Thursday, January 8, 2009

Succumbing to Relativism

It wasn’t that long ago that a responsible educated person in the West was someone who entertained firm moral and political principles. When those principles were challenged, he would typically rise to defend them. The more serious the challenge, the more concerted the defense.

Today, as the Canadian writer William Gairdner reminds us in his little-noticed but excellent new study of relativism,[1] the equivalent educated person is likely to have a very different attitude towards whatever moral and political ideas—“principles” is no longer the right word—he lives by. When those ideas are challenged, deference to the challenger rather than defense of the principles is the order of the day. “While perhaps more broadly learned” than his less forgiving predecessor, such a person, Gairdner writes, is more likely to think of him or herself as proudly distinguished by the absence of “rigid” opinions and moral values, to be someone “tolerant” and “open.” Such a person will generally profess some variation of relativism, or “you do your thing and I’ll do mine,” as a personal philosophy. Many in this frame of mind privately consider themselves exemplars of an enlightened modern attitude that civilization has worked hard to attain, and if pushed, they would admit to feeling just a little superior to all those sorry souls of prior generations forced to bend under moral and religious constraints.

The institutionalization of this amalgam of attitudes—blasé tolerance shading into moral indifference underwritten by that giddy sense of self-righteousness and superiority—has precipitated what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) called “the dictatorship of relativism.” I understand that, for those enthralled by this dictatorship, the fact that an orthodox Catholic provided a rubric for the servitude is reason enough to dispute its relevance. But considered simply as a sociological datum, the triumph (if that is a less opprobrious word than “dictatorship”) of relativism describes, in Anthony Trollope’s phrase, “the way we live now”—“we” being the beneficiaries of that “enlightened modern attitude” that Gairdner described in the passage just quoted.

It was to explore the lineaments and limitations of modern relativism that The New Criterion collaborated with London’s Social Affairs Unit in organizing a conference on the subject last autumn. The papers that follow explore various facets of the vertiginous moral and epistemological inheritance we sum up in the word “relativism.” I hasten to acknowledge that this is well-trodden ground. One could go back at least to Aristotle’s dissection of Protagoras’s “man-is-the-measure-of-all-things” philosophy to find a warning flag...

Read it all here.

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