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Why relativism cannot survive globalisation

Sreya Ray  |  New Delhi 

George Rupp’s move from the presidency of Columbia University to the helm of the International Rescue Committee (IRC, which works to aid and resettle those displaced by conflict or disaster) gave him much food for thought on the less-talked-about fallouts of globalisation that affect society, community, and human responsibility. This compact book is a compilation of Rupp’s three lectures and critical responses to his views, rendered by three noted scholars: Jagdish Bhagwati (economist and proponent of globalisation), Wayne Proudfoot (professor of religion), and Jeremy Waldron (professor of law and philosophy).

The first lecture, on conviction, rings eerily true at a time when Western democratic and capitalist ideals and practices have run into agitated resistance and criticism from communist, autocratic or theocratic governments and other cultures the world over. Conviction, that value set which transforms human thought into action, has struggled for a clear-cut place in terms of policy-making and multilateral affairs in today’s increasingly integrated “global village”. The Western model of secular liberalism, such as that in France and the United States, espouses tolerance of all opinions and ideologies with equanimity, several of which may be founded on “passionate convictions” such as religion or traditional morals that may diverge from the popular norm, but endorses none, save for the central democratic principles. Rupp argues that this stand is outdated, ineffectual, and unwise, in increasingly integrated, pluralist societies that also face real terrorism threats. Instead of shuffling all convictions and minority ideologies into the closet of relativism, it is necessary to bring them out on the table for debate and discussion, as long as the West remains active participants on the global stage. At the same time, it should be acceptable to be passionately convinced about the merits and benefits of the democratic model, just as the American and French republics’ founding fathers fought for its birth, instead of taking it for granted. Strong conviction, says Rupp, will enable the party to take a closer look at its attributes that other societies find fault with —namely, the over-emphasis on capitalism and free markets over socioeconomic equity and public services; and self-criticism can only lead to overall improvement and wider acceptance. The other two lectures, on community and conflict, also provide thoughtful analyses and idealist solutions to mitigating the negative impacts of globalisation.

All these points are very well, but Rupp does not offer any practical guidelines or realistic examples. Nor is he not guilty of optimistic naivete. To allow religion to play a bigger role in policy cannot go smoothly in now highly pluralistic societies, nor is it possible to grant demands from all religions and cultures in a modern liberal democracy.

From his talk on communities, Rupp segues haphazardly to the issue of displaced civilians and asylum-seekers. It is hard to see the natural progress from philosophical thinking on conviction and community to a call for comprehensive awareness and action on the difficulties faced in resettling and rehabilitating thousands of people displaced by conflict. Rupp accuses the US of being ungenerous with its annual cap on admitting asylum-seekers, which is rather unfair, as he would be aware of the huge human inflows into the country, legal or illegal, and the massive strain on its resources and public services. There is an informative account of the work of the IRC, but is still feels like an advertisement and ill-fitting in a book that essentially criticises globalised, West-centric society.

Rupp’s stroke of brilliance is to include the three critical rebuttals to round off his lectures. The three experts have each agreed with some of his insights and arguments, and pointed out the invalidity or impracticality of others. Most conveniently, they have taken the hard work out of understanding Rupp’s more intricate elucidations derived from 20th century philosophical theory. Rupp ends with a thorough final analysis of the three critical responses and a summary in which he still holds fast to his original propositions for a greater role of community and conviction. What the reader will ultimately gain is a chance to witness a thought-provoking, elegant and insightful debate amongst four academics with a rich store of knowledge and experience amongst themselves.


George Rupp
Columbia University Press
108 pages, $26

First Published: Thu, August 14 2008. 00:00 IST