Tag Archives: relativism

Blaise Pascal on universals and particulars

From Pensées 40:

If we wished to prove the examples which we take to prove other things, we should have to take those other things to be examples; for, as we always believe the difficulty is in what we wish to prove, we find the examples clearer and a help to demonstration.
Thus, when we wish to demonstrate a general theorem, we must give the rule as applied to a particular case; but if we wish to demonstrate a particular case, we must begin with the general rule. For we always find the thing obscure which we wish to prove and that clear which we use for the proof; for, when a thing is put forward to be proved, we first fill ourselves with the imagination that it is, therefore, obscure and, on the contrary, that what is to prove it is clear, and so we understand it easily.
Obscurity is the inherent problem with systems of thought that begin with man (particulars) and not with God (universal). That is why materialism, ethical objectivism, and moral relativism all end up in an incoherent mess when followed to their conclusion.
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Calvin and Hobbes on moral relativism

[HT Stephen Notman]

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Judging what is and is not art

Modern art, or more specifically, postmodern art characterized by abstract expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, and Franz Kline, has been decried by art critics (of a less refined taste as we are commonly told by the self-proclaimed elite art critics) as being trash and not “true art”. However such a distinction begs the question, what is true art and how do we go about judge it in an objective fashion? The first question will determine the latter since, if we cannot find an objective definition on which to stand for what constitutes art, the second question regarding how we should go about judging it will only be an exercise in expressing our subjective opinions.

An objective definition of art
Wikipedia defines art this way:

Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects the senses, emotions, and/or intellect.

I would argue that art is creative communication. Art includes the items commonly accepted to be art, such as books, movies, paintings, buildings, photography, and music. The realm of art also includes items not yet included in the commonly accepted definition of art. Contrary to Roger Ebert, even videogames can be works of art. I would even go so far as to say that mechanical devices, mathematical formulas, programming structures, and heavy industrial machinery can all be works of art as well.

That is, they can be so long as fill two criteria.

  1. They have a definitive message to send
  2. That message is portrayed in such a way that is is possible to be understood by the recipient

Postmodernism, with its emphasis on the deconstruction of language, has had a profound impact on modern art. We can see the beginnings of this trend in Pablo Picasso’s work wherein common subjects were distorted so that the recipient had to work at discerning what the artist was attempting to convey. And we can see the culmination of this trend in Jackson Pollock’s work (among others) wherein the viewer is expected to bring their own subjective meaning to whatever work was being viewed.

This approach is wholly consistent with a postmodern framework. However since it lacks an intended message from the author to the audience, it cannot rightly be considered art. Even if the objective of the author is to combat the notion of objective truth itself, the lack of clarity in communicating that message to the audience prevents it from being considered art. In order to remain true to the tenants of postmodernism it would need to be open to being deconstructed itself and reconstructed in whatever the subject wished, destroying it’s ability to communicate anything at all.

So there is art that cannot rightly be categorized as art and it has nothing to do with our subjective feelings on the matter. We can honestly say that men like Pollock did not produce art by their new style of  “action paintings”. How could they? They admittedly had nothing they wished to communicate and thus the viewer is left with nothing to learn from their paintings. At best these postmodern pieces are like glorified Rorschach tests designed to act as a cognitive mirror for the viewer’s mind.

look passively and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for –Jackson Pollock

Reynolds News had it right when they wrote that “this is not art–it’s a joke in bad taste”.

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Blaise Pascal on moral relativism

The licentious tell men of orderly lives that they stray from nature’s path, while they themselves follow it; as people in a ship think those move who are on the shore. On all sides the language is similar. We must have a fixed point in order to judge. The harbour decides for those who are in a ship; but where shall we find a harbour in morality?

Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Section VIII: The Fundamentals of the Christian Religion, #383

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Is the Bible a suitable candidate for an objective moral standard?

Here is a portion of an exchange I recently had via Facebook with Nigel, a friend of mine. The topic of this section is about whether the Bible can legitimately be used as an objective moral standard.

The problem is, as I pointed out, the Bible can only be considered a universal standard if an individual interprets certain evidence in such a way as to suggest that it is.

Nigel, you seem to be misunderstanding

  1. what is meant by “an objective standard” and how that relates to the ability (or not) of others to
  2. properly understand and
  3. apply that standard. All three are separate issues.

1. Objective standard. If a standard is objective then it does not matter if no one understands or accepts it. Objective simply means that it exists independent of the subject (us). So even if there were no Christians, I would argue that the objective moral standard of Christianity exists and is binding on every person. In other words, the Bible is merely a means by which we know the standard, but it does not, itself, constitute or establish that standard.

2. As for understanding. You seem to also presuppose a deconstructionalist view of the text wherein it is we who bring meaning to a text and not the text that contains meaning independent of our interpretation whereupon it is incumbent on us, the reader, to decipher what the original author meant by any given text. You seem to be following Derrida’s deconstructionalist model when you argue along the lines that since there are many different interpretations of a text that therefore there is no objective definition. I would argue that

3. You also seem to be making the argument that since the application of the moral standard found in Scripture has not been consistent, and has changed over time, that such a change in the application of the objective standard serves as proof that there is no objective standard. Again, this seems to be an outworking of Derrida’s postmodern deconstructionalism wherein it is the subjects that bring meaning to the object and not the other way around. I would argue that we could not talk about a “more proper” application of moral law unless we first presuppose there there exists an objective law in the first place by which to judge applications of it across time. If we reverse this so that application determines the standard then what we are left with is a sort of “might makes right” notion. Interestingly enough, “might makes right” still adheres to an objective standard (a poor one in my estimation) that comes logically prior to the understanding and application.

So when it comes to the question of objective morality we need to address each category separately, starting with the question of

  1. whether an objective standard exists. If it does then we can proceed, if not then all things are relative and subjective. We can live as we please because there is nothing we are objectively beholden to.
  2. how those objective standards are understood. If there is a standard, it must be understandable by those who are to be bound by it. If we say that objective standards exist but that we cannot know them, then how can we really know they exist at all?
  3. how to we apply these objective moral standards? Only after we establish the existence of an objective moral standard and only after we establish the objective means we are to use in understanding that standard can we begin to talk about how that standard is to be applied. The beautiful thing here is that after we have established that an objective moral law exists and how we can objectively understand that law, we can easily correct the application of moral laws as we grow in our understanding of the moral law.
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Moral norms vs. moral absolutes

Greg Koukl recently wrote an excellent post on seven fatal flaws of relativism.

One of the chief objections to attacks on moral relativism (often held by philosophical naturalists) is that morality is defined by culturally accepted norms. Thus, they argue, that there is an absolute in the sense that society holds some actions to be right and others wrong, but that morality is not an absolute in the sense that the standard of moral conduct never changes.

I want to first note that there is a big difference between “moral norm” based on statistical averages found in any given society and “moral absolutes” which are independent of public opinion, thus transcendent. While the former does change based on the cultural milieu, the latter is the only one capable of enacting and sustaining moral change in culture. In other words, without the objective moral view found exclusively in Christianity that all humans are created equal, and that that equality rests on a non-physical component of what makes us up (soul), there would be no real reason to oppose racism, racial slavery, or any other form of systematic oppression of others.

One must also define the “norm” being referred to. Norm is a statistical term which relies on a sample set of data. Depending on the sample size, and the constitution of the same, the calculated norm can vary widely. Statistics are also effected by other factors as well. So when we talk about “moral norms” it is far from clear what is actually being referred to. What region are we talking about? What people in that region are we referring to? What questions are we asking and what metrics are we measuring? All of these effect the outcome of what we deem the “moral norm”.

So while “norms” may change, that is not what constitutes morality. Simply put, if a relativist were to reduce morality down to statistical averages then all they are left with the ability to merely describe a moral behavior and not the ability to prescribe it. In the end, all they could say is that someone’s behavior falls outside of a statistical average at any given point in time. Relativists would not have a valid basis for calling any action objectively wrong in any capacity, just merely a deviation from a particular standard.

What is interesting is that even using statistical averages relativists still manage to smuggle in a moral absolute in the form of “everyone ought to conform to the statistical averages”. Where does this absolute come from, or does it ultimately succumb to being relegated to realm of subjective personal preference?

When it comes to morality, either there are absolutes or there are no absolutes. However to say that there are no absolutes is to claim an absolute which means that no matter how you slice it, everyone believes in moral absolutes. The only question is where we get those absolutes and why we think they are binding on everyone else.

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Societal wrong

When asked about where moral standards come from, a common tactic of a moral relativist is to attempt to ground moral knowledge in what society deems right or wrong at any given point in time. The problem this poses, however, is that in this understanding of morality, societies can never be said to be wrong. However I believe that most people intuitively understand that entire societies such as the Nazis in World War II, Stalin’s Soviet empire, Pol Pot’s regime, Islamic Sharia law and it’s subjugation of women, and even the segregated and deeply prejudiced American south1 to be objectively wrong.

So let’s take a moment to examine this notion of “societal wrong” and how such a notion, if accepted, constitutes a sufficient defeater for the concept of relativistic morality and, at the same time, constitutes a powerful evidence for a divine moral law giver.

In order to hold the notion of “societal wrong” you need a standard of morality that transcends time (because societies change) and society (meaning relativistic morality based on societal norms is out of the picture since you need something outside of the culture by which to judge the society).

Some will say, “I can think of a more arrogant and condescending statement than to say you are the only one that knows what morality is” However that is not what is being claimed here. You see, your statement would hold true if we were setting ourselves up as the arbiters of the objective and penultimate standard of morality. We aren’t. We are merely pointing to one that has existed long before us and will exist long after we are gone. We are not it’s authors and have no vote as to whether we agree or disagree with it.

