Someone offered the phrase that we see moral thought ‘through a glass darkly’ and this was certainly true of those of us listening to Prof. Billington talk on ‘Absolutism vs Relativism’ under the influence of Thwaites’ dark and silky Crafty Devil beer.

Although I agreed with his position favouring relativism over absolutism, I felt cheated by the quality of the argument. X vs Y presupposes equal weight will be given to both sides. But it wasn’t. In fact I couldn’t recognise any difference in the presentation of absolutism from authoritarianism, but there was plenty of favour for relativism through the denigration of absolutism, particular in reference to the examples cited which were all based on a fundamentalist view of religious thought.

As an atheistic agnostic I have no time for supporting such views, but it wasn’t right to characterise all absolutism with that single brush.

Moreover, I felt – as is often the case I am finding – that the binary presentation of things was in itself at fault. And here’s why.

It is my opinion that we – as civil society – intuitively need the absolute rule of law just to get by. This is why we are, on the whole, happy to consent to it. That doesn’t mean all laws are right all of the time, but they offer a framework that applies to all fairly (putting the financial aspects of the role of lawyers aside). We want to live in a world where there’s some order which prevents others from stealing from our homes or endangering our loved ones etc.

So I contest some absolutes are accepted, not entirely and not always in all circumstances, but mostly. Another example would be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You might feel they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. Perhaps, but with an ideal of what is shared as acceptable behaviour for individuals and states, then the building blocks of civil society is built on potentially immoral quick-sand. With the UDHR there’d probably be no Amnesty International and without Amnesty or Human Rights Watch more abusers might well get away with an awful lot more. Today’s moral ideals could shape tomorrow’s laws.

Of course, an absolute right might be the status quo the next one day, enshrined by law as with the suffragette moving or gay rights. These weren’t universally accepted as absolute rights and in some places still aren’t. But social and cultural advance sees the ideals of a few become the absolute rights of potentially all.

Having argued that some absolutes work well, I think ALL the rest is relative.

We can see this is many religious texts which have their commandments. These happen to coincide with many of the base ideals of what civil society should be based on – but don’t themselves mean all religous texts ought to form the abolutes themselves.

These absolutes are not absolute for all time, but they‘re also not entirely relative either. As Macke said ‘There are no objective values.’ I agree. A plurality of moral dilemmas and outcomes and circumstances (place, time, cultural heritage, education, moral intelligence and experience) all add up to one’s decision. Some of these decisions will be framed by ‘almost’ absolutes (let’s call them absolute-lite) such as the rule of law or the UDHR. But all others require that we consider the issue at hand ourselves based on our relative standing – the accumulation of our consciousness experiences.

Thinking along this line, I tried to trap Prof. Billington, asking in which camp would he place utilitarianism. Categorically he replied relativist. Regrettably we moved on to another question before I could counter whether he thought the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number was a good absolute.

Frankly, I don’t care because the answer IMO, if there is one, is that it is a bit of both – the plural.

I think it was wrong to give absolutism a reputation of purely being irrational authoritarianism, even if I believe that the vast majority of moral choices are relative. We ran out time before I could posit the thought experiment that if ‘one day we woke up and found all views on moral issues were good (not only of intent but outcome) but absolute – would he still favour relativism?’

On the face of it absolutism in its rawest form doesn’t make any sense. But absolutism-lite does. The two are different and the latter is not relativism.

‘Through a Glass Darkly’ happens also to be one of my favourite Ingmar Bergman movies. Now there’s a sentence you don’t see every day.

The next pub philosophy meet will be on November 15th (usual time 7.30pm at the Rose & Crown in Tintern). Tim Cross is offering an ‘All you can eat’ buffet of modern philosophical thought, focusing mostly on his special areas of interest (conceptual philosophy and linguistics).

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