Absolute Fools

A recent post on the worldview of contemporary postmodern liberalism was kindly linked by Gerard Vanderleun over at American Digest. In his link post, a commenter left the following missive:

The essay would have value if there were absolutes. Never have been, never shall be. Our standards of behavior are devised by us, and used or misused by us. We decide which is good and which is evil, and in every case we are right and wrong at one and the same time.

Each of our rules and regulations is enforced through agreement, and through coercion. The wise among us agree to follow the laws because it makes for a calmer, safer life. The fools among us must be made to follow those same laws because they haven’t the wisdom to see the necessity. And this speaks of those ordinances that do make sense.

Those that do not have to be enforced through coercion more often than not because they really don’t make any sense. And there are times when our rules make more or less sense than other times because circumstances differ.

We are responsible for our laws, and for our adherence to them. Our legislation being wise is to our credit. Our legislation being cruel is to our shame. Nobody else can remove that charge from our shoulders.

Now, I take no issue with this gentleman personally; he is doubtless a bright fellow, well-educated in our institutions of higher learning, where professors emeritus emote their postmodern erudition in the lofty ephemeral ethers, far removed from the dross of desperately-ignorant humanity. He is more to be pitied than censured; he has, after all, been taught not to think. But he serves herein a useful purpose, insofar as his comment exemplifies the mindset of those who eschew the idea of absolutes — which assertion is the very metaphysical mortar of secular postmodernism.

I find it interesting that most every argument rejecting absolutes contains within its very language and structure, not to mention its premises, a framework of absolute assertions. And our subject does not disappoint: tossing around terms like “wise” and “fools” and “shame” and “credit”, qualitative words without meaning when there is no transcendent standard against which to measure them. What is shame if not the humiliation of rejecting an absolute good? Who is wise, and who a fool, if there is no standard of enduring and unchangeable wisdom by which to categorize one thusly? The lines of their straightedge are random and irregularly spaced — if there are measuring lines at all — yet they carefully measure and mark off “progress”, confident they have measured accurately. There is, of course, the inevitable rejoinder to all such foolishness which asks, “Are you absolutely sure there are no absolutes?” But beyond this childish rebuttal — childish, not in the sense of silliness or immaturity, but rather of unvarnished simplicity — there lies an even more evident and profound incoherence which can be discerned — from which a not-so-evident proposition emerges from the heart of anti-absolutism.

It is impossible to function as a human being in society without the concept of transcendent absolutes, even if this foundational principle is unrecognized or denied. We as humans do not simply move as pack animals, driven by instinct and primal drives, but are by our very nature creatures of judgment. We are constantly comparing, evaluating, appreciating or depreciating everyone and everything around us. The food is either tasty or awful; the woman is attractive or homely; the music is beautiful or grating; the weather is warm and pleasant or cold, wet, and miserable. Of course, some of these judgments are self-referential: the food tastes good to us, or bad to us; we prefer rock music to Rachmaninoff, while others may differ. Thus to some degree, we individually determine the standard against which we measure objects apart from ourselves. Yet even there it is possible to compare our preferences to a fixed standard: is slasher rock not discernibly different in quality from a Bach fugue?

But within the realm of human interactions, writ large as communities, societies, nations, and cultures, judgments about the outside world become collective, embodied in law and cultural and social strictures. Behavior which is objectionable to some is desirable to others; that which some find beneficial others find harmful. It is at this level of community and human interactions where some overarching determination or standard against which interpersonal behavior is measured becomes utterly necessary if we are to avoid a society capricious in its justice or cruel in its enforcement.

The anti-absolutist posits this standard in the consensus of the group, be it tribal, community, or society. The society at large, whatever its dimensions, determines that certain behavior is acceptable or unacceptable, and enforces the standard through collective coercion or force. While this seems plausible at first glance, it almost immediately runs into problems with the de facto use of absolutes. What standard will the collective mind of a society choose? Is it simply the standard of survival? Is it a collective self-gratification? Self-interest alone? And how can it be a standard at all without becoming, to greater or lesser degree, a transcendent absolute?

If, as our commenter suggests, we decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, are these standards not infinitely malleable by their very nature? Such a philosophy of law is nothing more than the tyranny of the masses, the rule of the mob. For a society may agree by consensus that certain members of the society are inferior by nature, or should be exterminated, or have their possessions confiscated, their daughters raped, their members sold into slavery. Such societies are not mere abstract entities, but stark historical realities, evident in gulags, ethnic cleansings, and rape rooms to which even our most recent decades testify. Such a philosophy in its purest form is the will to power; those who gain dominance, either in number or by force, determine the standard against which all will be judged.

