There IS an Elephant

One of my pet peeves about what passes for "liberalism" these days is moral relativism. Don't get me wrong, I am a post-modernist through and through. I do believe that things must be judged in the context in which they are created and that people with different experiences can interpret the same thing differently and both be right.

But it does not follow from that that anything goes. Even if morality is contextual, there are still some things that are always wrong. For example, I can think of no context whatsoever where torturing a baby for the fun of it would be considered ok.

I understand to some extent the motivation for eschewing judgment. So many times in the past, moral judgment has motivated great harm. If we say something as stupid as "Christians good, Jews bad" then yes, it is the judgment itself that is the problem. But it doesn't follow that all judgment is to be avoided. The laissez-faire kind of "liberalism" is morally lazy imo. If we can't respond to the immorality of something like the holocaust, then what good are we? When someone else is killing people, "live and let live" is not an appropriate response. And really, that kind of liberalism is an option reserved only for the privileged, only for those who do not suffer.

Another common argument that I've heard is that there is no such thing as right and wrong, that it's all a human construct. Ironically, many of these folks point to eastern traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism to bolster their arguments. But it's based on a false understanding of these traditions, imo.

For example, some people point to the balance between Yin and Yang in Taoism - between light and dark, male and female, heaven and earth - and extrapolate from this that Taoism advocates for a balance between good and evil. But comparing good and evil to things like light and dark immediately begs the question, which is which? Is darkness evil? No. In Taoism, "evil" is not darkness, or Yin. Instead, evil arises from the imbalance between Yang and Yin. Taoism, like all the other great religions, seeks the balance - the good.

I've also heard people use the parable of the blind men and the elephant as an argument for relativism. They argue that the parable teaches us that there is no objective Truth, and therefore we can't judge. This is a distortion of one of my favorite parables. Indeed, the story says we can never know Truth/God's will with certainty. By perceiving Truth subjectively we distort it, but subjectively is the only way in which we can perceive it. Therefore the story cautions us to be circumspect in our judgments, but does not negate their validity.

What some people forget in this story is that there IS an elephant. Our limited sense may allow us to only experience a small part of it, but the elephant (Truth/God's will) still exists. The corollary to that is ALL of the interpretations of the elephant are valid. They are REAL experiences of the Divine. The mistake is to then try to impose one's own experience and subsequent interpretations on others as the only valid viewpoints.

There IS an elephant. We ARE capable of perceiving it, albeit in our limited ways. And we ARE capable of perceiving what is right and what is wrong, albeit in our limited ways. It would be far easier to give up due to the difficulty in navigating this terrain. But as moral agents who carry the divine spark in each of us, we have the capacity and obligation to respond to injustice.

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative