Moral relativism has led to the erosion of social and personal virtue.
By establishing a system where the fundamental guiding star is not a universal code of ethics and morals, relativism preaches that the best course of action for an individual is not only practically individualized but ethically individualized.
Now, I will not argue that it is practical for everyone to pursue the same economic or political activities and organization. Especially in economic action, individuals must make the best decisions for applying the resources they were born with and have been able to gain over the course of their lives.
And while I would argue that there is an objectively superior political system—based in part on its alignment with morals and ethics—this is beyond today’s exercise.
Rather, I want to look at what those of us who are deontologists who believe that morality is absolute and universal often forget about the moral relativists’ view of the world: polylogism.
What is Polylogism?
Polylogism is the term coined by Ludwig von Mises to describe the Marxist doctrine of class consciousness, as well as the parallel ideas of race consciousness that were used by the National Socialists in Germany, among others.
The idea of polylogism is that the fundamental psychological functions of some individuals differ from others at an essential level. Mises does not deny that there are individuals with different preferences—those who enjoy art versus those who enjoy natural beauty, for instance—but insists that all people operate along the same rules of logic.
Mises opposed polylogism not just because it involves making assumptions few people would accept (and none could prove), but because it represents the maturation of Rousseau’s myth of the noble savage.
For today, what we need to understand about polylogism is that it serves as an important assumption in moral relativism, since for something to be right for one person and not for others it is necessary to assume that the role of the moral agent in the world can be differentiated.
If, however, the logical foundation of human action is identical across all people, then there cannot be those who operate under an entirely alien set of virtues and values. We can assess their actions through universally true axioms, like the non-aggression principle or the Ten Commandments, and render a proper judgment.
Ignorance of the law is not a defense because the vices that lead to breaching the moral imperatives of life and the virtues that prevent these breaches are similarly universal parts of human being.
What Polylogism Isn’t
The important distinctions between polylogism and some other ways of viewing the world:
Polylogism is not status law. A society may choose to grant special rights and privileges to some at the expense of others without understanding them to have essential differences.
For instance, a priest caste may be perceived as more virtuous because they are set apart from the profane things of the world, but the society may not consider them to be different in how they think—the same underlying morality applies, even if the privileges and restrictions differ.
Compare this to Marx’s idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, where the workers have virtue by nature of their “honest work” compared to the rent-seeking bourgeoise and imperialists. Here, Marx explicitly advocates for an essential difference based on class basis.
Further, a recognition of polylogism does not imply that all societies and people rightly identify virtues and vices. Self-interested reasoning can override an individual’s understanding of morality. Especially those who, like myself, consider morality to be God-given, may conclude that those who lack the enlightenment to be truly moral actors—but we can still assess universal rules for relative merit and virtue.
Polylogism does not deny human diversity. Individuals have different interests and value schedules, to use the economic term, but nothing could make the ancient Christian renounce Christ and pray to the Emperor to avoid the lions—they have identified their highest values with a cause that transcends life and death. Theological questions about the Holy Spirit aside, this does not involve a cessation of human action.
Our ancient Christian is a human, and they act to pursue their highest value even unto death, which is how all humans act (it’s just that not dying usually winds up pretty high on value schedules).
For this reason, polylogism does not rule out the idea that there may be individuals who have particular defects that make them function in ways that others cannot fathom. But these people are still acting according to the axioms of human action, even if they have a psychotic break from reality.
This is where we come to the crux of the issue. What is the foundation of moral absolutism?
Moral absolutists understand that there is a fundamental and universal element underlying human nature and/or morality and that claims to moral truth are possible and valid.
The philosophical roots of this trace back to Aristotle, but were also a core part of the Christian and Western tradition more broadly until the Enlightenment—though few Enlightenment thinkers would have disputed this claim, they disrupted the belief in essence and nature that had dominated social thought.
We can examine a few different approaches to this absolute morality.
The first is obviously the divinely inspired morality of Christianity. The Ten Commandments are an example of moral laws that apply universally to all actions and all times and places. In this case, the devout Christian or Jew cannot act contrary to universal moral axioms.
The second is the non-aggression principle, which is a simplified universal moral axiom that can be derived several ways. Regardless of how it is derived, it sets a universal moral rule that deliberate violence against others is always wrong unless it is committed in defense of person or property.
It is a subset of Christian morality (drawing on Scriptural injunctions against theft, violence, and murder) and inherits an entire deontological framework when viewed from that context.
But we can also derive it from Kant’s categorical imperative. Since Kant’s foundational principle can be summed up as a rejection of any action which could be harmful in any context (such as lying), aggression would be forbidden because it is obviously harmful to aggress against most innocent people.
And we can derive it even from a utilitarian framework that prescribes Pareto optimal actions as moral and all other actions as immoral. This is a reworking of Kant’s imperative that focuses on utility rather than actions. Of course, many utilitarians and adherents to consequentialism do not hold this belief and instead focus on net-benefit or net-negative with no regard for the individuals. Although they may still not be full moral relativists, they are playing with fire.
What is the universal principle that links all possible ways of deriving universal moral axioms?
