Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Relativism: The Neutrality Myth

I pointed out in the last installment, relativists absolutely love to claim the middle ground as their own. No arguing (which leads to truth claims that are arrogant). No extremes (which is born of arrogance and results in intolerance). Just the calm, safe, tolerant, enlightened center -- right there where we all should strive to meet.

Now I have to admit this sounds tempting -- especially in a time when political demagoguing (on both sides of the aisle) has become more like the UFC is than the U.S. Congress ought to be. But we have to make an important distinction here. Politics is the art of compromise on policy issues, but it does not follow that compromise should also apply to moral issues -- especially when it comes to legislation. You see, despite the fact that we are told we "can't legislate morality," the truth is that we legislate morality all the time. We can't help it. It's just another area where the relativist wants to live in a pretend world and deny the obvious realities that come with living in this one.

There are several problems with the relativist who tries to stand on the "middle ground" and claim neutrality as a badge of honor. When your claim to a moral position is reduced to a personal preference there are several things that follow from such a position.

Relativists inevitably make moral judgments. I don't say this pejoratively; I make moral judgments too. Everybody does! And that's the point. If the relativist thinks it’s wrong to judge, how can he say that those of us who claim that something is morally wrong are "mistaken" in the first place? Isn’t he just making a judgment by saying that and thereby pushing his socially conditioned view on me? Whenever a relativist says you shouldn’t force your views on others, the first words out of your mouth should be "Why not?" Any answer given will be an example of him forcing his views on you.

Relativism is not neutral. Some relativists claim that the attempt to enforce a point of view (i.e. to "legislate morality") on a controversial moral issue is illegitimate because that point of view is based on prior metaphysical commitment. As such, the government should not restrict it. But to say that government should remain neutral on metaphysical questions is a metaphysical claim -- a moral statement about how government should function. The fact is that most moral issues are controversial. So what? The fact that a point of view is controversial has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of the issue in question.

Moral relativism leads to inconsistent conclusions. Relativism doesn’t allow its adherent to claim anything is actually morally wrong, only that it is their preference to think it is morally wrong. This disallows the moral relativist the ability to advocate limiting moral wrongs if society has deemed them legal. Who is the relativist to question that? This illuminates the inconsistency in the moral relativist who claims on one hand that a moral position is wrong, while at the same time claiming adherence to moral relativism, which says that there is no such thing as an objective moral claim.

Moral relativism undermines the moral authority for cultural reform. Because most versions of relativism rely on the consensus of the community, many have actually promoted giving up on ethical disputes (against abortion for instance) because the issue we're arguing about is the law of the land, our challenging that law makes us sound "divisive," and our efforts are therefore an effort in futility. But legal does not equal moral.

Take the issue of slavery for instance. Suppose the abolitionists or civil rights advocates had thrown in the towel after the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scot decision that deemed slaves didn’t count as persons, or after Plessy-vs-Ferguson entrenched racial segregation? Those who fought against these gross abuses of human rights were in the minority -- but they kept fighting anyway. A true moral relativist would have no such motivation to fight against the "consensus." Or consider Nazi Germany. The Nazi opposition -- folks like Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- mostly died in prison for their actions, something moral relativism could not condone.

This also demonstrates the inherent danger in a morally relativistic point of view. In such a system, those who have the most power determine what is acceptable and what isn’t. Might makes right. Ironically, it is the relativist who sees neutrality as a virtue, who ends up under the thumbs of tyrants.

Moral Relativism leads to absurd conclusions: Taking relativism to its logical conclusions is often a great way to show how utterly ridiculous it can be. Because the relativist cannot succumb to judging whether someone else's view is wrong, she will go to great lengths to remain neutral about it -- even in the face of such an obvious wrong as slavery.

As an example, a relativist I was recently discussing this issue with defended his own view that slavery was wrong while also attempting to defend relativism. Here is what he was left with:
we as a society today have reached a consensus that slavery is immoral. And while I do agree that slavery is abhorrent and wrong ... it is a view of morality that exists by consensus. Its place as unquestioned moral truth is perhaps less due to its correctness, and more due to the fact that "justice is the advantage of the stronger." If the South had won the Civil War, the way people look at slavery would certainly have evolved differently, and any discussion about the morality of slavery would look quite different.
So, there you go. Moral relativism allows the possibility that slavery could be morally acceptable if our views had "evolved" differently. The idea is ridiculous on its face.

