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Friday, September 17, 2010

Loving Intolerance

Okay, I suppose I should start off by saying this post is not related to anything specific that I have read of late.  It's also going to seem kind of secular for the most part, but please bear with me...and Shane, hold your "concern" until the end, please!  This semester, I am taking a class on Ethics, and this past week we have been studying the theory of Ethical Relativism.  In a nutshell, this theory states that, because people from all around the world have different moral principles that are relative to their own culture, there are no universal laws or ethics that define our actions.  Just think about that for a minute, and you might be able to see what I'm getting at:  this is messy business.

The theory was coined by anthropologist Ruth Benedict around the turn of the 20th century, though the central idea has been in circulation since Plato's time.  Benedict's key point is in the story of Herodotus and the King of Persia (though honestly, I can't remember what the King had to do with this).  In the story, Herodotus visits two different tribes and learns their customs. Eventually, he sees that while one tribe burns their dead, the other eats it.  In order to find out which tribe was acting morally, he decided to do a little test. He had the leader of the tribe that burns their dead ask the other leader to allow him to honor their dead by piling them onto a great pyre. Obviously, this greatly offended the other leader.  At the same time, the leader that liked to eat his dead asked a similar question to the other leader; and of course, he was equally offended.  Herodotus found that it was impossible to determine which was right and which was wrong; therefore, he concluded that both tribes were acting morally according to their own customs (as morals are simply a description of what one "ought" to do at any certain time).  Fast forward several thousand years, and Benedict went around the world and discovered many similar situations between cultures, and came to the same conclusion.  And her biggest drawing point was that, by believing in this theory, the world may come to develop tolerance, with every moral principle in the world being equally valid across all cultures.

There are quite a few problems with this:

  • It's true that the two tribes that Herodotus visited had very different customs when it came to honoring their dead.  But that's just the thing:  they were both honoring their dead.  The way they went about it was different, but the basic moral principle is actually the same!
  • Benedict made this conclusion years before the Holocaust -- something 99.9% of the world would agree was an evil act carried out by an evil man.  There is no way anyone would be willing to accept that Hitler's Nazism could be at all "equally valid" as a moral principle - nor should they!
  • The theory states that one's own morals are simply whatever they find to be acceptable.  Add in the fact that all of humanity is sinful, let alone inconstant, and suddenly it doesn't sound quite as appealing.
  • The ethical relativist would be completely worthless in any kind of ethical/philosophical/theological debate.  In the end, they would have to accept that your view is just as "true" as theirs. 
You see what I mean?  In fact, it turns out that most, if not all, philosophers of today reject this theory, as it is self-defeating, trivial, and quite simply impossible.  Even so, Benedict's promises of tolerance and equality continue to draw people in.  Just take a drive somewhere and count how many "coexist" bumper stickers you see! My ethics professor summed the lesson up in this example:

Imagine two people are involved in a car accident.  Odds are, each one is going to remember the events of the accident quite differently from the other; but that doesn't make each person equally right.  No matter what either of them say, nothing will change what actually happened.  No matter what they believe, there is still one solid truth.  Let's think of it in another way...

Say one person believes that there is a God, and another person believes there is no God.  Do their beliefs affect reality? absolutely not! In the end, there either is a God, or there isn't.  How, then, can we, believing in what we believe, somehow accept that someone else with an opposite view is just as right? How can we believe that Truth is relative?

I realize that in rejecting Ethical Relativism I'm beginning to sound incredibly intolerant.  And, really, I suppose I am.  How, when I believe in ONE Way, ONE Truth, ONE Life, somehow tolerate it when another person rejects my Savior?  Now don't worry, I'm not about to run outside with a picket sign telling the unbelievers that they're going straight to Hell.  This is still a very delicate matter.  Instead, I have a proposal:  let us reject Ethical Relativism, and in doing so let us adopt a kind of loving intolerance that extends out from our love and adoration for God, and spread His One Universal Truth to the world.

-Nick Natoli, Building Bookcases Writer

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