Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings - It's All a Matter of Perspective, Isn't It?
by Tibor R. Machan

An amazing thing about higher education is how little one hears from the professors when it matters most. Take the famous idea, endorsed by many prominent teachers in innumerable Western universities, that what is right and wrong is all a matter of perspective.

The prominent—and arguably most famous—radical pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty (now a professor at Stanford University), plainly stated several years ago that no one can know right and wrong apart from how his or her own community sees it. There is no right and wrong apart from one’s group. As Rorty put it in his comment on the demise of the Soviet Union: “[We] cannot say that democratic institutions reflect a moral reality and that tyrannical regimes do not reflect one, that tyrannies get something wrong that democratic societies get right."

If you change the particulars, Rorty would likewise have to claim that we cannot say it is wrong for terrorists to murder children in London or Madrid or New York City. No, all we can say is that we stand with our group, while they stand with theirs.

Of course, this kind of thinking is ancient, but in most periods of human history the major thinkers rejected it. To list just a few of the greatest minds in the Western philosophical tradition, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Spinoza all held that, while it is difficult, human beings can learn of some basic truths. At the very least they held out hope that this could be done, especially in the realms of ethics and politics. The American Founders shared a similar perspective, which is why they declared themselves in support of the inalienable individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But today, probably more so than ever before, the dominant idea in most universities is that no basic truths about ethics and politics can be identified. Multiculturalists teach this. Moreover, the books written by the likes of Richard Rorty are published by the most prestigious printers in the world, such as the Cambridge University Press. Yet, when bombs kill dozens (and sometimes, many more) in New York, Washington, London, Madrid, and Cairo, one doesn’t see Richard Rorty and his followers parade their seriously crafted views before the general public. No matter how hard one looks to see if they have published such missives, one will find they have written nothing to the effect that terrorists “get something wrong that democratic societies get right.”

Surely, at this point, one can wonder whether Rorty & Co. really mean what they claim to believe in their more esoteric publications. Or perhaps they are merely teasing their students with outrageous ideas—and when they leave their study, they take a page from David Hume and no longer take their own ruminations seriously.

But this is a luxury we cannot afford—to make reckless pronunciations about truth, justice, knowledge or virtue in our professional capacity, and reject them when we step out of our offices into the real world. Because our students often do listen to what we say and make it part of their lives, these statements can turn out to be deadly for them, and indeed, for all of us.

The practical implication of the view that Richard Rorty (and other relativists) expound is that the positions of the terrorists and of the victims of terrorism are basically indistinguishable as to their merit or worth. In the grand scheme of things, as best as we can tell, the two are on the same footing—or, to put it another way, neither has any better footing.

Maybe Rorty & Co. would reply, "But this doesn’t mean the victims must accept their victimization, or that they must not resist." However, such declamations are unconvincing because the thrust of the original relativist idea is exactly that—namely, that terrorists do not have positions that are, in the end, worse than those of their victims. Such a view is debilitating in practice, and can utterly confuse people about where one ought to stand on terrorism. It is, indeed, just the view terrorists would most likely want us to embrace, so that we become philosophically and ethically impotent as we try to come to grips with their vicious conduct.

I think Rorty & Co. know this. This is why we do not hear from them in these times. They ought to remain silent in less troubling times as well.
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