Once we discuss cultural relativism in my ethics classes, some students become more comfortable voicing their real convictions. At this point, a slightly different anti-excellence attitude rears its head. Someone will raise her hand and say, “Can’t we just agree to disagree? Brian has his truth, and Alex has his truth. Brian can live how he wants and Alex can live how he wants.” There is certainly a value in tolerating disagreement and allowing others to live in different ways, just as there is value in acknowledging that the same practices do not always work for different people in different circumstances. Nevertheless, behind the words, one detects a palpable negative emotion: the outright fear that Alex and Brian might start a public disagreement right here in class. This pathos, I believe, is one of the chief driving forces in the acceptance of individual relativism aside from any philosophical considerations that are put forward. Such students have perhaps experienced family members falling into ugly, animated discussions over politics, morality, or religion. It ruins the evening. They have learned, therefore, to deflect any substantive disagreement with a quick verbal maneuver appealing to “your truth, my truth.” Hence, in one corner of contemporary life, we see a whole subculture devoted to “acceptance,” “hugs,” and soft pastel colors while rejecting any “negative energy” that might disrupt that warm cocoon. Ironically, the virulence of this rejection itself frequently takes on distinctly negative “vibes.”

Along completely different emotional lines, but appealing to many of the same slogans, another student will raise his hand and say, “Who are you to tell me what to do? Alex can go and live that way if he wants, just so long as he leaves me alone to smoke pot and play video games all day in the basement.” Far from conflict avoidance, such students often pick fights with a chip on their shoulders, despite the rhetoric of “just wanting to be left alone.” Their palette tends to be less pastel. The chief observable driver behind this attitude seems to be a simmering resentment against any implication of authority. There does not even need to be any real authority structure; the mere statement of objective value is taken to be oppressive to such a person’s individual freedom. Jordan Peterson speculates that the underlying psychology here is really a resentment of excellence and success as such rather than a resentment of the authority which is claimed in the rhetoric. On his analysis, such people are often deeply unhappy and are angry at the status of their own lives. They are emotionally rubbed raw and flinch from anything that touches upon that open wound. Claims, therefore, that some lifestyle or action might be objectively better than theirs excite a rapid and charged reaction because it hits where they already hurt—especially if it comes from someone who is visibly enjoying the benefits of a better life.

Peterson may be right about the underlying psychology of resentment, but for our purposes what matters is that neither conflict avoidance nor antipathy to authority provide a good reason to reject the objectivity of excellence. We should not simply brush aside, however, the very real and often quite forceful insights that such emotions point to. The conflict-avoidance relativists have really seen a side of human nature that is objectively ugly. We really do behave barbarously toward one another over disagreements about politics, morality, or religion. The conclusion to draw from this, however, is simply that we should quit behaving barbarously over disagreements. The lesson is not that the subject matter of those disagreements is merely subjective or that one or another of the disputants is not actually in the right—independent of the civility of his behavior in asserting his view at the Thanksgiving table.

The resentment relativists have also seen an ugly side of human nature. Humans really do like to control one another and they really do like to use spurious appeals to moral authority to bolster that control. Humans really do abuse objective excellence as a prop for their pride, and this vainglory likes to vaunt over every available target. Again, the conclusion we should draw from this is simply that we should quit acting like arrogant bullies. Identifying the prideful, controlling, or mean-spirited behavior of a bully, however, does not tell us anything about whether or not that bully might independently possess some real excellence (he may really be an outstanding athlete, for example). It simply tells us that he is abusing that excellence for his own self-aggrandizement and has thereby cut himself off from the higher-order excellencies of spirit grounded in humility.