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Big Politics, Little Evils and Geeky Levels of Philosophy

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The weekend approaches and I want to worry about whether I ate one of these when I was in Bavaria a few years ago (freshness counts) and if my favorite TV show is going to survive.  But the posts I wrote earlier this week about Hillary’s Presser and Hugh’s interview of Robert Putnam keep colliding in my mind.  These two things are colliding in my mind because of a column David Brooks wrote earlier this week, also reflecting on Robert Putnam’s latest.  (I have started the Putnam book, but unlike Hugh, or Brooks, I do not get pre-publication copies and it just came out this week.)

Hillary’s presser earlier this week was nothing, upon reflection, if not an exercise in relativism written large.  Her argument, if what she said can be so grandiosely labelled, was that the specifics of rules are not that important so long as she was trying to do the right thing.  The Brooks piece makes the very important point that the societal ills Putnam so rightly diagnoses can be laid directly at the feet, not so much of government policy, but of the relativism that has swept the land in recent decades.  This relativism has become so pervasive that Hillary’s presser seemed almost banal, but in the end that is the problem.

On the heels of reading Brooks, I ran across this piece from a philosophy professor in Colorado in a NYT forum on how relativism is taught and reinforced in our public schools.  Then I ran into this deeply philosophical piece by Samuel Gregg, the Research Director a the Action Institute. Gregg argues that absent the Judeo-Christian concept of God, Western civilization can only travel in three possible directions:

One is “God-As-Will,” but untethered to reason. This is a God who acts arbitrarily, one whom we must simply obey. Freedom is thus found in unquestioning submission, no matter how irrational the divine command. Another is “God-As-Love,” but without reasonableness. This is a being who, like an irresponsible parent, simply affirms his child’s choices, no matter how foolish or evil such decisions might be. A third possibility is “God-Beyond-Reason.” This produces a narrowed understanding of human reason itself: one that confines our rationality to the verifiable scientific method, and thereby declines to permit it to ponder the bigger questions opened by the intriguing possibility that Divine Reason exists.

And that all three directions result in a sort of moral relativism, based not on rationality, but “feelings.”  Nothing is so relative as feelings which can be based on everything from the bad sandwich I had at lunch to something special my wife did for me this morning – hardly a basis for making significant decisions.  And yet that is precisely Hillary’s argument, “I felt like I was doing the right thing, so why bother me with your rule based trivialities.”  And because this relativism is so pervasive that argument resonates with a significant portion of the voting public.

And so we see relativism affecting the very large (Putnam’s observations on declining social mobility) and the politically significant (Hillary’s argument for her innocence in the email scandal.)  But what fascinates me most of all  is that relativism is far more than something philosophers and pundits write about that affects stuff on the grandest of scales.  Rather it has “trickled up” to these levels from the most mundane of behaviors.  Nobody sat down and figured out a philosophical framework that would restructure American society or justify violation of federal regulation.

Relativism has caught on because of millions, even billions, of “little evils.”  Many will argue with my choice of the word “evil.”  I will return to that in a minute.  When you were a kid and you put that piece of penny candy in your pocket and did not pay for it, you said to yourself, “They have thousands of pieces of candy, they won’t miss it.”  That is an exercise in relativism – theft is not absolutely wrong, it is relatively wrong depending how much the person you are stealing from actually has.  When you copied from your neighbors test in school, you told yourself, “Who does it hurt?”  That is an exercise in relativism – cheating is not absolutely wrong, it is only wrong relative to who gets hurt and how much.  We could go on with examples like this for a very long time.  Relativism plays on the grand scale because it resonates with the thousands of little relative arguments we have used with ourselves all our lives.

Which brings be back to the word “evil.”  Does stealing penny candy really deserve the word “evil?”  After all, it is often argued, such a word just alienates the person it is aimed at and shames them into even less appropriate responses.  Indeed, in the transaction between the parent, the child, and the shop owner – the level where the child’s feelings have to be considered – the word “evil” may be a bit strong.  But if that transaction goes uncorrected, perhaps even punished, then relativism is given a foothold and real, serious evil grows as a result.  Thus when looking at the greater effects of a single action the term “little evils” becomes most appropriate.

There is also a difference between children and adults.  Indeed the child that stole the penny candy would be scared by the word “evil.”  After all, as a child they are really incapable of seeing beyond their immediate surroundings.  But as adults, we have a much broader perspective.  We would, I think, be well served by labeling our own transgressions as what they are, “little evils.”  In doing so we recognize that even the most mundane and inconsequential of inappropriate personal acts can have secondary effects that extend far beyond the immediate circumstance.

To some extent if we are, as we should be, appalled at Hillary’s dismissal of her own wrongdoing — if we are, as we should be, concerned about the opportunities afforded those less fortunate than ourselves — if we worry, as we should, about the state of international affairs (something Gregg makes passing note of), then we must, at least to some extent,  blame ourselves.  For it is the little evils of our everyday existence that give substance to the big evils that result from relativism on a large scale.

If we want to turn the country around, then we have to vote smart, but we also have to do much more.  We should start with our own little evils.


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