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Moral relativism's extreme close-up

  • 16 October 2008

Relativism 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