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Faith, Relativism, and Liberalism

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If you are interested in philosophy you are probably conversant with the traditional five parts of that academic discipline: ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, logic, and aesthetics. The parts work together in most cases so that there may be an ethics of aesthetic concerns, such as special concerns about defacement of objects of art or of natural formations of rock and the like. There is an aesthetics of ethics or of epistemology as well, in which words like "symmetry" and "elegance" appear both as additional criteria appealed to or more subtly as premises. Logic and epistemology are closely linked, and logic as a separate study lacks the realism that linkages to analyses of human emotion and human traditions bring to it. Metaphysics links with epistemology and aesthetics so that conjectures about the ultimate nature of things becomes linked with descriptions of how we perceive and have knowledge and feel about things. In other words each of the parts is important, and it is foolish to proceed with a study of a part without knowing something of the whole.

In our day and for centuries, in fact, western civilization has been host to various competing systems of thought, philosophies and religions. In modern times philosophers and politicians and others have introduced a brand of systematic thinking based not on faith as religions are, nor based on stated first principles as many philosophies have been, but on assumptions that we call philosophical relativism. In fact, since the 19th century relativism has gained an enormous following and finds itself frequently pitted against faith. Both are indefensible, of course, but being embedded in one or both does not make it easier to see this.

American politics is a major theater for the expression of the differences (sometimes animosities) between faith-based conceptions of civilization and polity, on the one hand, and relativist conceptions, like American pragmatism, for instance, on the other. Since the Founding Fathers (and earlier with Roger Williams) the notion that government should not interfere with religion has been a strong theme in our culture. The idea was, of course, to create a balance such that government (or people holding office in government) would not impose any set of religious doctrines on other religions or on any citizen whether he subscribed to those religions or not. And, equally, the idea was that no religion should attempt to take over government, lest the first half of the principle be violated. The idea of separation of church and state has been honored in the breach ever since. Various coalitions of religions have imposed generalized religious concepts on the government to the effect that nowadays one takes for granted that the United States government not only "respects" the idea that there might be a godhead entity of some kind, but also actively promulgates the idea in various ways: coinage, currency, and various traditional activities such as prayer in Congress, oath-taking on the Christian Bible, national holidays commemorating Christian holy days, and so forth, all clearly violations of the principle.

American politics also employs relativist standards. This was almost inevitable for a country of diverse persons many of whom upon arriving in the New World from far-flung regions of the globe did not share a common set of traditions and points of view with those already here. In the course of time the idea that we are all immigrants with different "strokes for different folks" has become almost enshrined in daily life and has supported and been supported by the native expressions of philosophical relativism, American Pragmatism, especially that of William James and John Dewey, a philosophy that focuses on "practical results" rather than on immutable first principles or faith. American Pragmatism is a neat dodge out of the inherent conflicts that opposing strains of thought would surely produce. Federalism itself is a relativist and pragmatic idea, the notion that the states' governments could and should be left to their own local devices, and it preserves both individual differences and, in fact, counts on them to be sources of vigorous politics.

In contemporary America politics is often seen as divided according to the subscription of people to either systems of thought based on faith or systems based on relativism. Many conservatives, if the term has any meaning at all these days, rest their case on faith, not necessarily religious faith, but nevertheless unproven or unprovable first principles sometimes derived from religion, sometimes from secular sources, often on misreadings of these sources. Liberals, on the other hand, have had a propensity to subscribe to relativist ideas, particularly pragmatic ideas relating to both domestic and international affairs. This is to say that Liberals have often chosen sets of mini-principles which they do not attempt to square with other realities, but merely assert as "operationally consistent" within the frame of the situation. Needless to say, those opposed have pointed out to Liberals that their frames of reference were too narrow and their governing principles therefore inadequate to the situation. In the other direction Liberals have pointed to Conservative orthoxies as "one-size-fits-all" dogmatisms, and that reliance on, say, the so-called "market forces" to solve the problem of child nutrition and education are inappropriate and cause even more harm.

At the extremes the issues created by dogged adherence to either doctrinal faith or extreme relativism are fairly easy to understand, if not solve. It should be clear, though, that any solution to the problem of inadequate systems of thought has to be based on some method of adjudication upon which all can agree. In modern times with our reliance on science and engineering and medicine, the method of adjudication is the employment of substantiating evidence. That is, any theory of how-things-are must be stated in a way that any person with normal senses can observe the foundational and the existential evidence. In the case of religious faith, for instance, recourse to the "authority of the Bible" must yield to plentiful evidence that the Bible frequently does not represent a true account of the world and is therefore "errant." Tautologies, such as "God put the skeltons of dinosaurs in the hillsides for us to find," are circular reasoning and inadmissable as evidence, since there is no way to prove their truth or falsehood, except by continuous appeal to Biblical "authority," which was what we were trying to prove.

