245 Refuting Relativism

While the recently installed Pope Francis urges empathy with the poor he also laments the spiritual poverty of those in bondage to what Benedict XVI called “the tyranny of relativism.”  He certainly follows St.  Francis of Assisi, urging us to be peacemakers—“But there is no true peace without truth!  There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.”  His papal predecessor, Benedict XVI, had warned:   “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”  While acknowledging that fanatics too easily assert their confidence in various “truths,” we should not cease discerning and proclaiming with certainty self-evident and trustworthy insights and convictions.  “That is why,” he said, “we must have the courage to dare to say:  ‘Yes, man must seek the truth; he is capable of truth.”   

Benedict’s admonitions would not have surprised Allan Bloom, who in 1987 wrote The Closing of the American Mind as “a meditation on the state of our souls, particularly those of the young, and their education” (p. 19).  Youngsters need teachers to serve as midwives—above all helping them deal with “the question, ‘What is man?’ in relation to his highest aspirations as opposed to his low and common needs” (p. 21).   University students, Bloom said, were “pleasant, friendly and, if not great-souled, at least not particularly mean-spirited.  Their primary preoccupation is themselves, understood in the narrowest sense” (p. 83), preoccupied with personal feelings and frustrations.  Not “what is man” but “who am I” is the question!  They illustrate “the truth of Tocqueville’s dictum that ‘in democratic societies, each citizen is habitually busy with the contemplation of a very petty object, which is himself’” (p. 86).  

     This preoccupation with self-discovery and self-esteem, Bloom believed, flowers easily in today’s relativism, a philosophical dogma espoused by virtually everyone coming to or prowling about the university.  Under the flag of “openness” and “tolerance,” no “truths” are acknowledged and everyone freely follows his own feelings.  So even the brightest of our young people know little about history, literature, or theology, for such knowledge resides in books, which remain largely unread, even in the universities.  Minds shaped by films, rock music and television have little depth, and “the failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is” (p. 64).  Deepening his analysis in a section titled “Nihilism, American Style,” Bloom diagnosed the philosophical roots of today’s educational malaise as preeminently rooted in Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger.  An enormous intellectual earthquake has shaken our culture to its foundations.  It is “the most important and most astonishing phenomenon of our time,” the “attempt to get ‘beyond good and evil’” by substituting “value relativism” for Judeo-Christian absolutism (p. 141).  

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What concerned Bloom and the popes at the turning of the millennium was perceptively examined half-a-century earlier by C.S. Lewis in one of his finest books, The Abolition of Man (New York:  Macmillan, 1947).  First presented during WWII as a series of lectures, Lewis began by carefully examining an elementary English textbook he dubbed The Green Book.   While allegedly designed to help students read literature, the text was inadvertently a philosophical justification for relativism, promoting the notion that all values, whether aesthetic or ethical, are subjective and ultimately indefensible.  However, Lewis said:  “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.  The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others.  And he believed (correctly) that the tourists thought the same.  The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it:   he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions” (#148 in Kindle).  

Coleridge and others who believed in objective Truth (and truths) generally appealed to what Chinese thinkers revered to as “the Tao.  It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself.  It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road.  It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time.  It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar” (#107).  We instantly recognize—through theoretical reason—certain laws of thought (e.g. the law of non-contradiction) or geometry (e.g. a line is the shortest distance between two points); we also know—through practical reason—certain permanent moral maxims (e.g. murder is wrong).  Any effort to reduce universal values to personal feelings inevitably founder in nihilistic confusion.    

In truth:  “All the practical principles behind the Innovator’s case for posterity, or society, or the species, are there from time immemorial in the Tao.  But they are nowhere else.  Unless you accept these without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever” (#358).  “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in” (#398).  By disregarding the Tao, advocates of any new morality sink into a “void” without a  pattern to follow, a nihilistic abyss promoting “the abolition of Man” (#556).  

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In The Book of Absolutes:  A Critique of Relativism and a Defense of Universals (Montreal:  McGill-Queen’s University Press, c. 2008), William D. Gairdner updates and amplifies an ancient and perennial proposition.  A distinguished Canadian Olympic athlete with degrees from Stanford University, Gairdner has effectively influenced the resurgence of conservatism in his native land.  Though he acknowledges the present power and pervasiveness of relativism, he finds it “a confused and false conception of reality that produces a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and uncertainty, both for individuals and for society as a whole” (#71).  To rectify this problem he wrote “a book to restore human confidence by presenting the truth about the permanent things of this world and of human existence” (#74).  

The current notion—that truth varies from person to person (or group to group), that all perspectives must be tolerated, that moral judgments must be suspended—has an ancient history which Gairdner explores, noting that earlier generations generally judged it “preposterous.  The ancient Greeks actually coined the word idiotes (one we now apply to crazy people) to describe anyone who insisted on seeing the world in a purely personal and private way” (#88).  There were, of course, Greek Sophists such as Protagoras who declared:  “As each thing appears to me, so it is for me, and as it appears to you, so it is for you.”  But their views withered under the relentless refutations of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—all defending objective truth and perennial principles—followed by Medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Enlightenment scientists such as Isaac Newton.  

Dissenting from the traditional, absolutist position were thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, who rejected any rooting of moral principles in a higher law, declaring in The Leviathan  that we label “good” whatever pleases us.  Indeed, the words good and evil “are ever used with relation to the person that usesth them:  there being nothing simply and absolutely so.”  A century later Hobbes’ subjectivism would be enshrined by a thinker markedly different from him in many respects, Immanuel Kant, “the most coolly influential modern philosopher to have pushed us toward all sorts of relativist conclusion” (p. 14).   Building on Kant’s position, Friedrich Nietzsche formulated the relativist slogan:  “there are no facts, only interpretations.”  American pragmatists and cultural anthropologists, European existentialists and deconstructionists took up the catchphrase, and today we live in a postmodern culture deeply shaped by epistemological skepticism and moral relativism.  

Sadly, this intellectual shift was bolstered by a profound popular misunderstanding and misrepresentation of one of the monumental scientific discoveries of all time, Einstein’s “Special Theory of Relativity.”  As historian Paul Johnson explains, “‘the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes:   of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, and above all of value.  Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.’  And, he adds, ‘no one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension’” (p. 17).  Nevertheless, it served as a scalpel that helped “‘cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture’” (p. 18).   

After explaining various forms of relativism—noting that its moral and cultural forms are most prevalent and pernicious—Gairdner registers some objections to it.  It is, importantly, “self-refuting,” basing its entire case upon the absolute assertion that there are no absolutes.  Thus it cannot withstand Aristotle’s powerful argument, set forth in his Metaphysics, showing how it violates the law of non-contradiction.  That various persons or cultures claim different “truths” hardly affects the fact that a great many beliefs are manifestly wrong, whereas others (e.g. the earth is spherical) are demonstrably right.  The fact that some groups of people (“sick societies”) have condoned human sacrifice or infanticide hardly justifies these practices.  Admittedly, some truths—both scientific (a heliocentric solar system) and moral (slavery is wrong)—become clear only after considerable time or laborious investigation, but that only strengthens their certainty.  Thus:  “Neither believing nor doing makes a thing right or wrong” (p. 39).  

Challenging relativism, Gairdner invokes scholars such as Donald E. Brown, a professor of anthropology, whose 1991 publication, Human Universals, effectively refutes many sophomoric relativistic mantras by listing more than 300 human universals.  For example:  “All humans use language as their principal medium of communication, and all human languages have the same underlying architecture, built of the same basic units and arranged according to implicit rules of grammar and other common features.  All people classify themselves in terms of status, class, roles, and kinship, and all practice division of labour by age and gender.  . . . .  All have poetry, figurative speech, symbolic speech, ceremonial speech, metaphor, and the like.  All use logic, reckon time, distinguish past, present, and future think in causal terms, recognize the concept and possibility of cheating and lying, and strive to protect themselves from the same’” (p. 64).  Everywhere and at all times we humans have acknowledged such universal realities.  

There are indubitable, demonstrable constants (laws) throughout the natural world—notably the law of gravity and Einstein’s famous theorem, E=mc2.  Material things, moving through space, continually change; but laws remain the same.  As David “Berlinski puts it, ‘the laws of nature by which nature is explained are not themselves a part of nature.  No physical theory predicts their existence nor explains their power.  They exist beyond space and time, they gain purchase by an act of the imagination and not observation, they are the tantalizing traces in matter of an intelligence that has so far hidden itself in symbols’” (p. 76).  Still more, says Berlinski:  “‘We are acquainted with gravity through its effects; we understand gravity by means of its mathematical form.  Beyond this, we understand nothing” (p. 78).  

Analogously, as human beings we are, by nature, “hardwired” with important “universals.”  The “blank-slate” notion, promulgated by empiricists such as John Locke and B.F. Skinner, cannot support the accumulating genetic and cognitive evidence concerning our species.  Beyond using the same nucleic acid and DNA basic to all living organisms, we do a great number of remarkable things:  negotiating contracts; acting altruistically and even sacrificially; establishing elaborate kinship ties; walking erectly; engaging in year-round sexual encounters; recognizing ineradicable male-female differences; manifesting an inexplicably miraculous intelligence, reason, and free will.  Gairdner patiently compiles and evaluates the massive evidence available to show that a multitude of “universals” do in fact define us as human beings.  “Contrary to the claims of relativists everywhere that nothing of an essential or innate human nature exists, we find that there is indeed a basic universal, biologically rooted human nature, in which we all share.  This is so from DNA to the smiling instinct.  It is a human nature that runs broad and deep, and nothing about it is socially constructed or invented” (p. 162).  This is markedly evident in the “number of universals of human language” (p. 217) discovered by scholarly linguists such as Noam Chomsky, who insists “‘there is only one human language,’ which he and his followers later labeled ‘UB,’ or ‘Universal Grammar’”(p. 229).  As an English professor, Gairdner devotes many pages, in several chapters, to an explanation and analysis of recent developments in the study of language, truly one of the defining human characteristics.  Importantly, it can “be seen as a mirror of the internal workings of the mind rather than as a mirror of the external workings of culture or society” (p. 291).  

