Hartford Institute Logo
Hartford Institute Site Map Hartford Seminary

Hartford Seminary
The Web

Everything You Know is Wrong:  
How Globalization Undermines Moral Consensus


A paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, San Francisco, California, August 14, 2004

George Van Pelt Campbell
Grove City College
Assistant Professor of Sociology and Religion
100 Campus Drive, Box 3089
Grove City College, Grove City, PA 16127-2104
  (724) 458-3319


As a matter of fact, the refusal of modern men to assume responsibility for moral judgments tends to transform judgments of moral intent into judgments of taste (“in poor taste” instead of “reprehensible”). The inaccessibility of appeal from esthetic judgments excludes discussion. This shift from the moral to the esthetic evaluation of conduct is a common characteristic of intellectualist epochs; it results partly from subjectivist needs and partly from the fear of appearing narrow-minded in a traditionalist and Philistine way.  

Max Weber (1915; 1946: 342)

There is no epistemological difference between truth about what ought to be and truth about what is.  

Richard Rorty (Miller 1996: 202)

Max Weber lived in a time when the moral consensus was unstable. So do we. That is why intellectuals in both periods argued that moral judgments were really only matters of taste, or personal preference. It is the lack of a moral consensus that generates thought about an otherwise taken-for-granted feature of life and which eventuates in theories by intellectuals about morals. The particular view reflected in the quotations from Weber and Rorty is an ethical view called emotivism. In Weber’s generation emotivism was associated with a view called Logical Positivism. In ours it is associated with relativism.

To a sociologist the fascinating question is, “Why?” Why does moral doubt flourish in some periods while it is not prominent in others? Why is there a lack of moral consensus in the United States now? Why did it occur also in the generation of Weber? Are there common social characteristics that explain this common result?

Weber attributed it to “intellectualist epochs.” In this paper I will suggest a different mechanism. I will argue that one significant reason for the contemporary lack of moral consensus in the United States is an effect of pluralism and globalization called the "relativization of tradition” (Campbell 2005). The paper will define the relativization of tradition as individuals experiencing a sense of threat and insecurity about their own traditions when confronted with other traditions and then describe relativization at the cultural level.  Next it will argue that moral consensus is most likely to break down in periods of cultural relativization and illustrate this in two such periods, the 1920s and the present generation. Finally three mechanisms that facilitate moral diversity during those periods will be discussed: the influenced of the zeitgeist, individual considerations trumping communitarian ones, and the eroding of social control mechanisms.up

The Relativization of Tradition

“Everything you know is wrong, Black is white, up is down and short is long, And everything you thought was just so important doesn’t matter Everything you know is wrong
Just forget the words and sing along
All you need to understand is
Everything you know is wrong.”

“Weird Al” Yankovic (Yankovic 1994)

These words by pop music star “Weird Al” Yankovic describe a major social fact of the contemporary world! It is indeed the case that many things people have taken for granted in the past have become highly controversial in recent times. Things believed, assumed, “obvious” yesterday are today questioned, uncertain, even offensive. This often makes people feel like everything they thought they “knew” someone says is wrong! A major reason for this is the relativization of tradition.

To explain the relativization of tradition I must begin by discussing “tradition.” Tradition has important functions in the contemporary world, as Thompson has shown (Thompson 1996). He discusses four functions, two of which are of particular enduring importance. He says, “tradition retains its significance in the modern world, particularly as a means of making sense of the world (the hermeneutic aspect) and as a way of creating a sense of belonging (the identity aspect)” (Thompson 1996: 93). So by tradition I we refer primarily to the set of assumptions passed from one generation to the next by which people make sense of the world and establish their sense of identity.

The “relativizing” of tradition is seeing one tradition “relative to” another tradition. It is being confronted with another tradition which results in seeing one's original tradition differently. Relativization is the recognition that one's taken-for-granted viewpoint is but one option among many. This results in the process of rethinking one's own tradition. In other words, relativization is awakening to the fact that what one previously perceived as reality, or truth, may actually be only a viewpoint. As Robertson states elsewhere, “It is the consciousness that one's own tradition, or one's taken-for-granted way of life, is but one among a number of competing patterns of belief and value that intensifies the condition of reflexiveness” (1996: 131). This reflexiveness, or self-conscious reflection, about one's own tradition is what is called the relativization of tradition.

