The dangers of relativism, of not being able to criticize anyone or anything because all of our beliefs are equal

[ I’ve been criticized for attacking right-wing Republicans, fundamentalist Christians, astrology, medicinal quackery, and so on.  This is dangerous nonsense. It means I can’t criticize Hitler, because after all, he was a product of his times.  I can’t tell my friends who smoke or shoot up heroin to stop because they are killing themselves and ruining the lives of those who love them. I can’t criticize herbal supplements that have never been tested for efficacy or potential harms.  Or be upset that Republicans  and fundamentalist Christians want to dismantle the social safety net and replace it with corporate welfare and the Constitution with Biblical Law and end the separation of church and state.  Or object to fundamentalists who want to take my right to control my own body and fate by denying me birth control and abortion.

The whole idea of being nicey-nice and not hurting anyone’s feelings has gotten us into a huge irrational mess. Relativism is the same thing as the darkness of superstition and ultimately leads to facism, demagogues, oppression of women, extremely unfair distribution of wealth — there are consequences to relativism. Because after all, you can’t fight against racists and fascists, you might hurt their feelings.

Relativism means that science is no more correct than astrology. Really? Science measures, tests, improves our understanding of how the universe works, it is a method that constantly modifies what we know, not a fixed religion where every word written 3,000 years ago is true.  If the findings of science contradict what an astrologer or evangelical would prefer to believe, the answer is not to attack science, but to become scientifically literate.  Which is of course, very unlikely, but Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine and author of many books on morality and critical thinking, made the journey from fundamentalist beliefs to science, and has since then dedicated his life to trying to get others to see the light. Carl Sagan called science a “candle in the dark”.  Relativism seeks to snuff the candle out.

How can understanding how the universe works not be better than the constant terror of a vengeful irrational God, or random stars chosen to depict Virgo by a few Greeks thousands of years ago that are capable of sending malice and changing the fates and personalities of 1 in 12 people?

If you still don’t think so, read my recent book reviews of the fabulous book “Fantasyland” which I broke down into 9 posts, with many more dangers of relativism.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ] (shortened and paraphrased):

If ethical relativism is correct, it would mean that even the most outrageous practices, such as slavery and the physical abuse of women, are “right” if they are permitted by a society. Relativism therefore deprives us of any means of raising moral objections against horrendous social customs as long as those customs are approved by the societies in which they exist.

But shouldn’t we be tolerant of other cultures?

Critics reply that it depends on what sort of social differences are at issue. Tolerance may seem like a good policy where benign differences between cultures are concerned, but it does not seem so when, for example, a society engages in officially approved genocide, even within its own borders. It is a mistake to think that relativism implies that we should be tolerant, because tolerance is simply another value about which people or societies may disagree. Only an absolutist could say that tolerance is objectively good.

Moreover, we sometimes want to criticize our own society’s values, and ethical relativism deprives us of the means of doing so.

If ethical relativism is correct, we could not make sense of reforming or improving our own society’s morals, for there would be no standard against which our society’s existing practices could be judged deficient. Abandoning slavery, for example, would not be moral progress; it would only be replacing one set of standards with another.

Critics also point out that disagreement about ethics does not mean that there can be no objective truth. After all, people disagree even about scientific matters. Some people believe that disease is caused by evil spirits, while others believe it is caused by microbes, but we do not therefore conclude that disease has no “real” cause. The same might be true of ethics—disagreement might only mean that some people are more enlightened than others.

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5 Responses to The dangers of relativism, of not being able to criticize anyone or anything because all of our beliefs are equal

  1. JT Roberts says:

    Hi Alice

    I’ve been trying to figure out where your headed with your blogs. At one time I thought it was about energy but now it seems it’s ideology. I certainly hope we haven’t confused the two. That happens to be precisely what Hitler did as do all politicians.

    For most people truth itself is relative. This is nothing new. The Aztecs truly believed that tearing people’s hearts from their chests made the sun shine. People today might believe that Christian Fundamentalists are the cause of systemic decline.

    Once our minds switch from objective to subjective thoughts we are staring into the abyss of our future existence. Reading 200 books a year is quite an accomplishment but if it’s product is cognitive dissonance what has it really accomplished. For that matter could we even remember the titles we’ve read in the last five years.

    As you express science is absolute. But most people avoid the hardest questions. For example why does the earth have ores? It shouldn’t. All other planets discovered don’t. It actually defies the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Another question. Why does the earth have 21% free oxygen in its atmosphere? All other planets oxygen has reacted and is fixed. And don’t say plant life. The numbers don’t add up. And another. Why isn’t all reproduction A-sexual? Does a division in gender create an evolutionary advantage? Really? Then explain why A-sexual reproduction still exists.

    If we would like to tackle dark matter and energy and the first cause we could go on for hours because science can’t answer those questions can it?

    Ultimately in real terms humans have progressed very little. Once we worshipped the sun. Now we worship ourselves. Funny isn’t it. 1000 years from now the sun will still be here.

    • energyskeptic says:

      Where am I headed? who knows, it’s my blog, and Republicans are strongly against science and evidence based thinking because of how they’re wired and their immense greed (, Christians are a threat to the Preservation of Knowledge and my rights as a woman and the tendency of any extremist group to kill off intellectuals, the educated, and those not in their group in a severe downturn, which appears to lie ahead… I don’t know what you mean by science being absolute. It’s just a method to try to understand how stuff works, subject to constant revision. There are plenty of questions that will never be answerable, and peak everything will pretty much stop most if not all scientific research until the next Renaissance, at which time the net energy will be permanently lower and many experiments impossible that can be done today.

  2. david higham says:

    Alice,if you haven’t read it,put ‘Fashionable Nonsense’ by Sokal and Bricmont high on your reading list. Astonishing and hilarious.

  3. Reed Kinney says:

    Dear Alice Friedemann,

    Recently, I listened to your interview with Derrick Jensen on Jensen’s Resistance Radio dated August 6, 2017.

    I would like to send you a letter of introduction referent to the book I recently completed that you might be interested to know more about. I would like to send you an electronic copy.

    It has required over a decade to complete the book, Decentralized Civilization, Prelude to the Subsequent Civilization – Revised, which I only now registered with the U. S. Copyright Office, July 2018. I was fortunate to have had the support of kind critics over the course of its writing.

    Decentralized Civilization, Prelude to the Subsequent Civilization – Revised, demonstrates how people by their concerted effort can emancipate themselves from the private powers concentrated beyond their control. And, it establishes a societal means for at least mitigating the unraveling of our planet’s life support systems.

    Decentralized Civilization, Prelude to the Subsequent Civilization – Revised, is among the methods we need to actualize for fighting for our survival as a humane species.

    A little about myself; I graduated from Kenyon College and from Sul Ross State University. I am not a scholar, but my manner of writing is good enough to convey the philosophy of independence, as well as the civil, civic, and civic-economic organization of sovereign communities, and the civil, civic, and civic-economic organization of constitutionally confederated sovereign communities. The content area is more than I have room for in this letter.

    Would you be kind enough to refer me to an e-mail address to establish contact?

    If you would be so kind, please contact me at:

    Alice Friedemann, thank you so much for your good work!

    You be well.

    Sincerely yours, Reed C. Kinney

    • energyskeptic says:

      Reed, I have about 200 books in my kindle, and dozens of articles I want to write, so sorry to say I don’t have the time to look at your book, but good luck with it after its publication.