Monday, January 5, 2009

On "the dictatorship of relativism"

The New Criterion provides the introductory essay from a symposium about "The Dictatorship of Relativism: Who Will Stand Up for Western Values Now?” From the introductory essay by Roger Kimball:
There are no facts, only interpretations.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and [for] men who claim to be bearers of an external objective truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than fascist attitudes.
—Benito Mussolini

As a rule, only very learned and clever men deny what is obviously true. Common men have less brains, but more sense.
—William T. Stace
It wasn’t that long ago that a responsible educated person in the West was someone who entertained firm moral and political principles. When those principles were challenged, he would typically rise to defend them. The more serious the challenge, the more concerted the defense.

Today, as the Canadian writer William Gairdner reminds us in his little-noticed but excellent new study of relativism, the equivalent educated person is likely to have a very different attitude towards whatever moral and political ideas—“principles” is no longer the right word—he lives by. When those ideas are challenged, deference to the challenger rather than defense of the principles is the order of the day. “While perhaps more broadly learned” than his less forgiving predecessor, such a person, Gairdner writes,
is more likely to think of him or herself as proudly distinguished by the absence of “rigid” opinions and moral values, to be someone “tolerant” and “open.” Such a person will generally profess some variation of relativism, or “you do your thing and I’ll do mine,” as a personal philosophy. Many in this frame of mind privately consider themselves exemplars of an enlightened modern attitude that civilization has worked hard to attain, and if pushed, they would admit to feeling just a little superior to all those sorry souls of prior generations forced to bend under moral and religious constraints.
The institutionalization of this amalgam of attitudes—blasé tolerance shading into moral indifference underwritten by that giddy sense of self-righteousness and superiority—has precipitated what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) called “the dictatorship of relativism.” .... [more]
The other essays from the symposium are only fully available to subscribers:

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