The dynamic of relativization may be stated this way: relativization is the generation, in a confrontation with an alien tradition, of a sense of threat and of insecurity about the assumptions people use to make sense of the world and of the self, calling into question such things as the definitions, boundaries, categories and conclusions through which they have understood the world and established their identity; this insecurity, in turn, generates secondary effects such as intellectual disorientation, bewilderment, doubt, and fear (Campbell 2005: 54). In other words, it is coming into contact with information or a point of view that challenges what a person believes and makes them question what they have believed about that issue. It gives to people the feeling of having the rug pulled out from under them.[1] Because tradition serves primarily to make sense of the world and to establish identity, the effects of the relativizing of tradition are concentrated in these realms. It results in loss of clarity regarding one's sense of the proper meaning of the world and loss of clarity regarding one's sense of identity in relation to the surrounding world. Relativization is primarily the experience of threat and insecurity, and it results in confusion, doubt, and fear. This seemingly simple observation in fact has powerful ramifications.

Relativization is a key component of the larger issue of globality, and globalization has become a major catalyst of relativization because it brings together traditions which used to be isolated. Robertson, pioneer in globalization research, argues that relativization "is a central--perhaps the central--sociological and anthropological phenomenon of the globalization process" (Robertson 1998: 9).

It is important to be clear that relativization is not relativism. Relativization is the recognition that there are alternatives to one's viewpoint which call one’s viewpoint into question. It does not mean, depend upon, or necessarily lead to relativism. Relativism says, “Viewpoints about sexuality vary from culture to culture, so there must be no right or wrong about it: I conclude that there are no absolutes about sex!” Relativizing of tradition says, “Viewpoints about sexuality vary from culture to culture: wow! I wonder if the views I have held are right, or wrong: I don’t know what is right or wring about sex.” So “relativizing” in this paper does not mean “to make one an ethical relativist;” it’s a verb form of relativization.

Here is an example of relativization. When the civil rights movement of the 1960s proposed another way of viewing race relations it was relativizing the old tradition by confronting it with a new one—a new way of looking at the world and of establishing identity in relation to other Americans. The long tradition of racial prejudice and discrimination was relativized and whites who endorsed that tradition recognized that it was challenged and felt a sense of threat realizing that there were people who wanted to change things. They now viewed their traditional practices regarding blacks as a viewpoint under threat and they feared the results should the new view prevail, but they responded initially by rejecting the new view. However, within a few years a change began to occur. The turning point was probably the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, in which 4 young black girls were killed. Many white Americans began to rethink their tradition. They began to see their old tradition in a different light: perhaps it was not “true” or “right” but only one viewpoint about how to handle race relations, one that might in fact not be the best way! They began see the new view of race relations as a possible alternative to their old view. Eventually that change in perception led to changes in American life and to the dismantling of the traditional social structures which had maintained racial discrimination. This example is actually an example of how relativization can affect a culture, to which we now turn.up

Relativization at the Cultural Level

Relativization can occur at different levels. It sometimes affects only an individual, and can be induced when travel or reading makes someone rethink their viewpoints. But here I am interested in cultural relativization. This can be defined as relativization which affects an entire culture, calling into question the public and private values which have been accepted as authoritative by a plurality of the citizenry. Historian T. J. Jackson Lears' describes one such period in American culture, that of 1880-1920, as a “crisis of cultural authority” (Lears, 1981). By this phrase Lears means that the beliefs and traditions which had been previously accepted as shared standards lost their compelling power, that is, that America's “cultural authority” experienced a crisis. Historian William McLoughlin calls such periods “awakenings.” Altering conventional usage which makes America's “great awakenings” equivalent to religious revivals, McLoughlin distinguishes them. “Awakenings,” as McLoughlin uses the designation, “are periods of cultural revitalization that begin in a general crisis of beliefs and values and extend over a period of a generation or so, during which time a profound reorientation in beliefs and values takes place” (McLoughlin 1978: xiii). McLoughlin says, “Awakenings have been the shaping power of American culture from its inception” (McLoughlin 1978: 1). He also argues, “Revivals and awakenings occur in all cultures. They are essentially folk movements, the means by which a people or a nation reshapes its identity, transforms its patterns of thought and action, and sustains a healthy relationship with environmental and social change” (McLoughlin 1978: 2). McLoughlin analyzes four “awakenings” in American history: 1730-1760, 1800-1830, 1890-1920 and 1960 to the present. In each one, McLoughlin enumerates the alternative traditions which brought about the collapse of confidence in the standing traditions. Therefore, though he uses different terms, the “awakenings” which McLoughlin describes are an effect of cultural relativizations.

