FOUR NOTES ON RELATIVISM
The newly elected Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Ratzinger) has brought to the fore the critical problem of the rival claims of absolutism and relativism in the governance of human life. Absolute truths and absolute values are advanced as both the support and the reward of religion.
Shortly after his election Pope Benedict was quoted in BBC News as saying, "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its higher goal one's own ego and one's own desires." With all due respect I submit that this is propagandist rhetoric. Let us experimentally replace the emotively charged words 'dictatorship', 'ego', and 'desires' in this sentence with others and see how the tenor is transformed: "We are moving toward a sane relativism which does not recognize anything as for absolutely certain and which has as its highest goal one's own soul and one's own ideals." This becomes a defensible, though not an adequate, position. The inadequacy stems from the apparent isolation of 'one's own soul and one's own ideals' from the totality of life and humanity. This in itself is an illustration of how a relative relativism (as opposed to a nihilistic relativism) is a healthier stance than absolutism.
Let us begin by asking: Can a finite mind escape relativism? It would seem obvious – one could say axiomatic if the very word did not reek of presumptuousness – that a finite understanding cannot establish or entertain an absolute judgement. Does this land us in a thoroughgoing relativism? This is a question that calls for nicely discriminating consideration if we are not to go to ruin between the Scylla of absolute dogmatism and the Charybdis of nihilistic relativism. It is a question that I have taken up in "Must Values Be Objective?" and elsewhere. The following note is simply a marginal comment.
If we admit that it is not given to our finite understanding to reach absolute truth and absolute standards, it might seem that one recourse open to us is to rely on a perfect mind to provide us with the absolute truths and standards that we need. This is the claim of all theistic faiths. The problem with this claim is twofold. In the first place, the various theistic systems, all equally laying claim to good credentials, produce discrepant truth-claims and diverging standards, and where they agree – as on certain moral maxims and values –, the same maxims and values are found to be affirmed by non-theistic systems. In the second place, and this is perhaps the weightier consideration, if we decide to overlook the discrepancies between 'revealed' truths and principles, as for instance by peremptorily opting for one 'revelation' against the others, the acquiescence in such a handed-down system of beliefs and values amounts to forfeiting our autonomy and all claim to personal dignity. Some people may find, indeed innumerable people do find, this an acceptable price to pay for the comfort it gives: with these it is pointless to argue.
Putting aside reliance on revelation while acknowledging that absolute truth and absolute standards – involving absolute judgements – are beyond the reach of our finite minds, can we still form judgements and maxims and embrace values sufficiently secure for the guidance of life?
I believe we can if we choose for anchorage two confessedly subjective principles: (a) our moral and intellectual integrity as our inalienable birthright and the whole of our worth; and (b) the affirmation of the intrinsic value of all life as the criterion for the rightness or wrongness of all action.
In the light of these two rpinciples the actual historical and geographical relativity of moral codes and values and the notorious contradictions and incogency of philosophical views lose their sting. Indeed, by candidly acknowledging the relativity of moral codes and standards and the ineradicable insufficiency of all philosophical positions what we lose in the way of certainty we gain in the humility and inward truthfulness necessary both for the life of civilized society and for the life of a wholesome individual.
The atrocities of the recent London blasts have brought to the fore once more the conflict between the need for security – the right of peaceful citizens to protection – on the one hand, and the need to safeguard the privacy and civil liberties of individuals on the other hand. No equation or calculus however refined or sophisticated can tell us where to draw the line between these two legitimate needs. The line will be and has to be a shifting one, shoved this way and that way by differing circumstances and under differing conditions. What is of the highest importance is to keep alive the awareness that the right of individuals to security and the right of individuals to liberty are equally absolute, though in our imperfect world they necessarily limit each other and neither can be allowed to reign absolutely. They are inviolable and yet we have to violate them.
Our sole worth as human beings resides in the insight we have into absolute values. But we are imperfect creatures living in an imperfect world and the values which light our path in life are dimmed and constrained by the contingencies of actual existence. Our actions cannot be the actions of gods. When we forget the humility proper to our imperfection, we fall into the brutalities of Talibans who obey the commands of Allah and the callous atrocities of officers who obey the commands of Authority in Abou Ghraib and Guantanamo.