Now, I don't think the relativist really believes that himself -- he admits as much -- but his relativism forces him to put forth a view like this because the thought of admitting to an objective moral wrong is more repugnant to him than stating the obvious: that slavery is wrong for all people, at all times, in all places, for any reason -- the definition of objective moral truth.

The reality is that the moral relativist cannot live consistently within the view he defends. No one is neutral. Do not let the relativist denounce you for "imposing your view on others." The fact is that even the most strident call for neutrality commands the imposition of that moral point of view on you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Relativism: What Do You Mean By "True?"

Part of the reason that relativism is so frustrating to confront is that it is like punching a blob of jello. The relativist can constantly redefine what she "meant by that," or alternately define truth for herself. This hinges on the relativist's definition of "truth" as a moving target. The most extreme relativists claim that truth is nothing but a personal preference; everyone has their own. Most, however, subscribe to a version of truth that is "constructed" by communities or cultures.

Both these lead to ridiculous ends. Everyone can't have their own personal version of the truth. First, those who have differing (and therefore contradictory) versions of truth would be in direct logical conflict with one another but neither would be capable of calling the other one "wrong." Both could be wrong of course, but it is logically impossible for both to be right. Claiming someone else's truth is wrong is the ultimate No-No for a relativist.

Second, there would be no basis for a minority subset of the culture to question the consensus "truth," even if they disagreed with it. In the cultural consensus version of truth, might makes right. The danger in that philosophical idea should be obvious.

I have already discussed the Correspondence Theory (the orthodox view of truth that has been in place since the dawn of humanity). It is one of several other philosophical definitions of "truth," but it is the only view that does not see truth as some kind of construction. The important issue is that, to the relativist, looking at truth this way is not acceptable. The reason? Accepting this definition of truth leads to absolute (a.k.a. "objective") standards of truth and ethics, and any claim to know a truth like that is considered oppressive by its very existence.

To demonstrate how this works more tangibly, I will let some relativists speak for themselves to demonstrate the lengths to which they will go to avoid sounding oppressive or arrogant. That their claims sometimes descend into silliness is deemed irrelevant because, for them, the instinct to avoid the 'A'- word (Absolutism) or to avoid sounding "judgmental" overrides even the most basic tenets of logic.

The first example comes in several different versions, usually something like this:

"I am pursuing truth just like you are..."
or
"Always act in the name of truth..."

At first these sound nice -- the pursuit of truth and all -- and they would be if you took it in the sense that truth is an objective thing to be discovered. But when dealing with a relativist you cannot make that assumption. You have to be careful about identifying which definition of "truth" is in play when you converse with a relativist.

Always ask for clarification on which definition of truth we should act upon. The reasons for this are obvious. If one acts in the name of their own personal version of "truth" -- and if everyone else does the same -- the outcomes we strive for can be all over the map. Some will be selfish. Some will be inconsiderate of others, or even downright evil. This is especially true when you are dealing with moral truth. Some could seek to imitate Mother Teresa, while others chose Jeffrey Dahmer. Whose to say which is true, or wrong, or "better" than any other choice?

The same goes for the 'community consensus' version of truth. Some communities (like the Nazis) might pursue the "truth" that the Aryan race is superior to all others, while Flat-Earthers might vote to defund the Navy for safety reasons. It seems like acting on a relativistic truth (one that is defined by a person or his 'community') will lead to chaos while acting in the name of Absolute Truth leads to, well, Truth. The latter is what we call dealing in "reality."

When you attempt to point this out to a relativist, there are two common responses. The first is to chastise you for your know-it-all attitude and the arrogance you display in claiming to know the truth. The second (utilized only by polite relativists) invariably includes some sort of statement about how "we'll just have to agree to disagree."

The first response confuses the fact that the claim to be able to know true things does not imply that one is all-knowing or that one knows any truth exhaustively. Obviously, God himself (the source of objective truth) is the only one who could claim either of these. The second response is simply meant to avoid having to succumb to logic. But "just disagreeing" about a direct logical contradiction does not absolve the relativist from being bound by logic. It's just a cop out.

