Audio length: 15:33 minutes
What do 1959 Cadillacs, dog houses, rabbits and Congress have to do with the philosophical spirit of the age? Find out as Steve discusses ten things you cannot say as a moral relativist... but wait! THIS podcast goes to ELEVEN!
In the previous rant… ummm, podcast…. I talked about the gospel of relativism and how it is spread through the media, mostly blatantly but often subtly and inconspicuously. I remember a few years ago listening to a local talk radio station and it dawned on me across the day that ALL of the hosts would encourage callers by saying “How do you FEEEL about that….” . Not once in a day would a program host say… “What do you think…” it was ALWAYS how do you feel. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by a long shot, but it certainly seemed that this was a result of a directive, training or some kind of manual for talk show hosts on this particular station. Is there a real philosophical difference between “How do you feel” and “What do you think”? In reality there is, but according to the vague anthropology of our culture there isn’t a difference, the two are definitionally virtually synonymous. And in practice for the most part, we are indeed led by our emotions and not our reason. Debby Boone’s old lyrics and the thousands of variations on them “How can it be wrong when it feels so right…” is an anthropological statement that defines the human person and how we process reality.
One of the issues in our culture is that we don’t have open debate and intelligent dialogue about things as basic as a view of the human person, metaphysics and the universe. We can discuss the bail out, taxes, the airlines checked baggage charges, interest rates… we can debate and scream all day at each other about anything in “particular” but we can’t discuss everything “in general”. We’re willing to hear and debate people’s opinions on “some things” but not on “everything”, which is what is really important because how we define the universe will determine how we define what is and isn’t an issue and what should or can be done about them.
There used to be heretics in the world, now there are merely personal feelings about things. Heretics can only exist where there is dogma, and in former times people were burned at the stake for a wrong philosophy. Of course we’re much more enlightened than that now and no longer boil people in oil for heretical beliefs, but the issue is not so much whether we should use the cauldron of oil as a penalty, it is how we have done away with the notion of “heresy”.
GK Chesterton in “Orthodoxy” said, There is only one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying his philosophy does not matter. Politeness, intellectual laziness, and lack of willingness to openly explore and address the consequences of one’s philosophy has done to the world what the Inquisition, Crusades, witch hunts, the stocks, the stake and the cauldron could not do: silence the heretics.
The fact of the matter is we are living in a neo-pagan world. The pagan is thought of as a person without religion, it is actually a person with several religions and most of them have at the center themselves as their god. The moral relativist is the modern pagan, usually a person who claims to have either no religion but is “spiritual”. The New Age spirituality is a modern expression of paganism that, to its discredit, has an even fuzzier definition of God and the universe than true ancient pagans did. The ancient pagans at least had gods who were in control of various aspects of creation and the human being’s behavior even if it meant sacrificing virgins or having a fertility ritual in the fields at the spring equinox. The modern pagans have no gods but themselves because they are too enlightened, spiritually highly evolved, and smart to believe in Pan, Bacchuus or Zeus…but they go for wine, women and song without the whole “god thing” attached to it.
Modern paganism’s attraction is that it is vague and ambiguous enough that it allows its adherents to justify any behavior they want to in themselves or others with whom they happen to agree. It also permits them to condemn anything that smacks of intolerance and judgmentalism….all in the name of being on a higher spiritual plane than everyone else caught up in ancient moralities that don’t apply to our modern advanced and enlightened age.
Unfortunately for the modern pagan, truth is not ambiguous. Truth is exclusive, it sets boundaries and defines things with precision. Truth is, by its nature, intolerant of falsehood, vagueness and inclusivity of things contrary to it. All of humanity and its endeavors including science, metaphysics, politics, and even social structures rely on a notion of exclusive, precise and concrete truth. You don’t even want to buy gas without a concept of truth working at the gas pump…we don’t want Exxon to invoke tolerance and a notion of “your truth and my truth are just different” when it comes to paying the bill.
Someone can point out that what was thought to be true (like the world is flat or Keanu Reeves can act), has been demonstrated to be false, but that does not do away with the notion of truth, it just proves something was not true or falsely believed to be true. GK Chesterton says, if something is true it is true at all times and length of time has nothing to do with its veracity. Someone might say “Oh that was true for the ancients but not for us modern men”. That is like saying something is true at 7 AM, but not true at 8:45. And if something is false, it is false at noon and at suppertime. Time does not alter truth or falsehood. . I remember in the 60’s when Fletcher came out with his book on “the new morality”….someone said, that’s neither new, nor moral, it’s the same old nastiness that’s been around forever. Who is right, Fletcher or the preacher, depends on your definition of truth.
So ultimately, “What is truth” is a valid question worthy of spending one’s life trying to answer. “All truth is relative” or “Truth is what is true for you” are statements of intellectual laziness at best and philosophical lunacy at worst.
We hear people say all the time, “Well that’s true for you…” or some variation of it. If we really held that thinking to the fire there’s a whole lot of discussion that couldn’t take place in any meaningful way. Here’s 11 things that are pretty much off the table if someone REALLY believes in relativism.
1. You cannot say “we HAVE to have tolerance for everyone’s points of view”, that would include the view of the intolerant person who wants to kill everyone who is tolerant. Bernard Shaw once wrote: The golden rule is that there is no golden rule. When the absolute is that there is no absolute then everything is permitted, including intolerance, whether we like it or not.