Similarly, dogged adherence to one of the currently popular relativist notions that all doctrines have equal value and that we may simply choose among them is wrong, because not all doctrines or systems of thought produce acceptable results. So, for instance, the doctrine that adulterous females or witches are deserving of being stoned to death does not meet other broader considerations we hold to be true separately. Nor, in fact, does the idea that "separate is equal" square with evidence to the contrary, the evidence being that separate schools for Blacks are demonstrated to be unequal for the whole variety of reasons we have enunciated over the past fifty or more years. Relativism or "contextualism" as it is sometimes known, is the more difficult of the two extremes to deal with because there are often immediate political consequences to a rejection of popular beliefs held by significant minorities, which nevertheless do not square with basic ethical, logical, or epistemological principles, much less imperical evidence.

Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith, to which I have referred in another essay, has strong opinions about relativism. So does the religious right in America. They hate it because it instantly reduces the authority of one doctrine of faith to just one of many doctrines for which there seems to be no method of making a clear distinction. The problem is that faith-based systems quickly run out of authorities and, on the other hand, do not run out of countervailing evidence. Medieval Christians surviving the Black Plague had their faith sorely tried and many realized that a god who sent such unpleasantness among "his people" was clearly not an omniscient and all-forgiving god, but rather more likely a hoax perpetrated on them by a corrupt clergy, a parable of tyranny on the model of all too frequent human tyrants. In a fair contest, relativism will beat faith every time, when replicable evidence is the metric. In a contest employing emotion and wishful thinking, faith often survives.

So, the problem we have today boils down to this. If Conservatives believe that America is the New Jerusalem, ordained by God to take dominion over all the people of the planet, or if they believe that socio-economic status reveals the intrinsic worth and worthiness of the individual, the recourse of those opposed is to subvert the authority for such ideas. This is quite simple. The New Jerusalem Conservatives have no replicable evidence beyond interpretations of the Bible other than the pulsing of adrenalin through their fevered brains, which may subjectively suggest the presence of a force larger than themselves. The Social Darwinists have simply misunderstood natural selection and are misunderstanding a natural process, one which by definition operates among species not individuals!

The defense against mindless leveling relativism is, of course, to not be mindless or heedless of the inplications of the systems begging for acknowledgement. Islam IS more intrinsically violent in its doctrines and practices than is Jainism or Hinduism or Buddhism or Quakerism or many Christian sects and Jewish practices. Accordingly, we are obliged to employ classical logic and ethics to show that if violence is acceptable, then we can expect suicide bombers, which is unacceptable! This is to say that any relativist position must be adjudicated according to principles that go beyond the context of that position to a more general level of understanding, usually ethics and logic, but not necessarily restricted to them.

Either we hold human life to be inexpressably precious, or we don't. If we do, then the notion of "collateral damage" in bombing an Islamic city must be explicated. If upon analysis collateral damage means the abrupt and painful death of a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand children or a million, then on the premise that human life is precious and the additional premise that innocent human life is even more precious, we must not bomb, even though we are "sure" to anihilate scores of potential suicide bombers.

Where did the precious life premise come from? It comes from The Golden Rule and independently from Kant's Categorical Imperative. The former is an appeal to the unruly tribes of Roman occupied Judea to see a rationale for altruistic behavior. The latter is the culmination of centuries of philosophical analysis resulting in a decision to accept the notion that human beings are capable of seeing a long-term benefit through the bloody haze of short-term emotion.

I am not so naïve as to think that people whose lives are governed by faith in religious or secular doctrines are going to stop doing so just because of this essay. In a manner of speaking, though, they are irrelevant, because they cannot deal with reality on a sustained basis. The history of civilization is proof of this. Lacking replicable evidence or authority for their convictions (and simply repeating oneself or "witnessing" is not "replicable evidence or authority"), they retreat into learned interpretations of their single "authoritative story"; differing interpretations become antagonistic; sects and separate religions or ideologies arise, and presto! they have created a sea of contextualist chaos.

No, the point of this essay has been to jar Liberals and Progressives out of their reliance on the efficacy of pragmatism and relativism. Just a simple exercise in analysis reveals that inevitably relativists must appeal to systems of thought (ethics, logic, epistemologies) that originate and continue to exist independently of any single contextualistic system. Liberalism is a system of thought which holds that the following principles are indispensible to effective democratic government: Individual Liberty, Progress, Humanity, Ethics, and the Rule of Law. Each principle can be derived logically from basic epistemological premises accepted widely in our culture since the Enlightenment and modified as new scientific evidence is elucidated.

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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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