Posts Tagged ‘“Dictatorship of Relativism”’

Why Epistemology Matters

November 6, 2017

These days, it seems everyone should study philosophy.  Consider this article.  It discusses the social and political implications of the victory of relativism.  Humans run this planet because we are better able to organize ourselves than can any other species; and we are losing that ability.  Our ability to lie so effectively that even the liars are suckered is outrunning not only our ability to sift out the truth, but even our interest in doing so.

Sixteen years ago, I began to reevaluate my own appraisal of my chosen profession.  I have a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology, which was an interdisciplinary program combining Philosophy and Religious Studies.  Before that I earned a M.Div. with a concentration in Philosophy, and before that a B.A. in Philosophy with enough Religion courses to qualify for a double major if I’d wanted to.  I’ve been working the seam between Philosophy and Religion for longer than many of my students have been alive.  Arguably, I’ve been doing it since I read Walden when I was fourteen years old.  I always thought it was important for someone to do it.  I could see that most of the people around me were unhappy with the lives they were living, or were living lives that others had lived already and found unsatisfying, so the rest maybe just weren’t unhappy yet.  But I also thought, as almost everyone around me said, that philosophy was too hard and strange for most people, so it would be up to the few of us to sort this out and then teach it to others.  Just as hardly anyone really understands calculus, but our modern world couldn’t exist without it, I thought some small subgroup of academics were all that were necessary to philosophize for the rest.  And furthermore, I figured that if most people ignored us, that would be okay too; they’d muddle along, we’d try to influence things around the edges by teaching a few future politicians and legal scholars a little morality before they set out shaping the world.

In 2001, I realized how dangerous that had become.  Everyone thought the “important” things to study in school were the things that could make you rich:  business, accounting, engineering, law and medicine, maybe sports and a few others.  Philosophy, religion, humanities, history—- who needs them?  But no one is flying planes into buildings because of a disagreement over the Pythagorean Theorem or the relative merits of whole-life vs. term-life insurance or even over how to fight cancer.  They are committing acts of mass murder because they have given up on the possibility of rationally defending their own world-view.  They have given up on logic and observation leading us to a shared sense of reality, within which we could solve problems that affect us all.  They have given up on trying to understand people who disagree with them or who have different values, who love and fear different things.  The religious fundamentalist isn’t dangerous because he is religious, any more than the atheist is dangerous because she isn’t.  What is dangerous is the person who resorts to force to impose his or her standards on another, or on a group, without understanding their views.  Such a person generally hasn’t even understood his or her own views.   “Those who know only one religion know none,”  said Max Müller, and it is true:  to understand anything, you have to have some sort of comparison.  To understand your own beliefs, you have to briefly step outside them and look at them from another angle; that’s what analysis and reflection are.  So the fundamentalist usually, probably always has a truncated view of his or her own faith, whether it’s the religious fanatic or the Communist fanatic or the racist or some other ideology.  They don’t understand others or even themselves, but they’ll fight and maybe kill to defend their mistakes from any real and imagined threats.

Through 2015, I mostly believed that greater understanding could lead, if not to consensus, at least to mutual tolerance and agreement on rules of engagement.  That was the motivation behind this book.  In 2002, the economy of the nation was sliding towards recession, and there was a debate how to respond.  One side said that the best way to stimulate and repair the economy after the 2008 crash was to increase aid to the poor, such as food stamps.  That would undoubtedly have worked, since poor people spend what they get right away—they have to, they’re poor, they have debts and bills and mouths to feed.  Rich people don’t need more money, by definition, so when they get more money they are less likely to immediately stimulate the economy by spending it.  They might invest it in new businesses, but more likely they’ll squirrel it away in tax havens—-they already have thriving businesses, remember: they’re rich.  Middle-class people will save a little, pay down debts, maybe finally open that small business they’ve always wanted to.  So, practically speaking, according to the vast majority of economists, Bush should have pushed for a one-time bonus to the food stamp program, together with a modest but noticeable rebate in taxes for the poor and middle classes, leaving the rich alone.  But this suggestion was met with seeming moral outrage.  How could you punish the hard-working middle class by rewarding poor people?  (The implication was that if they’re poor, they don’t work hard enough; anyone who thinks that has never done real manual labor.)  How could you punish the rich for working hard and being smart?  (The implication here is that everyone who is rich must have worked hard and be really smart; I’ve met too many rich people to believe that.)  So I set out, in this book, to examine how we came to have such different moral judgements about how we share the profits of our joint economic activities as a nation.  My hope was that if people could see that the other side was not evil or lazy, but just had different moral and practical assumptions, maybe some sort of conversation would be possible.

What I’ve seen since that book was published is nothing short of epistemological genocide, a wholesale annihilation of truth.  Cardinal Ratzinger once complained about a “dictatorship of relativism,” but today we have something perhaps even worse:  sheer anarchy.  We live in the epistemological version of a Hobbesian state of nature, with war of each truth against all others, and the life of every truth is nasty, brutish and short.  Perhaps once there was a dictatorship, imposing mutual tolerance and a cease-fire at the expense of rejecting the possibility that any truth could be real; but in these days there is no king and everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes (Judges 21:25).  And like that Biblical story of anarchy, rape and murder, the epistemological breakdown leads to political chaos and moral collapse that starts to make a Hobbesian totalitarianism seem almost preferable, or at least acceptable.  Hence, in 2016, the yearning for a “strong man” who would impose his view of reality on everyone else and give us order.(1)    But historically, dictatorships never end well for the dictated to.  Hobbesian monarchism gave way to Lockean representative democracy, because politically speaking a participatory government that depends on mutual discussion and mutual agreement to at least fight according to non-lethal political means rather than guns is more stable than a totalitarianism that leaves dissenters no option but violence.

Democracy dies when the majority choose to opt out; the society becomes an oligarchy, a ruling elite of actual voters and those who serve them dominating the nonparticipants.  Something similar happens in the realm of epistemology.  When the majority decide it is too hard to figure out what is true or false, they allow others to dictate reality.  Once you’ve handed your eyes over to someone else who tells you where to look and what to see, and handed your brain over to others who tell you what to think and your heart over to others who tell you what to feel, you are a slave, no matter how badass you feel because your masters tell you you’re tough and strong and better than those others.  And that is why epistemology matters, for everyone, and why every single individual citizen needs to learn some philosophy.  We need to learn enough to not just accept, but understand this:

  1.  Truth exists.  Some things are real
  2. Truth matters.
  3. Truth is hard to find but it’s worth the effort.
  4. You will never have all the truth; it’s too big for one person to see all at once.  But you can at least see the side that’s facing you.
  5. Everyone can, with effort and discussion, figure out more truth, by hearing from people who have other perspectives.
  6. When you don’t know, sometimes it’s okay to withhold judgement.
  7. When you can’t wait for certainty, you may have to choose without being certain.  If you’ve headed out on the wrong direction, though, you can still realize this and turn around.
  8. It takes humility to admit when you might be wrong.  It takes courage to stand your ground when you might be right.  Therefore, you need to be both brave and humble to find any truth in this life.

I think everything else—-Aristotle vs. Plato, Locke vs. Descartes, and all the other epistemological and ethical debates of philosophers through the ages—-are less important than these few, simple principles.  And maybe this list is not complete (I’d be breaking my own list if I insisted it was).  If you have some others, or think any of these is wrong, let’s discuss it like reasonable people.  But the important point, which I will not yield, is this:  You may not know much about Plato or Aristotle or Kant, and get by just fine; but you need to know something like these principles here to function as a citizen, or even as a rational being.  Otherwise, you’re liable to end up cowering in your basement waiting for the mythical hordes of antifa marauders or Mexican rapists or zombies or whatever that someone has invented to keep you terrified—-and submissive. (more…)

