Absolutely relative

The Tea Party’s use of history illustrates a public yearing for clear answers in a time of economic stress and national insecurity. Seeing the American Constutition as clear set of eternal “truths” also enables its use as a bludgeon in political rhetoric, while describing the documets as cauldron of competing ideas neutralizes  such claimstea-party-food2.

This type of “absolutism” has been a tool  of many populist movements through out history, from the religious crusades of byegone ages, to the fascist movements nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to Cold War paranoia, to contemporary panics about against minority groups, and to our current political contests.  Absolutism is the belief that there are concrete standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context in which they occur. Absolutism is often contrasted with moral “relativism,” which asserts that moral truths are contingent upon social or historical circumstances. Absolutists believe that morals are inherent in the laws of the universe, the nature of humanity, or the will of God. From this perspective, all actions can be evaluated as either inherently moral or immoral. For example, an unprovoked war might be deemed a moral act by an absolutist.

Relativists eschew absolute black-and-white answers to questions. Rather than applying a fixed set of good or bad definitions that always apply in judgments, relativists often argue that new answers to questions must be created for every situation. What is true in one situation might not be true in another. For example, an absolutist view of the family might say that only conventional nuclear families, gender roles, and childrearing practices are universally valid, and that single parent families, working mothers, or extended family models aren’t good. A relativist approach would say that different kinds of families work in different situations. Some people criticize relativist views, especially when it comes to families, as too tolerant. Opponents to relativism say that such thinking allows important standards to be abandoned and leads people into undisciplined lifestyles. By some accounts the origination of relativism can be dated to Protagoras (481-420 BC), who took issue with popular beliefs of the time that human beings should aspire to god-like ethical perfection. Arguing for a more flexible approach to morality, Protagoras wrote that “man is the measure of all things.”[i]

Nearly eighty years ago, C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud famously debated moral absolutism versus relativism. Much of the discussion involved a disagreement over the existence of god and the importance of science. Lewis, born an Irish Christian and the author of the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia (1949-1954) series, asserted that science could not adequately explain the mysteries of the creation and workings of the universe.[ii] Lewis wrote that “we want to know whether the universe simply happens to be what it is for no reason of whether there is a power behind what makes it what it is.”[iii] To Lewis, the only answer is that there must be a God who made the world and gave people the principles of moral law. Lewis believed that certain truths are hard-wired into human consciousness, evidenced in the way codes of behavior––including abilities to discern right from wrong––replicate themselves from culture to culture and throughout human history. Freud, whose parents were Moravian Jews, contended that God was a mental fabrication that obscured the fact that moral conventions emerge from human experience. To Freud, morality is made up by people for practical reasons. Humanity discovers moral laws the way it came upon mathematics, through observation and reasoning. People are born as blank slates. Moral precepts are passed from adults to children through educational processes. Both Lewis and Freud argued about German Nazism. Lewis argued that the Nazis had mistakenly adopted an alternate reality in which they strayed from God, deceived into forgetting a morality they had originally recognized. For Freud, the Nazis proved that people could learn evil rather than goodness. Freud argued that the solution to Nazism was not religious virtue, but a superior system of reason.

The opposition of absolutism and relativism is but one example of a binary model of thinking advanced in the Enlightenment era and still with us today. Everywhere we look the world seems divided in such pairs as good/bad, winner/loser, liberal/conservative, or friend/enemy.  Underlying  this binary worldview are deeper philosophical structures that undergird human consciousness itself. Before the western enlightenment that emerged at the end of the middle ages, the opposition of life and death was manifest in the dualism between god and humankind, between heaven and earth, expressed in human experience in the division of man and woman. Plato wrote of the opposition of the corporeal and the spiritual. In the 1500s Nicolas Copernicus and Francis Bacon drew distinctions between science (fact) and religion (belief). Two centuries later Rene Descartes formulated his famous mind/body dualism, writing “that the mind is completely distinct from the body: to wit, that matter, whose essence is extension in space, is always divisible, whereas the mind is utterly indivisible.”[iv] Later philosophers parsed the various kinds of realities and images that the mind could formulate, as distinctions were drawn between perception and imagination, reason and emotion. Even scientists studying the mind would divide thinking into leftbrain/right brain. Dualism could not have grown to such a large concept if it did have a use and importance. From early childhood through adulthood, the notion of opposing ideas, concepts, and values forms the basis of people’s ability to see difference, draw distinctions, and engage in critical thought. It underlies legality and illegality, knowledge and ignorance, progress and the lack thereof. Many see dualism as the essence of humanity and human thought.

But dualism has in fact been the rascal of human consciousness. It’s apparent ubiquity and universal applicability have led people and civilizations to believe it is the only way of viewing the world. To many people knowing the difference between good and bad is the very essence of traditionalism that passes ethical values from generation to generation. Inabilities to make clear black-and-white distinctions in decision-making and assigning value often have been seen as failures in judgment, insight, conviction, even courage. Knowing the difference between right and wrong is viewed by many as an essential element of adult consciousness and civilized society. What this traditionalist perspective fails to realize is that duality is in fact but one way of viewing the world. It is in many ways an abstraction or even a fiction conceived about existence. There are many degrees of value that lie between truth and untruth. There are many shades of morality and immorality between good an evil, just as there are many kinds of people. Admitting the shades of light and dark that exist between black-and-white distinctions obviously requires a more complex thought process, one that recognizes ambiguity and partial answers to questions. President Bill Clinton was criticized by political conservatives for his resistance to dogmatic beliefs and his presidency even was termed a “gray era” for this reason.

But in the post-Bush years shades of gray seem to be making a comeback. Recent elections have shown both democrats and republicans stepping over each other in efforts to stake out centrist positions, keeping voters nearly evenly divided in many races. Media critics have noted the decline of traditional “good” and “bad” characters in TV and movies, and the rising popularity of “anti-heroes.” Most frequently cited is the family man and mafia kingpin at the center of the long-running cable series, The Sopranos. Viewers never could decide whether to love or hate Tony, who strangled another mobster while touring colleges with his daughter. Jack Bauer of “24,” Don Draper of “Mad Men,” Patty Hewes of “Damages,” and Dexter Morgan of “Dexter” all manifest similar blends of heroism and selfishness, virtue and dishonesty. Joshua Alston wrote that the Bush presidency “primed audiences for antihero worship, that in the midst of a war started with faulty intelligence, suspected terrorists sent to black sites and a domestic eavesdropping program, it’s no wonder we would be interested in delving deeply into the true motives underlying the actions of powerful people.”[v] Is this emerging pattern in media preferences evidence of changing public attitudes––perhaps a new moment in American consciousness––or simply another pendulum swing in popular taste?



[i] Protagoras, “Moral Relativism, “ http://www.wikipedia.org (accessed May 10, 2008).

[ii] C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).

[iii] C.S. Lewis, quoted in Armond M. Nicholi and Theodore Dalrymple, C.S. Lewis vs. Sigmund Freud on good and Evil,” American Enterprise Online, http://www.taemag.com (accessed May 11, 2008).

[iv] Rene Descartes, as quoted in David E. Cooper, World Philosophies: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 253.

[v] Joshua Alston, “Too Much of A Bad Thing,” Newsweek, Jan 12, 2009. http://www.newsweek.com. (accessed Feb. 2, 2009).

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