I still read your blog conscientiously, but sometimes stare at your words in ignorant awe.
I have a question for you this morning which may be of interest. In a recent conversation with someone who described himself as a "gay" Christian (or is it a Christian "gay" ?), I gave reasons for observing that "gay Christian" is an oxymoron. My interlocutor said I must not be judgmental and justified his position by the saying, “You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, it does not exist.” I made no headway with my argument that a belief in moral relativism is incompatible with a belief in God. If God is the incontestable ground of moral absolutes, it seems to me you can't have one without the other. Am I on the right track ?
Thank you for reading. Several points in response.
1. Can one be a Christian and a homosexual? I don't see why not, as long as one does not practice one's homosexuality. So I don't see that 'gay Christian' is an oxymoron. (AsI am using 'practice,' a homosexual man who succumbs to temptation and has sexual intercourse with a man on an occasion or two, while believing it to be immoral, is not practicing his homosexuality. The occasional exercise of a disposition does not constitute a practice.)
2. To be judgmental is to be hypercritical, captious, cavilling, fault-finding, etc. One ought to avoid being judgmental. But it is a mistake to confuse making moral judgments with being judgmental. I condemn the behavior of Ponzi-schemers like Bernie Madoff. That is a moral judgment. (And if you refuse to condemn it, I condemn your refusal to condemn.) But it would be an egregious misuse of language to say that I am being judgmental in issuing either condemnation.
3. If your friend thinks it is wrong to make moral judgments, ask him whether he thinks it is morally wrong. If he says yes, then point out that he has just made a moral judgment; he has made the moral judgment that making moral judgments is morally wrong.
4. Then ask him whether (a) he is OK with contradicting himself, or (b) makes an exception for the meta assertion that making moral judgments is morally wrong, or (c) thinks that both the meta judgment and first-order moral judgments (e.g., sodomy is morally wrong) are all morally wrong. (C) is a logically consistent position, although rejectable for other reasons.
5. He might of course say that 'must not' in 'must not be judgmental' is not to be construed morally, but in some other way. Press him on how it is to be construed.
6. Is moral relativism compatible with theism? No. If the God of the Christian faith exists, then there are absolute (objective) moral truths. This is quite clear if you reflect on the nature of the Christian God. It is not clear, however, that the arrow of entailment runs in the opposite direction. A Christian could affirm that it does, but he needn't. Either way, moral relativism and theism are logically inconsistent.
7. A further point. When your friend 'went relativistic' on you, there was nothing unusual about that. Alethic and moral relativism in most people are not thought-through positions, but simply ways of avoiding further discussion and the hard thinking necessary to get clear on these matters. It is a form of 'psychic insulation': "You can't teach me anything, because it's all relative."
8. A final point. That there are moral absolutes leaves open what they are. While moral relativism is easily dismissed, especially if one is a theist, it is considerably less easy to say what the moral absolutes are, even if one is a theist. So there is no call to be dogmatic. One can, and I think ought to, combine anti-relativism with fallibilism.
But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.
— Umberto Eco
The world is a play of phenomena, an enigmatic play of appearances beneath which there is no reality. Harmless in itself, the world is made terrible by us when we make the mad attempt to lay bare an underlying truth it fails to possess. Part of Eco's thought, I take it, is that those who seek the world's underlying truth fool themselves into thinking that they have found it, and having convinced themselves that they are now in possession of it, feel entitled and perhaps even obligated to impose it on others for their own good. But these others, naturally, resist the imposition and react violently. Hence the pursuit of the truth leads to contention and bloodshed. Better to live and let live and admit that there is a variety of perspectives, a diversity of interpretations, but no God's Eye perspective and no final interpretation, let alone an uninterpreted reality in itself, a true world hidden by the world of appearances. The world is interpretation all the way down. Being has no bottom.
The line of thought is seductive but incoherent. If the world is an enigma, then it is true that it is an enigma. If it is harmless, then it is true that it harmless. If it is made terrible by our attempt to interpret it, then it is true that it is made terrible by our attempt to interpret it. If our attempt is mad, then it is true that our attempt is mad. And if it has no underlying truth, then it is true that it has no underlying truth.
If that is the truth, then there is after all an underlying truth and the world cannot be a play of relativities, of shifting perspectives, of mere interpretations. If the world is such-and-such, then it is, and doesn't merely seem.
