February 20, 2011

Is truth relative?

I am not a philosopher, nor do I teach philosophy. I have read, and I do a lot of thinking, but am not terribly conversant in the language of philosophy.

But I have been thinking more about how we process morality and make moral decisions. Greg, who actually can speak authoritatively about philosophical questions, has a great post on his Christian students and stealing music. Polling his class, he found that a good many who say they are Christian, who identify as conservative Republican, defend stealing music on pretty flimsy grounds.

For many conservatives, truth is absolute (damn those liberals) and unchanging. Murder is always wrong, as is stealing. Same, for them, when speaking of being gay, or adultery. Those sins are sins regardless of what is in your heart. Just because you told yourself it was ok to have an affair with the neighbor doesn't change that it is wrong, right?

It certainly is objectively true when dealing with other people's sins--especially sins that are not ones that challenge them. I say that with compassion, mind you, in that this seems like a human need to defend and protect your own sense of personal morality. We all want to see ourselves as moral.

But time after time, I find conservatives identifying sins as objectively wrong, period, when they are the sins of others. Being gay is wrong, in their mind, and what the gay person thinks or believes is irrelevant. Sins like greed, however, are internal and relative, and only the sinner themselves can know if they are actually greedy.

Ah, but there is the rub. As Greg notes, stealing is always wrong, yet these moral Christians justify it in certain situations. Torture, one would think, is objectively evil, yet moral Christians support (60%) its use against terrorists. One would assume that if the question were about torturing anti-abortion activists, the support would drop. So something as objective as torture becomes subjectively allowable as long as the person supporting it believes it is justifiable.

Yet Greg and myself are the ones pushing some kind of moral relativism?


leighton said...

Here's a right-angle perspective from linguistics. There's a distinction between the semantics of a statement and its pragmatic use; that is, what it means, versus why it is said at a specific time and in a specific place.

I think pragmatics is much more useful when talking about most "morality" claims, not least because (as you and Greg point out) the assertions of many moralizers collapse into incoherence when you try to figure out what their actual morals are. I think if you look at the aims of social conservative organizations like Focus on The Family and the Family Research Council, what they actually appear to be saying is that "People ought to listen to conservative Christians more; it is our right to be more influential than we are."

I am not so sure we should grant that social conservatives in the contexts you describe are actually talking about morality, when the aim of their statements seems to be a fairly naked power play.

Streak said...

Good point, Leighton, certainly about those conservative groups. But I am more talking about individual Christians I know who, for example, say that they can't be considered "greedy" because they don't "love money more than God." That is the standard and only they know if it is true. Those on the outside, therefore, can't criticize their materialism or their wealth because the standard for it being greedy is in their individual heart.

Doe that make sense?

leighton said...

It makes sense, but in that case, I think the pragmatic aim is still not to talk about morality, so much as to cement their social ties with their religious group, many of whose leaders may have a vested interest in nobody looking too closely at economic inequality. "I feel uncomfortable when people disagree with me, so they shouldn't do that" is a useless and pointless foundation for a conversation.

That's what I call "arguing in bad faith" - it's not at all about asserting things you know are false, or aren't sure are true; it's pretending to talk about Topic A when your only dog in the hunt is Topic B which you keep secret. (Generic "you" meaning "a hypothetical person," etc.)

I think people who actually care about morality will be willing to have a serious conversation about what is right, and why, and why people don't practice that, and be able to hold a serious discussion about how we can all help make things better. Barring serious inexperience, I am not sure there are exceptions to that guideline. Whether conscious or not, I'm pretty sure "Truth isn't relative" is a rallying cry for foot soldiers in a culture war rather than a claim up for discussion.

steves said...

A few points. Maybe this is just the lawyer in me, but sharing music, despite what the PSA's tell us, is not stealing, but copyright infringement. While it is illegal, it is not a theft. I have had similar discussions with Christians about this subject and most seem to understand that it is wrong.

The ones that seem ok with it are younger, so I wonder if this is generational to some degree. I also think that many people view this as they do driving over the speed limit.

Monk-in-Training said...

I think this is why, in the Gospels, Jesus constantly focuses us on our own sins. Those are the only ones we can change anyway.