Conference Papers

The appeal of relativism: antidotes from Socrates to Siegel

‘Groupthink’ is rife in universities around the world according to a 2017 report by the right-wing Adam Smith Institute with the majority of academics promoting left-wing thinking. If we look less politically and more philosophically at academia we can see that it is dominated by a more dangerous form of groupthink: relativism. Relativism is constituted by various expressions of the belief that there is no ‘objective truth’, rather there are ‘many truths’. Philosophers have provided refutations of relativism for over 2000 years but the struggle against relativism never ends as it has a constant appeal. In the contemporary form of ‘cultural relativism’ relativism is stronger than ever because it seems to empower people.

Roger Scruton famously said that ‘(moral) relativism is the first refuge of a scoundrel’ and university bureaucracies and academics spontaneously adopt relativism as a way of avoiding judgement. For decades academics have argued for a variety of ‘truths’. Now people are arguing for ‘alternative facts’ or ‘truths’. Relativism is both morally and epistemologically destructive.

This session will present and examine the refutations of relativism from Socrates to more recent philosophers, including Harvey Siegel, Richard Bailey and Paul Boghossian. It will show how ‘cultural relativism’ leaves the powerless and disadvantaged even weaker by taking away their participation in the search for the absolute truth. Most importantly, the session will introduce the new concept of ‘institutional relativism’ to reveal how the adoption of relativistic thought in universities diminishes students and denies them a higher education.

Mieschbuehler, R. (2018) 'The appeal of relativism: antidotes from Socrates to Siegel', paper presented to The 14th Annual Conference of the British Education Studies Association (BESA), 27–29 June, viewed 13 August 2020, <>

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