Skip to comments.Guarding the boundaries: On the moral consequences of relativism (Fine Essay)
Posted on 01/07/2009 10:16:00 AM PST by mojito
Since Ive received no education in philosophy whatever, it is no doubt very rash of me to make a broad generalization concerning the subject, but I shall risk it nonetheless: that in the whole history of philosophy not a single important philosophical problem has ever been solved beyond all possible dispute.
I know that the late Sir Karl Popper claimed to have solved the problem of induction not merely to his own satisfaction, but also to the satisfaction of all rational men; alas, I do not think that all rational men have reciprocated by agreeing with him. Pace Popper, the philosophy of science is not now at an end, any more than is mental, political, or moral philosophy.
Unless I am much mistaken, the metaphysical foundations of aesthetic and moral judgment have not been established with anything like the certainty with which, say, the circulation of the blood has been established. I know that it is fashionable to state that all scientific knowledge is provisional, and itself rests upon metaphysically uncertain foundations. Perhaps in the abstract this is correct; yet I do not think anyone seriously expects a future researcher to discover that the blood does not in fact circulate. Evidently, there are degrees even of scientific tentativeness.
If every moral judgment is metaphysically uncertain, unsupported by any philosophical lender of last resort, it appears to some people that the only answer to the question of how people ought to behave is a complete relativism, possibly backed up by some version of John Stuart Mills principle that everything is permissible that does not harm another person.
(Excerpt) Read more at newcriterion.com ...
Good essay! Pope Benedict XVI has a wealth of scholarly writings on the insidious evil of relativism too. ;-)
The first reason for the triumph is that anything that flatters or promotes egotism is likely to prove popular,
How true. It's no coincidence that the rise of the Democratic Party is occurring as a generation of young self-deluded egotists comes of age.
I also loved the closing poetic lines from Matthew Arnold. Beautiful...
Ping for later.
A good essay but I kept getting caught up in the leaps of “logic” the author used to “prove” his points.
The relativistic ethics of the secular humanists do not tell how to harmonize legitimate preferences, interests, and styles of life when they interfere with one another. If one man can be made happy or be fulfilled by causing my unhappiness (say, by stealing my car), then how do we judge the morality of his action? Was he not fulfilling his desires?
One difficulty with relativism as popularly interpreted is that its proponents, its talkers, do not appear to be walking the walk; that is, the notion that there are no universals is itself proposed as a universal rule. This is an immediate and obvious contradiction. Equally obviously the proposal that all such rules are universals is logically consistent but does not appear to map very well to the real world.
We are left with the likelihood that some such rules are universals and some are not with no real way to determine which is which within the logical framework of the system. This is a problem as old as analytical philosophy, not just within the sub-field of ethics.
One can attempt to build a fairly relativistic ethical system with more or less coherence. Jeremy Bentham proposed that an action is to be measured by its ability to provide the most good for the most individuals affected. A little consideration will reveal that this refers strictly to a choice between alternative actions. One treats the analysis of a single action by measuring its effects against the consequence of inaction, still a relativistic approach.
But these are purely theoretical considerations. Clearly one undertake this moral calculus for every action taken; one would be paralyzed into an inevitably unethical inaction. In practice, one uses mores for this. My point is that even relativistic theoretical philosophers do so despite their insistence that it is on a fundamental level illegitimate. Even complete nihilists do this. It isn't how they think that they think, but it is how they behave. Even nihilists and relativistic philosophers obey such arbitrary conventions as traffic lights. If they don't, they die.
It is popularly thought that human behavior is to be corrected by theory, but I cannot see that it is not equally necessary to modify theory by considerations of actual human behavior. People may be behaving the way they do for considerations outside the confines of a theoretical model. Edmund Burke touched on this with respect to political philosophy. Any ethical system that is incapable of accounting for this sort of ad hoc behavior is inherently incomplete.
And, in practice, citing God as an authority for ethical mores may seem arbitrary but is no more arbitrary than citing theory. Equally arbitrary is the assertion that there are no legitimate authorities at all. "Arbitrary" therefore is a bit of a red herring - you can't escape it, the only difference is how you deal with it.
Oopsie - “one undertake” should be “one cannot undertake.” Poor proofreading.
Future reading and attempted understanding bookmark.