The interminable controversies raging around problems involving the application of ethical principles are needlessly embittered by the erroneous assumption on all sides that such problems are amenable to neat theoretical solutions. In such controversies it cannot be the case that one side is in the right and the other in the wrong.
To say so is not to admit a thoroughgoing relativism. Let us take the question of abortion for instance. The preservation of the life of the unborn baby, at whatever stage of gestation, is an absolute value. The preservation of the life and health of the expectant mother is an absolute value. If we were in a world of pure ideals these absolutes would not conflict. But in the actual world absolutes come embodied in instances loaded with the imperfections of finitude and particularity. These particular instances will clash, even when they are instances of the selfsame value.
Such questions can only be discussed reasonably and fruitfully when on all sides we acknowledge that such problems are not open to neat logical solutions. Then and only then will each party approach the position of the other party with sympathy and understanding. Then we realize that no law or regulation can be formulated or devised to satisfy all claims to the full or to be applicable satisfactorily to all particular cases. Then we realize that every actual case cannot but be an individual instance of the general tragedy of life, the general tragedy of all existence, to be approached with the awe, reverence, sensitivity, and humility proper to the finite confronting a law of the Infinite.
What is wrong with relativism? First I have to point out that I am not posing the question rhetorically but inquiringly. I intend to examine what is wrong with relativism but only in the context of exploring what is right with relativism.
Relativism is inescapable, since all actual existence, by the very fact that it is actual, is determinate and finite and therefore relative. I think this is the basic lesson of the Parmenides of Plato. But relativism as an outlook is itself relative: it is relative to the actual, the existent. The hub on which all our relative perceptions and relative judgements turn is the inner reality of the mind. It is the intrinsic worth of that inner reality that is the secure refuge of all value. You may change every law, infringe every maxim you lay down – for no fixed law or maxim can apply to every possible situation – as long as you preserve the integrity of your inner reality and your inner worth.
But relativism does not mean that whatever anyone says goes; it does not mean that all opinions and all judgements are of equal value. That is part of what I mean by saying that relativism itself is relative. For every opinion and every judgement relates to a context and every context may relate to a wider context. Therefore, when I say that relativisim is inescapable this does not mean that we have to admit the validity of the Protagorean 'Man the measure' in its extension to judgements as critically explored in Plato's Theaetetus.
It is unfortunate that relativism has been wedded to the Protagorean 'Man the measure', whose limitations have been exposed by Plato in the Theaetetus. We have to distinguish between these.
So while any meaningful opinion or judgement – that is, any opinion or judgement that is not nonsensical, that has some measure of coherence – must necessariloy have a measure or an element of truth, there must always be criteria for evaluating the opinion or judgement. The criteria in turn are necessarily relative, but they belong to a higher echelon in the ideal hierarchy that constitutes the intellectual constitution of an individual or a communal culture. It is such an ideal constitution that gives individuals and cultures their relative stability and integrity.
The concept of objective truth is only relevant to facts, to actual existents. Even there it has its limiting conditions, but let that pass for the moment. But in questions of value there is no fact – nothing which 'is the case' – external to the judgement to which the judgement may conform or not conform as an empirical judgement may conform or fail to conform to ascertainable fact. Of course you can always reduce the judgement or connect the judgement to objective conditions. Someone says, Love thy neighbour. You may go on to show by observation, by statistics, even by laboratory experiment, that following this maxim actually results in comfort, prosperity, better health for all parties concerned. But that does not touch the moral issue. What if I am clever enough to secure for myself comfort, prosperity, and bodily wellbeing, while not only hating my neighbour but also actively harming her or him? You can only see that as wrong if you accept the Socratic notion that the most precious thing in you flourishes by doing good and withers by doing bad deeds.
