Conservative activist James O'Keefe laments that college students are "drowned in relativism." This is a fairly common criticism of academia, but it is not exactly precise. It is fair to say that American universities are generally socially liberal and that many students and professors value tolerance and respect. This does not entail that these people are moral relativists, or that they believe that any behavior is acceptable.
As is apparently rarely discussed, it is impossible to be a moral relativist. Consider what this would mean in practice. In the words of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a moral relativist would believe that "the truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons." However, a moral relativist would also presumably have her own beliefs regarding the truth of some moral judgments. She must try to combine her own beliefs with the idea that their truth or falsity is not absolute. As philosopher Thomas Nagel notes, she then arrives at a statement like, "It is true that I believe that p; but that is just a psychological fact about me; about the truth of p itself I remain uncommitted." Presumably if someone makes this statement, we say that she has to make a choice. Either she believes p and is committed to the truth of p, or she does not believe p.
People try to have it both ways out of a concern for political correctness or respect, as I discovered in a gender studies classroom at Brandeis University. We had just discussed how it was very important to be respectful of the views of our fellow classmates, and we extended this idea and talked about how we ought to attempt to develop an understanding of cultural practices within their own contexts. No one mentioned that it is impossible to be a completely objective observer because it is impossible to get outside of one's own culture and beliefs.
We started having problems in the class when I referred to the removal of all or part of the female genitals for reasons unrelated to health as "female genital mutilation." Another student commented that since the practice was acceptable to some people in some areas of the world, I ought to instead refer to it as "female circumcision" to be respectful of those people who practice it. The rest of the class and the professor agreed with her.
Regardless of which side of the circumcision/genital mutilation debate you are on, I hope you can see my predicament. I had a belief. I was being told that it was disrespectful for me to have an opinion and that I ought to subordinate it. Now, I am fairly certain that most of the class disapproved of female genital mutilation when not engaged in a discussion in the classroom. Even in the classroom, they expressed outrage after watching a video containing first-person accounts of female genital mutilation. Their misguided attempt at respect left them in a conflict that they failed to identify as they stated that they were completely open-minded and accepting of "female circumcision" yet disapproved of the practice.
I would like to say that I stood up and delivered an "I Have a Belief" speech: I have the belief that female genital mutilation is wrong, so I am not going to use the neutral term "cutting" or the tacitly approving term "circumcision." I hope that I can balance my belief with compassion for people who practice female genital mutilation and refrain from violent paternalistic proselytizing, but the fact is, I have a moral belief and I would lack integrity if I tried to pretend otherwise. Instead of delivering this speech, I blushed and mumbled what amounted to an apology for my belief.
That was regrettable. My class eschewed intelligible statements about the value of tolerance and respect for a nonsensical objective relativist perspective. Although they attempted ideological self-immolation because of a misunderstanding about how it is possible to go about respecting other people, they could not succeed at drowning themselves in relativism. We all have beliefs, and we do ourselves and others a disservice when we try to deny this. My gender studies professor can present the strengths of different views and let the class weigh the merits of each of them, but she cannot even implicitly claim that she does not subscribe to one particular view. "Tolerance" and "respect" are wonderful words when we interpret them as involving finding common ground where it exists and identifying and understanding the places where it does not. They are useless when we interpret them as requiring an attempt at denying our own beliefs.
Emily Breslin '10 is a philosophy concentrator from Harvard, Mass. She can be contacted at emily_breslin-at-brown.edu.