Tuesday, May 03, 2005

I Fear Absolutism More Than Relativism

Popes and people who write letters to the editor worry about relativism. It is, they lament, a hazard to morality portending chaos and destruction. If truth be told, relativism is a complicated concept with many meanings and ambiguities, but this does not faze the critics, who usually leave the word undefined. Whatever it means to them, it is bad. The surface meaning is that it refers to views they find inferior to their own and hazardous. Meanwhile, they assume or assert in full confidence that they possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

I have made my defense of a form of relativism (objective relativism, I call it) elsewhere. Here I boldly assert that absolutism is a greater threat to soul and body than all the extant relativisms in the world laid end to end. First, there are so many of them. Absolutists are all around us: Pious Popes, Protestant preachers, and pompous politicians come immediately to mind. Taxi drivers, barbers, free market economists, right-wing think tanks, liberals who want speech or practices offensive to them suppressed, and many people who write letters to editors can be added.

Then there are single issue absolutists, who usually have their opposite numbers: extremist advocates of unrestricted gun possession for everyone contend with gun control fanatics, free choice zealots vie with anti-abortion zealots. Christian fundamentalists attack Muslim fundamentalists. Israeli and Palestinian extremists will apparently fight to the death rather than compromise or recognize any validity in their opponent's claims. Actually, Israelis and Palestinians form two communities of suffering whose compassion for the other could surely find a road to peace with approximate justice for all.

The danger lies in the fact that the certainty of absolutists is a temptation to suppress error. Some extremists use violence without apology. The worst of the absolutists will gladly cut your head off, burn you up, torture you, cut off your testicles or breasts in the name of God if you challenge their assumed prerogatives. We could all make a long list of past examples without breaking a sweat. On a kinder scale absolutists in churches will punish ministerial dissent or practice on the issue of homosexuality.

Yes, there is a form of relativism that may degenerate into nihilism in which might takes precedence over notions of right. In short, the extremes of absolutism and relativism are dangerous. But in a world full of people who are so damn sure they know the truth and you don't, some dissent, some vigorous questioning of authority, some appeals for humility, tolerance, and modesty are healthy. They are, in fact, essential in preventing us from falling into extremes of absolutism which will suppress doubt and punish doubters. In the present world I fear the power of aggressive absolutists more than I fear the nihilism of reckless relativists.


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