Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Column on Relativism v. Terrorism

It?s all a Matter of Perspective, Isn?t It?

Tibor R. Machan

An amazing thing about a good deal of higher education is how little one
hears form the professors when it matters most. Take the famous idea,
endorsed by many very prominent teachers in innumerable Western
universities, that what is right and wrong is all a matter of perspective.
The prominent?indeed, arguably most famous?American radical pragmatist
philosopher Richard Rorty (who is teaching now at Stanford University)
made it clear several years ago that no one can know right and wrong apart
from how his or her own community see it. There is no right and wrong
apart from one?s group. As Rorty put it, in his comment on the demise of
the Soviet Union: ?[We] cannot say that democratic institutions reflect a
moral reality and that tyrannical re¬gimes do not reflect one, that
tyrannies get something wrong that democratic societies get right.?

If you change the particulars, Rorty would have to agree that neither can
we say that terrorists get it wrong when they murder children in London or
Madrid or New York City. No, all we can say is that we stand with our
group, while they stand with theirs.

Of course, this kind of thinking is ancient, not at all new, but in most
periods of human history the major thinkers rejected it. Socrates, Plato,
Aristotle, Aquinas, and Spinoza, to list just some of the greatest
thinkers in the Western philosophical tradition, held that while it is
difficult, human beings can learn of some basic truths. Or at least they
held out hope for this, especially in the realm of ethics and politics.
The American founders were among these, which is why they declared
themselves in support of unalienable individual rights to life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness for everyone.

But today, probably more so than ever before, the dominant idea in most
universities is that no basic truths about ethics and politics are
possible to identify. Multiculturalists teach this. Moreover, the books
the likes of Richard Rorty write are brought out by the most prestigious
publishers in the world?e.g., Cambridge University Press. Yet, when bombs
go off killing dozens and more in New York, Washington, London, Madrid,
and Cairo, one doesn?t find Richard Rorty and his followers parading their
seriously crafted views to the general public. No matter how hard one
looks to see if such missives have been published, there is nothing
written by those folks about how it is false that terrorists ?get
something wrong that democratic societies get right.?

Surely at this point one can wonder whether Rorty & Co. really mean what
they claim to believe in their more academic publications. Or perhaps they
are merely teasing their students with outrageous ideas and when they
leave their study, in the fashion the 18th century Scottish philosopher
David Hume described, they no longer take their ruminations seriously.

But this is a luxury we cannot afford, to make reckless pronunciations
about truth, justice, knowledge or virtue in our professional capacity but
reject them when we step out of our offices into the real world. Because
out students often do listen to what we say and when they take the
material we so strongly champion with them into their lives, the stuff can
turn out to be deadly for them and indeed the rest of us.

The practical implications of the kind of view Richard Rorty and other
relativists propound amount to no less than that the positions of the
terrorists and of the victims of terrorism are basically indistinguishable
as to their merit or worth. In the total scheme of things, as best as we
can tell, the two are on the same footing?or, put another way, neither has
any better footing.

Maybe Rorty & Co. would reply, but this doesn?t mean the victims must
accept their victimization, must believe they shouldn?t resist. Such
declamations, however, are unconvincing because the thrust of the original
relativist idea is exactly that, namely, terrorists do not have positions
that are in the end worse than those of their victims. Such a view is
debilitating, practically, and can utterly confuse people about where one
ought to stand on terrorism. It is, indeed, just the view terrorists would
most likely want us to embrace so we become impotent, philosophically and
ethically, as we try to come to grips with their vicious conduct.

I think Rorty & Co. know this. This is why we do not hear from them in
these times. But then they should remain silent at other times, too.

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