Relativism is useless because it is selfish; powerless beyond self-interest to say anything true or actionable, it is an unlivable ethic. At this point, the self-evident finds illustration in recent comments made by Chamath Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist and part-owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Setting off a firestorm of criticism on Twitter and across the internet was his confession thinly veiled as an assertion that “nobody cares about the Uighurs,” referencing the ongoing genocide perpetrated by the Chinese Communist government upon a religious and ethnic minority group of its own citizens concentrated in the province of Xinjiang. Palihapitiya’s “very hard, ugly truth” was shared on an episode of the All-In Podcast, which he hosts with three other capital investors. As Jim Geraghty points out, the comment is not redeemed by the broader context of the episode. Indeed, my purpose is not to engage Palihapitiya’s comment on its shallow merits. Rather, here I take a broader view, engaging the unruled relativism that stands behind Palihapitiya’s woke capitalism and is the reason he has nothing to say about China’s atrocities in Xinjiang. Over and against this hollow ethic, the Uighurs demand action born of clear moral vision.
Narrative is the sinew and horizon of the relativist’s moral universe; it’s all about stories. In this worldview, empathy—experiential identification with another moral agent—is the highest ground of moral engagement. Palihapitiya’s attempt to walk back his comments concerning the Uighurs demonstrates this aim. On Monday, he posted a non-apology on Twitter, saying, “In re-listening to this week’s podcast, I recognize that I come across as lacking empathy. As a refugee, my family fled a country with its own set of human rights issues so this is something that is very much a part of my lived experience.” More interesting than Palihapitiya’s deplorable lack of remorse, notice his focus: empathy; he is principally concerned with the perception that his comments betray a lack of experiential identification with the Uighur people—a credential he assures us he has. His claim is of course absurd, but why this focus? In his world, empathy is authority and credibility—the location of truth.
This understood, Palihapitiya’s statement grows still more self-serving. Far from walking back his vocalized lack of care for the Uighurs, by claiming to empathize with their experience he is accruing to himself authority to speak truthfully into the situation—the ability to tell the story. Because his critics do not have the empathy he has, their narrative authority does not supersede his. But this authority is peculiarly useless because it does not impinge upon others; it is an inward authority—a sort of self-assurance—which establishes for the self an unassailable security for its story. Chamath Palihapitiya may well act out the story he tells himself, but he does not have the authority to tell the Uighur story for others.
David Friedberg, one of Palihapitiya’s co-hosts on the All-In Podcast, illustrates well the fool’s errand of ethics in a world ruled by individually constructed narratives. Engaging the heated conversation surrounding Palihapitiya’s initial comments on the Uighurs, Friedberg introduces the false peace of relativism’s ethical paralysis. “There always needs to be a narrative framing our enemy,” he asserted, “we need to get the narrative right, which is to paint them as the bad guy and to make things evil. You may take your ethical framework and say that they are bad… depending on what story you want to tell yourself and what story you want to be told.” So ethics is merely a story we tell ourselves devoid of substance deeper than language with little unifying relevance. But Friedberg continues, commenting on this “Uighur thing” directly: “How do you measure on an absolute basis human rights? I don’t think that there is a way to do so—whether it’s one person getting tortured publicly in a street or a hundred thousand people being suppressed economically and not being able to get jobs. It’s hard to say what is appropriate [and] what is not, what is evil [and] what is not. At the end of the day, we create a narrative, and that narrative allows the bigger picture to kind of play itself out.” Palihapitiya succinctly states the application of Friedberg’s narrative ethics to China’s oppression of the Uighur people: “I don’t think that I have the moral absolutism to judge China.”
Over and against Friedberg and Palihapitiya, I submit that it is in fact not hard to discern whether it is “appropriate” for a state to summarily imprison over a million of its citizens for no crime beyond their ethnicity. It is in fact not hard to judge whether it is “evil” for this same state to corral Uighur children into internment camps to have their cultural heritage re-educated out of them. It is in fact not hard to see that Friedberg and Palihapitiya’s relativism has hollowed out their chest, robbing them of ethical courage and rendering them morally myopathic. Their problem is moral vision, or lack thereof. Jesus put it this way: “If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness” (Matt 6:23)!
Naked empathy is deficient as a mode of ethical address because it lacks authority to compel action beyond the self. Action bridges the gap between circumstance and justice, but where there is no gap between principle and a moral agent there is no corrective action. This is why relativism paralyzes ethics and why Palihapitiya has nothing to say to the Uighurs: relativism has no principle of justice outside of the self toward which moral action may be directed; it only has stories. And empathy’s ethical inadequacy scales up as the analysis moves from the individual to the social. Just as the self cannot be driven to ethical action by empathy alone, the narrative the self constructs by itself, within itself finds no innate purchase with other selves beside itself. Justice, ethics, principles of good conduct, and right relation must be objective—abstracted from the individual self—if they are to be legitimate ends of collective action.
Stymied by their lack of principle and embarrassed by the principles they deny, the self-righteous relativist flees for justification to the safe harbor of what-about-ism. Palihapitiya makes this exact move, responding to a co-host’s surprise at his apparent disregard for international human rights: “Until we actually clean up our own house, the idea that we step outside our borders morally virtue-signaling about someone else’s human rights record is deplorable. Look at the number of black and brown men that are incarcerated for absolutely ridiculous crimes.” Why is it okay that Palihapitiya doesn’t care about the Uighurs? Because he cares so very much about “our own backyard!” Logical fallacies aside, the asinine moral equivalence Palihapitiya draws between China’s genocide of the Uighur people and mass incarceration in the US is only possible in a relativistic moral universe. Unmoored from objective standards of right and wrong, Palihapitiya has lost the ability to discern gradations of evil.
Where juxtaposition is untethered from objective criteria of comparison, ego swells to fill the vacuum in the relativist’s chest. To his credit, Palihapitiya honestly admits his self-interest’s role in his moral reasoning. He says, “Not until we can take care of ourselves will I prioritize them over us… I’m not doing that from a moral perspective; I’m doing that from a practical capitalist perspective.” Why does the flack of domestic what-about-isms that Palihapitiya identifies take precedence over the plight of the Uighurs? Because the what-about-isms are closer to him and his pocketbook. That’s not how moral reasoning works, and a pretty callous dismissal from someone who claims to empathize with the Uighurs. In fact, it’s selfish. But for the relativist the self is all there is.
The blood of the Uighurs cries out from the ground. The cry is “injustice!” And the call is for action—action that the narrative ethic of relativism cannot supply.