Moral relativism's extreme close-up


Dissent over descent, by Steve Fuller, cover image cropped to 300 by 300Relativism is a natural response to the world. It works like the move from close-up to broad perspective in films. The change of perspective deflates the significance of what we have just seen.

We see, for example, two people trying to kill one another. Then the camera moves back to reveal the audience and the stage. Or two people embrace intimately on a verandah. The camera moves higher and discloses a large housing estate where couples are embracing intimately on each verandah.

Many intellectual styles use the same technique. A recent book by Steve Fuller, for example, reflects on the controversy about the teaching of intelligent design and the opposition to it. Fuller takes a very broad view of the controversy, attending to the religious motivation for scientific advance, the struggle for funding and control of education that drove much scientific polemic against religion, the threat to scientific enquiry itself recognised by early critics of Darwin's theory of chance evolution, and the marked similarities between theories of astrology and evolution.

From close up, science and religion seem to be mortal foes. From the broader perspective, they are Siamese twins that need one another.

Religious believers who have suffered much in the name of science may not be disappointed to see their critics reduced to size. But they are less happy when their own critics take a similarly lofty view of religious faith and of moral convictions.

From this broad perspective differences between religions may seem insignificant. Firm moral convictions may be reduced to cultural influences and personal interests. Any view from above inherently makes battles and convictions seem of relative importance.

Within churches relativism in matters of religion, where anyone's convictions are as good as another's, gets a bad press. Pope Benedict, for example, has been particularly critical of moral relativism, seeing it as destructive of human happiness. Yet to take the longer and broader view, for all its limitations, has something going for it.

The longer view is a valuable aid to self-reflection, particularly in the midst of conflict. To see ourselves as the size of ants on a very large ant heap does invite us to look critically at our certainties. It may help us see the complexities both in our own arguments and in those of good people who differ passionately from us.

It also reminds us that our vision of the world we live in, and even of the tradition which sustains us, is partial. It encourages magnanimity towards those who disagree with us. The longer view is part of the intellectual and personal discipline that makes fruitful conversation possible.

The risk associated with the longer view is that it will treat all judgements as a matter of opinion, and the individual person as expendable. If we see human beings as ants, we are likely to treat individuals and their beliefs as interchangeable. We may hesitate to attribute inalienable value to each human being or to defend passionately the truth of what we believe. Whether or not it is right to torture people, for example, becomes a matter of opinion.

That is the kind of relativism that Pope Benedict is concerned about. It is one that uses a distancing lens whenever it touches beliefs or values. It claims the camera operator's privilege of detachment from the world that he observes. It does not stop in wonder or in love of its beauty. This is relativism lived out.

But the longer view need not lead to this kind of relativism. The enlarged perspective by which we move from a single couple embracing to see a whole housing state embracing need not devalue the value of the first relationship. It can encourage us to value more highly each relationship. That presupposes that we can close in wonder on the mystery of each person and at a reality of the world.

This attitude, fundamental for moral insight and for religious faith, protects us from the kind of relativism in which nothing matters very much.

The alternation of the long and short views of reality suggests that we should hesitate before condemning everything that looks like relativism. In practice, many people who are reluctant to speak of absolute truths have a deep sense of wonder at the world and at the value of each human being. When conversation moves from things they don't much worry about to what is important, they are passionate and speak in terms of truth and falsehood. Their relativism is a rhetorical trope.

To speak of relativism itself betrays the distancing lens at work. Such large categories conceal important differences between individual thinkers. To speak of relativism or any other ism safely we also need a passion for the particular.

Andrew Hamilton reviews Dissent over Descent, by Steve Fuller

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, steve fuller, dissent over descent, moral relativism, intelligent design, science vs rel



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Existing comments

The real problem is when the possibility of absolutes is denied as is the case of post modernism. This is the philosophy which underlies a significant part of the literary criticism taught in many Catholic schools. It refuses to acknowledge the possibility of the housing estate's very existence, let alone the complementary embracing couples. In the last few months I have read essays from our senior students informing me that absolutes do not exist. "How do I know?" asks the young writer. I learnt it in English class the essay goes on to state. How many of these can I cite? Not many but three from three different areas of Queensland is too many.

Terry Oberg | 16 October 2008  

Thanks, Andy! Once again you hit the nail on the head. Si

Simon Smith sj | 17 October 2008  

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