I want to thank the Members of the Cum Laude Society for the honor of being invited to speak on this occasion.
I congratulate the newest members of the Cum Laude Society for their achievement of academic excellence. In honor of that achievement, I aim to achieve two things today: One is to help banish a certain rhetorical question from serious conversations at [our school]. The academic life is built on asking and trying to answer questions, but this question is deadly to the pursuit of truth. It is the question “Who is to say?”
My second aim is to help restore an unfashionable concept to respectability, a concept without which the meaning of the Cum Laude society and of education itself would cease to exist. That concept is absolute values.
These two aims are related because we are all apt to react to the word “absolute” with the question “who is to say?” Bred for individual liberty, we Americans fear that absolutes lead to oppression and tyranny, and we sense danger. Overreacting, we retreat for safety into what Pope Benedict has called “the dictatorship of relativism.” “Who is to say?” really means “since everything is relative, no one has a right to judge me.” Whew! Safe. So we are tempted to think, or rather to feel without thinking.
But consider the illogic: To deny that any values are absolute is to make an absolute of relativism. And without faith in an absolute value like justice, a secondary value like individual liberty loses all meaning. If justice is relative, on what grounds can we argue that oppression and tyranny are bad?
Of course it is not easy to apply an absolute like justice to particular situations. What one calls joking another might call bullying. And often the absolutes themselves seem to conflict. Like the Duke in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure
, our own Ethics Committee must regularly balance the two absolute values of justice and mercy, and tempering the one with the other in any particular case is hard. However, the difficulty is not removed but only increased when we pretend that justice and mercy are not absolutes. The function of human intelligence is not to deny those absolutes but to do the hard work of approaching them as nearly as we can.
Certainly absolute values do not apply to matters of mere taste. If you say “I like chocolate ice cream,” no one is going to say, “you’re wrong; I like vanilla.” But when it comes to good and evil, right and wrong, truth and error, meaning and nonsense, beauty and ugliness—the most important subjects of human thought—replacing absolute values with relativism leads only to intellectual confusion.
A few weeks ago I said to one of my classes, “there is such a thing as beauty.” You should have heard the outrage. You would have thought I was advocating the torture of puppies and kittens. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” they shouted with passionate intensity, as if I must never have heard that cliché before. “Who are you to say what beauty is?”
It is true that the experience of beauty is always a relation between the viewer and the object. Something beautiful will not appear beautiful to one who is blind. Discerning people may find elements of beauty in something otherwise ugly. And there are many gradations of twilight between the high noon of beauty and the midnight of ugliness. But discerning those gradations is part of the challenge and the joy of life: making and comparing judgments is what human beings like to do, and will
do no matter what. To renounce judgment by pretending that all beauty is relative—that there is no essential difference between the beautiful and the ugly—is to bury human discernment alive in a coffin made of error.
If a picture is worth 10,000 words, I’m going to save myself 40,000. Here are two faces and two vases.
by Quentis Massys, after a drawing attributed to Francesco Melzi, itself the copy of a lost original by Melzi’s master, Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1490)
2. Sculpted head
, fifth-century Greek.
3. Porcelain Chinese vase
4. Ugly modern vase]
Relativists may kick and scream, but their empathic responses to these images tell the truth: one of the faces is ugly (as Leonardo meant it to be), and one is beautiful. And the same with the vases. You yourself may be more or less beautiful than your neighbor. Beauty is not and should not be a requirement for invitation to the Cum Laude society. But like it or not, true beauty—like true academic excellence—is real, and it is the farthest thing from ugliness.
The same is true for the other absolute values by whose light all human judgments are made: justice, love, truth. (We could add the Greek motto of the Cum Laude Society: arete, dike, time
). To deny their reality leads, as I said, only to confusion.
One form of confusion is the self-contradiction I mentioned earlier: Relativists who deny absolutes make an absolute of relativism.
A second form of confusion is the abolishment of the grounds for moral judgment. I think you will agree with me that scientists should not falsify their data, that your friend should not date your girlfriend or boyfriend behind your back, that cutting in the lunch line is wrong, that the strong should not tyrannize over the weak. But who are we to say so unless we agree that the values of truth, loyalty, and justice are absolute? We might not like
others to fake their data, betray our friendship, or push us around. But without faith in absolutes we cannot reasonably claim it is wrong
for them to do so. Similarly, when relativism dissolves our faith in honesty, the rule of law, and the brotherhood of man, how can we assert that it is bad for CEO’s to embezzle, politicians to lie, mobs to lynch, or terrorists to blow up busses full of children?
