Thursday, August 23, 2007

Absolutism vs Relativism

I haven't blogged lately because my post and edit post pages disappeared for a while. They're back now so here I go with a post a few days old but well worth it.

Myrhaf has an interesting post in which he asks what is the defining premise of the secular left and the religious right? He effectively argues that it is moral absolutism.
In my opinion, the defining premise is the belief in moral absolutes. Liberals are moral relativists. Both the religious right and Objectivists are moral absolutists. (The problem with the religious right, of course, is that their morality comes from religion, not reality. Their morality is grounded in faith, not reason, and is therefore dogmatic.)
I couldn't agree more. But this paragraph got me thinking:
If the Republicans become the party of religion and the Democrats the party of modern philosophy, then we will have a pure, classic rationalist-empiricist split in American politics, with the left mumbling skepticism and the right shouting dogma detached from reality. Neither party will be a comfortable fit for those who advocate reason, except on an ad hoc basis. We're close to this situation now, although both parties show moments of lucidity and reasonableness.
This made me wonder who on the left or the right would be receptive to rational principles? It was Peter Schwartz (see below) who said bad ideas are spread by two kinds of people, pushers and users. It seems to me that on the secular left the pushers would be mostly university professors and the users would be their students who then go out into all walks of life including some as media pundits. These two groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive of course. Some professors could be users who never challenged what they were taught and some users could become eager pushers like some media persona. These groups tend to reject principles and become pragmatists.

The religious right also has pushers and users. The pushers would be the theologians, and other religious leaders and of course the users would be those who belong to the 'flock.' Both of these groups are accustomed to thinking in terms of principles albeit wrong and contradictory ones.

So, if the moral relativism of the left is an unprincipled practicality (pragmatism) and its requirement to compromise on everything, and the absolutism of the right is religious dogma in the form of principles, which of these will be more receptive to new rational moral values? I just don't know. I think many users leave the left for the right precisely because of a need for a firm, absolutist moral code which religion tries to provide. Myrhaf suggests that in 20 years there could be a vast majority of people on the right and left who reject reason and a small minority who do not. He could very well be right. But I think we have that situation now. I for one am optimistic about the future because I see that small minority growing fast.

("Clarity in Conceptulization: The Art of Identifying Package-Deals" by Peter Schwartz can be purchased here.)


Davo said...

I doubt the majority of Americans identify with either political party so an ideologue cannot be elected anyway.

Mike N said...

Davo: I agree for now at least. But I wonder if a right sized disaster could herd people into an even tighter corral than that provided by the Great Depression. I'm optimistic but cautiously so.

mkfreeberg said...

In my opinion, the defining premise is the belief in moral absolutes. Liberals are moral relativists. Both the religious right and Objectivists are moral absolutists.

I used to think this way but I ran into a lot of problems with real-life examples, especially with the liberals. "Rights" are absolute things, and the liberals have become adherents to the doctrine that they should be handed out, as fast as they can be named. Kind of willy-nilly...but not really. They march in lock-step rattling these things off.

Womens' "right to choose." Universal healthcare. A "living wage." Right to strike. To abstain from school prayer. To clean drinking water, and to not be harrassed on the basis of race, color or creed.

It troubles me a lot when liberals make fun of people who are religious, and then indulge in this seemingly endless litany of "rights." If this is a Godless ecosystem, it's not exactly one straight out of a Disney movie is it? Pythons crushing possums, spiders sucking the guts out of flies, lionesses ripping the flanks off zebras while the zebras thrash around in agony, cobras eating mice, sharks swallowing cute little seals whole.

Little boys frying up ants with magnifying glasses.

That someone can emerge from millions of years of evolution in such an enclave, to then be allowed to freely and independently contract with an employer for a wage that pays less than $6.75 an hour, doesn't seem like such a violation of "human rights." Surely there's no deity to be offended, so if both parties consent what's the big deal? Point is, I don't think they've thought their cunning plan through...but they aren't moral relativists. Not really, not anymore.

Mike N said...

Point one, about liberals not being relativists anymore, if your're saying that liberals are absolutists in their devotion to the practice of constant compromise, then I would agree up to a point. But that just proves Ms. Rand was right when she said no one can avoid principles.

Point two:
I'm not sure why you're focusing on all the negative and cruel things that can happen to living organisms. To demonstrate what exactly? The eat and be eaten nature of the animal world is the nature of that world. It is neither moral or immoral. But I'm not sure why you included little boys burning up ants with magnifying glasses. That would be immoral because it represents the destruction of life for the sake of destroying life. Humans have choice, animals don't.

So if you're saying that liberals are opposed to such cruelty and are absolutist about it, I would only say that that is an ad hoc kind of absolutism. I can see where a person can be adamant about certain things but willing to compromise on everything else, in which case he is on net balance, a relativist.

If I missed entirely the point of your post, please re-inform me.