Day By Day

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Extremely Long Posting -- but it has a point -- several in fact. Novak, Goldberg and Sullivan discuss moral relativism

This is the blogosphere at its best. Check this out!

Michael Novak wrote an article in NRO [here] in which he argued, in part,

Relativism means this: Power trumps....

In today’s liberal democracies, [Pope Benedict XVI] has observed, the move to atheism is not, as it was in the 19th century, a move toward the objective world of the scientific rationalist. That was the “modern” way, and it is now being rejected, in favor of a new “post-modern” way. The new way is not toward objectivity, but toward subjectivism; not toward truth as its criterion, but toward power. This, Ratzinger fears, is a move back toward the justification of murder in the name of “tolerance” and subjective choice.

Along with that move, he has observed (haven’t we all?), comes a dictatorial impulse, to treat anyone who has a different view as “intolerant.” For instance, those (on the “religious right”) who hold that there are truths worth dying for, and objective goods to be pursued and objective evils to be avoided, are now held to be “intolerant” fundamentalists, guilty of “discrimination.”

In other words, the new dictatorial impulse declares that the only view permissible among reasonable people is the view that all subjective choices are equally valid. It declares, further, that anyone who claims that there are objective truths and objective goods and evils is “intolerant.” Such persons are to be expelled from the community, or at a minimum re-educated....

Most of the commentators, however, even those who support him, are misinterpreting Ratzinger’s point. They are getting him wrong.

What Ratzinger defends is not dogmatism against relativism. What he defends is not absolutism against relativism. These are false alternatives.

What Ratzinger attacks as relativism is the regulative principle that all thought is and must remain subjective. What he defends against such relativism is the contrary regulative principle, namely, that each human subject must continue to inquire incessantly, and to bow to the evidence of fact and reason.

This brought a response from Andrew Sullivan over at his blog [here]. Sullivan argued that Novak was wrong to see relativism as the organizing principle of a dictatorial impulse. He points out that the greatest evils of the modern world, Nazism and Communism, were both grounded in moral absolutism based on a naive faith in science. He writes:

The philosophical appeal of Marxism was and is, for the handful of fools who still cling to it, its claim to absolute, scientific truth. Similarly, Nazism asserted as a scientific fact the superiority or inferiority of certain races. These totalitarian ideologies allowed for no dissent because the truth had been proven.

You see precious little relativism in Communist or fascist regimes. They created absolute leaders to embody and enforce the maintenance of their truths. And they believed in the conflation of such truths with all political life, the abolition of autonomy and conscience.

In structure, they were and are very close to the structure of a decayed version of Catholicism that asserts one version of the truth, suppresses any and all open discussion of such truths within its power, and elevates a cult-like leader and mass demonstrations to reinforce its propaganda. Querulous, brave and ornery dissent - dissent designed not to obscure the truth but to understand it better - is quashed.
[T]he structure of a blind, authoritarian and rigid Ratzingerian faith is very close to the blind, authoritarian and rigid secular totalitarianisms of the recent past. Which is why some former communists have now become the firmest supporters of a Ratzingerian-style faith. They have swapped public political totalitarianism for a private religious one. And like their totalist fellows, their inability to persuade others merely convinces them further of their own truth.

Their references are never outside their own thought-system, and all fall conveniently back on the pronouncements of the supreme leader, who alone controls truth and thought. When pressed, they assert that history and nature will prove them right. "We will out-breed you!" they proclaim, in a horrifying echo of a eugenic mandate.

Novak, I think, therefore gets things exactly the wrong way round. The alternative to relativism is the difficult process of reason, informed by faith. But that process cannot take place in Ratzinger's Catholic church, because free thought is forbidden....

This, in turn, brought a response from Jonah Goldberg [here].

Of course the notion that morality is contingent on context is central to Nazi philosophy. Johann Gottfried Herder, the intellectual father of Volkish nationalism (but a decent guy), argued that morality is geopgraphically and ethnically specific. When Alfred Baeumler adpated Nietzsche to the Nazi cause much of his argument hinged on the notion that Christianity wasn't a "universal" faith but a "Mediterreanean religion of salvation" which was entirely "alien to and far removed from [Nietzsche's] Nordic attitude."

This is a point, by the way, I think Andrew Sullivan got wrong in his recent criticism of Michael Novak. And since it's been bugging me, I'll tell you why.
Sullivan argues that the appeal of Nazism and Marxism weren't relativistic. But relativism doesn't solely mean the individual defines his own truths. It also means that individuals and groups can disregard external notions of authority and universality -- moral or legal -- to further their own conceptions of good and evil.

This is what Julien Benda was referring to in his Treason of The Clerks when he complained that for the first time in memory, philosophers had sided with Socrates' killers.

