Ethical Relativism in the Closing of the American Mind Term Paper

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Ethical Relativism

Allen Bloom wrote one of the most controversial books of the late-20th Century, in which he denounced the demise of the core curriculum at elite U.S. universities and it replacement by what he considered to be a vague sort of postmodern relativism from the 1960s onward. As he understood it, this new liberal worldview held that no cultures could be morally superior to any others and that anyone who believed the Western world might be were simply absolutists and ideologues whose worldview led to "wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism and chauvinism" (Bloom 1990, p. 568). Students arrived at the university having been thoroughly trained and indoctrinated in these relativistic ideas, in which the only sin was to be ethnocentric or prejudiced. Without knowing it, they were under the influence of modern liberal and progressive philosophers like John Dewey, John Rawls and John Stuart Mill, who regarded intolerance and prejudice as great threats to progress in society. Bloom regarded Rawls as a "parody" of this type of thinking, in which "esteem from others, as opposed to self-esteem, is a basic need of all men." Even worse was the "sexual adventurer" Margaret Mead who hated the narrowness and puritanism of American culture in her time and sought liberation from the idea that "our taboos are anything other than social constraints" (Bloom, p. 570).

For Bloom the natural rights philosophy of John Locke and the 18th Century Enlightenment was the true basis for the superiority of Western civilization above all others, and of the founding ideals of the United States as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Natural rights diminished all divisions of "class, race, religion, national origin or culture" because they applied equally to every individual (Bloom, p. 568). Essentially this made him a classical liberal, which due to certain historical and political peculiarities is called 'conservatism' in the United States. He supported the early civil rights movement, which adhered to this natural rights philosophy and in so doing was able to "charge whites not only with the most monstrous injustices but also with contradicting their own most scared principles" (Bloom, p. 570). Only later in the 1960s did Black Power, nationalism and separatism take the place of this movement, and these rejected the Constitution as a document that upheld slavery.

Undergraduate students in the 1970s and 1980s were also ignorant of the history and culture of the U.S. As well as all other countries. They had "less and less knowledge of and interest in foreign places," except for some superficial knowledge about the Third World and a vague desire to do good there (Bloom, p. 572). Bloom did not advocate returning to a time of open racism and religious hatred in America, which he had certainly seen a great deal of in his lifetime. He did wish that people had serious beliefs, though, and that religion and philosophy would be at the center of the university curriculum. Students who imagined that they knew something about the Third World actually knew very little, for all these cultures were ethnocentric. Almost every in history had been, although the ancient Greek philosophers had "some willingness to doubt the identification of the good with one's own way" (Bloom, p. 573). Bias and prejudice in favor of one's own language, culture, family and country were natural, and perhaps even essential to preserve and protect them from outside dangers. Bloom argued that Plato's metaphor of the prisoners in the cave really symbolized how all people were trapped within their own cultures.

Even so, Socrates and Plato also insisted that nature was the key to judging life, people and other cultures, even if they did not exactly have a philosophy of natural rights. They were hardly democrats or egalitarians in their thinking, but they did regard philosophy as providing the standard by which they could "evaluate themselves and others" (Bloom, p. 575). History and anthropology, such as they existed at all then, were only important insofar as they contributed to philosophy and morality. This was the true foundation of science as well, while cultural relativism and historicism would destroy science and, ultimately, the larger society. Odysseus and Heroditus did not travel simply to experience other cultures in an amoral and relativistic way, but so they could learn more of the good and evil in all of them. Bloom definitely opposed those who simply had prejudices that they imagined to be knowledge, but he repeatedly asserted "to deny the possibility of knowing good and bad was to suppress true openness" (Bloom, p. 576).

Since he was a professor of philosophy, Bloom was correct in his plea for that subject to remain as part of the core curriculum, although his idea that the ancient Greeks philosophers were at the core of modern scientific thought and liberal, natural rights theory is dubious at best. Plato was certainly no defender of the democracy in Athens (such as it was) but rather thought that it should be led by philosopher kings and the aristocratic elite trained in his academy. His followers like Alcibiades were in fact enemies of the democracy, and resented it for having put Socrates to death. In no sense was Plato a friend of the common people, nor did he believe that every individual had equal rights. Just the opposite, he insisted that some people were natural rulers and captains of the ship of state, while the masses were the crew and had a duty to obey their betters. He also believed that some people were natural-born slaves, which obviously does not accord with Bloom's philosophy. Among the ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle most consistently defended a republican form of government with a large middle class as the best type of society, and this particular vision actually comes closer to that of Bloom and the America Founders of the 18th Century -- far more so than Plato's authoritarian republic. Aristotle agreed with Plato that democracy was mob rule, however, and also defended slavery and the caste system.

Like most of the ancient Greeks, Plato and Aristotle assumed that their culture and civilization were the greatest in the world and that outsiders were barbarians to be fought or assimilated. This was also the ideology of the Roman imperial elites as well. Although the origins of modern science can be traced back to ancient Greeks like Archimedes, Aristotle and other philosophers regarded actual experimentation and applied technology as suitable only for slaves, menials and mechanics, and in reality when science was reborn again in the 17th and 18th Centuries, it did so in a rebellion against the Scholasticism of Aristotle that had become the official ideology of the Catholic Church. Of all ancient Greek exemplars who were not xenophobic, Bloom would have done better to select Alexander the Greek, who did conceive of a multicultural Hellenistic empire that would be a mixture of many religions, cultures and ethnic groups, even though that was most emphatically not the vision of Plato and Aristotle, or of must Athenians, Spartans and Macedonians of that era.

On the other hand, Bloom was correct that many North American undergraduates did arrive fresh out of high school woefully unprepared in history, philosophy, science and knowledge of foreign countries. His version of education was hardly a great corrective for that ignorance of basic facts, though. In addition, he deliberately exaggerated their attachment to pluralism, multiculturalism and tolerance, as if those were the dominant intellectual trends in the U.S. high schools of the period -- or of the United States as a whole, for that matter. Ronald Reagan had just served two terms as president in 1981-89, elected overwhelmingly, and he never made any secret of his classical liberal, free market ideology, or of his nationalism and firm belief that America was an exceptional country and…

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