Saturday, September 10, 2011

The reality of 9/11 reveals the incoherence of moral relativism

Hampered and impeded as I am from studying Philosophy seriously from a young age, it is difficult for me to reflect back on 11 September 2011 and its aftermath (10 years of uninterrupted war in two countries) without thinking about right and wrong. I am always mildly amazed and comforted that reality is the best refutation of wholly idealistic modes of thought, like moral relativism, which seems intellectually respectable, but, in the end, turns out to be barbarous and deleterious to our common humanity. A little more than a month after the hi-jacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and a remote field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Prof. Stanley Fish penned an article in the New York Times about how moral relativism permits moral condemnation: Condemnation Without Absolutes.

In this early article, Fish grasped the difficulty we would have in coming to grips with how best to respond to the terrorist attacks, anticipating such extremes as Ward Churchill’s "little Eichmanns" comment, and the idea Fish holds that 9/11 was a test for postmodern moral relativism, which posits "that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one." Because we cannot independently determine which interpretation of a given event is true, there is no "hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone." These observations take us immediately to very fundamental issues, not just the nature of right and wrong, but the nature of the truth, which constitutes reality. Fish informs us that it is no use of appealing to "abstract notions of justice and truth" because our enemies "lay claim to the same language." He even goes on to observe that "No one declares himself to be an apostle of injustice." I find this last claim, too, incredible. Has Fish not read Nietzsche and as a self-described postmodern intellectual is not versed in the thought and writings of Nietzsche’s postmodern disciples and their positive embrace of nihilism?

Some ten years later, less than two months prior to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Paul Boghossian, who holds the Silver Chair of Philosophy at New York University, and who is one of the foremost philosophical opponents of moral relativism, entered the fray with his response to Fish, also published by the New York Times: The Maze of Moral Relativism. Boghossian begins by noting that for many thoughtful people, especially those who are unwilling to derive morality from religion, moral relativism seems unavoidable. He goes on to note that moral relativism, defined as "right and wrong relative to this or that moral code," in the end can lead to no other conclusion than moral nihilism.

Boghossian demonstrated this by positing two examples: belief in witches and Einstein's theory of special relativity. "When we decided that there were no such things as witches," he asserts, "we didn't become relativists about witches." Instead, we stopped talking about witches as if they were real altogether, "except by way of characterizing the attitudes of people... who mistakenly believed that the world contained witches," or making believe at, say, Halloween. When it comes to witches, we are what Boghossian calls, "eliminativists." By way of contrast Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity demonstrated that no two events can be absolutely simultaneous. There is, however, "simultaneity relative to a (spatio-temporal) frame of reference." So, we are relativists about simultaneity, but not eliminativists.

In the case of simultaneity, while it can only be discerned within a given spatio-temporal frame of reference, it remains something that can be observed in reality. It can also be repeated and verified. So, while there is such thing as absolute simultaneity of two occurrences, the world contains, as it were, simultaneity's relativistic cousin. So, two events may be "simultaneous relative to frame of reference F." He goes on to designate "T" as the content of a belief system that includes belief in the reality of witches. Hence, "the property of being a witch according to belief system T" is just a way of setting forth the contents of belief system "T", you're not saying anything about reality, about the world.

So, you might ask, how does this bear on moral relativism other than to show that one can be a moral relativist, judging a moral dictum by the moral code from which it issues forth, in the same way I can hold to simultaneity with regard to a particular spatio-temporal frame of reference? "When we reject absolute moral facts," Boghossian asks, the kind that holds that it is always and everywhere wrong to murder innocent people, is the outcome moral relativism or is it moral nihilism?

On this basis, Boghossian goes on to say that whether you can a be moral relativist along the lines of simultaneity or believing in witches depends on whether "right" and "wrong," which for a moral relativist cannot be absolute, like simultaneity, have relativistic cousins that play the same role as "right" and "wrong." He points out that because "right" and "wrong" are "normative terms," meaning they are employed when describing "how things ought to be, in contrast with things actually are." By their "normative" nature, it is difficult to see how one could even generate "relativistic cousins" that would not have properties identical to actual "right" and "wrong."