Another tack relativists like to take is to avoid having to side with the truth is the incessant pursuit of neutrality. I will talk about the "myth of moral neutrality" in my next post but this is the kind of thing you might hear a relativist say:

"Relativity is the best way. Everything is relative."
or
"The middle ground is the best place to be."

First, the confusion with "relativity" and "relativism" is a common one in which relativists believe that because Einstein's General Relativity Theory implies that "all motion is relative to its frame of reference," this can also be applied to the areas of truth and ethics to conclude that "everything is relative." To this notion, Einstein himself is said to have responded, "Relativity is for physics, not ethics." This is because Einstein was smart enough to know that logical contradictions cannot be true, regardless of the discipline in which someone tries to justify them.

Second, this common tactic among relativists -- to claim neutrality and always strive to avoid "taking sides" no matter how heinous or outrageous either of the poles may be. This inevitably leads to ridiculous ends.

For instance, if I say it is true that the Earth revolves around the Sun, while someone else says the Earth does not revolve around the Sun, what is the middle ground? The fact is that one of the claims is true, and one is false. There is no other option. In truth (no pun intended), the relativist resorts to the cover of "neutrality" because she doesn't want to allow for objective moral truth. Here is an actual example of how this kind of claim plays out:
Me: [The middle ground is not the best place to be] when the "middle ground" allows for a contradiction. Basic logic tells us there is a "Law of the Excluded Middle" that we just can't get around.

Relativist: ... the middle ground isn't always ideal. However, more often than not, staying closer to the middle rather than extremes will create a better result.

Me: But you said, "the middle ground is the best place to be." Your response to my comment says: "the middle ground isn't always ideal."
Most relativists say this kind of thing all the time, not seeming to realize that The Law of the Excluded Middle makes the middle ground a logical impossibility! In fairness, this particular relativist did reword her statement to say: "... Often, the middle ground is the best place to be." This has a completely different meaning than the original of course (and in fairness, this particular relativist did admit as much), but relativism is notorious for seeking middle ground when there is none. Again, I will address this in the next post.

But now, my favorite relativist claim, offered here as a "maxim" to live by ...

"There are no absolutes; everything has an exception."

For those who may not be familiar with the term, a "self-refuting" statement is one that cannot be true because it contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. For instance, if I were to claim, "I cannot write in the English language," the claim is self-refuting because I wrote it in the English language. This maxim suffers the same fate because it makes the absolute claim that there are no absolutes (none, zero, nada) while at the same time making yet another absolute claim in saying that everything has exceptions. Don't worry, it gets worse ...
Me: This maxim is a self-refuting statement ... which means that there are, in fact, absolutes ...

Relativist: Self refuting? Not at all. If you read the whole thing (which I can't believe you didn't...poor reading comprehension on your part), you would see that I allow for exceptions to the "no absolutes" rule; i.e. some things are absolute. Not many though. And the goal of a maxim is to find a rule to live by which applies more often than not. It won't always apply...like I said, everything has an exception. Good try, but you fail in your attempt to 'one-up' me. In your rush to try and out-intellect me, you end up looking petty and jealous (emphases mine).

Me: Again, the maxim says: "There are no absolutes, everything has an exception," while your response to my comment says, "some things are absolute, not many though." Do you not see this is a contradiction? The contradiction arises because the maxim is self-refuting (and therefore false).

Relativist: It isn't a contradiction if you read the entire maxim. You keep quoting part of the whole, but leaving out an important piece. To paraphrase my maxim: "Everything has an exception, including this; there are a few exceptions to the rule that there are no exceptions. Therefore, some things do not have exceptions, they are absolute."
Got it? Is it possible to construct a more convoluted explanation than this in an attempt to cover up a simple logical contradiction? These are the ends to which relativism forces you to retreat in order to defend it. Let me break this one down ...

"There are no absolutes …" "No" means none, zero, nada, which makes this phrase an absolute claim. When this absolute claim is applied to itself, it is a contradiction, thereby rendering this phrase “self-refuting.”

