Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings - Relativism Revisited
by Tibor R. Machan

An acquaintance of mine related an exchange he had with someone from Europe who faulted President Bush for thinking there are good and bad people. This naturalized American citizen thought George W. Bush was wrong to be such an absolutist—things aren’t so simple, was the complaint.

I don’t know about Bush but I, certainly, think there are good and bad people. The bad ones tend to be wrong in what they think and do most of the time, the good ones tend to be right in what they think and do most of the time. Most of us, of course, tend to be hovering there in the middle—kind of morally mediocre, if you will.

Now this view doesn’t much square with sophisticated people these days because they think no one is good or bad, no actions are right or wrong—it’s all relative, subjective or amounts to folks having turned out one way or another through no credit or fault of their own. Like the weather, sometimes things go bad, sometimes good but surely no one is responsible (unless you’re a radical environmentalist).

Yet, these same sophisticated folks who hold to this view are very hard on those who disagree with them. Like this person hailing originally from Europe. (Actually, there are quite a lot of Europeans who [a] do believe there are good and bad people, and [b] don’t mind Bush all that much.) Bush, for example, was deemed at least partly bad for thinking of people as good and bad! How odd—but quite understandable.

It is actually impossible to escape some variety of absolutism, after all, in the sphere of ethics. For when one chides those who think in absolutist terms, one is actually applying an absolutist standard: "No one ought to think in absolutist terms, ever." Well, but then someone seems to do fine by thinking that way after all. And if that’s so, then why not others?

The real beef people have with folks who think in absolute moral terms—who consider some folks good, some bad, or some of the actions of some folks good, others bad—is that they do not agree with the standards of those they fault this way. OK, but then they should defend their own standards, not dismiss all standards by coming out in favor of relativism or subjectivism. Or they need to remain completely quiet about all this since once they open their mouths and voice their dismay with those who make absolute moral judgments, they inadvertently do the very same thing. But, of course, arguing for one’s moral stance is tough.

Nearly everyone has moral convictions—we act on them, use them to judge others (even if in silence, even if only off-handedly), and we feel guilt or regret when we fail to heed them.

Suppose you profess to completely eschew absolute moral judgments but lo and behold you blurt out such a thing after all, say in a moment of utter frustration with someone’s conduct. Then you realize what you have done and regret it—"I shouldn’t have blurted out that way, I am, after all, a relativist!" Yet, here you are using your own absolute standard that you should never blame people for what they do!

What all this strongly suggests is that human beings are unavoidably faced with moral choices. It is inescapable—as some philosophers put the point, no one can opt out of the moral "game." What’s one to do in light of this?

Basically just accept it and then act responsibly, including by trying to spend some time figuring out just what are the (probably very few) absolute standards by which everyone must abide. Sure, it is tough to do this—hundreds of very smart folks throughout history asked just that question and the debate is still going on strong. But that’s fine. It is important, so the more work invested in it, the better things will turn out.

As for me, I think the one moral absolute that is undeniable is "Pay attention." When one violates it, all hell starts breaking loose!
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