Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Relatively speaking

Nicholas Blincoe writes about attacks on moral relativism. He argues:

Our fear and dislike of relativism is surprising when one considers science and economics. Modern physics is all about forces and vectors, which can only be expressed in terms of relative measurements (whether "miles per hour" or E=MC squared).
…demographics, of course, is a maths question: it is the science of comparing population levels relative to one another. Far from placing demographics beyond debate, it is only relativism that puts it up for debate in the first place.

And he asks:

Why are we happy to contemplate a logic of relations in every field aside from ethics?

I can’t think of an occasion when I’ve seen such a spectacular misrepresentation of a word. It’s hard to know whether this is a joke. I’ll assume that it isn’t.

Relativism is not to do with whether things are related or comparable to one another. Yes, a population of 1 million is smaller than a population of 2 million, so the former is small ‘relative’ to the latter. But the numbers involved, and the nature of the comparison, are absolute and not dependent on context or attitude. The standards by which both populations are measured are the same.

A relativistic approach judges different groups by different standards. Imagine someone who suggested that a population of 1 million Jews was a larger group than a population of 2 million Arabs, as Arabic culture treats life cheaply.

It would be laughable, were it not so atrocious.

Imagine someone – a white, Western liberal, say – who would have nothing but contempt for a white, Western man who advocated violence (lightly and occasionally) against white, Western women. Then imagine this individual straining to paint a reporebate such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in a good light:

Within the context of Arabic Islam, he has been remarkable in arguing in favour of female education and employment; he has even declared they can be judges and has called for more women to become Islamic jurists. But of the notorious verse in the Qur'an which allows for the "beating" of wives by their husband, Qaradawi says he accepts it as a method of last resort - though only "lightly".

That’s moral relativism. And it’s absolutely awful.