Tuesday, February 04, 2003
Simon Blackburn on the futility of moral relativism:
There are philosophers ('absolutists') who like to stress truth, objectivity, rationality, and knowledge. Then there are others ('relativists') who like to stress contingency, mutability, culture, historicity, situatedness. The first group think that the second group have no standards. The second group are accused of encouraging 'postmodernism', or the licentious thinking and bullshitting that goes on in some parts of the humanities. The second group think the first group are conservative and complacent, and that their words simply mark fetishes...
So far the absolutists seem to be on the defensive. The relativists mock them for adding nothing with their big words, or disapprove of them for being insufficiently tolerant of other perspectives and points of view. And toleration is surely a Good Thing. But is the relativist view really so attractive?
Incisive and insightful. The only minus point was the rather negative portrayal of the Catholic priest in an anecdote at the beginning of the passage:
I like to illustrate the way these groups talk past each other with an anecdote of a friend of mine (I apologise to readers of my book Being Good, where I also tell this story). He was present at a high-powered ethics institute which had put on a forum in which representatives of the great religions held a panel. First the Buddhist talked of the ways to calm, the mastery of desire, the path of enlightenment. The panellists all said 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great'. Then the Hindu talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release, and they all said 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great'. And so on, until the Catholic priest talked of the message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation and the way to life eternal, and they all said 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great'. And he thumped the table and shouted: 'No! It's not a question of it if works for me! It's the true word of the living God, and if you don't believe it you're all damned to Hell!'
And I always thought table-thumping belonged to the TV Evangelists!
In any case, the article shows how little value relativism has when it comes to practical matters such as conflict resolution and policy making. Good read. (Thanks to Sindar and De Mello for pointing out the article).
posted by Kensy |