Absolution Versus Relativism Term Paper

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Absolution vs. Relativism

Columnist William Wineke points out that the real problem with relativism is that it gives no place to stop the slippery slide, no place to stand and say "no" (Wineke pp). In other words, each step taken simply makes it easier to take the next step until, eventually, society finds no logical basis for saying "no" to anything (Wineke pp). Yet, if the error of moral relativism is that it provides society with no real basis on which to say "no," then the error of objective morality is that it provides no real basis on which to say "yes" (Wineke pp).

Wineke uses the example of AIDS in Africa, citing Vatican ambassador to Zambia, Archbishop Orlando Antonini, who said "The use of condoms still constitutes a false solution to a real problem, although it is a burning issue in Africa" (Wineke pp). However, Wineke says, "millions of Africans are going to die of AIDS and millions of African children are going to be orphaned" as a result, so "wouldn't a little moral relativism be in order here" (Wineke pp)? The Archbishop went on to explain that the Catholic Church "continues to preserve its traditional and moral teachings without surrendering to the pressures from progressive groups that demand for the ordination of women and the approval of same-sex marriages, abortion and contraceptives" (Wineke pp). However, the purpose of moral teaching is to improve the dignity and spirituality of the individual, not to reaffirm the authority of those doing the teaching (Wineke pp). Thus, although there is a slippery-slope problem that comes from moral relativism, there is also a slippery-slope problem that comes from objective morality (Wineke pp).

In the July 01, 1995 issue of The Humanist, John Hamerlinck writes in his article "Theories of relativity: moral relativism vs. moral absolutism," that although fundamentalists often condemn liberals and secular humanists for living by a creed of moral relativism, Christians also practice a form of moral relativism (Hamerlinck pp). For example, according to Scriptures, working on Sunday is punishable by death, as is cursing your parents, however, relativism has played a role in the analysis of these moral and ethical issues, thus humans do not live in a static world of absolutes (Hamerlinck pp). In the moral universe, there is a big difference between general rules and rigid laws, as pointed out in Immanuel Kant's "The Critique of Practical Reason" (Hamerlinck pp). Kant used logic and reason to propose the existence of the categorical imperative, which impels us to "act as if the maxim of our action were to become . . . A universal law of nature," and concluded that, "in light of the categorical imperative, it was always wrong to tell a lie, even to a murderer stalking your friend" (Hamerlinck pp). Yet, it is safe to say that people would lie in that situation ... thus is lying cannot be absolute moral wrong, because ethics are inescapably situational (Hamerlinck pp).

Therefore, there is general agreement across the ideological spectrum that lying is wrong, however there are still situations in which it is the morally correct thing to do (Hamerlinck pp).

The Barna Research Group, an independent marketing research company based in Glendale, California, gathered date in 1990 and 1992 on 18 to 27-year-olds and found that 70% of the respondents claimed that absolute truth does not exist and that all truth is relative and personal (Garrison pp). However, 44% of those surveyed "strongly agreed" that "the Bible is the word of God and is totally accurate in all that it teaches" (Garrison pp). A similar Barna study conducted in 1994 and 1995 found that 72% agreed that "There is no such thing as 'absolute truth;' two people could define 'truth' in conflicting ways and both be correct (Garrison pp). However, 72% also agreed with the statement, "The Bible provides a clear and totally accurate description of moral truth" (Garrison pp). While 91% agreed with the statement, "What is right for one person in a given situation might not be right for another person in a similar situation" (Garrison pp).

Reality exists apart from relativistic social construction, because whatever is in the world exists whether people know about it or not (Garrison pp). For example, the Chernoble power plant existed and the pollution from its nuclear accident spread whether it was known or not known (Garrison pp). Critical realism with its belief in a reality independent of human cognition neither undermines absolution nor supports relativism (Garrison pp). Cultural ideas are socially constructed, that is, "people interact and definitions of what they believe to be true, moral, and valuable emerge...and these constructed beliefs, norms, and values are also real and have real consequences" (Garrison pp). Therefore, there is agreement that social construction occurs, such as fads, styles, and hobbies (Garrison pp). Yet, these do not contradict the possibility or reality of either revealed truth or the discovery of new truth, for example, "one may posit that monogamy is God's will for marriage but this does not mean that ideas about monogamy are devoid of social construction" (Garrison pp). This social construction of culture occurs in real life, empirical situations, and while ideas are socially constructed, they also occur in the real world as it is (Garrison pp). For example, although what is defined as food varies from culture to culture, every definition must be tested by experience (Garrison pp). For example, gravel will never be defined as food because the reality of trying to ingest it would be prohibitive (Garrison pp). Another example is, architects can create buildings out of a wide variety of materials in a wide range of shapes and arrangements, however these buildings must be constructed according to the laws of physics and within the limits of the physical realities of the materials used (Garrison pp).

Relativism does not mean that "anything goes" or that anyone can do whatever one wishes (Garrison pp). Humans are social animals who need interaction, yet "every human relationship must be based upon some shared ideas about each person and what beliefs, values, and norms are operating in the relationship" (Garrison pp). And because these ideas are shared, they cannot be significantly unilaterally changed without harming the relationship (Garrison pp). Although there can be disagreement, there must also be some shared definition of truth, therefore, people will disagree about beliefs, norms, and values, but the necessity for these is evident and their existence constrains behavior (Garrison pp).

Moreover, relativism does not mean that any one idea is as good as any other, for example, in architecture, some buildings simply "work" better than other, because although the floor plan of one may be more efficient for its function than another, the maintenance costs of one design may be less than the other (Garrison pp). As applied to culture, Ruth Benedict, an early, important anthropological proponent of relativism, clearly preferred the culture of the Hopi to that of the Kwakiutil (Garrison pp). One was a culture of harmony, while the other was of opposition, and Benedict valued harmony and evaluated accordingly (Garrison pp). Relativism does not preclude evaluation when criteria are specified (Garrison pp).

During the twentieth century, the philosophical notions of uncertainty and relativism served to undermine ethics with an "underlying belief that all ethics is relative" (Changing pp).

Based on this, it is difficult to justify the pursuit of any moral understanding because there would ultimately be no bedrock, thus it was not view as particularly relevant (Changing pp). Moreover, ethical problems tended to be extreme endgame problems, such as concern over blowing up the planet, destroying the ozone layer and rainforests, or an asteroid smashing into the earth (Changing pp). These were not subtle ethical issues and thus led to a black and white view of ethics (Changing pp). When confronted with more subtle issues such as euthanasia or abortion, applying the same black and white reasoning led to polarization and little progress (Changing pp). Although there was concern about endgame scenarios, other issues were simply ignored as irrelevant (Changing pp). For example, science fiction literature posed a variety of moral problems, such as time travel and colonizing other planets, yet they sparked little serious discussion because of the unlikelihood that society would ever be forced to confront them (Changing pp). Thus, since the concerns of ethics in the last century were either extreme endgame scenarios or preposterous fantasy scenarios, most people began to view ethics as "only slightly relevant to daily life" (Changing pp).

During the twenty-first century, the advances in the biological sciences will create a different perspective (Changing pp). Some believe that a greater understanding of the brain will lead to the conclusion that our perceptions of reality are based in our biological makeup, and that this will cure the relativism of the twentieth century because, "although nothing is absolution and nothing is certain, there are a limited range of possibilities to be considered" (Changing pp). Objective reality does not exist outside of humans, it exists inside,…

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