Chapter Three: Relativism

Section  6. Relativism and Tolerance

Tolerance -- the ultimate obligation of the relativist?

Relativism and tolerance are very common in today's culture. Toleration is preached by every politically correct educator and politician. And it is a centerpiece of the values of political liberalism. (By political liberalism I do not refer to "liberal democrats". I refer to the orthodox value of American and Western European ideology of self-government, or government by representation.) America is the epitome of western political ideals because we are a society of societies -- we do not share an ethnicity, a race, a religion, even a history. The only thing that binds Americans together is a commitment to this particular political structure devised by Thomas Jefferson and the rest. France is France because everyone is French, speaks French, and drinks cabernet sauvignon. England is England because everyone is English, is Protestant, speaks English with that great accent, and drinks tea. America is America because a bunch of otherwise really different folks think that the best way to live is by organizing under a constitutional democracy. By definition, then, we are a tolerant people. Or rather, if we are not tolerant, then we are failing to be Americans. Tolerance is, again, one of the crown jewels of American culture.

The reason why we believe it is so important to be tolerant is because we are so profoundly aware of our own freedom. We wouldn't want to have our own freedom limited, and this means that we think it would be wrong to limit the freedom of those with whom we disagree.

We then translate that respect for freedom, a respect which silently streams through our American veins, into a moral relativism. We make the leap from the "Diversity Thesis" (again, owing to the fact that we share our neighborhoods and our political leaders with people who don't look like we do, speak like we do, act like we do, and drink like we do) to relativism, without recognizing that we cannot go from here to there without something very important -- the "Dependence Thesis." Nevertheless, the tolerance which began as a political necessity ends up being a moral absolute. A political presupposition becomes the consequence of a metaethical commitment.

Let me make this argument in another way: Relativism seems to be obviously true to many people. It also seems obviously true to many of those people, that since what is right for one group isn't right for another group, then we need to be tolerant of everyone. This recognition of moral freedom is the only absolute value that relativists adhere to.

It shouldn't take much reflection to see the error here. Tolerance is NOT a value of relativism. Perhaps I should say it this way: if you are a relativist, you certainly do not need to be tolerant of other people. Or rather, if you are a relativist, it is not inconsistent with your relativism to be intolerant of those who disagree with you.

Again, (a) relativism does not lead logically to being tolerant of other cultures, and other moral perspectives, and (b) it always threatens to result in intolerance. If you think that everyone should be tolerant of other opinions and beliefs and practices, then you are not a relativist.

Let me take a passage from Louis Pojman's article, "Who's to Judge?", in Virtue and Vice in Everyday Life (Sommers and Sommers: New York; Harcourt Publishers 2001):

If morality simply is relative to each culture then if the culture does not have a principle of tolerance, its members have no obligation to be tolerant...From a relativistic point of view there is no more reason to be tolerant than to be intolerant, and neither stance is objectively morally better than the other.

Not only do relativists fail to offer a basis for criticizing those who are intolerant, but they cannot rationally criticize anyone who espouses what they might regard as a heinous principle. If, as seems to be the case, valid criticism supposes an objective or impartial standard, relativists cannot morally criticize anyone outside their own culture. Adolf Hitler's genocidal actions, so long as they are culturally accepted, are as morally legitimate as Mother Teresa's works of mercy. If [cultural relativism] is accepted, racism, genocide of unpopular minorities, oppression of the poor, slavery, and even the advocacy of war for its own sake are as equally moral as their opposites. And if a subculture decided that starting a nuclear war was somehow morally acceptable, we could not morally criticize those people.

These are serious problems for relativism .... and there are more


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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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