Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Relativism 2 ...

For the background to this discussion, see the earlier post.

Are you saying that although there appears to be relativism in the world, there really is not as everyone on an individual level has some views of right and wrong that they feel strongly about. So does relativism really exist? This is quite a complex area.

My response
I think I'd put the question differently.

Clearly 'relativism does exist' because there are people who hold this viewpoint. The question is philosophical rather than phenomenological. That is to say 'Is relativism logically consistent?'

I would say that relativism as a way of thinking serves two purposes. One is good, that is that it encourages tolerance and acceptance of other cultures and viewpoints. Another is not so good, in that enables the relativist to pick and choose beliefs, ideas and especially a moral code without reference to any external standard (unless it suits to do so).

This leads to a serious consequence, of this way of thinking, and that is that relativists must accept one absolute value, which is relativism itself. Therefore - according to the relativist - you can believe what ever you like so long as you do not hold that you are right and other people are wrong. For the relativist that is the only and most wicked heresy. You can find your civil rights limited if you hold this view too strongly.

Let me give an example of what I mean. I listened to an advocate of the human embryology bill being interviewed on the radio. She made an interesting comment. The interviewer asked her whether - given the proposed changes in the law - she considered the UK now to be the most liberal western country and if so why. She said that our legislation is 'not liberal, but evidential'. In other words, it is not driven by ideology, but by facts, (scientific) evidence. But of course, it is not the facts which were at issue, it was the moral implications of those facts. For someone to claim to be 'evidential' is to say that they do not consider any kind of moral code significant to the decision to be taken, but only the facts of the matter. But this is just a sleight of hand. This is not neutrality or 'evidential' because if someone believes in - for example - experimentation on embryos, this is because they have taken two moral positions: (1) that such experimentation will improve the lives of individuals in the future and (2) that the embryo does not have the moral status of a human person. Neither of these are 'evidential'. These are moral choices - rightly or wrongly which are based on some absolute values. It is a deceit to say that they are based on evidence.

And this is why the likes of Cardinal Pell, and for that matter Pope Benedict, keep going on about relativism, because relativism tries to sidestep moral argument (and other philosophical considerations) by pretending that such things are not relevant. As such it is dangerous.

If someone decides to be a relativist - that may be their conscientious choice - but they should not pretend to 'neutrality' because in fact they are being absolutist.

More to follow ...

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