There is only one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the student’s reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2+2=4. These are things you don’t think about… That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of their response when challenged — a combination of disbelief and indignation: “Are you an absolutist?,” the only alternative they know, uttered in the same tone as… “Do you really believe in witches?” This latter leads into the indignation, for someone who believes in witches might well be a witch-hunter or a Salem judge. The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness — and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings — is the great insight of our times… The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.
Why should we expend our mental energy in convincing ourselves that we aren’t thinkers, that our thoughts aren’t really about anything, noumenal or phenomenal, that there is no sense in which any thought is right or wrong (including the thought that no thought is right or wrong) beyond being the verdict of the moment, and so on? This is a self-refuting enterprise if there ever was one! Let us recognize that one of our fundamental self-conceptualizations … is that we are thinkers, and that as thinkers we are committed to there being some kind of truth, some kind of correctness which is substantial…. That means that there is no eliminating the normative.
The possibility of being wrong is the price we pay for the possibility of being right. We are not speaking here of our degree of psychological certitude, but of the basic distinction between logical certainty and probability.
Moreover, a dialogical posture is one that listens as well as shares. Faith in God is open to truth wherever it is encountered; it takes both the questions raised and the answers given by unbelievers extremely seriously. To put all this another way, authentic Christian faith, as I understand it, has nothing to fear from interchange with those of differing points of view. One must have confidence that God’s truth will vindicate itself to those who seek it sincerely; it does not need to be defended. A faith based in fear is like a faith without works; it is not faith at all.
Like many people, I have always been instinctively a moral relativist. As far back as I can remember, it has always seemed to be obvious that the dictates of morality arise from some sort of convention or understanding among people, that different people arrive at different understandings, and that there are no basic moral demands that apply to
everyone. This seemed so obvious to me I assumed it was everyone’s instinctive view, or at least everyone who gave the matter any thought in this day and age.
Aside from the light it may shed on the abortion question, the issue of infantacide is both interesting and important in its own right. The theoretical interest has been mentioned: it forces one to face up to the question of what makes something a person. The practical imprtance need not be labored. Most people would prefer to raise children who do not suffer from gross deformities or from severe physical, emotional, or intellectual handicaps. If it could be shown that there is no moral objection to infanticide the happiness of society could be significantly and justifably increased. Infanticide is also of interest because of the strong emotions it arouses. The typical reaction to infanticide is like the reaction to incest or cannibalism, or the reaction of previous generations to masturbation or oral sex. The response, rather than appealing to carefully formulated moral principles, is primarily visceral. When philosophers themselves respond in this way, offering no arguments, and dismissing infanticide out of hand, it is reasonable to suspect that one is dealing with a taboo rather than with a rational prohibition.
One of the interesting ways in which the abortion issue differs from most other moral issues is that the plausible positions on abortion appear to be extreme positions. For if a human fetus is a person, one is inclined to say that, in general, one would be justified in killing it only to save the life of the mother. Such is the extreme conservative position. On the other hand, if the fetus is not a person, how can it be seriously wrong to destroy it? Why would one need to point to special circumstances to justify such action. The upshot is that there is no room for a moderate position on the issue of abortion…
The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity soley and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort. Now a clearly maintained distinction between what the Faith actually says and what you would like it to have said or what you understand or what you personally find helpful or think probable, forces your audience to realize that you are tied to your data just as the scientist is tied by the results of the experiments; that you are not just saying what you like. This immediately helps them realize that what is being discussed is a question about objective fact — not gas about ideals and points of view.
What were these presuppositions? The basic one was that there really are such things as absolutes. [The last generation] accepted the possibility of an absolute in the area of Being (or knowledge), and in the area of morals. Therefore, because they accepted the possibility of absolutes, though people might have disagreed as to what these were, nevertheless they could reason together on the classical basis of antithesis. They took it for granted that if anything was true, the opposite was false. In morality, if one thing was right, its opposite was wrong. This little formula, "A is A" and "if you have A, it is not non-A," is the first move in classical logic. If you understand the extent to which this no longer holds sway, you will understand our present situation.
Christianity is realistic because it says that if there is no truth, there is also no hope.
The philosopher’s task differs from the others’, then, in detail; but in no such drastic way as those suppose who imagine for the philosopher a vantage point outside the conceptual scheme that he takes in charge. There is no such cosmic exile. He cannot study and revise the fundamental conceptual scheme of science and common sense without having some conceptual scheme, whether the same or another no less in need of philosophical scrutiny, in which to work. He can scrutinize and improve the system from within, appealing to coherence and simplicity;but this is the theoretician’s method generally. He has recourse to semantic assent, but so has the scientist. And if the theoretical scientist in his remote way is bound to save the eventual connections with non-verbal stimulation, the philosopher in his remoter way is bound to save them too. True, no experiment may be expected to settle an ontological issue; but this is only because such issues are connected with surface irritations in such multifarious ways, through such a maze of intervening theory.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
The politician is trained in the art of inexactitude. His words tend to be blunt or rounded, because if they have a cutting edge they may later return to wound him.
His thinking is a prism. It must be seen not from side alone but from all sides, then from underneath and overhead. So seen, as one moves around it, the prism is full of changing lights and colours. To have seen it from one side only is not to have seen it. … There are no whole truths. All truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.
I can promise you none of these things. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God. “Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? Prove all things, to travel hopeful is better than to arrive.” If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for. “But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?” You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.
You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water, inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.
If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.
The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against, but (what was more important) the system he would not rebel against, the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a certain moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. … In short, the sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. … Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.
Logic is the mind’s systematic attempt to understand the nature and the conditions of the search after Truth. To the question, ‘What is Truth?’ we would answer by suggesting the following provisional definition: Truth is the Unity of ideas as systematically organized through the control exercised by relevant fact. Or: Truth is the Unity of Thought as systematically organized through the control exercised by that aspect of Reality which is relevant to the purpose of the thinker. With a view to bringing out the meaning of these definitions, we must state in the first place that we do not regard Truth as a datum, but as a problem. The truth we seek cannot be that from which we start, for were truth already attained at the outset, no sufficient reason could be assigned for proceeding any further with the quest. We might, of course, regard the Truth as given, and devote our energies to its systematic exposition and application. But, in that case, we should have radically to alter our definition of Logic. Logic would no longer deal with the Search after Truth, but would be busied solely with the question of its consistent presentation. Logic would just mean Consistency-Logic, and might be defined as the mind’s systematic attempt to understand the nature and the conditions of a correct presentation of the Truth. But, valuable as such a Consistency-Logic would be, its logical value would be, not in its relation to a system
of given truth, but in its analysis and development of the laws of consistent thinking.
No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this. For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question and this is here impossible.