The Grail Code 
Relativism, right and wrong

This fascinating essay by an archaeologist named Timothy Taylor started me thinking about how I understand history, which is always fun to think about. He wrote it in response to this question:


Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?

Mr. Taylor has changed his mind about relativism: he used to be for it, and now he’s against it. “Where once I would have striven to see Incan child sacrifice ‘in their terms’, I am increasingly committed to seeing it in ours.”

He explains how useful what he calls relativism can be in understanding history and archaeological findings, but he finds now that there are limits. “But what happens when relativism says that our concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, kindness and cruelty, are inherently inapplicable?”

Recently, Mr. Taylor and a colleague have been applying some serious science to the remains of sacrificed Peruvian children of the Inca era.

Contrary to historic chronicles that claim that being ritually killed to join the mountain gods was an honour that the Incan rulers accorded only to their own privileged offspring, diachronic isotopic analyses along the scalp hairs of victims indicate that it was peasant children, who, twelve months before death, were given the outward trappings of high status and a much improved diet to make them acceptable offerings. Thus we see past the self-serving accounts of those of the indigenous elite who survived on into Spanish rule. We now understand that the central command in Cuzco engineered the high-visibility sacrifice of children drawn from newly subject populations. And we can guess that this was a means to social control during the massive, ’shock & awe’ style imperial expansion southwards into what became Argentina.

The “relativists,” however, have attacked these conclusions (not the science, of course: it’s much easier to skip that and just attack the conclusions). The archaeologists, these “relativists” say, have revealed only “the inner fantasy life of, mostly, Euro-American archaeologists, who can’t possibly access the inner cognitive/cultural life of those Others.” He finds special significance in that capital O: the Other is always virtuous, and always irreconcilably Other. “Here we have what the journalist Julie Burchill mordantly unpacked as ‘the ever-estimable Other’ — the albatross that post-Enlightenment and, more importantly, post-colonial scholarship must wear round its neck as a sign of penance.”

Relativism, Mr. Taylor concludes, has its use in understanding the past, but it goes too far. “By denying the basis for a consistent underlying algebra of positive and negative, yet consistently claiming the necessary rightness of the internal cultural conduct of ‘the Other’, relativism steps away from logic into incoherence.”

Did you ever think you’d hear me make a defense of relativism? Well, here we go. The problem with Mr. Taylor’s admirably clear analysis, I think, is that he’s confusing two layers of understanding: the intellectual and the moral. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment. I think Mr. Taylor is actually much more of a relativist than he knows, and far more of one than the people he calls “relativists.”

Oddly enough, I see Mr. Taylor’s late epiphany, not as a rejection of relativism, but as a triumph of right relativism over wrong relativism. Wrong relativism is the kind displayed by the people he calls “relativists”: it assumes that all other cultures are basically good and only ours is corrupt and evil. Thus the human sacrifices of the Inca can only have come from the purest religious motives, whereas the Conquistadors alone were greedy, self-serving tyrants.

Now, you won’t find me arguing that the Conquistadors weren’t greedy, self-serving tyrants. Some apologists for colonialism would tell you that they weren’t as bad as they were painted; I think they were, every bit. But the notion that the Conquistadors alone were bad men is not real relativism at all: it is bigoted and uncompromisingly dogmatic absolutism, though a topsy-turvy sort that attributes virtue to anyone but ourselves.

Real relativism attempts to understand a foreign time or culture on its own terms, and allows the possibility that the Other may be as complex as we are, with as much vice admixed with virtue—in short, fully human. This is the relativism Mr. Taylor and his colleagues are exercising when they suggest that the Inca human sacrifices may have been part of a totalitarian empire’s oppression of the masses. They are attempting to understand the culture from inside, to see it not as a monolith but as a complex society made up of groups and individuals with conflicting motivations. This is the real route to understanding history: not to see the objects of your study as uniformly admirable, but to see them as human.

What the so-called relativists are doing, on the other hand, is something like trying to understand American society by listening only to what the White House press secretary says. Presidents and their spokespeople will tell only those parts of the story that suit them. In the not-too-distant past, presidential administrations have even lied to the American public, although we can of course be certain that such a thing is no longer happening and will never happen again in the future. Would we have a true history of the early 1970s if we went only by the announcements that came from Richard Nixon’s staff—at least the ones he hadn’t fired?

So I say that real relativism is essential to understanding history. That may be called the intellectual layer of our understanding. We have to come to that kind of understanding before we can move up to the next layer, which is the moral layer of understanding. Here we stop studying and start judging. This is where we can say that, whatever the culture, it is repugnant to natural law—or, if you prefer David Hume’s term, the “moral sense”—when a government arbitrarily kills to terrorize a conquered population. That, of course, is what was so horrible about the Conquistadors; but if it is horrible in Pizarro, then it must be horrible in Huayna Capac as well. Oddly enough, the peoples Huayna Capac conquered would almost certainly agree with me. In a peculiar way, even my moral absolutism is relativistic, because natural law is universal. People feel injustice as keenly whether they are twenty-first-century Americans or fifteenth-century Peruvians.

So I say this to Mr. Taylor: Don’t abandon relativism so quickly. You still do need to understand a culture in its own terms, and you’re already doing a better job of it than the so-called relativists are doing. But do make the distinction between intellectual understanding and moral judgment. Both are necessary, but they are separate operations, and one precedes the other.

2 Responses to “Relativism, right and wrong”

  1. Cameron GUglielmelli Says:

    1.)Science is based on evidence.

    Ans: Science is based on understanding of evidence that is presented. Truth doesn’t change because viewpoints or knowledge does.

    2.)What happens when the data change?

    Ans: The question changes or transforms itself to encompass new dimensions or ramifications of results.

    How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?

    Ans: Of course though not as nearly as a new approach or understanding of truth.


    (What) I have changed my mind on engergy consumption.

    (Why) Now that I am older and better understand my own personal impact my life has made on the enviroment. Understanding this has allowed me to take a more active role in managing that impact and given me the opportunity to undo some of the things I have done in the past and prevent them from happening again in the future. By doing this I have the ability to make others aware of their ability to do the same and educate them on where to start.

  2. Teresa Bailey Says:

    Hear, Hear! Well thought out. I liked how you described the moral judgment process as the second, separate operation.

    I know you believe that real religious truth exists. Finding it, of course, is not a simple two step operation. But you can find what empirically works with humans and makes a “north” for your moral compass.

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey