Saturday, January 24, 2009

New Criterion - Guarding the Boundaries (on Relativism)

The New Criterion posted this cool article, Guarding the Boundaries, about the metaphysical downside of relativism. Daniels is concerned that the absence of boundaries defining the good and the beautiful might, by definition, eliminate any real, agreed upon sense that there is anything good or beautiful.

This is an almost integrally argued stance - that beyond relativistic acceptance of all perspectives there needs to be some form of higher sense of what is good and beautiful, perhaps at an archetypal level (not the Jungian sense of the, but in the Platonic sense).

I think this is an important idea for artists and writers to be wrestling with, and perhaps defending in their work.

Guarding the boundaries

by Anthony Daniels

On the moral consequences of relativism (from "The Dictatorship of Relativism.")

Since I’ve received no education in philosophy whatever, it is no doubt very rash of me to make a broad generalization concerning the subject, but I shall risk it nonetheless: that in the whole history of philosophy not a single important philosophical problem has ever been solved beyond all possible dispute.

I know that the late Sir Karl Popper claimed to have solved the problem of induction not merely to his own satisfaction, but also to the satisfaction of all rational men; alas, I do not think that all rational men have reciprocated by agreeing with him. Pace Popper, the philosophy of science is not now at an end, any more than is mental, political, or moral philosophy.

Unless I am much mistaken, the metaphysical foundations of aesthetic and moral judgment have not been established with anything like the certainty with which, say, the circulation of the blood has been established. I know that it is fashionable to state that all scientific knowledge is provisional, and itself rests upon metaphysically uncertain foundations. Perhaps in the abstract this is correct; yet I do not think anyone seriously expects a future researcher to discover that the blood does not in fact circulate. Evidently, there are degrees even of scientific tentativeness.

If every moral judgment is metaphysically uncertain, unsupported by any philosophical lender of last resort, it appears to some people that the only answer to the question of how people ought to behave is a complete relativism, possibly backed up by some version of John Stuart Mill’s principle that everything is permissible that does not harm another person.

This conclusion is strengthened by the observation, first made by Herodotus, I believe, that what men have thought good (or for that matter beautiful) has been infinitely various, or nearly so; and since there is no reason to believe that any group of men has become either better or more intelligent than men in Herodotus’s day, our judgment of what we consider good (or beautiful) is arbitrary, or aleatory, that is to say contingent upon such matters as when and where we are born, into what social class, with what mental apparatus, etc.

Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so; and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What we think and see in matters of moral and aesthetic judgment is to a large extent determined by our circumstances; for neither goodness nor beauty is out there in the world awaiting discovery, like the planet Pluto, by men armed with telescopes and mathematical equations.

Now let us, for the sake of argument, grant that this is so: that we can not place any moral or aesthetic judgment on firm, which is to say indubitable, metaphysical foundations; and that as a matter of observable fact men have formed very different judgments about the good and beautiful over the ages and in different regions of the world. Does it follow that the only resort left to us is a kind of multiculturalism in which each ego is an entire culture of its own?

I do not think so. Men can no more avoid making moral and aesthetic judgments than they can avoid eating: It is built into their very nature to make such judgments. Accordingly, there is no human society that has no concept of the good or of the beautiful, even if it is only pre-philosophical, which is to say implicit rather than explicit. Of course, what societies believe to be good or beautiful may vary, as their diet does; but judgment is as inescapable as nutrition. Even the popular desire to make no judgment is based on a judgment, that it is wrong to make a judgment. I remember a patient of mine who told me proudly, with the unmistakable smile of the anointed, that her greatest virtue was that she was non-judgmental; more recently, in response to an article I wrote, I received an email which denounced me as a judgmental illegitimate.

Now men, as I suppose I don’t have to tell you, live in societies, unless they are anchorites in the Syrian desert subsisting on honey and locusts (and even then they usually came from societies, the general rule being no societies, no anchorites in the Syrian desert). In order to rub along, more or less, men must put limits or boundaries upon their own behavior; and it certainly helps them to do so if those limits or boundaries are backed by some kind of moral principle, though the articulation between boundary and principle may be loose or contentious.

What is new about the current relativism, it seems to me, is not that it contends the positioning of boundaries, for such positioning has, I think, always been contentious: It is always possible, after all, to argue that any given boundary contributes more to the misery than to the happiness of man. Rather, the current relativism contests the very need for boundaries itself, or at any rate has the effect, once it filters down from the intelligentsia into the general population, of destroying the appreciation of the need for boundaries. And if no boundaries are needed, then any attempt to impose them is without legitimacy. Only what comes from the self is legitimate.

Read the whole article.

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