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Support Relativism! Support John Howard!

Pope Benedict despises 'relativism' - the idea that truth is just a matter of opinion. The Catholic idea of the 'common good' is a problem for free market - which recognises no common good, just the sum of individual desires and their fulfilment through consumption.

by Neil Ormerod

Recent statements from the then Cardinal Ratzinger, now elected Pope Benedict XVI, on the tyranny of relativism have produced a fairly predictable response from those who view the world in terms of the conservative vs. liberal divide. It is the conservatives who oppose relativism, because they want to impose their version of "truth" and "value" upon the rest of us. So liberals reject this imposition through an attempt to relativise these truth claims so as to loose themselves from conservatives' power. However there are good reasons why those of a more liberal inclination may want to back away from such a relativistic position, because it plays right into the hands of their political enemies. I would argue that a vote for relativism is nothing less than a vote for John Howard.

It is clear that politically John Howard has exploited a general sense of relativism in his dealing with the Australian electorate. Truth has been corrupted in our public discourse: core and non-core promises, children overboard, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Has the electorate been outraged by this manipulation of the truth? Apparently not, because they continue to re-elect him. He has been allowed to elide the truth, to claim ignorance, to hide behind half-truths, to focus on the minor point while ignoring the substantive one. And the electorate does not seem to care. There has been no public accountability because, well really, truth is relative and who can tell. Just notice how often John Howard dismisses some claim from an opposing stance with, "Of course they would say that" as if everything is simply one political perspective opposed to another. In the current political environment, "spin" is all!

Let's begin by distinguishing between two types of relativism, a relativism in relation to the truth (epistemological relativism), and a relativism in relation to the good (moral relativism). While many would claim to uphold an epistemological relativism, it is difficult to maintain without being self-contradictory. As Aristotle noted the best way to deal with sceptics is to get them talking. Any argument designed to support this type of relativism will be filled with implicit, and at times even explicit, truth claims. But if truth is relative why should we accept such claims. More to the point, have you ever met an epistemological relativist who appreciates being lied to? If truth has no absolute significance then how can we tell if someone is lying? And why does it matter? After all, to identify something as a lie is itself another truth claim (it is true that this person lied to me). This type of relativism lies at the heart of all political spin.

The problem of moral relativism is a bit more complex and even more widespread. Let's begin with a deceptively simple question: is something good because I desire it (call this Position A), or do I desire it because it is good (Position B)? For example, is having a child good because I desire it, or do I desire having child because having a child is inherently a good thing to do? This might seem like one of those silly questions philosophers ask, but the answer has enormous implications.

Let's examine Position A. Things are good because I desire them. But your desires are different from mine, indeed our desires are polymorphous and incommensurable, so goodness is relative. There is just "good-for-you" and "good for me". The only measure of the goodness is the intensity of my desire - I really want something so it is very good. I really want a child, so using IVF is okay. Indeed we cannot even accept limits on our access to IVF to achieve conception. The good becomes individualized and privatized. My desires are different from everyone else's and I cannot directly share my feelings. Consequently there is no "common good" as such, just the sum of all our individual goods. You have no right to impose your conception of the good onto me, or me onto you.

However, such a position in its "pure" form is impossible to maintain. "Everyone" recognizes some desires as aberrant, for example the desires of the paedophile. So we place some limits on saying things are good because I desire them. "As long as no one gets hurt, at least against their will". So all things are permitted among consenting adults. Otherwise the only recognizably social virtue is tolerance. I tolerate your conception of the good, your set of personal preferences, and you tolerate mine. But in fact it becomes difficult to maintain the position against "aberrant" desires. Who says they are aberrant? By what authority? But my desires are so strong, surely it is a good thing that I want? And so we say no to paedophiles but yes to unlimited IVF treatments. Desires become "rights" and who can question rights?

Of course our desires seem spontaneous and unquestionable. Grounding the good in desire seems to assert the moral autonomy of the individual. But we only need to consider the work of advertising to know how manipulable our desires are. Zoom, zoom, zoom, I want a Mazda! And how fickle our desires are. Today I love you passionately, but tomorrow is another question. The child I wanted so desperately today might turn into a real handful tomorrow. What happens if I no longer want him or her? Is a child just another consumable good, disposable and irrelevant once my desires change?

Position A is in fact the moral position of our free market economy. Desire is polymorphic and incommensurable between individuals. The market meets the needs of these desires and freely manipulates them as it chooses. The market recognises no common good, just the sum of individual desires and their fulfilment through consumption. This is the logic of the recent budget. Public institutions and facilities, expressions of the common good, are starved of resources, while billions of dollars are put back into the hands of individuals. They are then free to choose how to fulfil their desires for health and education, but from their own pockets. The free market is the perfect correlation to the polymorphism of human desire. Everything is available for a price.

While supporting the ideology of the free market, even John Howard is frightened of the moral black hole that it opens up in society. To resist its gravitational pull he promotes "traditional values". But nothing can resist the inexorable eroding power of the free market. In fact the radical marketisation of our society is tearing families apart, uprooting communities and undermining our social cohesion. Witness our increasing need for scapegoats: refugees, dole bludgers, single mums and on and on... Traditional values will be sucked in and destroyed like everything else.

What about Position B? On this position, I desire things because they are good. My desires do not create goodness, but respond to it. Therefore that goodness is independent of my desires. In fact it may happen that I don't desire something that is in fact good. Young children don't desire to eat their veggies. They don't desire the discipline of learning a musical instrument, or geometry. But these things may still be good. In fact growth in the moral life can be measured by one's ability to respond to or desire the good in an appropriate fashion. I must learn to conform my desires to the structure of the good, a good which is independent of my spontaneous desires, but which in time I can learn to appreciate. Now there can be a truly common good, one which transcends individuals, one which is public and not private.

While it may be difficult to identify what some of these goods are, there is one which does stand out, the value of the truth. Truth is a truly common good. It transcends individuals and demands public assent, not just private preference. In some situations it can demand an absolute allegiance, a total commitment of my part, while its diminution affects us all for the worse. And so we come full circle back to the problem of epistemological relativism. And John Howard.

Some would oppose his claims to stand for traditional values by appealing to a moral relativism. They fail to recognize the bifurcation within Howard's stance. Without that appeal he faces a moral black hole and moral relativism is it natural outcome. Moral relativism is not the solution, it is the problem. And epistemological relativism is its bastard child. The only defence is the espousal of a substantive notion of the good, a good to which all aspire, but which is not the product of those aspiration; a good which is common even if not commonly appreciated; a good which finds expression in public institutions and facilities properly supported by public funds. Elements of such a substantive notion of the good can be found in Catholic social teaching, however more needs to be done to refine and communicate such a conception. And so I stand with Benedict XVI against the tyranny of relativism and those who would shape the social world in its image.

Neil Ormerod is head of systematic theology at the Australian Catholic University, Strathfield.

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