Saturday, April 25, 2009

Gairdner on natural and moral absolutes

The London Free Press
By Rory Leishman
For the past 40 years, most intellectuals have embraced moral relativism -- the calamitous notion that the difference between right and wrong is merely a matter of arbitrary personal tastes and historical circumstances.
William Gairdner, the best-selling author of The War on the Family and The Trouble with Canada, has addressed this issue in his latest dissertation The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of Universals. In this extraordinarily wide-ranging and informative book, he presents a compelling argument for the truth that there are universal moral truths grounded in natural law that apply to all peoples, at all times, and in all cultures.
The contrary proposition -- that all moral values are relative -- is an ancient fallacy that was utterly discredited by Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Yet it keeps recurring. Gairdner traces the reemergence of moral relativism in modern form to Franz Boas, a cultural anthropologist at Columbia University.
During the 1920s, Boas was horrified by the rise of Nazi antisemitism and the eugenics movement which was backed by intellectuals like Margaret Sanger, the "Godmother" of Planned Parenthood, who advocated birth control for "racial regeneration" as well as feminist freedom. To combat these racist ideologies, Boas propounded the theory that the key determinants of human behaviour and social diversity are cultural factors, not race or biology.
Correspondingly, Boas also insisted that no culture or civilization is any better than any other. Inspired by his teaching, Margaret Meade, Ruth Benedict and a host of other prominent cultural anthropologists set out to prove, as Gairdner observes, that "all cultures are equally good and already fully civilized; that none are morally better or worse than others."
Meade gained international renown in the 1930s with her best-selling book, Coming of Age in Samoa, in which she depicted an idyllic Polynesian community where young men and women enjoyed casual sex before marriage. The accuracy of this portrait is now a matter of hot academic debate.
Gairdner underlines a more fundamental objection: Meade might not have been so tolerant of the prevailing moral code and cultural diversity in Samoa if she had observed that society before Christian missionaries and colonial rulers had persuaded the Samoans to renounce the evils of slavery, human sacrifice and cannibalism.
In addition to cultural relativism, Gairdner describes existentialism, structuralism, post structuralism, deconstuctionism, post modernism, post-post modernism and legal positivism. Running through all these trendy intellectual fads is the perverse notion that there are no knowable and universal principles of morality.
This is a novel doctrine within Western Civilization. Prior to the 1960s, it used to be generally understood in the English-speaking countries that there is a natural law knowable by reason that is the moral basis for valid laws. Thus, Sir William Blackstone explained in his classic Commentaries on the Laws of England that "no human laws are of any validity if contrary" to the natural moral law.
Today, most lawyers and jurists subscribe to the theory of legal positivism -- the doctrine that the law is whatever the sovereign authority in a state says it is. By this reasoning, the Nuremberg jurists had no moral basis for condemning the Nazis who murdered millions of innocent people in conformity with the so-called laws of Nazi Germany.
That's preposterous. And so is the entire theory of moral relativism. Notwithstanding the pretensions of Boas and his followers, no society or culture has survived -- or could survive -- without moral constraints governing such matters as incest, adultery, lying, cheating, stealing and murder.
Typically, the transgressive proponents of moral relativism are inconsistent: While subscribing to moral relativism in theory, they would be quick to denounce in practice the immorality of a fraud artist who victimized them.
Such is the absurdity, but also the appeal, of moral relativism. As Gairdner explains, for all too many of us, moral relativism "is a very handy concept to keep in our knapsack because it helps us to dismiss all sorts of rules and absolutes for ourselves, without altogether denying the need to apply them to others."

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