“Die(se) Differenzierung zwischen einem modernen und einem traditionalen Weltverständnis ist nur möglich, wenn konkurrierende Weltauslegungen nicht überhaupt inkomensurabel sind, wenn wir (..) die Übersetzungen von einem Kontext in in den anderen überhaupt zulassen. Genau das bestreitet der starke Kontextualismus. Ihm zufolge gibt es keine ‘Rationalität’ in der Einzahl. Nach dieser Auffassung wohnen verschiedene Kulturen, Weltbildern, Traditionen oder Lebensformen je besondere ‘Rationalitäten’ inne. Jede von ihnen soll mit dem Kontext eines besonderen Weltverständnisses intern verschränkt sein.” J. Habermas, Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik, suhrkamp taschenbuch (1991), p. 208.
[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 16-08-2008. It is probably somewhat unfortunate that this happens to be a Habermas quote. I would have preferred something lighter but have no time to make a new one and want to stick to my chronological strategy as far as re-posting from The Old Site is concerned. Let’s see.]
[Amateuristic translation: “This distinction between a modern and a traditional world view is only then possible, when competing interpretations of the world are not simply incompatible, (..) when we admit translations from one context into another at all. That’s precisely what strong contextualism denies. Following strong contextualism there can be no ‘rationality’ in singular. According to this view different ‘rationalitues’ are inherent in different cultures, conceptions of the world, traditions or life forms. Each of these would be inherently locked up in the context of their specific world views.”]
[Re-posting note: In fact, the theme of not being content either with views of The Truth and views of unavoidability of multiple truths is a crucial one. Both views are radical and therefore reprehensible. Both views have a root cause in the wrong understanding of language which is where Habermas is basically correct. That said, the below will probably be even more painful to read than Habermas’ own writing.]
There are those who believe having a ‘strong’ moral view lies in strongly holding a great many moral positions to be absolutely true. But nothing can be farther from the truth; the more moral absolutes sneak into one’s position the less one is open to a discussion with others – and the ultimate moral view is that one should be open to this discussion with others.
Better and more concise: any moral view is about openness.
Open to other persons’ points of view but also open to what might be morally the case in the future based on facts we don’t know yet or on forms of living not discovered yet.
The problem that people clinging on to a great many moral absolutes (for safety, mostly) see in this can be summed up in the typical accusation of ‘Moral Relativist!’. Discussing further with them, and introducing the concept of openness in cultural affairs they will switch – in a quantum leap of faith type of way – to: ‘You’re so hopelessly naïve!”. The former accusation can serve to diagnose this type of view as what is called by Rawls a ‘comprehensive doctrine’. It will be shouted regardless of the adversary, and her over-all position and arguments, merely by virtue of someone being seen as an adversary of one of the many moral absolutes held. When someone accuses you of moral relativism despite the fact you have given examples of situations that can only be seen in one universal light, she/he is on his/her way to radicalize her/his comprehensive doctrine into a stagnant pool of being right regardless of argument. Discussion in the majority of cases will cease there. Trying to push the argument further will result in verbal or physical violence.
The mildest form of that violence will be that the insult of naïveté will be thrown in the arena. After all, if discussion has to go on in an open-minded way, “what defense is there against totalitarianism, fundamentalism or use of arbitrary violence?” Here is a fundamental error: it is not because the potential for discussion is seen as the highest value that in all cases discussion is the only possible reaction to immoral views and actions. This is obvious: if the other refuses to discuss (either literally or de facto by reverting to rhetorical devices) there is no discussion and hence the answer can’t be to discuss further.
Whether the answer in these cases is violence (or is mostly violence or is – by default – violence) is another matter altogether. But one thing is clear: it can be violence if violence is the only way to restore value, i.e. open a discussion on what is the best path forward here and now; weighing the merits of this case rather than applying what is held to be absolutely true.
In a war metaphor: any first pre-emptive strike is illegal but retaliation a no-brainer. It’s a main characteristic of moral absolutists to buy into the right of first strike when facing the assumed moral adversary. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that fulfills itself equally well for those vehemently opposing, in an enlightened way, the notion of prophecy.
So yes, there is a moral absolute. Better: there is a moral universal: rational [and empathic] discussion. We shouldn’t be tricked by the fact its discovery is relatively recent and hence that it’s not yet very widespread or well understood by many who would believe it’s naïve to restrict moral truth to discussion as the highest value.
In fact, the opposite can only lead to moral relativism because it will presuppose that sometimes the value of debate is trumped by geographically and/or historically coincidental rationalities.
[This element of the origins of and the attack on contextualism is missing from this thing. I was at the time focused still on the woes of religion and other absolute interpretations of the world. Since then I have become more interested in a relativist (maybe naturalist) interpretation of the world which is, I believe the more common position held by what is self-denominated as The New Enlightened Right. Anyway, the connection between the two absolute reactions is there. It is well described in the quote and even at least hinted at in this little essay.]
The convergence between linguistic philosophy (Davidson et al.) and moral/political philosophy (Rawls, Habermas, et al.) is where we can discover new creative ground. As is clear from the recent future, rational discussion may seem to many as the naïve reaction but it has shown a remarkable force in overcoming coincidental roadblocks and in locking in step by step the common sense of not behaving like adrenalin-addicted cavemen. The reason is simple: to live as a human is to talk with other humans and to talk with other humans is only possible in triangulating what they intend.
[Original ending of this essay, identifying it as what it is, an essay:] (to be improved, a lot)
Whilst writing this I was listening to Beethoven, Piano Sonatas (complete), Friedrich Gulda, Brilliant Classics – “Pastoral” & “Sturm”.