"Everything has an exception …" The word "everything" also makes this an absolute claim which also makes it self-refuting and meaningless.

Combining two self-refuting phrases into a "maxim" does not a coherent statement make. But there is an easier way to re-phrase this maxim. It goes something like this: "There are absolutes."

See how easy that is? Why is it so hard for the relativist to just say it that way? And, as an aside, what about the nasty remarks that go along with it (i.e. "poor reading comprehension on your part," "petty and jealous" etc.) from a relativist who claims to abhor judgmentalism?

Interesting.

To be fair, if you look at this relativist's explanation, there is an admission that there are absolutes; he just can't bring himself to say so directly. It has to be couched in a convoluted triple negative flurry of "exceptions." This particular relativist also goes on to declare that he "is not bothered by our disagreement" but wonders about someone like me who will "push and push and push to make others agree with them." The arrogance thing, you know.

But please notice that if I am trying to get the relativist to agree with anything, it is not me. It is with basic logic and the inevitable conclusions of the relativist's own statements!

This is what makes relativism so frustrating to deal with, but deal with it we must. Relativism is more than just a trivial game of semantics. It is foolishness that turns deadly when moral truth is at stake. That will be the topic next time ...

[For the record, the discussion above is only meant to highlight some variations of the arguments I have personally run across from self-professing relativists. I have intentionally avoided identifying where or when I was confronted with these comments because it is the ideas that I find maddening. These kinds of things have been said by all kinds of different relativists on many different occasions. These are just specific examples that have stuck in my mind.]

Friday, February 4, 2011

Relativism: Living In Candyland

[In keeping with the topic of relativism, this is a re-post of mine from a few years back that discusses the issue in a little more detail. It's kind of long but it contains a little more discussion of just why relativism is so misguided]

I want to start off by making a startling personal admission that you may find shocking. You may continue at your own risk but consider yourself properly warned. Here goes ….

I hate Candyland.

Always have. Always will. The game drives me nuts. When my kids were little, I used to find any kind of excuse to not play it with them. But, because I did not want to hurt their feelings or make a big deal about it, I was sometimes trapped into participating in the game that never seems to end. It requires no skill, no memorization, no strategy. It has no point.

It is simply a mindless game of chance in which your only claim to victory is the random drawing of the right colored card. Mindless that is, unless you are the Dad who pre-stacks the cards so that your happily oblivious kid always seems to randomly draw the exact cards he needs, in the exact order he needs to draw them, in order to reach the pinnacle of Candyland achievement – the coveted "Candy Castle."

Whatever.

Yes, I cheated at Candyland. And yes, I know I shouldn't be cheating. But please -- I only practiced "positive" cheating. And yes, I know that playing Candyland requires no skill or strategy because it is a game for little kids. I get it. But any game that: discourages actual thinking so blatantly; is so unsystematic and muddled that rule violations go unnoticed; can be so easily manipulated by those in positions of power; and that offers such a vacuous and unsatisfying payoff -- any game like that is a colossal waste of my time. I boycotted it years ago.

I thought I had put my disdain for Candyland behind me, until I began reading Douglas Groothuis’s book, Truth Decay, a defense of Christianity "against the challenges of postmodernism." One of the postmodern philosophers Groothuis repeatedly quotes in the book is Richard Rorty, the former Stanford professor who died last month. Rorty's death has prompted a rash of articles about him, many of which I have read over the last few weeks. In short, these events converged in my realization that we have people – serious, educated, intellectually gifted people – who live their lives based on a worldview that effectively treats morality, ethics and the pursuit of truth no differently than a rainy afternoon game of Candyland.

Let me explain ...

There are two basic ways that we can view truth. One is a view that was first formalized by Aristotle nearly 2300 years ago. This is the correspondence theory of truth. On this view, truth is propositional. As Aristotle put it in his Metaphysics, Book 4, Part 7:

This is clear, in the first place, if we define what the true and the false are. To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true; so that he who says of anything that it is, or that it is not, will say either what is true or what is false; but neither what is nor what is not is said to be or not to be ...

