It’s all relative

I am writing in response to Mr. Houghtby’s letter of Nov. 1, which argued relativism is entirely consonant with, and perhaps necessary to, the “spirit of education.” Mr. Houghtby asserts that not only does relativism allow for and ensure the possibility and dissemination of the “pollution of religious dogmatism.” Mr. Houghtby continues that all moral systems and standards are nothing more than “historical developments and human creations” with no claim to truth whatsoever. Unfortunately, Mr. Houghtby’s defense of relativism and bow towards historicism is opposed to the idea of liberal education.

Relativism posits the equality of all moral and ethical “values”; that is, before the tribunal of reason all moral systems and standards exist on an equal footing regarding their goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness. Morality and values are thus relegated to the realm of opinion. Who can contend, after all, that the principles of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount are sounder, more defensible, and more instructive of the way humans should live than the idiotic grunts and snorts of Beavis and Butthead?

The notion that values are not discoverable by reason follows that it is quite pointless to seek the truth or the good life for human beings. In this way relativism dogmatically denies the end or purpose of true liberal education—the discovery of those principles of human conduct required to live a good life. True liberal education asks and peruses questions which have always disturbed the human heart: what is humankind? what is the meaning and purpose of human life? what exists after death? To the relativist, such questions are essentially meaningless since they do not admit of rational inquiry.

It is ironic that relativism is just as much of a threat to reason, philosophy, and liberal education as unthinking absolutism. The absolutist holds that since one already possesses the truth, pursuit of wisdom is wholly unnecessary: the relativist is of the opinion that since there is no truth regarding the most important things, the quest for answers is pointless.

The great poverty of relativism is sad. Since, as Mr. Houghtby points out, for the relativist no standard or end exists for human life other than perhaps “our need to eat, drink, and procreate” (although, here again the consistent relativist can not rationally argue that even these most basic needs of humans should be respected or given stature over and above other values, such as wanton rape and pillage), our highest pursuits and potentialities are shamefully overlooked and neglected. At one time liberal education aimed at nothing less than truth, virtue, and the good; today, it seems, it can aim no highest than the discovery of more efficient means to eat, drink, and procreate.

Mark Halverson-Wente

Doctoral Student

Political Science