Plato on Music Education, pt. IV: “American Idol” and the corruption of America

September 6, 2013

     Is American Idol corrupting America, or it is revealing its corruption?  Which came first:  a corruption of esthetic standards that led to moral and epistemological nihilism, or an epistemological relativism that led to a collapse of first moral, and then esthetic standards?  Plato’s Laws suggests that the consumer-based, pleasure-driven culture is the root of all the problems.  People believe they are entitled to say, do and believe whatever they want.  And unlike Plato, I think that politically, they probably are so entitled; but morally, they are not.  Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous sermon against the dictatorship of relativism argues that anyone today who dares to suggest that there is such a thing as Truth risks the ire not only of the mob, but also of the cultured elite.[1]  We are supposed to be postmodern and pluralistic; the idea that some things are just plain true is seen as oppressive.  When I was in college, it was the Left that was generally heard denouncing “cultural oppression” and championing relativism; today, it is more often the Right that denounces the “liberal elite” with their charts and graphs and facts and fossils.  I don’t have to argue about the absurdity of allowing something like human-made climate change to morph from a scientific question to a political shibboleth.  Everything I would argue about the corruption of American society is illustrated in this one news story:  According to a recent political poll, Louisianan Republicans are uncertain whether Barack Obama or George W. Bush is more responsible for the poor federal government response to Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005.  In response to a 2013 poll:

Q2 Who do you think was more responsible for the
poor response to Hurricane Katrina: George W.
Bush or Barack Obama?
George W. Bush ……………………………………… 28%
Barack Obama………………………………………… 29%
Not sure …………………………………………………. 44%[2]

So, is it just a matter of opinion which president was more to blame for the response to a natural disaster that occurred four years before Obama took office?  If anything is a matter of fact, shouldn’t it be something that occurred not only in the historical time/space continuum that we all inhabit, but even within the lifetime of most of us?  Yet, faced with the choice between factional, party-driven epistemology and agreeing with the obvious, the vast majority of Republicans are either unsure who was to blame for government actions that occurred in 2005, or are absolutely certain that they should blame someone who was nothing more than a powerless junior Senator at that time.  Sure, maybe they have a legal right to say something obviously false and stupid; but do they have a moral right?  If “morality” means anything more than “I like this,” then surely we have a moral duty to seek truth and to live according to that truth; even a consequentialist ethic must recognize that the likely results of choosing delusion over fact will be disastrous for everyone affected, eventually.

            Clearly, we are never going to adopt the legal system Plato advocates, where music is regulated by the state and only government approved tunes, rhythms and lyrics are allowed.  And I don’t think we would want to, either.  Plato was deeply suspicious of change, unless it was known ahead of time that it would be change for the good.  Like many Greeks, he admired Sparta’s unwavering adherence to the laws and customs of its founders.  But a few years after Plato’s death, Sparta and all the Greek poloi were conquered by the innovative, inventive, upstart Macedonians.  And a few years after that, Alexander the Great continued that innovative and ambitious spirit to sweep aside Egypt and Persia and more.  The paradox is that of course, as Plato said, all change is bad unless it is change from bad to good—-that is a tautology—-but prior to making the change, we cannot really know what will turn out for the best.

            But just because we embrace change and a more dynamic culture does not mean we need abandon all notion of truth and goodness.  And make no mistake, that is just what we have done.  We live in a world where so-called “conservatives,” the people who regard themselves (and are regarded) as defenders of “truth, justice and the American way,” freely and gladly wallow in relativism and nihilism.  There is simply no other explanation for why the vast majority of Republicans in Louisiana would deny that it was a Republican president who was in office in 2005 and therefore was responsible for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.  They do not want it to be true; “man is the measure of all things;” therefore, it never happened.  But Plato would ask, how could it be otherwise?  How could any people who have practiced self-indulgence and thrown off first esthetic standards, then factual investigation ever do other than fall into full-blown epistemological and moral relativism?


[1] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, homily at the mass for the Papal Conclave, April 18, 2005 (http://www.vatican.va/gpII/documents/homily-pro-eligendo-pontifice_20050418_en.html)

[2]In Louisiana, Clinton keeps up, Governor Falls”   August 21, 2013 (http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2013/08/in-louisiana-clinton-keeps-up-governor-falls.html#more )