2. You cannot talk about “truth”. If we say “everything is an aspect of the truth” then we must admit we know what the truth IS, just as if a car collector says, “This is a bumper from a 1957 Cadillac”, he knows what a 57 Caddy is and one truly exists. However, modern armchair philosophers will say “we can’t know truth”, only parts of it… then how can we know something is a PART of truth if we have no clue what TRUTH is? or is we claim there is no “absolute truth”. It is like saying “this is a 57 Caddy bumper, but there is no such thing as a 57 Caddy. (That would be too bad….) It is fashionable to be “ignorant of absolute truth” and yet claim to embrace “truth” where we find it. It seems that if we are to find real truth somewhere or anywhere, we need to know MORE certainly what it looks like, not less, otherwise we have no clue what we are looking for or looking at…. We’d have no clue if we have a bumper from a Cadillac or a gas tank from a Pinto.
3. Cannot talk of “progress”. It is considered “dogmatic” to teach that a human being is intended to progress toward a divine image in which he is created, but “non-dogmatic” to teach that society needs to make progress for all human beings to attain personal fulfillment (whatever THAT means)! Personal fulfillment is a dogma, and so is the notion of “progress”, which assumes that where we’ve been is less than or worse than where we should be going. If there are no absolutes, then progress or regress or congress are all the same thing: pointless.
4. Speaking of congress: We cannot even talk about government and policy in a meaningful way. Differences of opinion on the Wall Street/auto industry bail out and judgments on the ethical character of CEO’s who take billion dollar bonuses are pointless. Who are we to push our middle class Puritan work ethic values on those who get wealthy in a way we can’t? Why does the bail out even matter, and what difference does it make if all things are relative, there is no absolute good or evil to poverty or riches and how we got there? We distrust a person with a different economic policy, but not one with a different view of good and evil, or of God, or of the nature of the material universe.
5. You cannot punish someone for doing wrong because good and evil are ultimately self defined. However if truth is what YOU feel, if you just don’t like someone you can put him in boiling oil because wellll….its not immoral, just painful to the other person, but who cares? If we see someone torturing a puppy, we cannot say the person is evil, we cannot say stopping him is good. If we apply relativism strictly, we can however say the puppy AND puppy’s pain matters to ME, but then we have to tolerate the fact that it doesn’t matter to the person who is enjoying torturing the animal.
6. You cannot say “Thank you” and mean it, because there is no difference between “gimme that, wench” and “Please pass the ketchup, dear.” But try it and see if it matters, you’ll have the whole night to lay awake and philosophize about “why am I sleeping on the couch with the dog”?
7. You cannot say “excuse me” because no excuse is needed for anything we do, and nothing we do can be taken as offensive. And if it is, so what? Who cares except the person offended…and why should I care… unless I like sleeping with the dog….
8. We cannot talk about “rights” for oppressed people. Blacks, gays, women, third world occupants or other religious groups may be labeled inferior by other groups who fancy themselves to be superior, but the label inferior has no meaning because there is not a standard of “superior”, they just are what they are. “Rights” and how they are treated doesn’t matter anyway because “equality” is a pointless status that has no objective meaning except what each person imagines it to be for themselves.
9. You cannot say morality is based on what is useful to society, necessary for peace and order, or a combined agreement among members of a society because society, peace, order and agreement become the absolute criteria for good, and if a society decides to exterminate Jews, Muslims, Blacks or all men over 5 feet 8 with size 9 ½ triple E shoes because in some weird way they’ve decided it will make their society better, who can say no?
10. You cannot say some societies need to evolve to higher standards of living, laws, or culture and social programs. Female circumcision, child prostitution, slavery, rules of terror and genocide are all equally valid expressions of human nature and culture, after all rule by force and terror is universal. Changing the environment and structure of social systems has no point because all societies are equally right and equally expressing what is right for them and we have no right to judge or push our societal norms on them.
11. You cannot say, “Whoa, dude…that was cool”, or “Honeybuns, yer wonderful”, nor can you say, “that stinks!”, nor can you be proud when someone says “You’re the bomb”… well, of course you CAN say or do any of those things. But in the end they are meaningless because they are merely someone’s pointless opinion at that moment, And they are meaningless because they have no reference to any objective reality or measure of “goodness, worth or beauty”, consequently praise has no real point for you except a fleeting moment of an illusion of pleasure. But when you get down to it, the real pragmatics of relativism is that it is mostly used to fend off blame and responsibility…, you’ll never hear a relativist avoid praise.
The relativist may claim a broader basis for his ideology and moral judgments like culture, societal norms and evolutionary desires embedded in our genes, all boiling down to some form of mechanistic materialism which dead ends in determinism,… but no matter how he gets there in his philosophical fog, in the end it is about himself as the sole arbiter and judge of even those things. Ultimately, there is no absolute standard beyond his own thoughts, experience and feelings.
Indeed, “You are the judge” because in the end it is merely all a matter of opinion, and the only opinion that matters is your own as we are constantly reminded by radio, television, new age spirituality, the arts and even yes, even ketchup bottles.
I am reminded of a quote from “Platitudes Undone” where
Holbrook Jackson writes: “No opinion matters finally: except your own.”
to which GK Chesterton replies: “...said the man who thought he was a rabbit.”
We now return you to your supper table and your regularly scheduled condiments.