Others have made similar arguments. In 1956 Wallace introduced the term “revitalizations” to describe recurrent social movements which follow a predictable pattern toward cultural improvement (Wallace 1956: 264-81). He argued that these revitalization movements are deliberate (i. e, intentional), that they recur commonly throughout history, and that they arise out of periods of “cultural distortion” (Wallace 1956: 265, 267, 268). Parsons also held that societies from time to time confront disparities between cultural expectations and realities which produce cultural reorganization (Parsons 1961: 963-71, 984-88; Robertson 1992: 43). Lechner defends the position that revitalization is “a necessary element in any sociocultural order,” pointing out (as Parsons also did [Parsons 1961: 9850) that Weber's concept of charisma implies periodic relativization of traditions (without using that term) which yield revitalizations (Lechner 1991: 100).

Cultural relativization results from pluralism and more and more, pluralism is generated by globalization, which I define as the growing interdependence of the world and the consciousness of that interdependence which results (Robertson 1992). So it is not surprising that McLoughlin’s more recent periods of cultural relativization correspond to Roland Robertson’s recent phases of globalization (Robertson 1992: 57-60).

The effect of cultural relativization is a widespread sense of being threatened and of insecurity. The magnitude of the fear produced by cultural relativization is evident, in regard to the current period, in the title of James Hunter's Culture Wars, which describes--accurately--the sensation of many Americans that the entire culture is engaged in a war. The titles of other recent works speak for themselves about the mood which tends to develop in the wake of relativization: Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America's Culture Wars (Hunter 1994); Cease Fire: Searching for Sanity in America's Culture Wars (Sine 1995); Risk Society (Beck 1992), and, referring to the global effects, Runaway World (Giddens 2000).

Morality in periods of Cultural Relativization

In the four periods of cultural relativization he studies, McLoughlin documents a series of recurring effects which result from the undermining of traditions. The effects McLoughlin documents in each period include nativism, religious revivals, “enthusiastic” religion and social reforms. There are others as well (Campbell 2005: 79-83). Another recurring feature of such periods is undermining of the moral consensus. This is true for two periods of cultural relativization: 1870-1925 and 1960 to the present (McLoughlin 1978; Lears 1981; Marsden 1980; Hunter 1991, Wuthnow 1976; Guinness 1993). It is widely recognized that the “roaring twenties” was a period of moral upheaval and of the undermining of traditional moral standards. This period (which began in 1912-1917) May has called a “cultural revolution,” and this included the field of morals (May 1959: vii, 140-42, 340ff.). Of course, part of this was the result of World War I, but that too is relativization, as American dough boys came home after being exposed to war circumstances in which morals were seen and practiced differently. The same undermining of moral consensus is obvious also in the period which began in roughly 1960 (Wuthnow 1976).

What mechanisms explain this common undermining of moral consensus?

Three Mechanisms that Facilitate Moral Diversity

We will now briefly investigate three mechanisms that facilitate moral diversity, especially during periods of cultural relativization.

The Influence of the Zeitgeist

Moral consensus, by its nature, is an assumed reality, taught through socialization and absorbed based upon authority. Because it is shared, it is not typically derived from individual reasoning or decisions. Over time culture changes but the moral consensus changes less rapidly. When a culture experiences the relativizing of its traditions, the nature of these considerations means several things. First, because the moral consensus is assumed, most people have thought very little about the reasons upon which it is based. Second, it probably means that some of the ideas that have come to be accepted in the culture through the normal processes of cultural evolution are incompatible with the shared moral consensus, though this was not recognized during the process of change. Thus people are inconsistent in their beliefs. Third, it means that when relativization generates renewed discussion of moral standards, the context in which that discussion occurs is different from what it was the last time the culture settled such issues, and most people are not aware of, or no longer fully accept, the shared values which contributed to the establishment of a new moral consensus the last time. That is, the zeitgeist has changed. The combined effect of inability to articulate reasons to support the older consensus and the changed zeitgeist is confusion. The confusion means that diversity will be the dominant feature of moral discussions for a period of time, which further undermines social moral consensus. 

