[Relativism] What the clash of civilisations is really about
Posted: 17 April 2007 01:32 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2057060,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=27

A pretty good comment on the results of relativism

This is what the clash of civilisations is really about


Relativism has made liberal openness appear weak, empty and repugnant compared with the clarity of dogma

Julian Baggini
Saturday April 14, 2007
The Guardian

I don't usually consider either the Ministry of Defence or the Vatican to be prescient founts of wisdom. But when two such different oracles issue remarkably similar warnings, you have to take notice. Earlier this week it was revealed in this newspaper how the MoD believes that "the trend towards moral relativism and increasingly pragmatic values" was causing more and more people to seek "more rigid belief systems, including religious orthodoxy and doctrinaire political ideologies, such as popularism and Marxism". Flash back to 2004 and you find Pope John Paul II encouraging the then Cardinal Ratzinger to challenge a world "marked by both a widespread relativism and the tendency to a facile pragmaticism" by boldly proclaiming the truth of the church. Ratzinger has been preaching about the dangers of relativism ever since.


Put the two together and you have a worrying prognosis. The clash of civilisations is happening not between Islam and the west, as we are often led to believe, but between pragmatic relativism and dogmatic certainty. On this analysis, it is easy to see liberal democracy not as the crowning achievement of civilisation but a manifestation of a laissez-faire, morally bankrupt modernity. "Relativism appears to be the philosophical foundation of democracy," said Ratzinger in 1996. "Democracy in fact is supposedly built on the basis that no one can presume to know the true way."
It is no surprise that both the MoD and the Pope believe that the beneficiaries of this polarisation will be those offering certitude, since belief in something is almost always preferable to belief in nothing. As Walter put it in the film The Big Lebowski: "Say what you like about the tenets of national socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."

How did we get to this dismal Hobson's choice? The finger of blame has to be pointed largely at academics and intellectuals who have been so keen to debunk popular notions of truth that they have created a culture in which the middle ground between shoulder-shrugging relativism and dogmatic fundamentalism has been vacated.

Of course, the works of truth-deniers such as Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty are hardly bestsellers. Yet their ideas do filter through to society as a whole. Consider, for instance, how what passes for common sense about morality has been turned on its head. For millennia, most people believed that right was right and wrong was wrong, and that was all there was to it. Now, university lecturers report that their fresh-faced new students take it as obvious that there is no such thing as "the truth" and that morality is relative. In educated circles at least, only the naive believe in objectivity. What was shocking when Nietzsche first proclaimed it at the end of the 19th century became platitudinous by the start of the 21st.

Perhaps the most powerful idea to filter through from the universities to the streets was articulated by Foucault, who adapted and popularised the Nietzschean idea that what passes for truth is actually no more than power. There are no facts, only attempts to impose your view on the world by fixing it as "The Truth". This idea is now so mainstream that even a conservative like Donald Rumsfeld could complain about those who lived in the "reality-based community", arguing "that's not the way the world really works anymore ... when we act, we create our own reality."

Most Anglophone philosophers find this kind of hyper-scepticism absurd and pernicious. But although these ideas were hatched by philosophers, they have gained wide currency in the humanities and the social sciences, often in bastardised form.

Some philosophers, such as Bernard Williams and Simon Blackburn, have waded into the public debate in an attempt to put the relativist genie back into the bottle. Books such as Why Truth Matters, by my colleagues Jeremy Stangroom and Ophelia Benson, have also tried to stem the tide. But this is not really a highbrow academic debate about whether there is Truth with a capital T - it is about how abstract ideas relate to the business of everyday life.

Richard Rorty, for example, argues against Truth brilliantly, and it is far from clear that he is simply wrong. The problem is that he does not concede as unequivocally as he should that in practice his theories usually leave the world more or less as it is. Rorty believes as much as anyone else that the Holocaust happened more or less as described in history books, he just refuses to use an allegedly outmoded vocabulary of truth to say so. It is not quite fair to call his refusal in such contexts a pose, but it is certainly not quite what it seems.

