Posted by: gcarkner | February 26, 2019

Key Alternative to Ethical Relativism

A Critical Alternative to Relativism

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Talks on Alternatives to Relativism by Jerry Root, Wheaton College :

We see genuine hope in premiere Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and his retrieval of the language of the good.  Ethical relativism denies that any objective, universal moral properties exist. It arose in the philosophical context of the dominance of empiricism and naturalism and the rejection of metaphysically abstract universals. It perpetuates the mindset that  we know how things really are for all people: i.e. that morals are relative to individuals or cultures. It is a universal claim that there are no universals. Nietzsche saw very clearly that if there was an end to God and traditional values, then the strong could impose their values on the masses. Domination would be widespread. Thus came his model of the ubermensch (superman) and the ethics of will-to-power.  There is a natural progression from relativism to will-to-power ethics (with the view that a human is just another thing in the world).

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which many of us studied in secondary school, is a graphic, heart-wrenching picture of unrestrained evil, where might makes right and bullying and scapegoating is the accepted social ethos. A group of boys marooned on a remote island make their own society, and the results are shocking. The twentieth century has trembled at the great atrocities and abuse of power by those who are without any fear of a transcendent being or any sense of obligation to a code of conduct, higher ideals, or set of norms. They operated without accountability. We enter a Hobbesian world where it is ‘all against all’. See the BBC documentary on Nietzsche “Human all too Human”

Moral philosopher R. Scott Smith argues (In Search of Moral Knowledge) that ethical relativism or moral subjectivism is a bankrupt view of the nature of morality. It fails as a moral theory and a guide to one’s moral life. It results in morally inconsistent and untrustworthy behaviour. It leads to the corrosion of morality itself with absurd consequences:

We should not settle for a relativistically based tolerance, since it will not succeed in building a moral society or in helping people be moral.That kind of morality forces us to consider all ideas and ways of life as being equally valid, yet we can know that this is not the case … Nevertheless, tolerance (as respect  of people as having equal moral value) would make sense if a universal, objective moral basis exists for that equality. (R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge, 162)

Relativism in the twentieth century has led us into some very dangerous political experiments; billions have been spent on war-making with the consequence of potential total annihilation (MAD); human rights have been violated in terrible ways; imperialism ran rampant; multiple millions have perished. The amount of suffering was unprecedented, giving it the legacy the bloodiest century in history.  British journalist Paul Johnson (A History of the Modern World: from 1917 to the 1990s) graphically illustrates the way in which the ethic of will-to-power has flourished in the soil of relativism during the twentieth century. In fact, we may well ask: Do we have one example in history of benevolent leadership without the restraint of traditional morality and the rule of law? Indeed, can we find a historical-political context where the governing authorities who have absolute power (whether king, dictator, tzar or proletariat leader) actually do not become corrupt and abuse that power?

Big Ideas: Relativism and the Struggle for a Stable Society

Without a moral plumb line, societies seem headed for personal nihilism and/or political tyranny. This dilemma was admitted by an atheist blogger: The ultimate end point is despair and ugly oppression, propaganda and control from the top Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works). A subjectivist ethic is no ethic at all and offers no hope for society or for psychologically healthy relationships. It consists in the blind leading the blind. It offers no motive reason to get along in society, no moral basis for law, no place to appeal when there is a dispute between parties, the loss of human rights. It encourages élitism. Morality must address the proper resolution of conflicts and call unjust behaviour into account. Relativism seems to lead us into some frightening conclusions, both intellectually and experientially. We must ask whether there is not another paradigm that can be more intellectually sound, sane and just. Despite its popularity and its role as an opiate for the unreflective masses, we have shown that relativism is both inconsistent and dangerous. It corrupts society.

We agree that beliefs are not strictly objective, and that we are subjectively tied in with them (Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self). Our convictions are partly a matter of resonance, and they are precious to us and our identity, not as arbitrary as we often superficially claim. There is both an objective and subjective pole of the moral good. Taylor is a falsifiable moral realist. What we disavow is the conclusion that all moral beliefs are of equal value or strictly relative to the individual or the culture at hand. This has been shown to be unworkable and riddled with a nasty trail of racism, Dionysian cruelty and violence. All humans, all cultures are accountable to high standards, to virtue. It seems counter-cultural today, but our conviction is that we do not have a right to our own individual morality (radical autonomy). That view has proven inadequate and vacuous, hollowing out the self–producing a thin self.

