All Commentary
Saturday, January 1, 1966

The Relativity of Relativity


This article is from Dr. Upton’s Opening Convocation remarks at Beloit College, Sep­tember ¹¹, ¹965.

As the president of Beloit Col­lege and the principal speaker at this colorful and (hopefully) im­pressive opening convocation, I reckon my responsibility to be that of saying something to the college community that is both relevant and profound: relevant in terms of the beginning of a new college year and your needs during the year; profound in terms of the social relevance of what we are or should be engaged in here. This is quite a price to pay for having the honor of being president!

But I think maybe I can rely upon my experience to offer some­thing relevant and helpful to at least the younger members of the community. I will leave to your judgment the element of profundity. I have discovered over the years a technique for escaping a discussion in which one has been involved and become bored or trapped — or at least changing the subject to something more person­ally palatable. And since part of our educational technique here at Beloit is to encourage discourse, dialogue, conversation, and discus­sion both in and out of class, one is well-advised to have such a handy technique readily available.

The technique I have reference to is to lean back in your chair, put your hands behind the back of your head, cross one leg over the other, and say in a most profound way: “Well, you know, everything is relative!” You will find that im­mediately silence will blanket the area, and it will eventually be re­moved either by all agreeing you are right and discussion ceasing or by someone else barging in with a new topic. It is just like writing Q.E.D. at the end of a mathematical proof.

Now I wish that having pro­vided you with this gem of advice I could sit down, lean back, cross my legs, and feel my job was done. But whereas this technique is very relevant to the real world of avoid­ing or winning discussion, it is not very profound. It works, but not being a pragmatist myself I would feel cheap offering it to you with real support. You see, like so many things fashioned by man’s limited intellect, this statement promises more than it can really deliver. It is in essence a clever device and not a profound solution. Without always being intended as such, it is in fact a sham and a trick. It is only a partial statement with the superficial appearance of profundity.

Everything may be relative in terms of man’s limited power to measure or to comprehend or in terms of man’s own world of knowledge, but this does not mean that in the truth of the universe everything is relative. If every­thing were relative, where would this leave the principle of rela­tivity? You know, “every general­ization is false including this one.” Well, by the same token, every­thing is relative including the principle of relativity.

I wouldn’t give the matter so much importance were the prin­ciple limited to the use for which I have commended it. But when it is extended to possess the charac­ter of an absolute itself — to justi­fy individual action, not merely curtail discussion — there is great danger involved. It becomes in essence a false God — a clever ra­tionalization, not a qualified reason.

The New Morality

This is how I see its role in what is now being preached and peddled under the title of The New Morality. As I understand the thesis, since “everything is rela­tive,” there can be no basis on which to judge moral values in any absolute sense. Morality is a mat­ter of circumstance, of prevailing conditions. What may be right in one situation may not be right in another. Or what may be wrong for one culture may not be wrong for another. Certainly there would seem to be strong evidence in sup­port of this proposition, for differ­ent cultures throughout the world do in fact have different and even diametrically opposed customs, mores, and standards of value.

The whole proposition is very plausible, and certainly it is ap­pealing to those who are threat­ened by the existing standards of value. In fact, it is so plausible and appealing that its advocates have become the moralistic and even pietistic spokesmen of the day —with all of the accompanying arro­gance and smugness generally as­sociated with the religious leaders of the day. Theirs is not the offi­cial orthodoxy, but theirs is the practicing orthodoxy just the same.

But despite its current ascend­ancy, this so-called new morality is just another of man’s passing fancies in his historic quest for meaning and moral judgment. It is destined to eventual decline, if not extinction, for it is founded upon the shifting sands of the principle of relativity.

It has built-in contradictions, and is bound to dissipate itself through the centrifugal force of its circular reasoning. For, you see, the moral relativists, by mak­ing an absolute of the principle of relativity, have created a value structure that is subject to the same deficiency that they claim of all others. The only consistent rela­tive value structure would be one that says there is no absolute and therefore no intrinsic values — not even a principle of relativity. Un­der no circumstances can there be a good or bad, or a right or wrong, for there is no absolute standard by which to measure such. There can be no purpose to life — no pur­pose in living — no meaning to so­ciety or social welfare. Therefore, bring on the atom bomb, the H bomb, suicide, homicide, fratricide, slavery, racial discrimination, thievery, rape, sexual promiscuity — so what?

