Wednesday, September 05, 2007

First Things On the Square Topic for 5 September - Relativism

On Relativism
By Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

At first glance, the expression “the dictatorship of relativism” sounds like a paradox, maybe even an oxymoron. After all, aren’t dictatorships a form of absolutism? And don’t relativists find it difficult, if not impossible, to make judgments about differing moral systems? So how can they “dictate” the behavior and thoughts of others if they can’t make judgments about what people should think and do?


Maybe, in fact, there are no relativists and “we’re all absolutists now,” to paraphrase a line from Nathan Glazer. Alasdair MacIntyre opened the second chapter of his famous book After Virtue with a scene we can all recognize: Debates on just war, abortion, capital punishment, and the like are echo chambers, with everyone essentially hurling absolutes at the other side of the debate. But since these absolutes are conceptually incommensurable, the shrillest debater gets the last word.

But where do these incommensurable absolutes come from? To sum up MacIntyre’s argument as briefly as possible (a longer account can be found here), the word good when applied to moral situations has changed its meaning. In Aristotle it was simply taken for granted that the word good can, with no violence to its meaning, be equally applied to a good saddle, a good horse, a good cavalryman, a good general, and a good person: The adjective properly belongs to all these nouns if each item is doing what it is assigned, or designed, to do. But with the loss of Aristotle’s equally teleological understanding of physics and biology, the moral application of good came under heavy challenge, above all from David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche: Now man no longer seems to have a purpose or function that can be assessed by easily adjudicable standards. The result of this is that, according to MacIntyre, good becomes a mere term of approval, and all contemporary debate about morality boils down to a choice between either Aristotle or Nietzsche.


The sexual revolution marched under the banner of freedom; feminism under that of equality. Although they went arm in arm for a while, their differences eventually put them at odds with each other, as Tocqueville said freedom and equality would always be. This is manifest in the squabble over pornography, which pits liberated sexual desire against feminist resentment about stereotyping. We are presented with the amusing spectacle of pornography clad in armor borrowed from the heroic struggles for freedom of speech, and using Miltonic rhetoric, doing battle with feminism, newly draped in the robes of community morality, using arguments associated with conservatives who defend traditional sex roles, and also defying an authoritative tradition in which it was taboo to suggest any relation between what a person reads and sees and his sexual practices. In the background stand the liberals, wringing their hands in confusion because they wish to favor both sides and cannot.

Amid these random observations, I’m sure I must have an argument buried here somewhere, although given the confused way absolutes and relativities rattle around inside our minds and in contemporary debate, I’m not exactly sure what that argument is or how to conclude. But I think I can at least say this: (1) everyone is an absolutist about something; (2) relativism, both in the moral and theological sense, represents the single greatest challenge to the Christian religion in our contemporary setting; (3) relativists usually have arguments, but that doesn’t mean they are not arguing for relativism, even if, like the rest of us, they are absolutist about something.
For the whole article, click here.

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