Some values have a better fitness with whom we aspire to be as a human community and as high-minded individuals. They are nobler, higher and more life-nurturing. Others are lower, demeaning and more death-dealing. We believe that the way forward is a recovery of the ancient idea of the good as per McGill philosopher Charles Taylor (See other blog posts on the topic Qualities of the Will). He offers quite a nuanced version of moral realism. Taylor believes, against the grain of much contemporary moral philosophy and moral rebellion, that there is a hierarchy of values well worth attending to. A number of top moral and anthropological scholars agree with him (e.g. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Miraslov Volf, Richard J. Mouw, J. Budziszewski, Alasdair McIntyre, R. Scott Smith).  If ethical relativism were correct, there could be no such thing as moral growth or purpose in culture or a person’s life. David Brooks (The Road to Character) argues convincingly that moral growth is indeed necessary for moral health and sound leadership. To have improvement, we must have a standard by which to judge and discern the difference in moral values, and to flush out moral vices.

It is our conviction that objects and healthy relationships have independent existence and innate value, that there is something true about the world despite what we may want to think: that is, a  proper and responsible way to live together in late modernity. Plurality of convictions need not imply complete relativism, nor does it imply an implosion into subjectivism. It means that we have to drill down deeper in understanding different ethical frameworks and worldview options. We have to critically separate the true and authentic from that which makes us feel good, that which we desire, or even that on which we were raised. Philosopher Arthur Holmes says it well:

Neither the plurality of different worldview perspectives nor the different elaborations given any one perspective imply that worldviews are entirely relative. Truth-claims can still be made and ways must be found for evaluating the claim that a certain worldview is objectively true.

Holmes is saying that it is possible to discern truth, move towards it, embrace it, and vitally important that we do so. Ethical systems (even relativistic ones) are tied to worldviews. Ethical relativism is tied to materialistic naturalism, a worldview that Thomas Nagel (Mind and Cosmos) says is inadequate to living the moral life, or even offering proper explanatory value for the phenomenon of human morality. We all need a posture, a world-life perspective, to give structure and meaning to our lives and our society, and to set appropriate goals. Thus, worldview discernment is foundational to finding a way forward out of corrupt, painful and destructive relativism. We need to test our beliefs on the anvil of reality and be open for correction and for transformation to a better outlook.

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The real danger, the real intellectual enemy here is ontological subjectivity. This is the conviction that an object or idea has no reality outside a person’s mind. Truth depends on me and my take on reality—the strict social constructionist view which we find in Neo-Nietzschean philosophers like Michel Foucault. It applies to ethics as well, in that relativism can reduce ethics to perceived experience. In fact, humans are subjectively involved in coming to know the world, but there must be a world objectively there and a community to dialogue with, in order for the knowing to occur. Believing something does not make it so. That can be a fantasy or fideism no matter what percent buy in. There are important objective criteria which are used to critically examine the validity of a worldview (James Sire, The Universe Next Door).

There are three dominant and competing worldview options in the early twenty-first century: Naturalism (atheism), Pantheism, and Christian Theism. Naturalism and Theism are the key competitors in the West. A relativistic view of morality derives either from Naturalism or Pantheism. The Naturalist view holds that there is no God and therefore no derived transcendent source of right and wrong, no transcendent goodness from which to derive the human goods, or common social good. Thus, moral choices are individualistic and subjective or made by a group ruled by an élite. Philosopher Thomas Nagel (Mind and Cosmos), although an atheist, does not believe that naturalism can offer the explanatory power necessary for human ethics. Pantheism promotes the idea that good and evil are part of the system, the colour of life, even part of god or ultimate reality (good = evil). Shirley MacLaine along with other New Age enthusiasts is essentially Pantheistic. They are tolerant in one sense, but hopelessly naive in another, and deeply intolerant in yet another sense.

Christian Theism, on the other hand, roots its ethical framework in the infinite goodness of God, who transcends human reality. The good is sourced in a Good God. Ethics (including the capital virtues) is oriented to what pleases God and benefits one’s fellow humans (D. Stephen Long, The Goodness of God). Humans are called to mediate this goodness to society and to the biosphere through good stewardship and practice of the virtues. Evil is that which detracts people from these goals and twists the true, the beautiful and the good: selfishness, covetousness, pride and greed among other capital vices. It is often a matter of finding love in all the wrong places or meeting our needs in all the wrong ways, many times at the direct expense of others, even those we love and admire. Evil is cowardly, irresponsible behaviour.

Expressing late nineteenth century ambivalence, atheist Albert Camus saw the need for God in society and the consequences of losing God in moral discourse, even though he himself believed that no God was available. In his book, The Rebel, Camus writes:

When man submits God to moral judgement he kills Him in his own heart. And then what is the basis of morality? God is denied in the name of justice, but can the idea of justice be understood without the idea of God?