Boghossian goes to on to employ example of how the assertion "Eating beef is wrong," while a normative statement, when considered in the context of the Hindu moral code, makes sense, but, like the example of witches, is merely descriptive of the content of the Hindu moral code. In other words, it is impossible to disagree with the statement "that eating beef is wrong relative to the moral code of the Hindus." So, when we find ourselves among Hindus, we may even respect their belief by not eating beef. The latter is a matter of etiquette, an ethical issue, but not a fundamentally moral one. After all, Boghossian goes on to observe, etiquette itself is under-girded by moral absolutes, like "we ought not, other things being equal, offend our hosts."

I think Prof. Boghossian quite correct to assert that
There is not half-way house called "moral relativism," in which we continue to use normative vocabulary with the stipulation that it is to be understood as relativized to particular moral codes. If there are no absolute moral facts about morality, "right" and "wrong" would have to join 'witch' in the dustbin of failed concepts

One other argument against moral relativism is that if we examine human moral codes there arise certain norms that are, with perhaps very few and eccentric exceptions, accepted universally as moral norms. The Ten Commandments, as set forth both in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, prohibits what transliterates from Hebrew as thrtzch, meaning "murder." Such a prohibition is one found universally among all human moral codes, including the Islamic moral code, which, if their insistence that Christians and Jews are, in fact, "peoples of the book" (referring to the Bible, which Muslims at least claim to revere as divinely inspired, if incomplete), is not just a form of flattery or patronization, applies to them because it is revealed by God.

In his letter to the archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, the Holy Father pointed this out in his clear, but indirect and gentle matter, when he wrote that
The tragedy of that day is compounded by the perpetrators’ claim to be acting in God’s name. Once again, it must be unequivocally stated that no circumstances can ever justify acts of terrorism. Every human life is precious in God’s sight and no effort should be spared in the attempt to promote throughout the world a genuine respect for the inalienable rights and dignity of individuals and peoples everywhere
The Qu’ran itself, in Surah 5:32 states "On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people." Islamic jurists, both past and present, interpret this Surah to mean that if one kills an innocent person, it is like killing the whole of human kind. What makes the analysis of those in the West, like Churchill, so repugnant is that they seek to provide justification for the murder of innocents on the basis of universally accepted moral norms, by laying guilt on the innocent, on those who were murdered. In Fish's moral universe, in which there are either no moral absolutes, or no way of knowing what they are, a response like Churchill's is as acceptable as that of Pres. Bush's morally indignant response.

This brings us to an appropriately Christian response. In his Letter to the Galatians, referencing the uniquely Jewish moral code, the Law, which he unfailingly holds up as the standard of righteousness, St. Paul wrote that if you seek to justify yourself by living according to all 613 mitzvot (i.e., observing the rules) of the Law, then that is how you will be judged. To be judged according to this standard, without fail and with only one exception (i.e., Jesus Christ) is to be condemned. This is why Paul wrote that even though he was a member of God's covenant people by birth, he knew "that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:15- ESV). So, he "believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified" (Gal. 2:16-ESV).

It is on this basis that we are provoked by the words of the apostle- "For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Gal. 5:14- ESV). If the neighbor of the ancient Samaritan, according to the teaching of Jesus, was the Jew who despised him, how much more is the Muslim, who, along with us and the Jews, "adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful" (Nostra Aetate, par. 3)? Indeed, Islam means submission. Hence, a Muslim is one who "wholeheartedly" submits even to God's "inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself" (Nostra Aetate, par. 3).

So, while no one, with the exception of Nietzscheians, proclaims himself to be an apostle of injustice, holding that we can condemn in the absence of moral absolutes is certainly to espouse an unjust position. Stated simply, condemning without moral absolutes cannot be a just condemnation because it is arbitrary. Fish states up-front that we cannot appeal to justice, even imperfect justice that strives towards the absolute. Arbitrary condemnation leads to arbitrary retaliation that need take no account of proportionality, or bringing things to a better state after the retaliation, or any of the other judgments required by, say, just war principles. Neither does it allow for a meaningfully merciful response. It is just this kind of short-circuited reasoning that leads to the kind of moral conclusions reached by those who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks and those, like Ward Churchill, who seek to justify their evil deeds.

Back on 9/11/2006, I preached at daily Mass at Holy Family Parish in South Ogden, Utah. So, if you're interested see Year II 23rd Monday in Ordinary Time- 9/11: Justice & Mercy.

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