Monday, February 16, 2009

"Nihilism With a Happy Face"

Book Review: Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air
By Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl (Baker Books, 2007)

Philosophers Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl have written a primer on relativism which explains what it is, offers arguments against it and describes some of its effects on education and public policy (public moral issues). In the end they convincingly unmask relativism for what it is: not a form of polite tolerance but a form of nihilism (the conviction that life has no identifiable purpose or meaning) with a "happy face" painted on it. While some may laud relativism as our pathway to a more "tolerant" culture, its effect on people is finally to produce a tolerance based on complete moral indifference. Relativism is the ultimate moral and spiritual poison: not only does it dull the conscience but it also renders people unable to reason to moral conclusions for the simple reason that for it there are no moral conclusions.
After discussion various forms of relativism, Beckwith and Koukl go on to offer seven arguments against relativism. One argument that is particularly significant is that moral relativists really can not engage in moral argument. If all moral standards are relative or subjective, then it is finally impossible to debate or discuss any moral issue since the premise of debate and discussion is that some standard of truth exists and can be attained. The consistent moral relativist can not really critique another moral position (on what grounds could this be done?), undergo moral improvement (measured by what standard?) or make judgments. What might a world of consistent moral relativism look like? It is not hard to imagine: "It would be a world in which nothing is wrong--nothing is considered evil or good, nothing worthy of praise or blame. It would be a world in which justice and fairness are meaningless concepts, in which there would be no accountability, no possibility of moral improvement, no moral discourse. And it would be a world in which there is no tolerance."
But, as the authors point out, there are few if any consistent moral relativists. Usually, the moral relativist deploys relativism against another's position to assert his or her own. For example, there is the central canon of multiculturalism, the idea that all moral judgments are simply the articulation of a cultural perspective and, therefore, must all be valued so as to promote "diversity". Promoting cultural diversity may be a worthy goal but it does not take much analysis to notice that this canon is a self-refuting claim. The claim that all moral judgments are the articulation of a certain cultural perspective is a claim that aspires to universal validity so that if it is true then the central claim of multicultural ideology self-negates--there are universally valid truths.
In practice, then, moral relativism is a selectively deployed skepticism. When used in support of unlimited abortion rights or same gender marriage, relativism can make it appear that what we have is a choice between people who simply want people to be able to "choose for themselves" and people who want to "impose their (usually religious) values on other people" and who are, therefore, "intolerant". The fact that the so-called relativist is really promoting a philosophical position which might be called "radically individualist utilitarianism" is thereby hidden (largely because it is the commonly held philosophical assumption of the day). Both the relativist and the opponent of unrestricted abortion and same gender marriage both hold philosophical positions, the difference between the two is that the position of the former is more amenable to current degraded notions of freedom than that of the latter. In the final analysis Beckwith and Koukl are correct to conclude that relativism is not really a moral system at all but a kind of anti-morality.
In the end, if we embrace relativism we will arrive at a certain kind of freedom, a freedom which will involve the liberty to do and to think what the relativists dictate. When no objective standards exist, as C.S. Lewis observed, then the final arbiter of all moral questions will be power. It may be power exercised by democratic institutions or power exercised by the mob (as in revolutionary France) or power exercised by a totalitarian state (as in North Korea) but the final arbiter will be power. When this is true, then we will not have arrived at freedom at all but at the abolition of man.


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