That is, true beliefs and propositions correspond to the way the world actually is. I could say that I am capable of playing on the PGA Tour and winning the U.S. Open. But because that belief does not correspond with the way the world actually is, my belief would not be true. The key is that what a belief is about "is not dependent on our mind believing it," as Groothuis puts it (89). "The truth value of a proposition's content is 'mind-independent.'" Whether or not something is true depends on whether or not it corresponds with objective, external reality.

Though this definition is loaded with philosopher-speak, the concept of correspondence theory truth probably seems elementary to most of us. But that's because we don't live in Candyland. Richard Rorty and his postmodern ilk, do.

Their view of truth has been given several names (constructivist, pragmatic, consensus) that each have subtle philosophical differences but all can be categorized under what Groothuis labels the coherence theory of truth. For a coherentist, all one needs to do to find truth is identify a set of statements that are consistent with one another -- that cohere together. Truth, they say, is not found, it is formed. It is constructed by the language/vocabulary used within various "communities" who decide for themselves what will be true and what will be false.

Those who hold to this view are prone to make statements like this one from Richard Rorty:

It is useless to ask whether one vocabulary rather than another is closer to reality. For different vocabularies serve different purposes, and there is no such thing as a purpose that is closer to reality than another purpose ... Nothing is conveyed in saying ... that the vocabulary in which we predict the motion of a planet is more in touch with how things really are than the vocabulary in which we assign the planet an astrological influence. (quoted by Groothuis in Truth Decay, p.93)

To folks like Rorty, we have no basis for claiming that the statements an astronomer makes about planetary motion are any more "true" than the predictions of some astrologer about the effect of those same stars and planets on your personality and destiny. Rorty, in other words, lives in philosophical Candyland -- a place where any old truth will do, as long as everyone who plays agrees to play by the same rules. You can even make them up as you go along or change them on a whim. This view is the philosophical basis for the relativistic culture that is threatening to engulf us all.

Groothuis summarizes where such a view will lead (103):

...if truth is a mere social construction, with no outside reference to an independent reality, it has no ability to anchor protest, to inspire dissent, to orient the soul toward what is objectively good and to liberate those ensnared in error.

This is not how the real world works. It most assuredly is not how the Christian worldview inspires us to live. It makes ethics, values and morality into a self or society-constructed game. To reiterate my earlier reasons for rejecting such a game ...

It discourages actual thinking. The Candyland mentality is really no mentality at all. It is a worldview that discourages intellectual rigor because it is an experientially and emotionally based rationalization for aberrant human behavior. It has to be. No honestly thinking human could assert, as Rorty does, that astrology and science contain equal truth value unless they were either consciously or unconsciously disengaging their mind from the process of the pursuit of that truth. No intellectually honest human being could assert, as Rorty has, that:

I do not think there are plain moral facts out there ... nor any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are preferable to one another. (Qutoed in National Review, 7/9/07, p. 34, "Truth Was Not His Bag")

At least he got the first four words of that quote right. And from that kind of shockingly empty logic we get the inevitable consequence that ...

It is so unsystematic and muddled that rule violations go unnoticed. Rorty, scoffing at those who hold to a correspondence theory of truth, is quoted as saying:

You can still find philosophy professors who will solemnly tell you that they are seeking the truth, not just a story or a consensus but an honest-to-God, down-home, accurate representation of the way the world is. (Ibid, p. 34)

Philosophy professors like Rorty chastise those who believe in "truth" by insisting that there is no objective truth. But the irony in statements like these is that Rorty (et al) believe that their view is true! The fallacy of their logic is that, if they are right about the consensus theory of truth they have no basis on which to critique those in other "communities" who hold to a different view. But they critique them anyway because, whether they acknowledge it or not, they live in the real world -- where things are objectively true or false. They cannot escape it. They write books trying to convince you that their view is objectively true, all the while insisting that there is no such thing as objective truth.