The notion that such a standard is invariably beneficial to a society or culture is ludicrous in the light of history. One need look no further than the 20th century, where the social consensus arising out of pathologies such as Nazism, Marxism, and the emperor worship and militarism of Japan, wrought horrors upon not only the world, but especially on the societies which themselves embraced these pathologic standards. That German militarism and anti-Semitism was profoundly destructive to the very society which engendered these ideas and standards is self-evident; ask the citizens of Hiroshima how Japan’s imperialistic and fanatical militarism panned out.

Yet the world of the anti-absolutist one cannot form a judgment about any such self-evident evils. It cannot say that Nazism and the Holocaust were evil — they can only say that by their own standards, self-engendered and not universal, that such abominations are different. The inevitable moral indifference arising from such a philosophy runs counter to every fiber of the human spirit. We cannot say such things are evil if we cannot reference them against an absolute standard arising above, and transcending, any consensus formed only by a society.

Our very language is steeped in the vocabulary of absolutes — it is impossible to communicate without them. Good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, wisdom and foolishness: these concepts are universal, ubiquitous, and unresectable from language and thought, across all cultures and civilizations.

The consequences of the rejection of absolutes, fully embraced, are nothing short of anarchy — or in its stead, tyranny. There can be no true justice, for justice appeals to a standard above the law, and thus judges not only behavior contrary to law, but the law itself. Absent a transcendent moral absolute, there is no limit to the granularity at which arbitrary determinations of good and evil, right and wrong, may occur. it is a recipe for tribalism at best, as competing groups determine their own rules, rejecting those of other groups, large or small, which run contrary to their perceived needs or desires. The inevitable conflict between tribal standards can bring nothing but perpetual conflict or isolation.

Those who claim to reject absolutes do not in reality reject all absolutes. There is never a quibble about the law of gravity, or the laws of nature, or those of nuclear physics or astronomy. Were they consistent in their philosophy, they would reject the term “law” (which implies an underlying transcendent; there is, after all, no laws without law-givers), and instead describe what their metaphysics mandates: that seemingly predictable behavior is no more than random coincidence; the electron may fall into the nucleus at any time, ending this existence as dramatically and as randomly as it came into being. As Chesterton said, “They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.”

At the very heart of a philosophy of deterministic, self-engendered moral standards stands the individual. The rejection of moral absolutes is nothing more than radical individualism broadcast across society — the notion that we are the sole arbiters of our behavior and morality, the we alone determine what is right and what is wrong. As a corollary, there is another assumption underlying this one: that others should bear the consequences, especially adverse consequences of our actions. Those who reject moral absolutes gravitate to a nihilistic narcissism, where there are rights but no responsibilities, demanding freedom to act as they please without thought for anyone else, all the while demanding that others rescue them from wreckage their behavior has wrought.

This battle of worldviews lies at the very heart of our culture wars, of the endless societal conflicts engendered over abortion, or religion in the public square, or the status of heterosexual marriage, or unrestricted sexual license, or any one a host of other seemingly irreconcilable culture clashes which saturate and sour our daily lives. It is a take-no-prisoners battle, for there is no middle ground, no comfortable compromise which will bring peace and harmony. It is a battle to the death, a battle not only of the mind but of the heart.

It is, above all, about bending the knee, a battle for the soul: we will submit to the absolute, or destroy ourselves in dark delusion denying it.

It’s long past time we choose which it will be.

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11 thoughts on “Absolute Fools

  1. Poor fellow, blinded by your pride and trapped in the catatonia of self assurance carried to an extreme.

    We are flawed, our understanding is flawed. It is incumbent upon us to acknowledge and accept our limitations. But you would trap us in an absolutism that denies our failings and refuses us the wisdom of recognizing our errors and correcting them.

    It is God and God alone who is omniscient, we haven’t the tools.

  2. Pride, Alan? Against which moral standard would you judge me proud? Against the ever-changing “standards” of relativism which denies that absolute truth exists?

    After all, since there are no absolutes, I am the final arbiter of what is true and false; my words are nothing more than ideas putting forth my truth — as they say, it may be true for me, but not for you. Without absolute transcendent truths, “pride” has no meaning. It is an absolute moral judgment measured against an ever-changing “moral” law.