In other words, it exists outside of and independent to us. This is a pivotal difference because when we further say that those who act in a moral fashion do so “out of coincidence” it really is like saying that before Newton people obeyed gravity “out of coincidence”.

You see, both gravity and morality are based on natural laws that are independent to those they effect. I know it is fashionable to claim that morality is a social construct and therefore is not real, objective, and knowable in the same sense as mathematics and physics, but simply claiming that does not make it so. Actually, the fact that we posses intuitive moral knowledge and instinctively recognize some actions to be right and others to be wrong should serve as a clear indication that an objective moral law does exist and that it is up to us to discover and then abide by it.

For more on this subject I highly recommended:

  1. And north. It is the height of ignorance to make the claim that racism only existed or still exists in the south []
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The myth of secular morality

This is a response to a post a friend of mine recently made outlining a secular basis for morality1 centered on empathy or “the golden rule” as the objective standard by which we ought to order our lives.

This comes as part of a long-running discussion where I maintain that, in order for morality to be of any substance2 , it must first be objective3 , timeless4, and transcendent5. To that end, I would like to offer two conjoined arguments in opposition to the proposed secular basis for morality based on empathy and the golden rule.

1.) The philosophical foundations of naturalism do not support the case for empathy being a standard.

If by secularism we mean philosophical naturalism in the sense that the only reality is the physical reality of atoms, particles, and “laws of nature” to the exclusion of metaphysical constructs such as a soul then our biggest hurdle to overcome, long before we deal with the grounds of any objective morality, is to answer where we get the notion of “ought to” from.

In other words, if matter is all there is, then all of our actions are essentially predetermined by our genes through chemical reactions happening in our brains. In this scenario we can no more will ourselves to be good, upright individuals than a sociopath who has no conscience.

Furthermore, as naturalists, we remove from ourselves the categories of right and wrong and are merely left with preferences which, even if applied to a societal level, still find no objective basis since it is still the subject (whether an individual or collective) that is determining the correctness of any given action (or intention/motive) and not a fixed standard that fits the criteria outlined at the outset which is required if our goal is a standard that is truly objective.

The only imbalance that can be found in this scenario is an imbalance of opinion and preference so that, when I say that you have wronged me, all I am doing is merely expressing a difference in opinion over your actions or intentions.

However, the fact that humans throughout history, and even the secular humanist, feel the need for a basis to morality is a rather curious notion6 since, without a truly objective standard to go by, all we would be left with would be moral relativism which, being relative to the individual or culture, would provide no real guidance at all, let alone one based on empathy.

2.) The philosophical presuppositions in the argument of empathy seem to assume that all humans have some sort of inherent worth and are of equal value which, given the secular or naturalistic view outlined above, is as incoherent in a naturalistic or secular world view as the notion of a free will able to effect a downward causal change in the mind/body7.

At a certain level we agree that empathizing with animals is a good thing to do. However, at some point we tend to eat our small furry (or feathery) friends which seems to indicate that humans are in a category of their own8 indicating either speciesm or an indication that humans are, indeed, unique among the other “animals” in the evolutionary struggle.

Given that nature is also “red with tooth and claw“, and that animals regularly eat their own kind9, we can safely conclude that humans are alone in their ability10 to “empathize” which seems to indicate that the notion of empathy is, at best, ambiguous11 and, at worse, completely irrelevant to simple propagation of the species12.

The bottom line is that empathy, while sounding like the holy grail of secular ethics and morality does not line up with the philosophical naturalism it is built upon.

In conclusion; only in a world where humans were created equal13 would the golden rule or “empathy” make sense. Indeed, I would submit the fact that we find this golden rule upheld in some degree amongst nearly all cultures across the world and across time give us a good indication that we are, indeed, created equally and ought to therefore question seriously the foundation of our equality just in case that foundation happens to be a person like us14.

  1. As opposed to a theocentric model where morality is ultimately based on God and His Law []
  2. That is, not a myth. []
  3. That is, outside of myself. []
  4. Not constrained by time and space. []
  5. Cannot change with time []
  6. “Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can’t really get rid of it.” –C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity []
  7. That is, naturalism presupposes a deterministic view of causal actions which, by default, makes the concept of a “free will” incoherent. []
  8. or at least view themselves as such []
  9. Cannibalism, not only for food, but, in the case of preying mantises, even as a means of sexual arousal []
  10. and willingness to do so consistently []
  11. that is, just as much of a cosmic accident as we supposedly are []
  12. especially since altruism and self-sacrifice are values directly opposed to the Darwinistic notion of self-preservation []
  13. That is, their metaphysical souls created in the likeness of God []
  14. Yes, I am referring to God which, if he exists would require us to extend the rule of empathy to him as well. More so, since having created us he would occupy a higher place of importance than a fellow human being created in his image which, coincidentally, is what Jesus taught when he summed up the teachings of the Bible in two statements dealing with love. Both of God and of men. []
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