It can be easily manipulated by those in positions of power. Just as I stacked the Candyland cards to achieve the outcome I wanted, those who hold to the coherentist view of truth set the stage for misuse of the system by those who control it. Rorty explains how those who hold to his view of truth:

...take the unit of persuasion to be a vocabulary rather than a proposition. [Their] method is redescription rather than inference. [They] specialize in redescribing ranges of objects or events ... in hope of inciting people to adopt and extend the jargon ... [and] hopes that by the time [they] have finished using old words in a new sense, not to mention introducing brand new words, people will no longer ask questions phrased in the old words. (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 78)

To use "a vocabulary" Rorty attempts to avoid, this method of language manipulation can also be referred to as propaganda. As Groothuis points out, "Nazis, communists, fascists and assorted racists have excelled in such redescriptions." It was Hitler who bragged that if you tell people the same lie long enough, eventually they will accept it as being true. This is not just some unintended consequence of the application of the consensus view of truth, it is, as Rorty points out, the stated goal of those who adopt it.

It offers us a vacuous and unsatisfying payoff. The payoff for living in, or even winning at, Candyland is an empty one. It can change at the whim of players who can decide not to play if they wish, or cheat if they can, and impermanent rules that demand no adherence -- all this to reach a destination that makes no difference. While those who hold to objective truth in the real world can also misuse their power and influence, doing so demands that they suffer consequences inherent in the worldview they hold to. Players in Candyland bear no such consequence because they make or break rules to which their worldview holds no allegiance.

Living in Candyland, or under the parallel worldview of situational ethics, relativistic morality and subjective truth, leaves one without any foundation, devoid of any permanent goals, and therefore with nothing to hope for. It is the practice of living a life that serves only to fill meaningless time with pointless endeavors. For if there is no objective truth or reason beyond that we create on the game board, there can be no foundational reference by which one can measure the value or reality of one's success.

One of the critiques of the correspondence theory is that those who adhere to it are claiming to have absolute certainty about how the world really is and that they use that certainty to arrogantly and oppressively impose their views on others. But this accusation misunderstands some basic definitions. The correspondence view acknowledges that:

Truth is a property of propositions

Certainty is a property of persons

Truth is an objective property of propositions whether we choose to believe them or not. Objective realists hold that truth and morality work regardless of whether we admit to them or not, and that we deny both with the same inherent risk as stepping off a skyscraper in denial of gravity. This entails the reality of objective truth and that it is knowable. But holding to such a view of truth does not entail a claim to know the absolute truth exhaustively. Like gravity, we know and understand that it works. Our behavior acknowledges this truth even if we cannot fully understand how it works. We know, even if we do not know completely.

Certainty, on the other hand, is a property of persons who may or may not hold their certainty about true things. Ptolemy was certain that the Sun revolved around the Earth. But Ptolemy was wrong -- even if he was honestly and sincerely seeking to know the truth. Sincerity does not rescue certainty from falsity.

So, yes, there are those who abuse their position by imposing their views on others. But those who do so are not solely in the camp of objective realism. Wrongheaded certainty and abuse are not the traits of those who hold to any specific worldview, they are the traits of fallen human beings which, as far as I can tell, includes every one of us. The question is not about who corrupts their position with misguided certainty, the question is: Whose view of truth comports best with the way the world really works?

It sure isn't someone who is living in philosophical Candyland.

No, I think the Candyland-dwellers' problem with the correspondence view of truth lies in a different area -- with the nature and implications of what Groothuis offers as the eight distinctive properties of objective truth:

  1. It exists and is knowable
  2. It is absolute
  3. It is universal
  4. It is eternally engaging and momentous, not trendy or superficial
  5. It is exclusive, specific and antithetical
  6. It is systematic and unified
  7. It is not an end, but a means to another end

Without delving into each of these individually, it is plain that these properties are repulsive to the Candyland world of subjective-truth relativists. But none is more revolting to them than:

8. It is revealed by God

In these characteristics of True Truth, the relativist finds himself accountable to a standard, and to a Person, that he can't avoid or just explain away. True Truth is not negotiable. It is not constructed. And adherence to it is not optional -- it comes with consequence.

True Truth is not made up in a pointless little game we play for fun. It is the currency we trade with in the world we live in. And that makes it the real thing.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Planned Parenthood Professional At Work

A link from my friend Scott Klusendorf over at the Life Training Institute Blog: "Planned Parenthood: Pure Evil"

Just a reminder -- Planned Parenthood receives more than $300,000,000 of your tax dollars every year.