    But the truth is, I am a very proud person — often struggling with attitudes and actions in which I decide my ways are better than God’s; ergo, I think myself wiser than God. This is pride at its heart: to think oneself greater or wiser than the absolute goodness and wisdom of God. In other words, we are proud when we create our own rules to follow.

    I have no delusions about my limitations and failings, which are legion — nor do I deny them, as anyone who knows me or reads this blog regularly can testify.

    And, “It is God and God alone who is omniscient, we haven’t the tools” — a curious metaphysics, this: to believe in an omniscient God while denying absolutes. Does He know everything but judges nothing, since He is allowed no absolute measure by which to judge the actions of man?

    The rejection of absolutes — moral transcendents which are the measure of the actions of mankind — and their replacement with self-determined moral relativism, remains an incoherent and internally contradictory worldview — which even your brief comment demonstrates all too well.

    Rule one of holes: if you want to reach the bottom, stop digging.

  3. I have to say Alan’s knee is jerking and that he is not engaging the argument but rather just blasting out a string of lightly-thought and less-felt bromides.

    There are the two poles which do indeed encapsulate the culture wars – absolutes which endure and moral relativism. The latter is both comfortable and self-enhancing since one may hold any number of these views and not only avoid any consequences, but actually profit and rise by espousing them. There’s no risk to this philosophy in the contemporary world.

    To live a life of purpose one should “Live not by lies,” but fewer and fewer have the courage it takes to do this.

  4. I enjoyed your article very much. The relativists, often bound more by contempt than by intellectual honesty, seem rarely to ask “Exactly how does one get a handle on this transcendent thing?” and the apologists seldom supply satisfying answers.

    My own concept of such a standard is that it is something never actually obtained, as you indicate in your example from law. The standard stands between people of differing or opposing views, it is not a position in itself. In our moral lives we are nearer to or farther from the Truth at any given time.

    Would you agree with this general idea?

  5. I think you’re on to something there. The postmodern mindset — which is a war on reason — speaks frequently with descriptives laden with moral implications, for example the accusation of “racism”, “sexism”, etc for anyone who differs with their particular philosophy on matters of gender or race. It is entirely self-referential — if you disagree with me you are “evil”; if you hold strong convictions about what you believe, you are “proud”, or hateful, or extremist, or some other morally-loaded pejorative.

    The standard is the goal, and given our flawed nature is rarely or ever reached; it judges us, rather than the other way around.

    Our friend also conflates the absence of absolutes (a postion so fraught with contradictions and incoherency as to require rejection of reason to embrace), with absolutes which exist but cannot be known — quite a different thing.

    Reason alone, properly applied, can discern absolute principles, but is limited by our finite intellect and flawed natures, prone to self-deception. It is the role of revelation — the Divine communicating these principles and constraints to his creation, to guide and correct those whom He created and loves — to flesh out those aspects of the absolute which are unobtainable, or contradicted, by reason alone.

  6. Hi Bob,

    In your original post, I think you were a little too hard on the person making the comment. His comment was actually kind of profound – well, if you throw away the “lack of absolutes” part.

    Its pretty rare that leftists accept that government is violent and coercive. Maybe the guy is a sort-of libertarian?

    It seems to me that if you accept absolutes in your world, your still left with the difficult job of deciding when coercion is good and bad. It doesn’t seem that the Bible is much help there – except at the extremes (Nazis, communists, etc).

    God gave us love. He gave us truth. He gave us logic. But then He left us to figure out a lot on our own. Should the government take money from some people to give it to others? How much? Dependent on what behaviour on the part of the recipient? Is it possible or impossible for the agent who transfers the money to stay honest?

    Reading the bible, and listening to preachers of various stripes, I can’t get an absolute answer to those questions. Revealed truth from the Christian tradition doesn’t seem to specify coercion, as coercion is not really related to love, which it does specify. The original comment seemed to be pointing that out. Am I giving him/her too much credit?

    James

  7. A few years ago, I sat in on part of a college philosphy course. The professor developed a sophisticated attack on strong-form cultural relativism. Many of the students were shocked and surprised to the point of being disoriented–they had never imagined that there might be any alternatives to such a belief system.

    Related: Koestler on nuance.

  8. If there are no absolutes – and thus, no eternals – then each person can justifiably assume that the enhancement and extension of his own life is his greatest and only rational mission.

