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It’s Time for Conservatives to Stop Whining About Relativism! (And Take on the Experts!)

So says an outstanding young conservative public intellectual—Helen Rittelmeyer.

It’s true enough that conservatives still do accuse the Democrats—or, more precisely, the liberals—of being moral relativists.  Rittelmeyer quotes Paul Ryan saying that the big problem of our time is moral relativism.  Our philosopher-pope, Benedict XVI, gave what was, in effect, his campaign speech for the papacy on “the dictatorship of relativism.”  That memorably ironic title really caught on with conservative American Catholics, including Ryan.

Our evangelical thinkers, who are often much more savvy and deep than most BIG THINK readers would imagine, typically contrast secular relativism with the absolute truth of the Bible.  When it comes to morality, they sometimes preach, it’s either revelation or nothing.

Even Ayn Rand, who’s at least a bit back in fashion, contrasts the subjectivist relativism of wimpy welfare-state parasites (including emo Christians, socialists, liberals, and most of the rest of us sniveling herd animals) with the objective truth of her objectivist philosophy of rational selfishness.

For Rittelmeyer, the authoritative expression of conservative hostility to relativism was the unlikely bestseller by Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind.  American conservatives have, in fact, been “sampling” shamelessly from this book for the last twenty-five years.  To begin with the obvious, David Brooks’ moderately conservative “pop sociology” books are pretty much Bloom dumbed down with lots better examples.  Brooks’ most recent neuroscience book was an attempt to break out of the Bloom box, but another time I’ll explain why he didn’t seem to succeed fully.

According to Rittelmeyer, the era of relativism Bloom described and criticized is over because liberals have embraced the moral authority of science.  They have nothing to do with the Biblical morality of “God says.”  To the extent that they remain “spiritual,” it’s in rebellion against the authority of institutional religion.  But liberals also disdain the “I feel” of the subjectivist.  To go with feelings would be stupidly mindless relativism.

So, as Rittelmeyer rightly notices, today’s cutting-edge liberals are over self-esteem movements and all that.  What’s important is not whether your kid feels good about himself  or herself but whether he or she really knows stuff.  Our sophisticated liberals want their kids to flourish as productive members of society, and that means acquiring real skills and being astute about the forces that really rule the world.

To the extent that relativism means “if it feels good, do it,” it is at least partly out of fashion.  The most recent studies show that somewhat traditional morality is returning to the lives of rich and sophisticated Americans, even as it’s disappearing from the lives of more ordinary Americans.

Liberals also have a hard time distinguishing between “I feel” and “I think.”  In either case, they think, I’m trying to impose my personal authority on others.  I have no right to do that.

So the liberal authority is “studies show” (as Walker Percy noted a couple of generation ago and Alexis de Tocqueville suggested around 1840).  What the studies show isn’t personal.  Science, as I read recently on BIG THINK, isn’t personal.  The objective truth of science trumps what any particular person might think or feel.  When I go with the “studies,” I’m subordinating personal authority—which should always be suspect—to scientific authority, which comes from no one in particular.

So liberals are constantly writing books that say that conservatives and Republicans and such are waging war on science.  It’s the conservatives who are the relativists!  They reject objective truth with their personal, arbitrary whims.  They attempt to “relativize” science by trumping it with whatever some preacher “feels” God says.

Intelligent liberals have begun to lump the evangelicals with the Sixties “postmodernists,” with everyone who says that scientific authority is just another “worldview” or instrument of domination or arbitrary “paradigm.”   The real alternatives are science and truth-denying relativism.

Relativism, Rittelmeyer claims, has been replaced by the view that “there are no moral controversies, only empirical ones.”  If you know the facts, then you should know what to do.  Knowledge, as Socrates sort of said, is virtue.  Liberals, such as most BIG THINK authors, are animated more than ever by that “technocratic optimism.” 

Self-help experts, such as Malcolm Gladwell, are more in fashion than ever.  And the best-seller by Bloom was displaced by “the Freakanomicsguys”—who say that the self-interested activity measured by the empirical science of economics can resolve all the mysteries of life and so enlighten us on what we’re supposed to do in each and every situation.  Even studies about “empathy”—an allegedly selfless or altruistic quality—are all about how to make empathy work for ME. 

Such scientific authority is the basis of a NEW JUDGMENTALISM.  We can say with greater authority than ever that most people live stupidly because they’re not facing up to the facts.

That new judgmentalism produces more intrusive public policy.  We can use what we’ve learned from the science of economics to nudge people toward living more truthfully.  We can encourage them away from being able to buy those big sodas, smoke those cigarettes, engage in unsafe sex, and not buy health insurance.  We know better than ever, after all, what ways of living—what human choices—are most likely to produce bad outcomes.

Some libertarians object that the new judgmentalism is really a new paternalism.  The sophisticated elite are telling most people how to live.  But the scientific reply is that it’s nothing personal.  It’s in the self-interest of us all to defer to what we know through science. 

The recalcitrant might respond that it’s none of your damn business how I choose to spend my days—even if that means I have fewer days.  But studies show the issue isn’t that simple.  I, the liberal counters, will end up having to pay for your irresponsibility, and you have no right to make me do that.  I’m nudging you, in fact, because I don’t particularly care about you.  Please don’t confuse my expertise with the personal touch of charity.

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Relativism has been, as Rittelmeyer observes, been replaced by a kind of utilitarianism.  The true morality is using what I know through science for my benefit.  My benefit, of course, is my health, wealth, safety, and comfort.  It’s also my happiness—my happiness as defined by me.  The science of happiness, to the extent that it’s objective or based on statistical studies, can’t really get beyond self-reporting.  It goes without saying that it couldn’t be the case, from the expert view, that my happiness might get in way of my being healthy, wealthy, safe, and comfortable. 

There’s a lot true and fascinating—along with some exaggeration—in this line of analysis. 

My main objection to Rittelmeyer’s analysis is that she doesn’t seem to realize it’s all already in Bloom’s book.  It’s the tendency of the young—everywhere and at all times—to “reinvent the wheel.”  It’s the same with young conservatives, of course.

I’ll talk about what Bloom really says next time.

But to make an obvious point:  It’s relativism about “the soul” that makes possible this scientific and utilitarian obsession with “the body.”

One more obvious point:  From even a scientific point of view, the so-called Republican war against science makes a lot of sense.  Our complacent experts with their studies show and know a lot less than they think they do.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t respect and listen to what they really do know.  Science is nothing more or less than the knowledge of the way things really are.


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