Saturday, April 23, 2005

Relativism (A Rant)

I had a good sleep last night and am now feeling much more with it. So today I’m going to rant about relativisim. This week the new pope and the vampire ruler of the opposition spoke out against it, but this is very silly because relativism is a logical error, not a moral philosophy. To argue against it is only a notch up from saying “No more non sequiturs!” or “An end to tautology!”. Since I am sure that Benedict XVI will be checking out my blog first thing this morning (Hi Benny! Congrats on the promotion!) I shall explain.

Relativism, in these term at least – in physics it mean something else entirely – is what happens when someone asserts that the moral truth of any given situation cannot be discovered, because the situation is only relative to the myriad influences effecting it. Uh, an example from The Simpsons. Bart begins to suspect that his employer Fat Tony is a crook so confronts him on the matter;

Fat Tony : Bart, um, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?

Bart : No.

Fat Tony : Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?

Bart : Uh uh.

Fat Tony : And, what if your family don't like bread? They like... cigarettes?

Bart : I guess that's okay.

Fat Tony : Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?

Bart : Hell, no!

Rarely does anybody commit a crime or any sort of wrong-doing in isolation; something lead up to this, something provoked them, the victim may be a wrong-doer themselves or perhaps they can afford whatever harm is inflicted on them – usually when you hear the phrase “victimless crime” the truth is that there is a victim but it is a massive and wealthy entity – the Inland Revenue who you’re holding a few quid back from, software giants whose software you’ve pirated, a major chain-store whose low-cost product you slipped into your pocket.

And even as you read that you’re thinking that shop-lifting is a far more serious offence than software pirating – almost everybody you know has pirated software on their machine whereas you don’t know anybody who would go into a shop and actually steal stuff off the shelves. Maybe some of you are thinking that software is generally dearer than most items you could easily shoplift, so that is the greater offence. And everybody fiddles their tax return, right?

I’m not suggesting for a minute that anybody is going to burn in hell for this stuff or indeed that any of the above arguments are valid to some extent. However, the fact is that just because a offence appears to have little or no impact on others – and maybe you even feel like your taxes are badly spent and software giants are some evil imperialist power who deserve the losses – this doesn’t stop the principal of what you’re doing being wrong. It may be much less wrong than a lot of other things, but it is still wrong.

Relativism is the argument that eventually all the extenuating circumstances outweigh one another and there is no absolute right or absolute wrong. This is the argument to end all arguments as to be consistent, somebody who asserts this must then remain silent on all other issues – after all, anything if there is no right or wrong then it is pointless to voice an opinion, since that’s just your opinion, nobody need listen to it or take it into account in anyway.

Somebody could come up and punch you on the nose and you have no comeback. Their act of punching you on the nose is only relative to whatever act, knowingly or otherwise, you committed to provoke them, plus other things like this person’s background, what kind of day they were having, any genetic or cultural predisposition they have for punching you on the nose.

Morality is not all black and white, it is a spectrum of grey – but a spectrum, not just a general grey fuzz. The vast majority of issues can be identifies as being more than fifty percent black or more than fifty percent white. Although I believe in absolute moral truth, I recognise and fully acknowledge the fact that much of the time it is illusive, I am no more likely to be getting it right than anybody else and there are many circumstances where I struggle to put my finger on which side of the dividing line a situation sits.

The truth is that I have never met anybody who really doesn’t believe in absolute morality, it’s just that many people reject the idea because of the hash that organised religion and imperialistic governments have made of the subject.

Organised religion recognises absolute moral truth, which is great. This moral truth is unchanging and unchangeable; it is the same now as it was tens of thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, organised religion, being run by mere mortals, often makes mistakes. The biggest mistake it makes is about the fact that moral truth cannot and must not be applied in exactly the same way in all contexts. If you consider the absolute rules of physics, you can see that although the principals stay the same, these principals need to be applied in different ways to produce similar outcomes in different circumstances.

When I was young I read the Bible from cover to cover and was completely grossed out and shocked by Leviticus, which is a bit like a hygiene manual for the immensely superstitious; if you have this discharge, you must sacrifice this many pigeons. Leviticus is the book of the Old Testament, which talks most about undesirable sexual practices. It made so little sense to me and seemed inconsistent with other parts of the book.

However, I later began to understand that at the time of Leviticus, the Hebrew posse were out in the middle of the dessert, starving and with rock bottom immune systems. Any outward symptom of illness, any bodily fluid which could potentially spread disease, including menstrual blood had to be treated with the utmost caution. Non-procreative sex was a waste of resources, and indeed any unnecessary bodily contact was to be avoided. They didn’t have any soap or warm running water and certainly no sanitary products or condoms.

This is why the Old Testament manages at times to contradict itself and the teachings of Jesus; as Blackadder would say, “Needs must when the devil vomits in your kettle.” I couldn’t begin to list the number of ways in which the Catholic Church needs to reconsider how certain principles are applied to the modern world and it isn’t my place to do so.

However, it would be of benefit to the entire world, Benny-boy, if you recognised the difference between relativism and undesirable social change.

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