Universalism versus Relativism

Yawn. I disagree with Tim Worstall that The Observer is being particularly interesting when Andrew Anthony asks: Are You a Universalist or a Relatvist?.

I know Anthony’s article is tongue-in-cheek, but it betrays a sneering attitude to the relativists which I find unhelpful, and certainly not in the true spirit of objectivity that the ‘universalist’ would presumably claim as a defining trait.

When someone says that things are “relative”, many people hear “we should not question”. But that is a crude form of (if you like) ‘fundamentalist’ relativism. I have no wish to defend this position, but in suggesting that these people have the exclusive preserve of the whole ‘relavitist’ side of the political divide Andrew Anthony is just plain wrong (on that point, I guess I must be a universalist). Much larger is the group of people who think that while some practices do fall into the ‘universalist’ morality (i.e. we cannot countenance that they could be right for anyone) there surely exists a whole slice of moral or political decision making for which different answers may be different for different people. This is especially true of religious faith, where different people find different medicines for the soul effective… and the political effect can be positive too. Simply asking “that is right for you, but is it right for them” does not automatically entail an endorsement of clitoridectomy (unless of course, you are specifically asking about clitoridectomy itself). Part of being a relativist is that one must choose to ask the question about specific cases an political decisions, not a blanket “everything is relative, nothing can be condemned” approach.

I recall the old adage:

There are two types of people in the world: Those who constantly divide the world up into two types of people; and those who do not

Or its more amusing and pithier equivalent:

there are 10 types of people in the world: Those who understand binary; and those who do not

Anthony’s article is thinly veiled attack on fundamentalist Islam, with no new insight, repeating Simon Schama’s analysis from a few years back, but with a tenfold word count:

Put another way, the fight is between power based o revelation (and thus not open to argument), and power based o persuasion, and thus conditional on argument; militant theocracy against the tolerant Enlightenment

In taking Anthony’s little test (of the “Mostly A; Mostly B; or Mostly C” type) we unfortunately find the questions so loaded that everyone falls into the ‘universalist’ camp. Its a biased premise with a truism for a conclusion, which then allows him to declare the victory for ‘universalism’ over wooly thinking. In fact, he is simply declaring that there is a black-white, binary political argument to be had. The relativist denies this, and it is this stance that separates them from the universalists, not support for fundamentalist Islam.

From Tim Worstall’s commentary on the same article:

Public choice theory shows that the people who make such decisions are not [omniscient]. They are human beings, with all of the faults and foibles that encompasses, and they act out of rational self-interest, just as everyone else does.

What might be right for one person might not be right for another. People know how to allocate their resources far better than the State ever could.

That’s all relativism, isn’t it?

2 thoughts on “Universalism versus Relativism”

  1. The problem with ascribing political/moral consequences to relativism is that it’s, well, relative. One can go down the “everyone’s view is equally valid, therefore I cannot criticise” route, or alternatively, you can end up at “there’s no objective backing to any one position, it all comes down to who shouts the loudest, I will therefore endeavour to shout the loudest for my own positions”.

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