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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Behold the Straw Man

I caught the end of In Our Time on Radio 4 this morning - it was about relativism, and would probably be worth listening to for the most part. Apparently Melvyn Bragg began with a reference to Benedict's 'dictatorship of relativism' line, as one of the panellists referred to it at the end while they discussed whether the adoption of relativism meant that morality was impossible. This particular chap stated that the Pope thought that relativism was inimical to morality, 'and because he is a priest, he thinks that morality means sexual morality.' Oh dear. Then he went on to say that the Pope thought morality was threatened by relativism because people thinking relativistically think there is no difference between right and wrong; which the chap denied, on the basis that many people disagree with Catholic teaching not because they ignore the categories of right and wrong, but because they disagree on where the boundaries are.

In short, then, he thinks that Benedict is stupid. One can hardly fail to notice that people generally think in terms of right and wrong, and claim to have structures of morality which just happen to differ from the Church's. The problem is that, if one tries to investigate the basis of popular modern assumptions about morality, there turns out to be no good or defensible reason for the places where the boundaries are drawn. While people claim to know what is right or what is wrong, and indeed often act as if they did (because they do have consciences), they nonetheless claim to think that their morality is entirely socially-conditioned; so if they were to take their own claims seriously, they would in fact deny an objective difference between good and bad. Or their views turn out, when thought through, to have inconsistencies which undermine any distinctions made - most notably, at present, with regard to who is entitled to human rights. And yes, such things are currently very obvious in areas of sexual morality, but just because that is an active part of the battle-line does not mean that anyone regards it as the whole of the battle's front. Benedict's philosophical preoccupations are not with sex, but with the need for truth to be discovered as the criterion for human happiness and goodness.

All right, yes, yes, you all know that; but the ignorant few sentences of the chap on the radio were rather riling. A good rule of disputation: do not assume that your collocutor [is that a word? and am I using it remotely correctly?] is stupid. Assumption of ignorance may be permissable, but assumption of stupidity is generally counter-productive.