The ways of the young are the ways of the future. That is why Roberto Foa, my thesis supervisor of last year, is worried about the prospects for liberal democracy. He and Yascha Mounk, author of The People vs. Democracy have argued that young people in the west are losing faith in their system of government. And their argument has been increasingly vindicated by the current state of affairs.
Populism is now the talk of the town. Rising distrust in public institutions, voter apathy and support for authoritarian alternatives to liberal democracy are not just abstract statistics, but felt realities. A new culture war wages on our university campuses, and students are increasingly drawn to the political extremes, driven apart by their common disdain for the liberal establishment. As a student myself, I can attest to the truth Foa and Mounk fear. Many people my age have no special regard for liberal democracy. They not only believe that it is not necessarily the best system of government, but that there is no foundation for the claim that any one system of government is better than another.
This is a relativist assertion that one thing can’t really be better than another. In this view, if we believe in the rule of law, democratic institutions and freedom of speech, it is only because we have grown up in a culture habituated to these principles. A different culture in a different moral environment would believe in different principles, and we can’t say that theirs are wrong or inferior, because we don’t share their background. Right and wrong, good and evil, truth and untruth are simply matters of perspective.
Relativists hold that their worldview is the most tolerant, the most untainted by prejudice. But this specific type of tolerance renders them powerless against the intolerant. They cannot defend their own viewpoint for the same reason that they cannot criticise others. Relativism therefore erodes people’s moral attachment to their community and political regime, hence encouraging loss of deconsolidation and disenchantment.
But it is also dangerous for another reason. To students who encounter relativism early, it is a way of thinking that precludes all others. Relativists must regard all non-relativist thought—including religious revelation, eastern philosophy and the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence—as merely the expressions of a local consensus, which mistakenly claim universal validity. They cannot understand these perspectives at all. They cannot see them as they were meant to be seen, or appreciate them from the inside.
This has an ironic result, as Allan Bloom pointed out three decades ago: in its obsession with being open to all cultures and eras, relativism closes itself off to the actual views of many of those cultures and eras. It is not only a socially corrosive doctrine but an incoherent one: liable to cast an illusion of enlightenment over the young and impressionable, while inhibiting their critical thinking.
Historicism and History
According to political philosopher Leo Strauss, historicism is the root of relativism and is based on the rejection of the idea of the natural right. Its basic contention is that there can be no unchanging, universally valid and demonstrable notion of what is right or just (no natural right), since history shows that all principles of right and justice are contingent on a particular time and place. As our social environment changes, so does our notion of right. Therefore there is no right as such.
The inadequacy of this contention is immediately evident, for it is not true that every culture needs to adopt the same precepts for natural right to exist. Natural right is by definition a right that is discovered through the cultivation of reason. It is folly, then, to expect that all cultures have cultivated reason to the degree necessary for natural right to receive widespread affirmation. Essentially, what we might call empirical historicism conflates the potential with the actual. It is a requirement of natural right that it be discoverable to all individuals upon appropriate reflection and deliberation. But it is not a requirement that it actually be settled in all cultures everywhere.
The only respectable kind of historicism is philosophical, rather than empirical. But it is still surprising how widely such an equivocal stance is uncritically received among humanities students. Philosophical historicism draws on the historical phenomenon that views cherished in one generation are often despised in the next to conclude that human knowledge is limited to its historical horizon. Philosophers like Nietzsche and Hegel believe that the truth may be a whole, but that each historical epoch reveals only a part of that whole. A picture of the whole cannot be derived from knowledge of a mere part—and, in history’s case, all the parts are separated by the unbridgeable gulf of lived experience.
Just as the ancient Greeks, in all their wisdom, could not have conceived of an institution like the United Nations, all knowledge is in a sense awaiting its historical moment. We cannot know anything in advance of our time because our time presents the sum total of everything we can know. Philosophical historicism thus turns the empirical observation that there have been no universally accepted, trans-historical value systems into the epistemological claim that there can be none. No one era’s knowledge of society is better than another’s, because both are partial. No human insight into human affairs can transcend its historical context.
But what about the historicist contention itself? Is it not merely a product of its own historical context, an insight to be supplanted once its temporal lease ends? This is the unavoidable and perhaps fatal problem with philosophical historicism, for, in order to exempt themselves from the consequences of their own theory, and to grant their own claim the universal, trans-historical validity it denies all others, historicists argue in the spirit of Hegel that their relativist philosophy is the mark of a moment beyond history—indeed, at the end of history. This is a privileged peak from which all of history can be surveyed and its secret divined, that secret being the historicist thesis. If subsequent societies reject its authority, it will just mean that history has once again concealed the truth from them.
The Return to Natural Right
I find this Hegelian defence unconvincing because, first of all, it is a tautology. The fact that we live in a special time is taken to justify the historicist thesis, while acceptance of the historicist thesis is taken as evidence that we live in a special time. The same defence could be used by any doctrine from any time period to absolve itself. Besides, the empirical data from which philosophical historicism builds its argument can be interpreted differently. Instead of seeing the variety of clashing beliefs found throughout history as evidence that humanity’s knowledge of itself is limited to a time and place, the same diversity and incompatibility could be taken as a sign that mankind is unified in its aspiration towards natural right.
Strauss observes that, across time, societies have always distinguished between the particular and the universal. In matters recognized as trivial—such as what one eats or what clothes one wears—groups tolerate differences between them. Their preferences are not taken to contradict one another. But when it comes to differences on sacred matters—such as justice, who rules over whom and by what authority—groups with different values do believe that those values contradict one another. The American Civil War, for instance, was fought over the question of slavery. There was the indelible sense that slavery is wrong not just for us but for everyone. Indeed, when we speak of disagreement between societies on the important things, we are acknowledging a deeper agreement on the fact that there are important things, which must be settled one way or another. Diversity of creeds is not only insufficient to refute the idea of natural right. It is virtually necessary for the idea of natural right to emerge.
There is no direct and inevitable path from knowledge of history to the historicist conclusion. Alternative interpretations are possible. One claim need not block out all others. Yet this goes against the nature of historicism, whose entire enterprise rests on discrediting all other worldviews, i.e. all worldviews stemming from non-historicist systems. The ultimate danger of the doctrine is that it tends to inculcate intellectual complacency. The philosophical flaws of the historicist-relativist paradigm cause pedagogical harms. This is highly relevant to our current political climate, as those most vulnerable to this illusion of enlightenment are the young people who are entering the political arena for the first time and who will, depending on their education, lead us either deeper into crisis or towards renewal.
It is important that we teach them to be truly open-minded and that we dispel those dogmas that claim intellectual immunity as the illusions they are.