An example in the contemporary discussions is the change in meaning in “tolerance” (Bloom, 1987, Hunter, 1991). What might have been judged reprehensible in a previous period based upon particular assumptions may well now be classified as a matter of personal taste, rather than as a public issue based upon a new cultural valuation of tolerance.

Hunter describes two contending parties in the current American discussion of morality, which he names the Orthodox and the Progressive (Hunter 1991). Berger speaks in terms of the old and the New Class (Berger 1992).

Individual Considerations Overshadowing Communitarian Ones

Berger (attributing it imprecisely to “modernity,” and conflating pluralism and relativization) has described the psychological effects which follow relativization. One does not have to accept Berger's framework to appreciate the accuracy of his observation that pluralism makes into a matter of conscious choice things which were previously not such matters because they were previously determined by the structures of society. He explains, “the institutional pluralization that marks modernity affects not only human actions but also human consciousness: Modern man finds himself confronted not only by multiple options of possible courses of action but also by multiple options of possible ways of thinking about the world” (Berger 1979: 17). Berger calls this dilemma “the heretical imperative,” meaning that choosing one's own options regarding things which used to be matters determined by society puts one in the position of the ancient “heretic” who chose for himself his own preferred views rather than accepting those prescribed by the authorities over him (Berger 1979: 28-32). Hence all modern people are “heretics” in this sense. He describes the consequences of this in terms of what he calls “plausibility structures” (Berger an Luckmann 1966). By “plausibility structures” he refers to the networks of people who make any belief seem plausible, i.e., believable, to an individual because the group believes it, therefore lending it public credibility. All people gain assurance in their beliefs from the fact that others find the beliefs convincing as well, though this process is usually not consciously considered. In the absence of such public assurance, a person's confidence in some of their beliefs may often be weaker, particularly if those beliefs had been supported by such public assurance then are suddenly undermined. Berger explains, “It . . . follows that the institutional pluralization of modernity had to carry in its wake a fragmentation and ipso facto a weakening of every conceivable belief and value dependent upon social support” (Berger 1979: 19). For the individual this often generates insecurity:up

If answers are not provided objectively by his society, he is compelled to turn inward, toward his own subjectivity, to dredge up from there whatever certainties he can manage. This inward turning is subjectivization, a process that embraces both Descartes and the man-in-the-street who is puzzled about the proper course of action in this or that area of everyday life (Berger 1979: 21)

The turn inward means that moral decisions will be based upon individual considerations which undermines consensus. The common good tends to be more abstract that an individual’s sense of what is “good for me.”

The Eroding of Social Control Mechanisms

For there's one thing to be sure of, mate: 
There's nothing to be sure of!

These words from the Broadway musical production Pippin referred to being unsure about the future as old age approached. Yet they are an apt description of the result of the relativizing of tradition, and for how this affects social control.

Periods of cultural relativization tend to vitiate social control, which undermines moral consensus. Most conformity is voluntary social control: people do what they feel they should.  When some external social control is needed, it is typically through social pressure: people avoid what others shame them for. In fact, the concept of “shame” depends upon at least two things. First, it depends upon standards which are shared widely enough that people will pressure others to conform to them (Pearse 2004). Second, it depends upon those standards being considered public standards rather than being deemed in the realm of allowable private choice.    

But the relativizing of tradition has a powerful effect upon the mechanisms of social control. One way is that it undermines the two conditions upon which much social control depends (a strong example of which is “shaming”). First, relativization often results in people being less sure about what they believe. This undermines the shared standards necessary for shaming to work. Second, the pluralism characteristic of modern times, which exposes people to many competing traditions, has resulted in the modern innovation of the splitting of the public and private realms. This is an ingenious way to minimize the conflicts which often attend pluralism. It does no precisely by moving many issues out of the realm of public life, where social pressure toward conformity is considered appropriate, and into the private realm, where social pressure is deemed less appropriate. Both effects result in less social control, which permits more diversity, including moral diversity. This helps explain why the concept of “shame” now seems to us all outmoded at best, and harsh and judgmental at worst.

So once the shared moral consensus erodes, people become less willing to enforce socially issues about which they are not sure they are sure. Further, they become less willing to act as enforcers of what others may not consider appropriate standards, so even when someone is sure, they are not sure if others are sure.