Prowling the Web for material on Nietzsche and the genetic fallacy, I stumbled across this passage from Merold Westphal, "Nietzsche as a Theological Resource," Modern Theology 13:2 (April 1997), p. 218: Perspectivism need not be presented as an absolute truth; it can be presented as an account of how reality looks from where one is situated. It does not thereby cease to be of value. The account of the game given by the winning coach cannot claim to be THE truth about the game: other accounts must be taken into account, including those from the losing coach, the players, the referees,.... But that does not mean that we do not listen with attention to what the winning coach has to say about the game. Perspectivism is the proposition P: All truths are perspectival. Either (P) applies to itself or it does not. If the former, then one must conclude that (P) is itself perspectivally true. Call this perspectivized perspectivism (PP). If the latter, if (P) is not taken to apply to itself, then (P) is nonperspectivally true. Westphal mentions, but does not take, this tack, so I shall ignore it here. His position appears to be perspectivized perspectivism. Unfortunately, his example shows that he does not understand it. He confuses (PP) with a quite different doctrine that could be called alethic partialism.
What the latter says is that the whole truth about a subject cannot be captured from any one perspective. Take a quart of 10 W 30 motor oil. From the perspective of a salesman at an auto parts store, it is a commodity from the sale of which he expects to make a profit. From the perspective of a motorist, it is a crankcase lubricant. From the perspective of a chemist, the oil's viscosity and other such attributes are salient. From the perspective of an eco-enthusiast, it is a potential pollutant of the ground water. And so on. But note that these partial truths add up to the whole truth about the oil. (By a 'partial truth' I do not mean a truth that is only partially true, but a truth that is wholly true, but captures only a part of the reality of what it is about.)
Alethic partialism sounds reasonable. But that is not what the perspectivized perspectivist is saying. What he is saying is that every truth is merely perspectivally true, and that this thesis itself is true only from his, and perhaps some (but not all) other, perspectives. Unfortunately, this allows a nonperspectivist such as your humble correspondent to say: "Fine! Truth is perspectival for you, Fritz, but for me it is absolute, and one of my absolute truths is that you are mistaken in your theory of truth." Clearly, the perspectivized perspectivist is in an uncomfortable position here. He wants to say something that is binding on all, but he cannot given the self-limiting nature of his position, a self-limitation demanded by logical consistency.
Pace Westphal, perspectivism is not "an account of how reality looks from where one is situated," but an account of the nature of truth, an account that implies that there is no reality. For truth is the truth of reality. A truth-bearer (a belief, say) is true just in case it corresponds to what is the case independently of anyone's beliefs, desires, or interests. To speak of truth as perspectival is to dissolve reality along with truth. From this one can see how obtuse Westphal's account of perspectivism his. He fails to grasp its radicality. And failing to grasp its radicality, he fails to appreciate its utter incoherence.
I am sitting by a pond with a child. The child says, "Look, there are three ducks." I say, "No, there are two ducks, one female, the other male, and a decoy."
The point is that a decoy duck is not a duck, but a piece of wood shaped and painted to appear (to a duck) like a duck so as to entice ducks into range of the hunters' shotguns. Since a decoy duck is not a duck, 'decoy' in 'decoy duck' does not function in the way 'male' and 'female' function in 'male duck' and 'female duck,' respectively. A male duck is a duck and a female duck is a duck. But a decoy duck is not a duck.
'Decoy' is an alienans adjective unlike 'male' and 'female' which are specifying adjectives. 'Decoy' shifts or alienates the sense of 'duck' rather than adding a specification to it. The same goes for 'roasted' in 'We are having roasted duck for dinner.' A roasted duck is not a duck but the cooked carcass of a duck. Getting hungry?
Theodor Adorno is exasperating but exciting. Although as sloppy as one expects Continental thinkers to be, he is nonetheless a force to be reckoned with, a serious man who is seriously grappling with ultimates at the outer limits of intelligibility. Derrida I dismiss as a bullshitter, indeed, to cop a line from John Searle, as someone who "gives bullshit a bad name." But I can't dismiss Adorno. I confess to being partial to the Germans. They are nothing if not serious, and I'm a serious man. Among the French there is an excess of facade and frippery. But now let's get to work — like good Germans.
Richard Rorty's writings put me off for several reasons, not the least of which is the way he distorts issues and definitions for his own benefit. The man is obviously a relativist as anyone can see, but he doesn't want to accept that label. So what does he do? He redefines the term so that it applies to no one:
"Relativism" is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called "relativists" are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.
[. . .]
So the real issue is not between people who think that one view is as good as another and people who do not. It is between those think our culture, or purposes, or intuitions, cannot be supported except conversationally, and people who still hope for other sorts of support. (Consequences of Pragmatism, U. of Minnesota Press, 1982, pp. 166-167.)
This post floats the suggestion that deflationism about truth is inconsistent with relativism about truth. Not that one should be a deflationist. But it would be interesting if deflationism entailed the nonrelativity of truth.