The Communists believed that killing inconvenient peoples for the good of the party was entirely justified. The Nazis believed killing inconvenient peoples in the name of the volk was entirely justified. Both movements argued that morality for Communists and Nazis ("workers," "the proletariat," Aryans whatever) was different than morality for outsiders and therefore lying, cheating and stealing were justified by their group defined morality. How Andrew can call it a "big stretch" for Novak to suggest Marxism and Nazism were a product of the moral relativism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is beyond me.

Which occasioned this response from Novak, agreeing with and expanding on Goldberg:
Nazism and Communism may have had their own metaphysical pretenses, but they both treated the human being as a thing, as a means, as an instrument, and in important ways as a non-moral (and certainly non-spirited) material agent. In the human and moral sphere, in other words, they required the surrender of any "objective" moral compass, "natural law," or allegiance to "God's law"–all those bourgeois illusions–and in this task they were greatly aided in their preparatory work by the cult of "the absurd" among the intellectuals, the literary set, and students of the time.

Albert Camus found this out, for one, when (in a literary trope) he tried to persuade "a German friend" that he could not join the Nazis, and his friend sharply retorted: "And in a world where everything has lost its meaning, those who, like us young Germans, are lucky enough to find a meaning in the destiny of our nation must sacrifice everything else." In a world in which everything has lost its meaning.

Camus, despite his own teaching on the absurd, had suddenly to find and to defend a meaning. This he did, in his Second Letter to this friend–but not very satisfactorily. It took partial explorations in a series of book until he found his way out of the nihilism he had described in The Stranger and in arguing the logic of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus.

But the most vivid example I had in mind is from real life. A Communist authority I met in Switzerland told me what had led him to break, at least inwardly, from Communism (for he was a Party member and government official still) had been a crisis for him in Africa. On his posting there, he was ordered to take part in some killings of a number of rivals of the Communist Party in that nation. He experienced deep revulsion and managed to slip out of the task. That was the first time he had come to a clear insight that there are some things he could not, morally, do. He had thought he had lost all such primitive sentiments. They now seemed to him more than sentiments, and more than primitive, and overriding. He was still looking for a way out.

A second example was not unlike it. Another friend of mind had a father high in the Party in another East Bloc state, who after one of Pope John Paul II's visits to a neighboring country, would shut off the television in anger if he heard the word "God." My friend explained that his father had felt highly compromised by many actions he had taken in his career–treatment of dissidents, "traitors," dangers to the state–and could not bear the thought that there was a more humanistic standard of ethics than the needs of the Party. He had surrendered his personal moral code to the judgment of the Party. Nothing else counted morally. He had to keep things that way in the peace (or un-peace) of his own soul. What helps the Party is moral; what hurts it is immoral; any other moral principle is an illusion. Metaphysically, this is not nihilism, for at least the Party has ontological status as the dynamo of history and measure of moral progress. But for the participating individual it requires a relativizing of every other moral code. An emptying out of the moral individual, so that the Lie may occupy that place.

"If God is dead," a brother Karamazov said, "everything is permitted." Well, obviously there are atheists who have a strongly reasoned, and as they see it "objective" moral code based upon reason. They are not relativists. But there is now again, as there was in the 1930s, a spreading invisible gas of relativism, even among such atheists, not to mention among former believers in God. For growing numbers, it seems, ours is becoming again "a world in which everything has lost its meaning." The academic fashion of Post-Modernism puts an ideology to this, and its roots seem to me much too like those that led up to the fashion for Fascism and Communism among "the Clerks."

In a recent blog on the website of US News and World Report, an unimaginative professor at the University of Notre Dame failed to grasp that on certain occasions, in certain eras, arguing with Fascists or Communists involved one in a sort of lie. And one had to desist from it. For Fascist and Communist protagonists of violence did not believe in the same reason based upon evidence that, say, Albert Camus did. They believed, finally, in violence, and everything else was simply means to the moment of their triumph of will. As Albert Camus concluded early, at some crucial point those committed to liberty and justice and the very idea of truth must recognize that such enemies must be stopped, and combated to the death. For theirs is only a pretense of argument; they intend the systematic dehumanization of man.

It was just here that Camus drew the line of "resistance" and "rebellion," even at the cost of "death."

As Camus confesses, he and his fellows drew that line much too late, after much too much bloodshed and strutting violence. It had been better to nip the cult of the absurd far earlier. That is, to make some crucial distinctions.

This is great stuff -- intellectual disputation as good as you will find in any salon, or university course, or specialized journal -- and it's all free on the web for anyone to read and/or join in. Critics of the blogosphere like to point out the trollish rantings that emanate from some sites, or the silly partisan squabblings found on others, but there is quality stuff out there -- you've just gotta look for it. NRO and Andrew Sullivan's sites are a good place to start.


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