Robert Audi notes in Moral Value and Human Diversity: “We hear a great deal about the relativism of our age. But what is relativism?” His response distinguishes between circumstantial relativism and status relativism. An example he gives of the first is when the normal behaviour of not slapping people is over-ruled to save someone who has overdosed on sleeping-pills. Status relativism, on the other hand, sees the justification of moral principles as dependent on circumstances and not objective.
This is the relativism I am concerned about. Frank Furedi sums it up in Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? as “the perspective that contends that conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute but are relative to the persons or groups holding them”. It is present in the non-judgementalism of such familiar comments as: “Well, that’s just your point of view, isn’t it?” “Of course he would say that, coming from his background.” “Now I know where you’re coming from.” “Of course it’s only my opinion.”
Such comments do not have to reflect status relativism, but they can easily discourage serious focusing on the content of views expressed. Similarly, relativism lurks behind the enormous fear of any kind of moralising which is a marked feature of our society. The possibility of objective grounds and reasoned argument in favour of certain values and behaviour tends to have retreated. Many parents are reluctant to direct their children on values issues for fear of treading on their autonomy, or offending their human rights to self-choice, as though there is no more to values than just preference.
Another area in which relativism has acquired a commanding influence is the arts. There is now the almost mandatory requirement imposed politically and socially to be non-judgemental. Thus the charge of elitism, on the grounds that all music is equal, is regularly targeted at those who consider that classical music is more worthwhile teaching in schools than popular music.
Furedi gives a powerful and disturbing analysis of how this kind of thinking has affected the academy itself. He sees evidence of this in the way that our educational and cultural institutions have so easily fallen prey to populist instrumentalist policies. He thinks that this has happened because the governing elite have become uncertain of what they value. Preaching non-judgementalism enables them not to have to articulate their own deep disorientation. “The anti-elitism of the cultural elite… reflects genuine sentiments of an elite that lacks conviction about its own status and authority. When privileged white men who run American universities, or British mandarins who manage the BBC, disparage dead white males they are semi-consciously expressing their own contempt for their own personal positions.” He goes on to express the seriousness of this pervading relativism: “The growth of scepticism and cultural relativism calls into question the value of battling over ideas. When there is little at stake, debate may seem pointless.”
Relativism is therefore a dangerous enemy of liberal democracy. Its prevalence in our society today is a cause for concern. Yet philosophers, like academics as a whole, have not been able or willing to provide a stable affirming framework to help contain the dangers of ideas escaped from the background which renders them safe.
A major reason for failure to address such relativism is that many academics have themselves succumbed to a form of unintended indoctrination in the kind of education which has been dominant in the West since the Enlightenment. For in practice three particular agendas have powerfully influenced – usually below the level of conscious awareness – everyone who has been through the system. These are: the positivist agenda, the utilitarian agenda and the inclusivist agenda.
The positivist agenda refers to that development within empiricism which came to regard scientific methodology as providing the only reliable route to knowledge. As Darwin’s wife Emma asked him: “May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way and which, if true, are likely to be above our comprehension?” The rise of the specifically Positivist school of philosophy gave a name to the way in which her fears were realized. A fact/belief divide was set up whereby only what can be adequately validated in a scientific manner counts as knowledge; everything else is to be viewed with caution as pure opinion without any acceptable evidence possible for it. This attitude has inevitably marginalised areas such as the arts, morality, religion and politics.
It may be objected that positivism is no longer such a powerful force. AJ Ayer and other leading protagonists of it have long ago acknowledged its demise in the sense that its objective of arriving at totally reliable knowledge has proved illusory. Nevertheless the underlying current leading to it has been powerfully at work for almost two centuries. The University of Berlin, established in 1810 by von Humboldt specifically to make scientific method pre-eminent in all branches of learning, became the paradigm of the modern Western university. The humanities have had to become scientifically-acceptable by concentrating on data so far as possible objectively established. Subjects not amenable to such quasi-scientific handling have had a hard time in academe as well as in schools. They have either been largely abandoned or changed character – sometimes almost beyond recognition. By contrast, as Audi notes, “status relativists tend to grant that science and maths do have universally justified principles that are not relative to what prevails in a particular culture.”
The second major influence on education has been the utilitarian agenda, which focuses on the practical, and especially on what will promote the economic well-being of society. This agenda relates to the real world but in a reductionist sense. It lauds the pragmatic, as did Rorty, but tends to separate it from the life of the intellect except where using what science and technology produce.
It reinforces the positivist agenda in another way through its fondness for talk of skills, standards and assessment. Practical matters are open to fairly accurate modes of measuring, so this can join hands easily with the positivist reliance on scientific or quasi-scientific evaluation. Thus it is not surprising that assessment has become so dominant a feature of education in the West, causing the real purpose of education often to be forgotten.