There is a sense in which deflationary theories of truth deny the very existence of truth. For what these theories deny is that anything of a unitary and substantial nature corresponds to the predicate 'true' or 'is true.' To get a feel for the issue, start with the platitude that some of the things people say are true and some of the things people say are not true. People who say that Hitler died by his own hand in the Spring of 1945 say something true, while those who say that no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz say something that is not true. Given the platitude that there are truths and untruths, classically-inclined philosophers will inquire: What is it that all and only the truths have in common in virtue of which they are truths? What is truth? What is the property of being-true?
The following argument is sometimes heard. "Because values are relative, it is wrong to impose one's values on others."
But if values are relative, and among my values is the value of instructing others in the right way to live, then surely I am justified in imposing my values on others. What better justification could I have? If values are relative, then there is simply no objective basis for a critique or rejection of the values I happen to hold. For it to be wrong for me to impose my values, value-imposition would have to be a nonrelative disvalue. But this is precisely what is ruled out by the premise 'values are relative.'
Either values are relative or they are not. If they are relative then no one can be faulted for living in accordance with his values even if among his values is the value of imposing one's values on others. If, on the other hand, values are not relative, then one will be in a position to condemn some forms of value-imposition. The second alternative, however, is not available to one who affirms the relativity of all values.
Persons who give the above argument are trying to have it both ways at once, and in so doing fall into self-contradiction. They want the supposed benefits of believing that values are relative -- such benefits as toleration -- while at the same time committing themselves to the contradictory proposition that some values are not relative by their condemnation of value-imposition.
One sees from this how difficult it is for relativists to be consistent. A consistent relativist cannot make any such pronouncement as that it is wrong to impose one's values on others; all he can say is that from within his value-scheme it is wrong to impose one's values on others. But then he allows the possibility that there others for whom value-imposition is the right thing to do.
Michael Krausz, "Relativism and Beyond" in Relativism, Suffering and Beyond, eds. Bilimoria and Mohanty (Oxford, 1997), pp. 97-98:
The classical 'self-refuting' argument against relativism runs roughly along the following lines. If relativism is true then the thesis of relativism itself must be relatively true. It would be contradictory to affirm that relativism is true in an absolute sense. But while one could affirm that relativism is true in a relative sense, the counter-argument goes, to say that relativism is only relatively true has no general force. In order for the thesis to have general force it should include itself and should be presumed to be absolutely true. But that, again, would be contradictory.
In response . . . one might observe that there is no reason to rule out of court any non-general thesis of relativism. That is, the claim that the thesis of relativism is a thesis embraced locally does not itself show that it has no content or is not locally defensible. Local knowledge is knowledge nonetheless. Rather along lines suggested by Nelson Goodman, the aim of justifying local claims, including the thesis of relativism itself, need not be the establishment of of a general or a universal or an absolutist claim but may well be in the name of unpacking local understanding.
In an earlier piece I argued that one can be both an absolutist about the nature of truth while being a fallibilist about the knowledge of truth. But a reader demands to know why we should accept that truth by its very nature is absolute. One reason is that the doctrine that truth is non-absolute (relative) is self-refuting. Herewith, a first installment.
The alethic relativist holds that truth (Gr. aletheia) is relative. Some call this cognitive relativism to distinguish it from ethical and other types of relativism. I prefer to avoid this terminology because it tends to conflate truth and knowledge, which are obviously distinct. (If S knows that p, then p is true; but a proposition can be true without being known by any (finite) mind.) To be relative, of course, is to be relative to something. Among candidate relata are individuals, social groups, cultures, conceptual frameworks, historical epochs, zoological species, and others besides. Thus there are different types of alethic relativism depending on the parameter or index to which truth is said to be relative. This being understood, there will be no harm in speaking simply of truth as relative.
There is much popular confusion concerning the topic of relativism. One fallacy I exposed earlier, namely, the mistake of thinking that Einstein's Theory of Relativity implies either moral relativism or relativism about truth. Even more widespread, perhaps, is the notion that one who opposes relativism about truth must be a dogmatist. But there are two distinctions here and they must not be confused. One is the distinction between relativism and nonrelativism, and the other is the distinction between fallibilism and dogmatism. The first distinction has to do with the nature of truth, while the second pertains to the knowledge of truth.
British (Catholic) historian Paul Johnson in his wonderful Modern Times attributes relativism's rise to Einstein! So does Einstein's latest biographer.
There are two questions that must be distinguished. The first is whether Einstein's Theory of Relativity entails either moral or cognitive (alethic) relativism. The second question is whether Einstein's revolutionary contributions to physics, via their misinterpretation by journalists and other shallow people (am I being unfair?), contributed to an atmosphere in which people would be more likely to embrace moral and cognitive relativism. The first question belongs to the philosophy of science, the second to the sociology of belief. The questions are plainly distinct.