Donald Trump and the Death of Freshman Relativism

01/18/2017 05:26 pm ET

Inauguration Day has arrived. But many Americans are still reeling from the election itself. The anti-Trump protest movement continues apace. Calls for impeachment have already begun. On college campuses, students are dismayed that the newly elected leader of the free world has bragged about groping women, has promised to deport vulnerable refugees, and has harbored racist attitudes. They express rage, fear, and confusion while their professors fumble over what to say next.

I’m one of those professors, and I’m wondering: can my students make sense of their moral indignation? If so, how?

To focus our thinking, let’s set aside speculation about what led to Trump’s election, about his supporters’ reasons for electing him, and about whether these voters are racist or sexist or otherwise vicious. Let’s concentrate solely on those grieving students and their views of Trump himself. How can such students understand their moral outrage toward the President-elect?

Freshman Relativism

To answer the question, we must rewind the tape, not to Tuesday November 8, but further back – to the first week of Fall Semester. If my Facebook feed is any indication, just days into the new term, lots of my academic friends were awash in a sea of students claiming that there’s no objective truth – no truth that’s independent of what we think. Rather, all truth is socially constructed. It depends on what we think, where “we” refers to a given culture. Believing a claim makes it true, provided enough of us believe.

Some such view strikes many students as obvious. Maybe they’ve been trained to believe it from their earliest years. Or maybe they think that tolerance – an important moral value for any pluralistic society – entails that truth is relative. (It doesn’t. Appeals to objective truth are compatible with tolerance, so long as we sprinkle in a dose of humility and a dash of empathy.) Or perhaps students think that most of their professors are relativists, so they adopt the view in order to appear educated. (Such students may be surprised to learn that, at least among philosophers, relativism is a minority view. See here and here.)

Whatever the cause, this sort of relativism has a longstanding presence in the academy. 30 years ago, in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom wrote, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” At the time, one could’ve been forgiven for dismissing such remarks as hyperbolic – a bit of curmudgeonly hand-wringing. But by now the view Bloom lamented is common enough that professors from across the political spectrum have given it a name: “freshman relativism.”

Troubles for the View

Freshman relativism is fraught with problems. For starters, it’s self-defeating. The claim that all truth is relative is either objectively true or only relatively true. If the former, then the view is false – for then there’s at least one objective truth. If the latter, then the view is easy to dismiss (it’s not true relative to my culture).

Freshman relativism also makes truth too easy. Suppose that truth depends on what we believe. If that’s right, then all concerned citizens need do is believe that Trump wasn’t elected, and it will be true that he wasn’t elected. But this thought is unsustainable.

Faced with these troubles for freshman relativism applied to all truth, some students backtrack. They admit that there’s “real” truth in science and matters of common sense. But not in morality. There, they say, truth is relative.

This is only a mild improvement. For if moral truth is relative to culture – if it depends on what a given culture believes – then moral reformers like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. acted wrongly in opposing the policies their societies endorsed. That’s a hard pill to swallow.

When some students remain unconvinced, the professor must bring in the heavy artillery: hard cases that give the freshman relativist a bullet to chew. If freshman relativism is the right account of morality, then there’s no satisfactory way to condemn slavery, or the Nazis, or any other horror a culture endorses. There’s no possibility that a cultural consensus could make a moral mistake. Perhaps a few students are moved by this objection. But even at this point, it’s hard to get anyone to say that what the Nazis did was wrong, independent of what anyone thinks.

The Weight of Moral Outrage

Back to the present. Many of the same students who blithely endorsed relativism in September are now beside themselves. They chafe at the thought of an openly sexist, racist, one-percenter occupying the White House. They are indignant that the man who just won the world’s most important job has all but promised to force soldiers to commit war crimes, to hasten the destruction of the environment, and to resume nuclear escalation.

The students are right to be morally aghast. But their moral outrage gives the lie to their relativism, which crumbles under the weight of what they know to be true. They know – they don’t merely believe – that Trump’s attitudes and actions are abhorrent. They know that if some society disagrees about this, then that society is just wrong. Nowhere in any of the anti-Trump rhetoric, in any protest, in any class discussion, will any student say that Trump’s actions and attitudes are wrong only relative to some culture. Imagine students found out tomorrow that a lot of ballots had been miscounted, and that Trump had won the popular vote. Suppose they even found out – contrary to fact – that most Americans support Trump’s horrific policies. If they were consistent relativists, the students would then have to change their views. They’d have to see Trump as on the side of truth and morality. But they wouldn’t do this. They’d continue in their protests. Because, for all their confusion about other moral issues, they know that Trump is in the wrong, regardless of what anyone says. This knowledge undermines the students’ view that morality is relative.

If students are to make sense of their moral outrage, something has to go. I nominate freshman relativism. I say this not as a disgruntled professor trying to score points against students caught in a contradiction. This is not a “gotcha” moment. It is an intellectual emergency. Today’s freshmen are the future leaders of our nation. Our republic will increasingly depend on their commitment to thinking well, and on their willingness to fight injustice. Freshman relativism is nothing but a hindrance to these goods. It rots the moral resolve of those within its grip. Those who regard their central moral beliefs as mere opinions, as only “true for them,” will soon find those commitments weakened. Their activism won’t be far to follow. If they are to sustain the battle against injustice, students must learn something that Gandhi and King knew very well: we can’t speak truth to power without truth.

Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue, Wikimedia Commons

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