Ironically, like many left-leaning intellectuals, Rorty thinks that denying objectivity and truth is politically important, as a way of liberating people from the ways of seeing the world promoted as the Truth by the powerful. However, it turns out that Rorty and his ilk seriously misjudged what happens if intellectuals deny truth stridently and frequently enough. Far from making liberal openness more attractive, such denials actually make it appear empty, repugnant and weak compared to the crystalline clarity and certainty of dogma.

They owe us an apology for failing to either see themselves, or make it clear to others, that in the everyday world we can and must distinguish truth and falsity, right and wrong, even if on close examination these terms do not mean what we thought they did. Science may not be God-like in its objectivity, but it is not just another myth. Moral values must be questioned, but if discrimination against women, homosexuals or ethnic minorities is wrong here, then it is wrong anywhere else in the world. Truth may not be the simple phenomenon we assume it to be, but falsehoods must be challenged.

Unless we can make a convincing case that the choice is not between relativism or dogmatism, more and more people will reject the former and embrace the latter. When they do, those who helped create the impression that modern, secular rationality leaves everything up for grabs in the marketplace of belief will have to take their share of the blame.

ยท Julian Baggini is the editor of the Philosophers' Magazine and author of Welcome to Everytown
julianbaggini.com

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Posted: 17 April 2007 05:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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.
tx exactly, exactly, exactly ... i couldn’t possibly agree more! the mad-virus of
irrationality radiates outward from the scientists, intellectuals, and professionals
(who get it from the philosophers), and quickly spreads throughout the whole
culture, ultimately infecting everyone (through the media, if no where else). yet
it is due as much to a lack of will and commitment as it is to a lack of reason.
those that have the reason, lack the will, and those that have the will, lack the
reason. and the problem lies within the very structure of the philo-scientific
paradigm; the specialists feel that they can bear no responsibility for the whole,
and the philosophers are simply not interested.
.
Need we ask why?
.
The philosophers are *not* committed to reason because they don’t *believe*
in Sophia! it’s an absurd situation that benefits only fundamentalism and right-
wing conservatives. yet the solution is perfectly obvious. unless the professional-
philosophers take a passionate interest in the real-world, and thus find the will
to take responsibility for their own thinking, then we might as well get used to
praising the really-holy-bible or the really-sacred-koran! for there will soon
come a time when we no longer have the luxury to choose between reason and
irrationality. that choice will be taken away from us! fascism is on the march
again, folks; all around the world. and the “wise-men” refuse to even
acknowledge it; let alone do anything to stop it ... good-grief!
.

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Posted: 17 April 2007 06:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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A directly related article published in the New York Review of Books, September 20, 2001.  The Lure of Syracuse, by Mark Lilla.  In this he addresses the question: how is is that so many twentieth century intellectuals ended up as appologists for tryanny (Heidegger for the nazis, many others for Stalin, Mao, etc.).  Now we have the same breed of intellectuals promoting relativism and provoking, sometimes supporting a dogmatic reaction.  An excellent article.  To quote from the conclusions:

““It is difficult to think of a century in European history better designed than the last to excite the passions of the thinking mind and lead it to political disaster.  The doctrines of communism and fascism, Marxism in all its baroque permutations, nationalism, tiers-mondisme—many inspired by a hatred of tyranny, all capable of inspiring hateful tyrants and blinding intellectuals to their crimes.  It is possible to conceive of these tendencies as part of a grand historical narrative to which some external force, driving both events and their interpretations, can be ascribed.  But no matter how much we reflect on such forces, we are still far from capturing the intimate struggles that European intellectuals had with them and the many ruses they employed to maintain their illusions. 

“As we read their works today and struggle to comprehend their actions, we need to get beyond our inner revulsion and confront the deeper internal forces at work in the philotyrannical mind—and, potentially, in our own.  The ideologies of the twentieth century appealed to the vanity and raw ambition of certain intellectuals, but they also appealed, slyly and dishonestly, to the sense of justice and hatred of despotism that thinking itself seems to instill in us, and which, unmastered, can literally possess us.  To those possessed, appeals to moderation and skepticism will appear cowardly and weak, which is why those rare European intellectuals who did invoke them—Aron was one—were subject to hateful attacks as traitors to their calling.  Such men may not have been philosophers in the classical sense but they did display the same intellectual and political sang-froid that Plato thought distinguished the genuine philosopher from the irresponsible intellectual.

