Closed-Minded Relativism: That Most Pernicious of Absolutisms

I take it that to most people the above title seems simply outrageous. It is normally assumed that it is the relativist who is open-minded, and the absolutist closed-minded. But as Alan Bloom has argued in his brilliant critique of American education, The Closing of the American Mind, nothing could be further from the truth. Relativism and an open mind are placed together because relativism entails that your view is no better than anyone else's, and so other views will be worth listening to. But of course relativism also entails that other peoples views are no better than my own. If this is so, then there really is no reason at all to listen to other people's views. Were relativism true, then my view couldn't possibly become any better by incorporating other people's ideas into my own way of thinking. If my view could be so improved this would imply that there was a standard, independent of my view, which measured this improvement. But the existence of such a standard would imply the existence of an absolute, which is just what the relativist wants to deny.


Chesterton compared an open mind to an open mouth. The point of both, he said, was to close upon something solid. To be open-minded does not mean to think one can never come to conclusions with any degree of certainty. Indeed the point of open-mindedness is to be able to rationally assess different views and then be able to make a informed choice between them. Such a choice will always imply that the chosen view is (thought to be) preferable to its alternatives. It should be noted that even the relativist cannot avoid such choices, he has, after all, chosen against absolutism. It follows, therefore, that the relativist should think either that his relativism is held without good reason or that some positions can be rationally preferable to others. If he adopts the former he has no rational grounds to criticise any who disagree with him, but if he adopts the later he has, in effect, abandoned his relativism.


The relativist's position is one of numerous paradoxes. Many cling to this position for fear of telling others that they are in the wrong. How can those in one culture, they argue, criticise the views of another culture? How can we say that we are right, and they are wrong? But the obvious truth is that very few cultures have held to relativism, and by embracing it ourselves we still end up telling others they are wrong in their absolutism. The relativist doesn't think that relativism is only true 'for him', or for those in his culture. He thinks it is true for everyone. In other words, if relativism is really true, it is absolutely true. But if anything is absolutely true, not merely true 'for me' or true for a particular culture, then relativism is false!


There are many other problems aside from these purely logical ones. As already noted relativism implies that improvement is impossible. The inevitable result is that all moral reform is either wrong or pointless. Furthermore, inter-cultural comparisons become impossible. Nazi Germany comes out as no worse than any other culture.


With such horrendous moral and intellectual consequences, the unavoidable conclusion then, is that relativism, in its absolute denial of absolutes, is by far the most pernicious form of absolutism.