They do not tolerate any idea that people can know “their own truth” separate from an absolute. They do not require individuals to have perfect knowledge, of course, since any one person’s understanding will be incomplete by nature of their relationship to the greater whole of reality—human cognitive faculties are limited in their scope and scale of operation, and even attempts to augment them through the use of psychedelics or implants would never get around the fact that part of the universe cannot replicate the entire universe.
Relativism and Absolutism
What is moral relativism, then?
Moral relativism is the idea that some people have courses of action that are morally right for them in places where the same course of action would be morally wrong for them.
For instance, the leftist apology that someone “didn’t know any better,” or “was a victim of society” smuggles in moral relativism, and many people who believe themselves to be moral absolutists but who have not rid themselves of polylogism may be sympathetic to this.
The psychotic who murders someone while in the throes of hallucination has still committed a morally wrong action. Their incapacity does not change the moral harm done to their victim. Even if a moral absolutist shows leniency and institutionalizes or medicates the psychotic instead of sending them to death row, this is an act of mercy and does not excuse the act or reduce its immorality—that is, we might recognize that an intentional act differs by nature from one committed in the throes of insanity, but we would not pretend that it is less morally offensive.
By comparison, the moral relativist would argue that the context of the action is important. A community of noble savages who practices cannibalism is merely acting in alignment with their dharma, the way set out for them by their society.
The moral relativist forgives this crime because none of the cannibals would raise an objection to their behavior.
But the moral absolutist who knows the non-aggression principle (or the Ten Commandments) sees the foundation of polylogism underlying this. The cannibals are acting aggressively toward their victims.
The moral absolutist gives no justification for wrong behavior just because it is socially acceptable. The wrongness of the action derives from its essential qualities—how it changes the world and the individuals who take part in it—and there is no morality just because some people think it is acceptable.
Status Law in Moral Absolutism
Now, there are people who come to different conclusions regarding absolute moral frameworks.
We should not think that an internal consistency is necessarily incompatible with absolute morality. It would be possible to form a belief, for instance, that the government is entitled to steal from its citizens, despite government officials and taxpayers being similar in moral essence.
We usually regard universality as a central tenet of justice, but nobody (except the absurdist or relativist) objects to the thief being forced to repay their victim.
The central understanding here is that universality is not necessarily inherent to all absolutism, as the government having a right to tax where an individual cannot steal represents status law. The bureaucrat in a private capacity would still be a thief where the bureaucrat in their public capacity is a tax collector.
Of course, this involves mental gymnastics—I prefer the interpretation of “thou shalt not steal” which includes all people—but it is not incompatible with an absolute foundation to morality.
It simply implies that distinctions can form arbitrarily, even where no material distinction truly exists.
Hoppe on Absolutism and Universality
While I have argued that an absolute moral code can specify actors as special, there is an important point that we can draw from the works of Hans-Hermann Hoppe. As a subset of his argumentation ethics, Hoppe argues that there is a point to applying universality to all moral principles.
Those who argue for exemptions to absolute moral law based on status have not fallen into polylogism, which is the defining trait of the absolute moral relativist, but they have taken their first step toward moral relativism.
We can justify the restitution made from a criminal to their victim on universal moral grounds. The victim suffered damage through an act of aggression, but reprisal is not aggression, which is the actual source of immorality. We can see here that the moral commandment “thou shalt not steal” is universal under this framework, since the victim is not stealing from the criminal—they are getting back what they deserve, even if they have to use force.
The same rule does not apply to a king levying a tax over their subject. The king may object and say that he has offered a service to a peasant, protecting them from brigandry. But unless this was a voluntary arrangement and the king is merely demanding that the peasant keep their end of a contract, the true brigand is someone who shows up making demands of others’ property.
Of course, this means that those communists, fascists, syndicalists, and democrats who make claim to others’ property through all but truly voluntary contractual relationships between individuals (those in which any member may secede with their property) are all advocating for the commission of a crime—theft on a massive scale, with murder and mayhem if they do not get their way.
Universality is not a key part of moral absolutism, but it goes a long way to prevent the self-deceptive or self-motivated breaches of morality that eventually lead to moral relativism.
Where a moral absolute exists but has been wedded to special pleading, this opens the pathway to legislating and debating morality until it becomes not a universal rule but the preferences of individuals.
And since it is not far off to state that moral relativism is the belief that preferences create morality, this thinking paves the way to polylogism (perhaps even as a justification for existing distortions in the fabric of moral society) as interactions between moral absolutism and creeping moral relativism intensify.
Moral relativism depends on assumptions about polylogism and universality.
In the first case, it is necessary to depart from an understanding of the essential nature of reality—that reality has concrete underlying foundations that we can recognize, observe, and value—and to create a world of psychic fragments where all things are mere phantasms before one can move toward moral relativism.
While the egoist may still believe in absolutes (even if they comprise such functionally meaningless ideas as the belief that might makes right), the moral relativist can only operate in an environment where the essences wind up in the garbage bin as relics of a more uptight era.
It is necessary to erode universality, the principle that all laws and moral principles should apply equally to all people, before one can even begin this shift toward moral relativism.
We can only have true moral relativism when polylogism meets a lack of universality, but we should avoid either step on this road because of our understanding of the hells that moral relativism creates.