His thoughts were prophetic at that time. The rejection of God has proved a terrible mistake for the world, producing incipient narcissism, self-trivialization and even despair, self-destruction and destruction others through terrible violence. It has resulted in our current obsession with productivity and consumption, acquisitiveness and greed. Many people still long for God and the higher goods to help reshape human relations even though they cannot personally understand how to believe in his existence (CBC Ideas Series After Atheism). This is tragic, but not irredeemable. Richard Kearney notes the temperament of Anatheism, which is the longing for God after the death of God, the openness to epiphany.

At its heart, Christianity is concerned about an historical event: the Jesus Story. It is actually based on a series of events culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The story is mediated through the Bible and a living community of faith that has grown and flourished for two thousand years. This is public information available for investigation and scrutiny by anyone interested. Embodied in Jesus is a fresh, livable and life-giving ethic: concern for the marginalized, for women and children, the poor and weak, just political relationships, reconciliation and love for enemies, economic equality of opportunity (Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good). He had a strong vision for humanity. Also in Jesus, we find a major truth ­claim: he claimed to be God in human flesh (John 14: 6 and 7), in effect to be the Transcendent Good embodied in a person, showing us by example how the compassionate/good life could be lived. It is articulated in the Sermon on the Mount which was so highly appreciated by reformers like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. This can and should be tested for its authenticity and robustness. If it is correct, it has the deepest possible relevance to people today, offering rich hope for personal change. Christians believe that his call and invitation is to all humans from all backgrounds and religions and viewpoints to explore a higher ethic and a healthier humanism (Jens Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism). It is a universal invitation to the existential depths of a person.

Unfortunately, the ‘truth question’ has been repressed and abused in our politically correct era. But the grave danger in this repression is that people may readily buy into fool’s gold, moral Ponzi schemes, and build their lives and their values upon a lie, a house of cards or a constructed illusion. Truth, integrity, servanthood and goodness are our friends, not our enemies. They are essential to academic integrity, moral responsibility and psychological health, and fulfilling relationships.  We must never give up on our critical moral language and moral agency faculties, our ability to discern the qualities of the will. Dr. Alister McGrath of Oxford University captures the urgency of the moment.

To allow “relevance” or “openness” to be given greater weight than truth is, quite simply, a mark of intellectual shallowness and moral irresponsibility. The first and most fundamental of all questions must be: Is it true? Is it worthy of belief and trust?

The relevance question, although very important, should always be secondary to the truth question. Pragmatism can block the full truth of a situation or judgment. Otherwise, we become confused intellectually, spiritually and morally. Humans share more values than is often perceived: Killing you daughter because you  claim that she shamed the family by marrying the wrong guy is always evil. Oxford scholar C. S. Lewis argues very intriguingly in his important book The Abolition of Man for what he calls the “Tao” or the doctrine of objective, shared values in all cultures around the world, the belief that certain attitudes are really true and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of beings that we humans are. There is truth, as he sees it, that transcends cultural plurality and individual bias or choice. He sees in the Tao a way to avoid the abyss of relativism with its consequent nihilism. Those who aspire to high values (justice, respect, concern for family, sexual fidelity, consistent behaviour, honest business practices, truthfulness, compassion, mercy) do have something important in common and this can offer support to others who don’t yet see such a vision, or believe that it is possible. Some of us need moral inspiration from exemplars who embody such high values and stand out from the crowd.

The question of the good takes us into deeper reflection on our identity and what makes us truly human after all (see the link to the CBC Ideas series The Myth of the Secular). The questions raised within the Jewish-Christian scriptures help us discern the foundations of who we are and how we might live a robust, kind, dignified and nobler communal existence. Our freedom needs the content and moral horizon of the good in order to provide meaning that will endure the stressors of life. We find structure within which to discern our sometimes perplexing ethical choices, and vexing human problems. Here is a worldview and a plausible faith that is open for rigorous personal examination.

Psychologist Erich Fromm has some profound insight on moral decision-making.

Our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice of life. The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions, the more our heart hardens; the more often we make the right decisions, the more our heart softens–or perhaps comes alive …. Each step in life which increases my self-confidence, my integrity, my courage, my conviction, also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative …. Each act of surrender and cowardice weakens me, opens the path for more surrender, and eventually freedom is lost.

Instead of a toxic, opiate relativism that confuses us and puts us to sleep morally, there is a tremendous need today for the courage of deep, positive conviction. Society will not avoid anarchy if an appropriate moral and spiritual glue is not found (Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation). It has to be more substantial than consumerism or personal desire, interest or appetite. We need a platform for healthy debate and substantial answers to real moral and ethical questions, as sociologist Jurgen Habermas adjures us. It is not first technology, but rather moral decision-making, that will determine what kind of future we will have. It must be grounded in the love of one’s neighbour and human generosity and care for the weak and the vulnerable, rather than acquisition of the most wealth and pleasurable experiences.