What positive contribution have our professional and academic philosophers made to the major social, cultural, and political debates of our time? Have they in their pretended new sciences of bioethics, metaethics, and the like, been able to lay down valid principles or offer serviceable maxims for settling the controversies raging round such problems as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, cloning – to name a few issues that come to mind at random?
Doubtless many of them have made thoughtful, enlightening contributions to the discussion of such problems. That is not the point. My point is that in fostering the belief that the new-fangled 'disciplines' are capable of ever reaching rationally deduced definitive solutions to such problems, more harm than good has been done. In all such problems there are not one right way and one wrong way. All such problems issue from the ineradicable imperfection of all actual existence. In every such problem there is a conflict between two values where there is not room for the two together.
The sane, healthy, and beneficial way to deal with such problems is for each side of the controversy to sympathize with the other side, and for the two sides to try by compromise, by give and take, by trial and error, to reach pragmatic decisions and arrangements, always subject to revision and alteration.
On the contrary, assumig that such problems are capable, if only theoretically and ideally, of definitive philosophical or scientific solution, with the implication that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong in such questions, only leads to intransigence and loss of the capacity for imaginative sympathy and understanding on both sides of a controversy. In this way philosophy, believing itself capable of reaching truth, instead of fighting dogmatism and doggedness, institutes its own dogmatisms and sanctified ideologies, breeding hatred and enmity and conflict instead of love and friendliness and harmony.
The only cure for this malady is the cure prescribed by Socrates: the confession of philosophical ignorance. No one can possess the final and unalterable truth on any question. All we can do and all we have to do is to seek understanding – critical understanding of ourselves and sympathetic, loving understanding of our fellow human beings.
I had just written the above lines when I came across an article ("Tortured logic", by Christopher Shea, The Boston Globe, December 18, 2005) discussing various opposed approaches to the so-called 'ticking-bomb' thought experiment designed as a test-tube case for examining whether torture may be permissible under certain circumstances. I confess that I find the very idea of this particular thought-experiment nauseating. I think that the mere idea of discussing the 'permissibility' of torture cannot fail to be as demoralizing as associating with torturers even if for the purpose of scientific research. But the thing is with us; there is no escape; I find it necessary to say my say.
In my opinion, the whole controversy over the question of torture is flawed because all parties think they can prove by argument whether it is ever right or never right to resort to torture for a good cause. Seeking to settle the question one way or the other by logical argument is wrong. Here there are distinct positive values involved that, in our essentially imperfect world, under certain circumstances, stand in irreconcilable opposition. To debate the question as if it could be decided once and for all, even if only theoretically, one way or the other, obliges the two parties to the controversy to negate one value or the other. What we need instead is to stress the ultimacy of the pure values and acknowledge that in practice there will be tragic situations where a positive value is inevitably sacrificed.
Those who seek to prove by logical argument that under certain hypothetical circumstances torture can be justified envelop in thick smoke an insight of human civilization dearly bought, that torture is degrading in the first place not so much to the tortured subject as to the society that finds torture acceptable under any circumstances.
Those who seek to demonstrate logically that under no circumstances is it right to apply torture, in thus advancing a rigid dogmatic stance make it impossible to weigh, where necessary, sacrifices and losses to avoid the greater by accepting the lesser.
What are we to do then? I believe that, in the first place and above all, we must never legalize torture. To do that is to reverse the course of human civilization and slip into a bottomless abyss of degradation. But there may be circumstances in which a certain person is impelled to apply torture to save life. Shall we condemn that person then? I would not. That person was placed in a tragic situation where whatever s/he did would result in some evil. But it is harmful, it is soul-polluting, to spread the idea that under certain circumstances the application of torture is justifiable: to establish that as a principle is to introduce a deadly germ into the body of humanity.
Is my position logical? No. How could it be? The whole situation is a concoction of imperfection: nothing consistently good can be made of it. What we can and should do is to hold fast to our ultimate moral insights: life is good; pain is bad; pain in someone intending to injure a person dear to me is still bad; loss of life for an intending killer is still bad. When I find myself forced to do a bad thing that does not make it good, even though the act does not make me evil, yet it makes me miserable.