    The price to others is not to be considered, since their very existence is relative at best and unprovable at the end.

    The result of this logical, demented and evil thought matrix is the sewer known as western secular society.

    Pity the savages, and pray for their minds and souls.

  9. James,

    Perhaps I did beat the fellow up a bit too much, but I was using his comment as a jump-off point to discuss the irrationality of those who deny absolutes. I am not sure if he is from the left or the right, or possibly just from the ozone; while those on the left would probably deny that government should be coercive, they certainly act consistent with that philosophy.

    And whether he is from the left, or a libertarian, is somewhat academic: leftists believe there should be no restriction on individual behavior, and government should take care of the consequences; libertarians believe there should be no restriction on individual behavior, and that there are no consequences.

    The existence of absolutes of course does not eliminate the problem of coercion. In fact, the combination of belief in religious absolutes and coercion are quite a toxic mix. When our secular friends on the left get a bit hysterical about “theocracy”, they are — legitimately to a point — concerned about the coercive use of religion. This comes in part, I believe, because in their world the use of coercion through heavy-handed government, social harassment through enforced multiculturalism and politically correct strictures on speech, comes as second nature.

    There are, I believe, two strains of religious thought. In the first, the deity has established certain absolutes — rules of the universe, if you will — and through threat of punishment or rejection coerces his creation to their enforcement. This may occur directly, but more often through those identified as his proxies: witness Islamic fundamentalism, with its head-chopping, stoning, and hanging of moral miscreants. In fact, most religion operates under what would properly be called law, which is fundamentally a system based on fear of punishment and legal coercion.

    The other primary strain of religious thought resides in Christianity, properly understood, and to lesser degree in Judaism, and that is the concept of grace. God sets forth absolute standards which we must follow to be pleasing to him (intended as well to be for our best) — but because of our fallen nature (an inborn rebelliousness), we are unable to come anywhere near this goal. Seeing this moral impotence, God acts in grace through Christ (in Christianity, of course) by making a radical inner transformation in the person who chooses to trust God and submit to Him. This transformation begins a process of change motivated not by fear of punishment, but by a newly implanted desire to do what is right, placed within the heart and spirit of the trusting man. Therefore, rather than trying to achieve goodness (that is, conformity to an absolute good standard) through fear or coercion, we rather begin to transform toward absolute goodness, albeit slowly and erratically, by desiring to do so, acting out of love and gratitude, rather than by fear.

  10. Hi Bob,

    I agree with most of what you say.

    I do have one quibble though. Libertarians don’t believe that their are no consequences. They believe that people should be allowed to suffer any and all consequences good and hard – without help from the government. Of course, their argument falls down because in many (most?) instances, the consequences also bounce to innocents, such as children of the people who are suffering the consequences.

    That’s a good reason not to be a libertarian. But you shouldn’t misrepresent their opinion.

    I have a point of agreement as well. When I was in college (small state school 25 years ago), I had a friend who was taking a course in philosophy. I was an engineering major and generally spared such punishment.

    My friend was taught that “There are no absolutes” as a given fact. They argued about it, but the “teacher wins”, as they say. When test time came, the professor had a question on the test which said “Name an Absolute.”. The only acceptable answer was – “There are none”.

    My friend didn’t agree with the professor so he wrote: “I exist.”. For this, my friend maintained his integrity and a lower GPA than he would have otherwise. And my friend wasn’t even a Christian.

    According to my friend, the whole justification in the class for the supposition “There are no absolutes” was driven by an understanding of Quantum Mechanics. Nothing is knowable at the atomic level (supposedly), so nothing is knowable at the macro level either. I’m paraphrasing, but I think its pretty close.

    It turns out that Quantum Mechanics may not be true though. Quantum Mechanics was invented because physicists couldn’t reconcile certain known behaviours of protons and electrons with Maxwell’s Equations. So they invented Quantum Mechanics to explain electron and proton behaviour.

    Now a physicist claims to have found a way to apply Maxwell’s Equations to get consistent predictions with known atomic behaviour. If he’s correct, the floor falls out of Quantum Mechanics, and also falls out of the “There are no Absolutes”. Not that the modern philosophy professor would notice, of course. They will continue to float in space somehow.

    You have no time to read this, but here is the link to the book on the disagreement over quantum mechanics from Randell L Mills:

    http://www.blacklightpower.com/theory/book.shtml

    James

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