A colleague of mine worries about the cacophony of voices in the modern world. Instead of complaining that we have no answers, he complains that we have too many – there are too many religions, too many philosophies, too many sacred texts. We are in a new and unprecedented intellectual condition, he tells me -- a Pluralism.
Understand that he is not a relativist; it would be impossible to rate too highly the persistence with which my friend seeks absolute values in this Babel. My disagreement begins with his description of the Babel as new. After all, the Tower of Babel is a very ancient tale, and just as many voices, sects, and doctrines quarreled in premodern times as today. Nor were the thinkers of those times deaf to all the racket. Augustine contended with Gnostics, Platonists, Jews, Stoics, and Epicureans, among others. Maimonides wrote a Guide for the Perplexed. Thomas Aquinas cast his Summa Theologiae in the form of disputed questions. What I am suggesting is that Babel is not a modern revolution, but the enduring condition of the fallen human race.
Even so there is something new in the manner in which my friend and other moderns respond to Babel. It is not surprising that some thinkers deny absolute values; in one form or another, relativists, sophists, and skeptics have been with us from the beginning. Nor is it strange that others affirm them; in most eras the relativists, sophists, and skeptics have been in the minority. The novelty lies the way in which moderns affirm absolutes, when they do affirm absolutes.
Let me contrast their way, which my friend and many scholars call Pluralist, with the older way, which I will call Classical.All those who practice the Classical way of affirming absolute values have two things in common. If you will pardon the coinages, they are all apologetical, and they are all noetic.
By calling them apologetical, after the Greek word for a speech in defense, I mean that each stakes a claim and defends it. Each makes some one voice in the Babel his own, then takes on his competitors by arguing the issues on their merits. The Epicurean tells you why he thinks pleasure the sovereign good; the Christian tells you why he thinks Jesus the risen son of God; the Gnostic tells you why he thinks evil coeval with good.
And by calling them noetic, after the Greek word for knowledge or understanding, I mean that their arguments appeal to shared knowledge rather than shared ignorance. Aristotle begins every ethical discussion with what almost all men in almost all times and places have believed. St. Paul, who quotes poets to pagans, says that God has not left Himself without a witness even among the nations; He has written His law on the heart. Thomas Aquinas holds that there are certain moral principles we can't not know -- principles that do not have to be proven because they are what everything is proven from. C.S. Lewis dares his readers to "Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud for double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five." Even Wittgenstein nods in the noetic direction when he calls philosophy an "assembling of reminders" rather than a discovering of things that have never been noticed before.
Notice that because a Classical affirmer is noetic, he does not take the Babel around him quite at face value. He will say that if I seem completely ignorant of a basic moral precept, the reason is less likely to be that I really don’t know it, than that I don’t want to know it and am holding my guilty knowledge down. Moreover, the Classical affirmer will regard an age like our own, in which even the most basic moral precepts are widely and increasingly denied, as exceptional even for this broken world. Before too long, any culture in deep moral denial must either come to its senses or collapse, for the consequences of denying first principles are cumulative and inescapable.
By contrast with the Classical way of affirming absolute values, the Pluralist way is anoetic and anapologetical. Pluralists are anoetic because they do take the Babel around them at face value. Their arguments appeal to shared ignorance rather than shared knowledge. So far as we know, they say, every religion and every philosophy is equally in the dark and equally in the light. Although Pluralists may well agree that our age is exceptional rather than typical, they see this not as an omen of corruption but as a portent of an impending forward leap -- a sign that our old philosophies have exhausted themselves and we need to try something new.
As to this something new – that is where being anapologetical comes in. The Pluralist denies the need to make one voice in the Babel his own; he refuses to stake out a position, then argue its claims on their merits. By adopting a posture of neutrality among competing goals and aspirations, of equal concern and respect for them all (that becomes one of his absolutes), he tries to escape the futility of interminable apologetics and carve out a new moral sphere in which people of every point of view can get along: Sodomists with Socialists, pickpockets with Platonists, hedonists with Hasidim.
Notice how this works.The Pluralist does not object to Christianity, say, as a mistaken point of view; disputing its claims would be too crude. Rather he objects to it as a point of view -- just one more of the pullulating things, down there among the Platonists and pickpockets. Pluralism floats chastely above them, out-topping knowledge by the sheer force of nescience. "Others abide thy question; I am free."
But in fact Pluralism does not float above them. It only seems to. Is there a way to have equal concern and respect for the views of both the rapist and the woman he wants to rape? Of course not. Either he gets his way, or she gets hers.
Admitting this, my friend tries to defend the ideal of equal respect as merely a starting rather than an ending point. For example he says that the rapist may be thwarted because he has already broken the symmetry: She respects his plans, but he does not respect hers. But this isn’t true. It is a part of her plan that men in the neighborhood comply with her ideas of proper male behavior no less than it is a part of his plan that women in it comply with his ideas of proper female behavior. The true reason we call his plan wicked and not hers is that we already know that rape is wrong; in other words we know that her aspiration for men and women to act like gentlefolk is good, whereas his aspiration for them to act like animals is bad. Neutrality is not our starting any more than our ending-point. The Pluralist only lets in by the back door what he has thrown out the front.
Fooling ourselves about our starting points might not be so bad if we always wound up where we ought to be, but that is not what happens in Pluralism either. My colleague thinks reasonable people of all persuasions will agree that since we do not know whether the fetus is a human being, we should let each woman decide for herself whether to have an abortion or not.
There is the argument from ignorance again. But even if it were true that we do not know what babies are -- a point I do not concede -- why should we say that because the baby might not be human we may kill him? Why not say that because he might be, we should protect him? We do not say that because I might not hit anyone, I may swing my hatchet blindly in a crowded room; we say that because I might hit someone, I shouldn't. Besides, it is a little thin to claim certainty that humans have surpassing value, yet ignorance about whether our own young are human -- to flaunt our wisdom about thewhat of being human, yet deny having any about the who.
What we see then is that decision is never neutral, and Pluralism functions merely as a license to be arbitrary. While claiming to reconcile competing views without deciding which is true, it covertly supposes the truth of one of them but spares itself the trouble of demonstration.
If I may be allowed to conclude with an understatement, the Classical way of affirming absolute values has more going for it than the Pluralists concede. Certainly it has more integrity. Maybe we should not take the surrounding Babel at face value; maybe we should go back to apologetics. If we are serious, we might even consider believing something.