Embedded within this human nature we find a natural law prescribing moral norms.  “The traditional natural law is therefore based on four assumptions:  ‘1.  There are universal and eternally valid criteria and principles on the basis of which ordinary human law can be justified (or criticized).  2.  These principles are grounded both in nature (all beings share certain qualities and circumstances) and in human nature.  3.   Human beings can discover these criteria and principles by the use of right reason.  4.  Human law is morally binding only if it satisfies these criteria and principles’” (p. 164).  It is a hallmark of the philosophia perennis articulated by classical (Plato; Aristotle; Cicero) and Christian (Aquinas; Leibniz; C.S. Lewis) thinkers and noted for its common sense notions regarding God, man, and virtuous behavior.  

Espoused by some of the great architects of Western Civilization—including Aristotle and Cicero,  Aquinas and Calvin, Sir William Blackstone and the American Founders, the Nuremberg judges and Martin Luther King—the natural law tradition has provided the foundation for “the rule of law” so basic to all our rights and liberties.   As defined by Cicero:  “‘true law is right reason in agreement with nature, universal, consistent, everlasting, whose nature is to advocate duty by prescription and to deter wrongdoing by prohibition.’  He further stated that ‘we do not need to look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of this law.’  God, he said, is the author and promulgator and enforcer of this law, and whoever tries to escape it ‘is trying to escape himself and his nature as a human being’” (p. 183).  

So, Gairdner explains:  “The precepts of natural law for rational human creatures are, then, rational directives of logic and morality aimed at the common good for humanity and at avoidance of everything destructive of the good.  This means that human rational fulfillment may be found in such things as preserving the existence of ourselves and others by begetting and protecting children, by avoiding dangers to life, by defending ourselves and our loved ones, by hewing to family and friends, and of course, by hewing to reason itself.  We know many such standards in religion as commandments.  In daily life we know them as natural commands and prohibitions:  love others, do unto them as you would have them do unto you, be fair, do not steal, do not lie, uphold justice, respect property, and so on” (p. 189).  Such precepts, as Aquinas insisted, are intuitively known, per se nota; they are as self-evident as the geometric axioms of Euclid or the North Star’s fixed location in the night sky.  Thus murder and lying and theft and rape are rightly recognized as intrinsically evil.  Honoring one’s parents, respecting the dead, valuing knowledge, and acting courageously are rightly deemed good.  

During the past century, as relativism has flourished, the natural law tradition was widely attacked and abandoned.  Strangely enough, most relativists grant the existence of “an extremely mysterious law of gravity that controls all matter but that is not itself a part of matter, but they will not consent to other types of laws that govern or guide human behaviour, such as a natural moral law” (p. 210).    Apparently, Gairdner says, one of the reasons “for the decline of natural law during the rise of the modern state is that just about every law school, every granting institution, every legal journal, and every public court and tribunal is largely funded by the state.  And no modern state wants to be told by ordinary citizens that any of its laws are not morally binding.  That is why Lord Acton referred to natural law as ‘a revolution in permanence.’  He meant a revolution by those who cherish a traditional society and a morality rooted in human nature against all those who attempt to uproot, reorder, and deny or replace these realities” (p. 182).  

The modern repudiation of absolutes followed developments in 19th and 20th century German philosophy, evident in Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger, reaching their apex in Nazi Germany.  Classical and Christian advocates of transcendent metaphysical principles, such as Plato and Aquinas, were discarded by a corps of “existentialists” determined to move “beyond good and evil” and devise a purely secular, humanistic ethos.  French intellectuals, following the lead of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, imported Nietzsche and Heidegger, setting forth the currents of “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” so triumphant in contemporary universities and media centers.  “It was all an echo of Nietzsche’s ultra-relativist claim (later elaborated by Heidegger) that ‘there are no facts, only interpretations’” (p. 252).  

Ironically, Derrida himself, toward the end of his life, announced an important “Turn” in his thought.  He acknowledged “the logical as well as spiritual need for a foundation of some kind.  And out it came, as quite a shock to his adamantly relativist followers:  “‘I believe in justice.  Justice itself, if there is any, is not deconstructible’” (p. 266).  Derrida simply illustrates the perennial power of the natural law—there are some things we just can’t not know!    Derrida’s “Turn” underscores what Gairdner endeavors to do in this book:  “to expose the intellectual weakness of the relativism that pervades modern—especially postmodern—thought and also to offer a basic overview of the absolutes, constants, and universals that constitute the substance of the many fields explored here.  We have see them at work in culture through human universals, in physics via the constants of nature, in moral and legal thought via the natural law, and in the human body via our hardwired biology.  And not least, of course, in view of its close approximation to human thought itself, we have looked at the constants and universals of human language” (p. 308).  He persuasively demonstrates that “we do not live in a foundationless or relativistic world in which reality and meaning, or what is true and false, are simply made up as we go along and according to personal perceptions.  On the contrary, we live in a world in which every serious field of human thought and activity is permeated by fundamentals of one kind or another, by absolutes, constants, and universals, as the case may be, of nature and of human nature” p. 308).  

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