The combined effect of these two agendas on education has had a powerful effect in controlling priorities in teaching – what has all along received the lion’s share in time on the curriculum, staffing, resources, quality of teacher-training, and status. Emphasis on literacy, numeracy and IT is hardly ever questioned, just as subjects like PE and vocational courses are assumed to be necessary on the curriculum. Subjects like history, music and religious education have never had similar resources or status in the state sector of education.
Especially significant is what has been heavily marginalized – the null curriculum. There has been a marked reluctance to engage with education in beliefs and values. The teaching of different subjects has focused on so-called factual recall and on skills rather than on real understanding of content, awareness of the difficulties of arriving at knowledge, and appreciation of underlying assumptions. As the twentieth century moved on this led to an increasing reluctance to pass on any values and beliefs explicitly for fear of infringing the autonomy of the individual. Students must draw up their own values-system.
On the timetable in most schools there has been little or no time to discuss crucial questions such as the purpose of education, the fundamental values necessary for civilized life, and how controversial issues in a pluralist world should be approached. The consequence has been a fairly infantile level of thinking in the population at large about such matters.
The current jargon of free speech and tolerance as being what a liberal democracy stands for is a case in point. Neither of these values can stand on their own; they are not pre-eminent if actually examined. To tolerate the intolerant is not only logically offensive but potentially suicidal if the intolerance includes a will to destroy those who disagree – as Western governments are slowly learning today. Similarly freedom of speech and expression is both existentially impossible and potentially divisive. A mere proliferation of meetings dominated by those who happen to be the most eloquent would not ensure democratic functioning. Many voices are never heard at all. Faith in free speech often in practice means some are free to express themselves at the expense of others who are marginalized and sometimes defamed. Concern for free speech and for tolerance are context-specific and dependent on other values being firmly in place, such as justice and compassion. Yet the fact/belief divide, fed by these two agendas, has kept such considerations well below the horizon for the vast majority of people.
The harm done in marginalizing rigorous thinking about beliefs and values by these two agendas has been added to by the third: the inclusivist agenda. It has roots in the Romantic tradition but has come into its own only in recent decades.
This agenda embraces the populist movement focussing on the notion that everyone has equal rights to “feel-good” self-expression regardless of intention, understanding and experience. From this stems a mandatory celebration of diversity. As cultural background and personal feelings are regarded as accounting for behaviour, there are no grounds for making value judgements. To say that something is better than something else is only expressing personal preference, or worse still trying to exercise power over others.
Post-modernism represents its intellectual component. By questioning the possibility of any notion of truth at all, it effectively allows a field-day for everyone to value and believe what they like, for there are no reasonable grounds apparently on which discussion in favour of one value or belief over another can take place.
Such an agenda comes close to explicit teaching of relativism, for inclusiveness appears to be understood to involve non-judgementalism. What has happened in music education provides a particularly clear example. Always a Cinderella subject, because it is neither objectively assessable according to the positivist agenda, nor useful according to the utilitarian agenda, it has in the last two decades become a largely practical subject providing do-it-yourself opportunity for self-expression and creativity using any genre of music whatever. To focus on encouraging students to understand and appreciate classical music is to be regarded as unacceptably elitist.
The utilitarian-minded have no difficulty in demolishing the aspiration to withhold making judgements: it is quite clear that some people learn to read faster than others, some can become surgeons and others can’t, car-driving can be assessed up to a large point. And those impressed with scientific knowledge rely on criteria for arriving at such knowledge, so they can and must make judgements. So the non-judgementalism exempts what can be judged according to criteria reflecting the first two agendas. The cry for inclusiveness deals with highly selective areas only – those which happen to be on the wrong side of the fact/belief divide as regards knowledge.
The seriousness of the situation is not in doubt. Misplaced attempts at non-judgementalism offer a field-day to those values most easily put across in propaganda. For a value-free society cannot exist. In the absence of values-judgements being explicitly made, the vacancy is filled by a variety of uninvited guests such as “you are what you possess”; “life is about pleasure”; “money is the most important consideration” and the like.
For a liberal democracy it is peculiarly important that education should be for all. But it needs to be an education free of these agendas, if there is to be any significant change. For people brought up to believe that there is no hard evidence for anything outside science, that life is a matter of skills not knowledge and understanding, and that cultural diversity must be tolerated and never critiqued, are almost programmed to lapse into relativism.
The slide towards relativism is not just a result of recent trends, whether populist or post-modernist. The prevalence of the fact/belief divide established by the other two agendas provided fertile soil in which it could grow. For linking knowledge with what is strictly objective has been an enormous and unnecessary handicap in promoting real thinking. The subjective element in knowing can be fully acknowledged alongside the legitimate and necessary search for objectivity. Awareness of limitation and the possibility of error can create a climate in which the search for truth becomes exciting and realistic as well as important. It is no longer necessary to retreat into a pragmatic utilitarianism nor embrace an anything-goes subjectivism for what lies beyond scientific investigation.
Brenda Watson is the author of numerous books and articles on philosophy and education, including The Effective Teaching of Religious Education (Longman)