“Hard cases make bad law, so the judges have decreed.  Perhaps, then, we should turn a blind eye to the political mistakes of European intellectuals and try to understand them in light of the extreme circumstances of the twentieth century and hope for calmer days ahead.  Our historian may feel this temptation acutely.  But he would be mistaken to give in to it.  Tyranny is not dead, not in politics and certainly not in our souls.  The age of the master ideologies may be over, but so long as men and women think about politics—so long as there are thinking men and women at all—the temptation will be there to succumb to the allure of an idea, to allow passion to blind us to its tyrannical potential, and to abdicate our first responsibility, which is to master the tyrant within.”

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Posted: 20 April 2007 02:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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“Hard cases make bad law, so the judges have decreed. Perhaps, then, we should turn a blind eye to the political mistakes of European intellectuals and try to understand them in light of the extreme circumstances of the twentieth century and hope for calmer days ahead. Our historian may feel this temptation acutely. But he would be mistaken to give in to it. Tyranny is not dead, not in politics and certainly not in our souls. The age of the master ideologies may be over, but so long as men and women think about politics—so long as there are thinking men and women at all—the temptation will be there to succumb to the allure of an idea, to allow passion to blind us to its tyrannical potential, and to abdicate our first responsibility, which is to master the tyrant within.”

I can offer an explanation of this if anyone cared to hear it.  Our legal system is in shambles due to exactly what burt’s article says.  It falls as much on the judge and attornies attitudes and the way they practice than anything else.

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Posted: 27 April 2007 05:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Is truth absolute or is it relative? Can it change as pertinant knowledge increases? Was there a time when we believed it true that the sun revolved around the earth? By asserting truth as absolute aren’t we wading into the same polarized swamp as those who assert absolute dogma? Isn’t the only real truth that of change? If so, is there room for the philosopher to be open and flexible recognizing how fragile the truth is?  And, wouldn’t that be the best way to provide a fertile middle ground?

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Posted: 27 April 2007 05:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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[quote author=“Anonymous”]Is truth absolute or is it relative? Can it change as pertinant knowledge increases? Was there a time when we believed it true that the sun revolved around the earth? By asserting truth as absolute aren’t we wading into the same polarized swamp as those who assert absolute dogma? Isn’t the only real truth that of change? If so, is there room for the philosopher to be open and flexible recognizing how fragile the truth is?  And, wouldn’t that be the best way to provide a fertile middle ground?

Dear, Guest.  Please register so that we may call you by a name (and distinguish you from other guests).

As to your post:  Notice what you said.  You are asking whether truth is absolute or relative; but then, as an example of a “relative truth” you mention the belief that the sun revolves around the earth.  It was believed to be true.  But it NEVER actually was true.  You can’t prove that truths change by pointing out things that were once believed to be true but now are known not to be true.  What changes is not the truth, but what we believe to be the truth.

Truths exist independent of what we believe (and in that sense are entirely objective and absolute).  However, we should never dogmatically assert that we know the truth and cannot be wrong.

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What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.
-Ivan Karamazov

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Posted: 27 April 2007 05:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Thanks for your comments. I don’t know why the last post was annonymous. Maybe I wasn’t logged in at the time. Anyway, I wrote it.

Truth exists only because we acknowledge it. Therefore, the only truth is that which we know of. To assert otherwise would be to attribute unreal properties to the notion - for instance, God is truth. When a tree falls in the forest…

My point is that truth is dependent upon our congnizence. We make truth what it is by our perception. And, that perception is ever-changing. Because of that, absolute truth does not exist.

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Posted: 27 April 2007 01:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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[quote author=“willowind”]Thanks for your comments. I don’t know why the last post was annonymous. Maybe I wasn’t logged in at the time. Anyway, I wrote it.

