Sunday, March 10, 2013

Moral Relativism

Busy writing a thesis proposal, so the time to write on other things dries up quickly. Which is not to say I am not noting things that interest me. Most of the things that I note, however, are too long to develop adequately in writing. So I am going to try to keep this brief...

Does pluralism--as in a pluralism of perspective, whether religious, political, or other--equal moral relativism? Over at the Huffington Post, Brian C. Stiller offers a surprisingly refreshing Evangelical answer to the question: 'Don't Mistake Pluralism for Moral Relativism.'

On the side of a possible religious conservative, pluralism equal moral relativism for the simple reason that different people are living their lives differently, which stands in the way of possible communal agreement moral questions. Pluralism is a bad thing because moral relativism compromises communal integrity.

On the side of a possible secular liberal, pluralism equals moral relativism because pluralism entails the right of individuals to determine for themselves the sort of life they want to live, how they want to live it, and who they want to share it with. So pluralism is a good thing because moral relativism allows individuals to express their individuality.

Stiller's position lies somewhere between the two extremes:
Pluralism is not about relativism. It is a social agreement which says, people with differing views have a right to have them heard and explored.
His position differs from the other two by being a position on persons, not on perspectives--or a perspective on persons instead of a perspective on perspectives. As a consequence, Miller advances the conversation in significant ways. Unlike our possible religious conservative and secular liberal, Miller gets that perspectives don't mean a great deal apart from the experience of people who see the world in their terms.

But Miller, in my estimation, could make a much stronger case. The ancient religious traditions, in fact, each have their own ways of making Miller's argument. They will observe that the human being is incapable of grasping the entirety of existence with their mind; they will further observe that these mental limitations have some sort of affinity to the human body. What a person knows, or can claim to know, will in some sense belong to the world of a person's experience--either direct personal experience, or indirect experience mediated by others persons or other sources of information like books or television. A personal world of experience is centered on a body that never occupies more places than one or moment in time beyond the present moment.

Recognition that bodily existence is a limited existence means no one human being has a absolute perspective on the whole. Though not every believer can be expected to draw the inference, the pious person should have recognized that this changes how one relates to one's fellow human beings. Not capable of grasping the whole of existence, one ought to be able to find oneself in exactly the same existential situation that everyone else occupies. Which means no one is in an position to 'lord' their authority over others. What authority persons might claim over others cannot be asserted as a matter of mere perspective, but must be earned in the course of acquiring experience.

And experience is marred by bodily limitation. The question of whether one knows better, or is better, or deserves better than others do, and on what ground one would base such claims, follows quite naturally. So it should surprise no one that every religious tradition has its own version of the summary Jesus provides of the Mosaic law and the Hebrew prophets: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'

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