Huemer's "Relativism and Tyranny"
By Bryan Caplan
The latest installment in my lost works of Michael Huemer series is his 1992 essay, “Relativism and Tyranny.” The paper begins with an infamous quote from 1984, then distinguishes nine theses moral relativists (whether self-conscious or by default) routinely equivocate between.
The following are versions of relativism:
(1) Moral values generally are established by social conventions.
(2) All cultures/value systems are equally good.
(3) Cultures/value systems cannot be compared morally.
(4) What is right is identical with what is ordained by whatever society a given agent belongs to.
All of these propositions are different, and all of them are false. The following are not versions of relativism, at least not for the purposes of my attack on relativism in this paper:
(5) It is good to be tolerant of people with differing practices and views.
(6) Different people/cultures endorse different values.
(7) People tend to value what they are taught to value.
(8) Sometimes, when faced with a choice, there may be multiple different courses of action that are equally moral.
(9) Morals cannot be resolved by some fixed algorithm but must be judged case-by-case.
All of these propositions are to some extent true, and none of them is what I am arguing about herein. This point can scarcely be overemphasized, that all of the above nine propositions are distinct, and that I am attacking the first four, not the latter five. Obstinate failure to take cognizance of this can lead to extensive arguments both irrelevant and exasperating.
The space Huemer spends linking relativism and tyranny is surprisingly brief, but his essay strongly influenced this essay I wrote a year later on “Hobbes’ Foundations for Totalitarianism.” Me:
Moral relativism also tends to support a total state. Only if
some things are objectively right or wrong is it possible to
rationally critique the existing order. If moral relativism is true,
then it isn’t wrong for the state to coerce or even kill individuals;
for the doctrine of individual rights is a moral theory, and if moral
relativism is right, then all moral theories are false or nonsense.
Overall, since most of the things that total governments do
intuitively seem immoral, a would-be total ruler must undermine
morality in order to quell protest against his policies.
If you know Huemer’s mature writings well, much of “Relativism and Tyranny” will be familiar territory. But if you know Huemer’s mature writings well, you’ll also know everything he writes has great epistemic value-added. Enjoy.