, although it is belied by all that they overtly feel and do and say, is their 'real' self.... Once I take this view, I am in a position to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their 'real' selves....13
The allowance for this familiar argument is clearly the greatest danger posed by Charles Taylor’s ethic of authenticity. However, in contrast to the problems of relativism this danger is at least not philosophically inconsistent with the basic premises of its theory.
Having so clearly delineated the danger of positive liberty run amok, Berlin proposes his own alternative to relativism. Berlin’s value pluralism denies that everyone has unique values. Having values in common is an absolute necessity for human communication. Since it obviously is known that humans communicate with each other, it follows that we share values with each other.14 Berlin maintains that there exists one set of true human values that everyone that is sane can understand although they need not necessarily agree with them. In keeping with the tradition of negative liberty, values that exist within this domain of values shared by all mankind compete with each other.
In other words, within the set of human values, perhaps shaped by the fact that we all share in the human experience, there may exist various independent or subset values that may or may not be incompatible with each other. Thus, mercy and individualism are two values that neither augment nor compete with each other, while mercy and justice are as competitive as individualism and communitarianism. Regardless of which of these values one puts more worth in anyone that is at least half intelligent should be able to recognize that there exists a certain degree of validity in its counterpart without having to agree with it.15
Because our common values conflict with each other, we must choose among them. Berlin writes, "the world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably result in the sacrifice of others."16 Thus the positive libertarian ideal of choice of value is quite elegantly preserved while at the same time conveying that moral disagreement can be taken seriously.17 Furthermore, Berlin maintains that in a sense the choices we are "doomed" to make are tragic as each "may entail an irreparable loss."18 From this position he continues to claim that those who surrender to dogma and thus have their choices about morality ready-made for them are the happiest.
However, Berlin does not stop there. He then, quite rightly, accuses those that have surrendered to dogma of lacking understanding for what it means to be human. This is obviously an opinion that Berlin held close to heart as he some 21 years earlier, in the "Two Essays...," closes by affirming the necessity to realize the relative validity of one’s values yet stand for them with unfaltering conviction.19 This has caused critics of Berlin’s value pluralism, such as Moody-Adams to question why moral and political maturity demands, "that none of one’s deepest convictions can be immune from revision."20 While this may or may not be a relevant question, based on what exactly Berlin meant, it has little, if any, bearing on the concept of value pluralism. Rather it is a peripheral comment that could be taken as a sign of the philosophical soundness of value pluralism as so few other questions or objections seem to have arisen.
Thus it has been inductively shown that relativism in general, represented here by the individual and communal versions in particular, has outlived its usefulness as a political philosophy due to its numerous and obvious shortcomings, rendering itself obsolete for Modernity. In its stead, Charles Taylor proposes that the worthy attributes that relativism strives to secure are better represented by a philosophy he calls the Ethic of Authenticity. While this ethos is to a large degree successful, it also presents two immediately apparent issues of contention. First, one must object to the never explicitly stated, nevertheless quite clearly implicit, assumption about mankindís true inner self existing and being of a catholic nature. Second, there is the danger of the ever-looming potential for coercion in the name of authenticity and the true inner self. Value pluralism however, elegantly solves this dilemma of the Ethic of Authenticity by presenting a worldview of morality as the set of values commonly shared by humanity where an individual must choose between sometimes conflicting values to form his or her belief system. Value pluralism eliminates the problems of relativism by allowing value judgment at its best in the simple form of the act of choice. Thus it also preserves the attractive features of positive liberty while at the same time preventing tyranny in its name. Clearly, out of the three intimately related approaches to morality that of Isaiah Berlin’s Value Pluralism holds the most relevance for modern society and its complexities.

  1. George H. Sabine, "The Two Democratic Traditions", Philosophical Review, Vol. 61, (New York: Cornell U. P.) October, 1952.^
  2. Michele M. Moody-Adams, Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture, and Philosophy, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. P., 1997), 13.^
  3. Ibid., 16.^
  4. Charles Taylor, "The Malaise of Modernity," in Massey Lectures, http://www.masseylectures.cbc.ca/M_Audio.html#taylor, 1991.
    Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty," in Liberalism and Its Critics, Ed. Michael Sandel, (New York: Publisher, Year).^
  5. Moody-Adams, 17.^
  6. Boris DeWiel, "Relativism versus Pluralism," (Vancouver, BC: Unpublished Lecture, 1999).^
  7. Michael Novak, "An Authentic Modernity," 1993.^
  8. DeWiel, Unpubl. Lect.^
  9. ibid.^
  10. occultism is here to be taken as a sort of proto-religiosity or as approximating the antithesis of rational thought as envisioned by the philosophes.^
  11. Catholicism is here to be taken in its literal meaning as denoting universality, although Taylor is known to coincidentally confess to the faith by the same name.^
  12. Novak, 2. Novak points out that a "book of 120 pages can hardly do justice to the complexity of the matters being discussed," but that Taylor nevertheless has achieved a considerable degree of success thanks to having "earned his way through scores of other useful distinctions" in the Sources of the Self. It should however be observed that Novak is noticably silent about the direct contribution of this work with respect to the catholicism of the ethic of authenticity.^
  13. Berlin, 25.^
  14. DeWiel, Unpubl. lect.^
  15. William A. Galston, "Value pluralism and Political Liberalism," Report from the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring 1996.^
  16. Berlin, 30-1.^
  17. Moody-Adams, 122.^
  18. Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, Ed. Henry Hardy, (London: John Murray Ltd., 1990), 13-4.^
  19. Berlin, Two Essays..., 33-4.^
  20. Moody-Adams, 123.^


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