There are some notions, ideas and arguments, that no matter how often they are exposed as fallacious, are rebutted and refuted, seem to recur again and again. Moral relativism is one of them. Put simply, this is the view that one’s moral judgments are delimited by the culture or period in which one lives, so that it is impossible to make meaningful moral judgments about other times and places, since they had or have criteria for what is good or bad that may be quite different from one’s own. It seems to be stuck on ‘repeat’. The perennial nature of such ideas ought itself to make us pause before we repeat the ritual of refutation. We need to ask, what, exactly, the attraction is– what is it about the idea that seems to make it so irresistibly attractive and inevitable? Rather than an error to be corrected by better reasoning, it looks more like a symptom. Moral relativism never seems to go away, no matter how often philosophers try to swat it. The same is true of a related notion – ethical subjectivism (the view thatmoral judgments rest on personal taste, or emotions and nothing more). So rather than just show for the umpteenth time why the arguments for moral relativism are flawed, it would be better to go on to ask why they have this quality of eternal recurrence. There is an insight at the bottom of the idea that has got twisted, and its ‘symptomatic’ aspect has something to do with the nature of alienation in modern society. Read more »
We have it in our power to begin the world over again —Tom Paine
How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes? —Dr Johnson
That the Age of Revolution and Rights was also the Age of Slavery and Empire is well known. Less obviously,it was also the time (roughly 1775-1835) which a template was established for the control and exploitation of citizens and subjects which has lasted into our own day. The rhetoric of libertyand equality accompanied a reality of control and subordination. It still does.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt commented that the FrenchDeclaration of the Rights of Man (1789)marked a historic turn: a claim that man was now ‘emancipated from all tutelage and announced he had come of age’ . It is an echo of Kant’s 1786 answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’: for him, it is the end of tutelage, casting aside the would-be guides (and gaolers) in the shapes of priest and King, in order to achieve maturity which Kant takes to be thinking for oneself. He adds that this must involve the free use of public reason, the uncensored exchange of opinion between citizens qua citizens – as distinct from the use of the private reason of the specialist, bureaucrat, etc. Kant’s message then, and that of the Declaration, is anti-paternalist, invoking the ideal of a mature citizenry. A core meaning of the politics of Enlightenment: free citizens, deliberating together without the miasma of superstition, taboo or state censor. But this is a kind of promise, not an accomplished fact, a statement of what might be about to emerge. Read more »