What is the relationship between cultural relativism and moral relativism? In trying to answer this question, we find some remarkable issues converging. If we ignore these convergences, we will miss opportunities to improve upon the moral tenor of our personal lives and the moral character of our society at the same time.
Allan Bloom opens The Closing of the American Mind (1987) with the observation that “one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of [is that] almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” This assertion by Bloom is not made off the top of the professor’s head. It is born of practical experience, that is, decades spent in the classroom engaging students about the meaning and nature of truth. Acknowledging that students differ widely among themselves with respect to religion, political affiliation, and a whole host of other characteristics, Bloom finds them “unified only in their relativism.” He concedes further that “they have all been equipped with this framework [i.e., relativism] early on.”
Bloom states that relativism “destroys one’s own good and the common good.” Let’s start with destroying one’s own good. This is quite a statement for Bloom to make considering that relativity is a routine feature of life. Relativity permits us to talk about how one thing is in relation to another thing. Relativity, then, relates to relationships, and what’s wrong with that? Well, to say that one place is near or far from another is not just practical but necessary if we are going to read a map properly. Reading a map, though, is different from abiding in love, honor, and respect. We call these things—love, honor, and respect—human goods because we strive to attain them, and once we attain them, we endeavor to hold on to them. It is by attaining human goods and holding on to them that we ourselves become good.
What happens, though, when we choose against love, against honor, and against respect? It is not only that we have chosen wrongly or badly, it is also that we are personally less lovable, less honorable, and less respectable in ourselves. Our stature is diminished through the choices we make. That Bloom can say we are “destroyed” is owing to the realization that we have chosen a lesser good over a higher good, a relative good as opposed to an absolute good. Our choosing has thus failed to take into account the truth of things, the objective truth of things.
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