The study of other cultures and civilizations is essential to education. But the relativism that goes by the fashionable name of “multiculturalism” leads to a third kind of confusion when it preaches that all cultures are created equal. For example, when we say that the principles of freedom, equality, and the rule of law are merely “Eurocentric,” on what grounds can we condemn other cultures who practice autocracy and persecution?
In fact, the very idea that we should treat other cultures justly and without prejudice is derived from no other culture but the one into which we have all been born or transported: the English-speaking West. Several thousand years of Jewish and Christian teaching that all men are the children of God, a thousand years of English Common Law, and two centuries of American Enlightenment doctrine that all men are created equal and are endowed with fundamental rights—these are the only grounds we have for asserting that we should respect our neighbor’s cultural differences.
Which brings me to the hugely complex matter of whether, when, and how we should thrust our own values upon others. Responding to these questions requires even deeper loyalty to the absolutes of justice, love, and truth and a careful study of history, language, culture, and politics. I am not foolish enough to claim that in such matters wisdom comes easily. In the history of the British rule in India, for example, it is safe to say that there was plenty of good and evil behavior on all sides. But consider what the theologian George Weigel writes about General Sir Charles Napier:
“As one point in his pacification of [the province of Sindh, now part of Pakistan], Sir Charles confronted the long-entrenched and religiously-warranted practice of ‘suttee’ [sati
], according to which a widow was thrown onto the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Napier invited the local leaders to a meeting and said, ‘You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom. When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we shall follow ours.’
Underlying Napier’s declaration was the conviction that the sacredness of human life, including female human life, is an absolute. After pointing out that in the wake of Napier’s decision, sati
was soon abolished in India, Weigel asks whether India would have been better off if Napier had said “who am I to impose my values on you?” [See the full article here
Only in light of absolute values can we avoid the moral confusion of cultural relativism, which justifies the abuse of women, the toleration of the violently intolerant, and the greater outrage over Abu Grayb than over the genocidal brutalities of the Janjaweed in Darfur, the Chinese in Tibet, and radical Islamist jihadis everywhere.
The question “who is to say?” really means “no one is to say”: There is no authority over me; there are no such absolutes as beauty, justice, love, or truth to which I am answerable. Under the dictatorship of this relativism there can be no meaningful discourse about values at all. To see this, all you have to do is to consider what answer to the question “Who is to say?” would
persuade you. “Who are you to say?” “Well, I’m a doctor of philosophy in English and American Literature.” Ffft.
“I’m a Harvard nuclear physicist who plays a Stradivarius violin, has won three super bowls as quarterback, written two novels, directed a hit movie, served with Mother Theresa, and been elected Secretary-General of the United Nations.” Ffft.
I am Moses, Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus. The relativist response is still Ffft.
When we ask “who’s to say what is right or wrong?” because we recognize no absolute authority, it doesn’t mean there is no such thing as evil. It means we are allowing evil to conquer. If we continue to dissolve absolute values in the corrosive bath of this all-purpose question, soon we will ask “who are you to tell me what to do?” and the only answer will be “I’m the one with the gun, that’s who.”
But the universal absolute values really do exist, and we must be faithful to them. Who is to say so? We
are, every one of us. Whether we prefer it in a Chinese vase or a teen magazine, we know that there is beauty, even though getting it to appear in an essay we’re writing is not easy. Whether or not it is possible for anyone to be perfectly good, we know that justice is always better than injustice, even though it is hard to figure out how much weight to give mitigating circumstances in any particular case of plagiarism. We know that love is more than sex, even though plenty of pseudo-Freudians and TV episodes would have us think otherwise. We know that truth exists, even though no one person can know all truth and a lifetime is not long enough to know very much for absolute certain.
We can all perfectly well see for ourselves the value of absolutes if only we stop asking the fake question “Who is to say?” and recognize that unexamined relativism is a form of prejudice. Teachers and school and Cum Laude societies are not here to dictate that you must like vanilla more than chocolate. They are here to help you to become excellent at making sound judgments based on the absolute principles of goodness and truth. And precisely because that goal is not easy to achieve, we celebrate today the induction of new members into the Cum Laude society. May it inspire all of us in the pursuit of excellence.