Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Are Relativists Mostly Just Closet Absolutists?

The most politically radical person I know is also one of the brightest and cleverest. He is a locally notorious forensic psychiatrist who always finds the people he examines for the court Not Competent to stand trial. (Note: this is not the same as Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity, see below). He is very familiar with both the mental health and corrections systems, and believes people will be better treated in every way by mental health. He knows how poor the psychiatric care is at the jails and doesn’t want people treated there. There is a certain sense to this, particularly in marginal cases. One can at least see the moral idea behind it, even if one does not agree.

He recently found a person of such obvious competence Not Competent as to arouse controversy. Competency is by law a pretty low standard. It means that you know what an attorney does, and what a judge does, what a jury is for, etc. It is a simple declaration that you understand enough of the process to assist your attorney in defending you. People are found Competent, yet later also found Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity all the time. Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists appointed by the court are usually given a lot of interpretive leeway, especially over time. This case, however, is ridiculous. However understandable the underlying principle behind the doctor’s decision is, the fact remains that this decision is in complete opposition to the intent of a law duly passed by a constituting authority. He has overruled the legistlature, and thus the society, in accordance with his own views.

I had a running argument with this same psychiatrist about abortion years ago. In discussing the tougher questions of inheritable conditions, hope for a decent life, and sentience, I made the point that these questions did not change much after birth, and relying too heavily on them as reasons to abort opened considerable space for justifying infanticide. He surprised me by agreeing, noting that some already-born infants were so compromised and so unable to ever have meaningful life that infanticide is justified. He also thought that parents were not well-placed to make that decision, which should be made by doctors instead. He felt perfectly confident in his ability to make those decisions wisely.

Again, it is not impossible to understand some motive of kindness or compassion lying behind this. This is not the reasonong of an amoral person, but of one whose moral imperative of reducing suffering of a certain type leads him to ignore many other moral considerations.

Here’s the kicker: this psychiatrist positively seethes and sputters over George Bush and the neocons, who he openly calls fascist, for…unconstitutional spying on American citizens, lying to get us into a war for oil, illegally detaining people, raping the environment – the whole usual litany. The fact that nearly every word he utters with such assurance is a matter of some debate he rejects with disdain. Constitutional… so what if some courts hold that it is allowable? Those judges were appointed by conservatives! Spying…lying… war for oil…he feels quite confident that what he uses as definitions of these things are the real ones, because the smart people that agree with him about this, well, agree with him.

This is as clearly an absolutist as one could draw. He doesn’t think moral issues are relative – he wants to decide them in consultation with those he thinks best, and resents that other people, lesser people should be part of the decision. He sees himself as quite the flexible relativist in some ways, but this is because he considers some questions, such as who people sleep with, morally unimportant. And he also wants to decide which questions are important.

Okay, that’s just one person, albeit one with some power and influence in the world. But it is one I know well, and have some understanding of his motives. I now believe that such folk are more common than I once thought. And I worry that they are growing more numerous and/or more powerful.

I have enjoyed the irony of noting how often postmodernists, relativists, and all those who believe in flexible realities slip up and make absolutist statements. I went into this at some length in my posts on the tribal nature of the Ats& Humanities, as the inconsistencies are rife in that crew, e.g. children should be taught safe sex practices because they are going to do have sex anyway, but this principle doesn’t apply to gun safety, drunk driving (no one says “at least we got them to wear their seat belts”), or environmental infractions, because those are things they should just be taught not to do at all.

For some reason I have pretty much taken them at their word that they are not absolutists, but relativists. I have regarded the inconsistencies as exceptions to their general pattern, a refusal to acknowledge that there is some absolutist in all of us. I have changed my mind on that. I now think that something in the relativist/progressive/postmodernist approach to life is primarily absolutist, just disguised. They are more categorical than most of us, not less.

I am grateful for this post at Dr. Sanity’s which put me on to this quote by Stephen Hicks from his Explaining Postmodernism
The pattern therefore raises the question of which side of the contradiction is deepest for postmodernism. Is it that psotmodernists really are committed to relativism, but occasionally lapse into absolutism? Or are the absolutist commitments deepest and the relativism a rhetorical cover?
It has clarified a concept I was apprehending only dimly. Dr. Sanity’s quick assessment: “If the modern leftist truly embraced relativism, then you would not see the uniformity of their politics or their reactions to events in the world.”

There are those who truly attempt consistency and resolution, of course. While this often leads them into radical positions, such as allowing FGM in the name of multiculturalism, or renouncing multiculturalism in the name of feminism, one has to admire at least the attempt to put one’s principles into practice. I have a different quarrel with such as these, and far less quarrel than with standard news-attracting (and news-writing) progressives. Some issues are difficult, borderline, or ambiguous.

I believe morality is soft at the edges but adamantine at the core. There is a history among conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists, of regarding the outer shell of morality as so inflexible as to be brittle. All musics, chemicals, or entertainments which carry the least whiff of suspicion must be regarded as forbidden. I have certainly known such, and have the impression that they were formerly more common. I find such people much more often on the left these days, reflexively absolutist.

These are very quick to use extremist terms: fascist, plutocracy, corporatocracy, inquisitor. They are quite certain the Right is absolutist. Not from where I sit. I submit the opposite is true – the progressives are themselves so absolutist that they resent any check on their power.


David Foster said...

I think much "relativism" is simply an attempt to avoid taking positions that could be risky. If everything is relative, then one can justify going along with those that have the power in any given situation. This is not inconsistent with the taking of absolutist positions in circumstances where the people offended have no practical power over the individual.

Didn't Pontius Pilate ask "What is truth?" Perhaps this was an early form of relativism: raising a bogus philosophical question to mask the injustice he was about to commit.

David M. Smith said...


Yes they are.

This is an absolute truth; the more a person preaches tolerance, the less tolerant the person actually is!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

As the quite liberal uncle I have been arguing with via email these ten years is David N. Smith, you see how ironic your comment is. My uncle remains convinced that liberals are by definition open-minded because that's what "liberal" means.

Anonymous said...

I think people intentionally or accidentally mix up the possible meanings of 'liberal.'

Intellectually liberal may, indeed, mean open-minded, willing to consider all sides of an issue, and able to change ones opinion based on convincing evidence or persuasion.

Politically liberal means basically the same thing "progressive" used to - believing that the power of government should be directly employed to improve the lives of citizens.

Many people seem to assume that if someone is politically liberal, they must also be intellectually liberal. Or that if someone is intellectually liberal, their thinking will naturally lead them to adopt politically-liberal beliefs. These assumptions are, I think, behind the common notion that liberals are smarter than...well, everyone else.

When a liberal feels insulted because someone says he's being closed-minded, he's just confusing the two meanings of 'liberal.'