At a practical level, in his National Bestseller, Stephen Covey has argued a strong case for a principle-centred life and leadership style. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is brilliant with insight into how to make relationships really work and how to operate with fairness, integrity, honesty, win-win justice and human dignity. It is radical material in our personality-cult, reality TV age, but it provides hope for a mature direction in life and the development of strong character and powerful, life-enhancing servant leadership. People need a means or paradigm to learn how to live from the inside out according to their best self. The book Integrity by Henry Cloud reinforces this theme, as does the fine work on powerful virtues by David Brooks in The Road to Character.

Ethical Relativism is partly the result of lazy thinking about the world and very shallow reflection on self, resulting in a thin self. It leads down a dark path to ideology, and into the abyss of nihilism. Christian principles (e.g. Sermon on the Mount; Romans 12 and Ephesians 4 and 5 idea of giftedness) offer the kind of parameters and stability that we need to value others highly, mentor our children, make the tough choices in life and to build a better world, a better moral infrastructure for civil political discourse. We can face head on some of our toughest ethical and political headwinds (Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity). We ignore the moral and spiritual insights of Christianity to our own detriment, some might say to our own peril. No Christian is perfect or always consistent, but responsible freedom is the quality of attitude we need for a healthy local and world community, a just, non-violent society. Humans will flourish in new ways as they discover and live by high, God-inspired principles. This entails good stewardship and a robust vision.

~Gordon E. Carkner PhD, Philosophy of Ethics, University of Wales.

See Gord’s new book on the renewal of culture: The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity, (Infocus, 2016)

CBC Ideas Program: The Truth about Post-Truth

Taylor’s Ethics

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On TopicThoughtful Quotes from Andy Crouch in Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (2013)

  1. What is the deepest truth about the world? Is the deepest truth a struggle for mastery and domination? Or is the deepest truth collaboration, cooperation and ultimately love? (p. 48)
  2. Love transfigures power. Absolute love transfigures absolute power. And power transfigured by love is the power that made and saves the world. (p. 45)
  3. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that nearly an entire generation of students of literature and culture, under the influence of Nietzsche’s intellectual decedent Michel Foucault, devoted tremendous intellectual energies to exposing the Nietzschean underbelly of dominion in precisely the domains that were once thought to represent a refuge from the will to power—in art and architecture, in family and friendship, and not least in religion. (p. 48)
  4. In a Nietzschean world, we are all reduced to waiting for Superman—or, just perhaps, acquiring enough power that we ourselves can thrust back all that resists us, achieving the domination we believe is necessary for the triumph of the good. (p. 50) The quest to become Superman does not produce strength adequate to master reality–it undermines it. For in his commitment to power as godlike domination over all space and over all other beings, it is idolatry. When idolatry seems to work, it is radically unstable … the injustice that flows from idolatry ultimately ruins not just its victims but its perpetrators. (p. 52)
  5. A vision as pessimistic as Nietzsche’s is frankly conductive to insanity. It would not have been so influential if it were not so plausible in our fallen world. But Jesus holds out another possibility for power–that the story of beginnings told in Genesis still matters east of Eden. What would it look like to paint an alternative to Nietzsche’s dark vision of bodies in competition? (p. 51)
  6. All true beings strive to create room for more being and to expand its power in the creation of flourishing environments for variety and life, and to thrust back the chaos that limits true being. In doing so it creates other bodies and invites them into mutual creation and tending to the world, building relationships where there had been none: thus they then cooperate together in creating more power for more creation. And the process goes on. There is a kind of being that delights in sharing space and a deeper, truer being that is able to create more than enough space–room for more being. (p. 51)
  7. In the resurrection, the original power of creative love displaced sin and death. Sin and death, and the twin systems they create, idolatry and injustice, are already unmasked and have lost the critical battle. Creative love was always stronger and more real—and in the community of the resurrection, the first and latest followers of Jesus find that reality living, breathing and working powerfully through us. (p. 53)

See also GCU Blog Posts comparing Jesus and Nietzsche.

R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: overcoming the fact-value dichotomy.(IVP Academic 2014)

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: the making of the modern identity. (Harvard, 1989)

David Bentley Hart on Ethics

See blog post on Provocative quotes by Hart on Naturalism

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner PhD  Philosophical Theology.

Bibliography on Scriptural Ethics by James T. Bretzke, S.J., S.T.D., Professor of Moral Theology, Boston College

John E. Hare at Yale, The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits and God’s Assistance. OUP

Alasdair McIntyre, Three Versions of Moral Inquiry.

J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart: the case for natural law. (IVP, 1997)

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: the making of the modern identity. (Harvard, 1989)

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