So the relaxing of social control has the effect of further undermining moral consensus by producing more diversity in behavior. Many who avoided certain actions only because of “what the neighbors will think” now feel no such fear and choose to indulge. Once many indulge, the tendency to avoid pressuring them to “conform” is heightened.

An example would be the change in the last half-century in the United States in attitudes toward women who become pregnant outside of marriage.


The relativizing of traditions and the three dynamics we have examined all work to undermine moral consensus, particularly in periods of cultural relativization. Globalization, which encourages these dynamics, will continue to do so, probably at an accelerated rate. Perhaps it is not too much of an overstatement to say that globalization minimizes fear of social offense but maximizes fear of traditionalist, Philistine narrow-mindedness. But Weber already said that! 


Beck, Ulrich, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage, 1992).

Berger, Peter L., The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 17.

Berger, Peter L., A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity. New York: Free Press, 1992.

Berger, Peter L. and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966).

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Campbell, George Van Pelt, Everything You Think Seems Wrong: Globalization and the Relativizing of Tradition (forthcoming, University Press of America, 2005).

Giddens, Anthony, Runaway World: How Globalization is Shaping Our Lives (New York, Routledge, 2000).

Guinness, Os. The American Hour: A Time of Reckoning and the Once and Future Role of Faith. New York: Free Press, 1993.

Hunter, James Davison, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Hunter, James Davison, Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture Wars (New York: Free Press, 1994).

Lears, T. J. Jackson, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon, 1981). up

Lechner, Frank, “Fundamentalism and Sociocultural Revitalization: On the Logic of Dedifferentiation,” in Differentiation Theory and Social Change, ed. J. C. Alexander and P. Colomy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 100.

Lechner, Frank J., “Religion, Law, and Global Order,” in Religion and Global Order, ed. Roland Robertson and William R. Garrett (New York: Paragon House, 1991), 100.

Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

May, Henry F. The End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Own Time, 1912-1917. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1959.

McLoughlin, William G., Revivals, Awakenings and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), xiii.

Parsons, Talcott, “Culture and the Social System: Introduction,” in Theories of Society, ed. T. Parsons et. al. (New York: Free Press, 1961), 963-71, 984-88; Roland Robertson, Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (London: Sage, 1992), 43.

Pearse, Meic.  Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Pippin, Lyrics from “No Time at All,” from Pippin soundtrack, © Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.

Robertson, Roland, “Globality, Globalization and Transdisciplinarity,” Theory, Culture and Society 13, no. 4 (1996): 131.

Robertson, Roland, Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London: Sage, 1992.

Robertson, Roland, “Globalization and the Future of ‘Traditional Religion’” (paper presented at the Princeton Conference on The Church and the World in a New Century: Faith and Responsibility in a Global Future, October 1998), 9.

Robertson, Roland and JoAnn Chirico, “Humanity, Globalization, and World wide Religious Resurgence: A Theoretical Exploration,” Sociological Analysis 46, no. 3 (1985): 234.

Rorty, Richard, cited by Ed. L. Miller, Questions that Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996), p. 202.

Sine, Tom, Cease Fire: Searching for Sanity in America’s Culture Wars (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).

Thompson, John B., “Tradition and Self in a Mediated World,” in Detraditionalization: Critical Reflections on Authority and Identity, ed. Paul Heelas, Scott Lash and Paul Morris (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 89-108.

Thompson, John B., “Tradition and Self in a Mediated World,” in Detraditionalization: Critical Reflections on Authority and Identity, ed. Paul Heelas, Scott Lash and Paul Morris (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 93.

Wallace, Anthony F. C., “Revitalization Moments,” American Anthropologist 57 (1956): 264-81.

Wallace, “Revitalization Moments,” 265, 267, 268.

Weber, Max, “Religious Rejections of the World and their Directions,” in H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 342. Essay originally published in 1915.

Wuthnow, Robert. The Consciousness Reformation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Yankovic, Al, “Everything you know is wrong,” by Al Yankovic, Ear Booker Music, Inc., on CD “Weird Al” Yankovic Bad Hair Day © 1994, Volcano Entertainment III, L. L. C.


[1] I am grateful to my daughter Joanna Campbell for this paraphrase of the meaning of relativization





Hartford Seminary
77 Sherman Street
Hartford, CT 06105
© 2000 - 2006 Hartford Seminary, Hartford Institute for Religion Research