Their Own Standards Preferred

The truth of the matter, of course, is that the moral relativ­ists don’t go this far. They don’t really believe in the absence of moral standards; they merely want to substitute their own standards for the prevailing ones, and their adherence to relativism is a convenient device, albeit an inconsistent one.

Logic would seem to establish quite clearly that there can be no good or bad, no better or worse, no right or wrong without reliance upon some absolute frame of ref­erence by which to make such judgments. There are some who judge values in only an evolution­ary sense rather than an intrinsic sense. That is, they claim an act is good or bad on the basis of whether it is good or bad for so­ciety — whether “it works.” But in so doing they tacitly concede the need for society, which in turn assumes a purpose to life, and this in turn rests upon the assumption of some ultimate good or ultimate truth. They are therefore not moral relativists, for they adhere to certain absolute presuppositions, even though it may be sub­consciously. There are few, if any, practicing atheists, which one would have to be if he were to be a true moral relativist.

In essence, then, the new moral­ity is neither new nor moral. Whenever man has become bored with or dubious of the existing moral code he has challenged it on the basis of the underlying ab­solutes. And when he wearies of the search for the real absolute, he is inclined to agree that there are no absolutes, that “everything is relative.” But once he takes this position he forecloses his right to substitute another moral code, for he lacks a frame of reference by which to make moral judgments in general.

What is really at stake is not a new morality but a new absolute —a new frame of reference for mak­ing moral judgments. It is one thing to question the existing frame of reference, but it is quite another thing to say there is no need for a frame of reference. We may be correct in being disen­chanted with the existing moral code, but we dare not try to say that no moral code can be defended on absolute grounds. For the fact is, this is the only basis on which a moral code can be established or defended. We may differ on what we believe to be the absolute, but we cannot differ on the need for an absolute if we are to agree on the need for a moral code.

But what has all this to do with education at Beloit in the year 1965-66? Simply that there is no purpose in education anywhere un­less there is a purpose in life. Without an absolute assumed, there can be no truth to seek. If everything is relative, then ignor­ance is not merely bliss — it’s ex­cellence.

Upgrading the Intellectual Level

In the final analysis education is a goal and not a process, and in this respect it is fundamentally a religious enterprise. Its goal is to upgrade society by upgrading the intellectual level of the members of society. But such a goal presup­poses an importance to society and the individual, which in turn pre­supposes a purpose to life, which in turn presupposes a basic truth of the universe — an absolute — a God.

By being at Beloit College every one of us, student and teacher alike, is committed to the assump­tion that there is an absolute — be it called God, love, brotherhood, justice, truth, infinity, XYZ, or what have you — and let us not try to weasel out of accepting this cold fact by some form of rationaliza­tion. We don’t have to agree on what the absolute is or how it is manifested, but we do have to accept the existence of some ulti­mate truth, some ultimate goal to life. If such were not the case, then why should we be concerned with the intellectual growth of the individual student and the quest for truth? Our whole effort would be an elaborate system of mean­ingless busywork rather than an orderly process for the upgrading of humanity.

An Unknown Power

While I cannot prove there is a God (however defined), certainly no one can prove there is none. And to maintain the position that there is no God requires a reckless disregard of circumstantial evi­dence for the simple reason that nothing is likely to develop from nothing. For me it is enough for the time being to define God as that unknown and unseen power which is at the heart of the crea­tion and operation of the universe and whose existence gives mean­ing to life. And it is the goal of human inquiry to identify and de­fine this power in all its manifes­tations.

