Noam Chomsky Explains Why Nobody Is Really a Moral Relativist, Even Michel Foucault

Noam Chom­sky made his name as a lin­guist, which is easy to for­get amid the wide range of sub­jects he has addressed, and con­tin­ues to address, in his long career as a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al. But on a deep­er lev­el, his com­men­tary on pol­i­tics, soci­ety, media, and a host of oth­er broad fields sounds not unlike a nat­ur­al out­growth of his spe­cial­ized lin­guis­tic the­o­ries. Through­out the past five or six decades, he’s occa­sion­al­ly made the con­nec­tion explic­it, or near­ly so, by draw­ing analo­gies between lan­guage and oth­er domains of human activ­i­ty. Take the pan­el-dis­cus­sion clip above, in which Chom­sky faces the ques­tion of why he does­n’t accept the notion of cul­tur­al rel­a­tivism, which holds moral norms as not absolute but cre­at­ed whol­ly with­in par­tic­u­lar cul­tur­al con­texts.

“There are no skep­tics,” Chom­sky says. “You can dis­cuss it in a phi­los­o­phy sem­i­nar, but no human being can, in fact, be a skep­tic. They would­n’t sur­vive for two min­utes if they were. I think pret­ty much the same is true of moral rel­a­tivism. There are no moral rel­a­tivists: there are peo­ple who pro­fess it, you can dis­cuss it abstract­ly, but it does­n’t exist in ordi­nary life.” He iden­ti­fies “a ten­den­cy to move from the uncon­tro­ver­sial con­cept of moral rel­a­tivism” — that, say, cer­tain cul­tures at cer­tain times hold cer­tain moral val­ues, and oth­er cul­tures at oth­er times hold oth­er ones — “to a con­cept that is, in fact, inco­her­ent, and that is to say that moral val­ues can range indef­i­nite­ly,” teth­ered to no objec­tive basis.

If moral­i­ty is trans­mit­ted through cul­ture, “how does a per­son acquire his or her cul­ture? You don’t get it by tak­ing a pill. You acquire your cul­ture by observ­ing a rather lim­it­ed num­ber of behav­iors and actions, and from those, con­struct­ing, some­how, in your mind, the set of atti­tudes and beliefs that con­sti­tutes cul­ture.” He draws a nat­ur­al com­par­i­son between this process and that of lan­guage acqui­si­tion, which also depends on “hav­ing a rich built-in array of con­straints that allow the leap from scat­tered data to what­ev­er it is that you acquire. That’s vir­tu­al­ly log­ic.” And so, “even if you’re the most extreme cul­tur­al rel­a­tivist, you are pre­sup­pos­ing uni­ver­sal moral val­ues. Those can be dis­cov­ered.” When he spoke of “the most extreme cul­tur­al rel­a­tivist,” he was think­ing of Michel Fou­cault?

Back in 1971, Chom­sky engaged the French philoso­pher of pow­er in a debate, broad­cast on Dutch tele­vi­sion, about human nature and the ori­gin of moral­i­ty. There he prac­ti­cal­ly lead with lin­guis­tics: a child learn­ing to talk starts “with the knowl­edge that he’s hear­ing a human lan­guage of a very nar­row and explic­it type that per­mits a very small range of vari­a­tion.” This “high­ly orga­nized and very restric­tive schema­tism” allows him to “make the huge leap from scat­tered and degen­er­ate data to high­ly orga­nized knowl­edge.” This mech­a­nism “is one fun­da­men­tal con­stituent of human nature,” in not just lan­guage but “oth­er domains of human intel­li­gence and oth­er domains of human cog­ni­tion and even behav­ior” as well. Per­haps we do have the free­dom to speak, think, and act how­ev­er we wish — but that very free­dom, if Chom­sky is cor­rect, emerges only with­in strict, absolute, whol­ly un-rel­a­tive nat­ur­al bound­aries.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Michel Fou­cault and Noam Chom­sky Debate Human Nature & Pow­er on Dutch TV (1971)

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Michel Fou­cault, “Philoso­pher of Pow­er”

A Brief Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Noam Chomsky’s Lin­guis­tic The­o­ry, Nar­rat­ed by The X‑Files‘ Gillian Ander­son

Michel Fou­cault Offers a Clear, Com­pelling Intro­duc­tion to His Philo­soph­i­cal Project (1966)

Noam Chom­sky Explains the Best Way for Ordi­nary Peo­ple to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunt­ing

Moral­i­ties of Every­day Life: A Free Online Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (8)
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  • aga says:

    Ну, что же, пусть въебет говна.

  • Szymon says:

    What a clown. To this day I don’t know why peo­ple lis­ten to this geno­cide deny­ing idiot.

    I don’t under­stand how one can deny some­thing like moral rel­a­tiv­i­ty, when it’s clear­ly an observ­able fact through­out our his­to­ry.

    Were witch hunts not deemed as “just” at one point in time? What about killing peo­ple in the name of god, whether it be through cru­sades or ter­ror attacks like 9/11? Am I just not under­stand­ing some­thing or is this idiot spew­ing absolute dri­v­el once again?

  • Jlb9210 says:

    My thoughts exact­ly. Moral rel­a­tivism is just unde­ni­able and is real­ly more intu­itive than an axiomat­ic objec­tive moral tem­plate. Fou­cault won that debate hands down.

  • Fay says:

    I nev­er said moral rel­a­tivism did­n’t exist. He said it was­n’t coher­ent or sus­tain­able, much less not ben­e­fi­cial for the over­all good of soci­ety.

  • Fay says:

    Sor­ry- He nev­er said..

  • Guy says:

    Noam Chom­sky and Bard Col­lege pres­i­dent had finan­cial deal­ings with Jef­frey Epstein. Jef­frey Epstein helped move $270,000 for renowned lin­guist Noam Chom­sky and also paid $150,000 to Bard Col­lege pres­i­dent Leon Bot­stein, the Wall Street Jour­nal has report­ed.

  • Anthony says:

    Witch hunts weren’t an exam­ple of a dif­fer­ent moral­i­ty, but of dif­fer­ent beliefs. We don’t hunt witch­es any­more, but we still hunt child preda­tors. The dif­fer­ence is that we don’t believe in witch­es, but we do believe in child preda­tors.

  • Blake says:

    Blath­er­ing old idiot doesn’t know what cen­tu­ry he’s in. Eats din­ner with known child traf­fick­ers. Denies geno­cide. Oppos­es Ukrain­ian auton­o­my. Who cares what he thinks about moral­i­ty?

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