Truth exists only because we acknowledge it. Therefore, the only truth is that which we know of. To assert otherwise would be to attribute unreal properties to the notion - for instance, God is truth. When a tree falls in the forest…

My point is that truth is dependent upon our congnizence. We make truth what it is by our perception. And, that perception is ever-changing. Because of that, absolute truth does not exist.

No, I disagree completely.  What we perceive may or may not be true, but there are things that are true whether or not anybody is aware of them.  The Pythagorean theorem, for example, was true before humanity had even appeared on the earth.  Our formulation of the theorem is only our way of knowing that truth.  Our perceptions are changing, but that is us (and, of course, the world also changes). 

“As my sight by seeing learned to see
the more unchanging substance seemed to change
with every change in me.”

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Posted: 27 April 2007 04:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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[quote author=“burt”]
No, I disagree completely.  What we perceive may or may not be true, but there are things that are true whether or not anybody is aware of them.  The Pythagorean theorem, for example, was true before humanity had even appeared on the earth.  Our formulation of the theorem is only our way of knowing that truth.  Our perceptions are changing, but that is us (and, of course, the world also changes).

Well stated Burt.

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What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.
-Ivan Karamazov

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Posted: 24 April 2008 11:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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Ophelia Benson puts it very well in her blog Butterflies and Wheels - fighting fashionable nonsense

In Focus: Cultural Relativism

There are times when, do what we will, we are confronted with goals, values, moral preferences, that are in flat contradiction. We have to choose one and reject the other. Much as we would like to, we can’t blend or compromise or harmonise or take a little from this pot and a dab from that and come up with a nice mix. Doing one thing simply rules out doing the other and that’s all there is to it. Digital not analog, yes or no.

So for instance reasonable and desirable goals of tolerance, understanding, cosmopolitanism, and cultural relativism can clash with equally reasonable and desirable goals of preventing harm to others, criticising unjust laws and customs and traditions, exposing exploitation and oppression, and advocating an end to asymmetrical, unfair, cruel, punitive and destructive instituitions. Sometimes those institutions and practices and customs are in Third World countries, and then attempts of First World people to reform or abolish them will conflict with the laudable goal of not being a cultural imperialist or Eurocentric or self-righteous or intolerant. And then one has to choose.

One obvious (yet strangely easily overlooked) way to deal with this problem is to ask ourselves what we mean by ‘culture’. If we think and say that women shouldn’t be murdered by their fathers and brothers for, e.g., resisting an arranged marriage, only to be told that that’s their culture and it’s arrogant and Eurocentric to judge other cultures by Western standards, then surely the thought is available: what do you mean ‘their culture’? Whose culture? And what follows from that? Is it the culture of the women who are murdered? Or is it only the culture of the men doing the murdering. If the latter, why should their culture be privileged?

In fact it’s quite strange the way a line of thought that’s intended to side with the oppressed often sides with oppressors in the name of multiculturalism. A great many practices could be put in the box ‘their culture’. Dowry murders, female infanticide, female genital mutilation, slavery, child labour, drafting children into armies, the caste system, beating and sexually abusing and witholding wages from domestic servants especially immigrants, Shariah, fatwas, suttee. These are all part of someone’s ‘culture’, as murder is a murderer’s culture and rape is a rapist’s. But why validate only the perpetrators? Have the women, servants, slaves, child soldiers, Dalits, ten-year-old carpet weavers in these cultures ever even had the opportunity to decide what their culture might be?

And this is where the hard choice comes in, where the competing goods have to be sorted out. One can decide that tolerance and cultural pluralism trump all other values, and so turn a blind eye to suffering and oppression that have tradition as their underpinning, or one can decide that murder, torture, mutilation, systematic sexual or caste or racial discrimination, slavery, child exploitation, are wrong, wrong everywhere, universally wrong, and not to be tolerated.

So in this In Focus we provide links to arguments in favor of moral realism and universalism, including this one by Simon Blackburn here on Butterflies and Wheels, and also to information about areas where it is needed.

this are the links

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“We may be confused about the distinction between tolerance and the refusal of evaluation, thinking that tolerance of others requires us not to evaluate what they do.”
Martha Nussbaum
  —Cultivating Humanity

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