It is unfortunate that so many of us have tended to take such a hard and undeviating attitude toward the question of God as a result of a strong reaction against the historic and standard defini­tions of God. We should be able to differentiate between the con­cept of an absolute truth in the universe called God and prevailing definitions and descriptions of God. For example, I would agree completely with Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame as quoted in the July 19 issue of the National Ob­server when he claims that when we say that God created man in his own image we are tripping over our own ego, for what we really are saying is that man cre­ated God in his own image. This, of course, is the ultimate of arro­gance and anti-intellectualism, but it should not cause us to react vio­lently and irrationally by saying there is no God simply because we resent the definitions of God that now prevail.

The assumption of God, of an absolute truth, in other words, is necessarily at the heart of every educational effort. We don’t have to know what it is in order to seek it. But we do have to believe that there is such in order to have the courage to persevere in the search and in order to have a stable so­ciety while we search. Let’s differ, if we will, on the manifestations of God, but let us all agree on the existence of a God. Otherwise we will simply be spinning our wheels as are our moral relativist friends.

Truman Douglass, the Execu­tive Vice-president, Board for Homeland Ministries, of the United Church of Christ, has stated in a magnificent capsule form what I have labored so hard here to try to get across.

“If humanity is to live,” he says, “there must be men who know why they live. There must be not only persons of great skill in devising the means of life, but persons of great amplitude and zest and passion in their affirmation of life. There must be not only men with sharp­ened intelligence but men of vigor­ous purpose and strengthening hope. The Church should labor to insure that those who are members of the informed community shall also be members of the responsible commun­ity.

“There is a tragic waste repre­sented by the gifted who remain uneducated. But there is an even greater waste represented by the educated who remain uncommitted.”

Education Cannot Be Given, But Must Be Acquired

Again, what does all this mean for us here at Beloit College in the year 1965 as we begin a new college year — the second under our new plan? Simply this: If there is anyone here who came “to receive” an education, he should go back to his room after this con­vocation, pack up, and leave. (I really mean it!) Education like wisdom is acquired, not given. You must look upon it as something you are out to get on your own initiative — not be given. We can’t give you an education, but we can help you acquire an education.

We have what we consider to be a curriculum second to none, an undergraduate faculty second to none, and a physical plant that is well on its way to becoming second to none — all of which means that you should have a better chance of getting educated here than most anywhere else. But you must con­stantly realize that the institution of Beloit College is merely the catalytic agent to the process. We don’t dole out capsules of learning, we only provide the environment and means to encourage and facili­tate your learning. The teachers aren’t your competitors; rather they are your doctors of learning. You individually have hired them to help you in your individual quest for learning. Use them in this regard and expect them to serve you in this regard.

Also keep in mind that the meas­ure of learning is not how many courses you have passed or course-credits you have garnered; it is only represented by how much you have grown intellectually — how vigorously you think, how well you see relationships, how concerned you are for the life of the mind, how informed you are, how reflec­tive you are, how concerned you are for “the responsible commun­ity.” We can’t give you these qual­ities, but we can and will constantly challenge you to develop them and help you do so to the best of our ability.

Remember, too, that in this proc­ess “doubt is the beginning of wisdom.” To question is the first labor pains of learning. But don’t fall into the easy trap of thinking that it is the essence of learning. Asking the right questions is not enough; eventually you have to come up with the right answers. In the final analysis, the main pur­pose of education is to provide answers to the yet unsolved prob­lems of man.

This goal presupposes that there is a purpose to life and that there must be a logic to life. It is not enough to say that everything is relative. This is merely an interim or stop-gap statement. Everything is relative only so long as we have not yet discovered the absolute, but this does not mean there is no absolute to be discovered.

Everyone’s life must be founded upon some assumption as to the absolute or else there can be no stability to life, no basis for moral values. It is not necessary to say what the absolute is, only that there is such despite the fact that our small and finite minds can’t conceive it at once in its entirety. In a way, all of education — all of learning — is a search for the ab­solute. And during the search we must each set our standards on what we assume it to be. We must be committed to some standard even while we are looking for it. This, as I see it, is our mission in the year ahead — and for year to come.


***

Self-Reliance

What i must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction be­tween greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the inde­pendence of solitude.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON