The elusive truth lies somewhere between absolutism and relativism, somewhere between the hubris of believing that one’s own fixed understandings are the universal ones that all others must bow down to, and the dysfunctionality of believing that reality (moral, factual, analytical) is whatever each decides it is.
Robin Van Ausdall recently posted the following astute observation on her Facebook page:
Media coverage of the flight attendant who removed a 13-month-old infant after her mother slapped her in the face is indicative of a larger problem: the idea that right and wrong is somehow determined by opinion polls.
To which I replied:
You have a good point, Robin, but what IS right and wrong determined by? There’s no good answer, because while the tyranny of the majority may endorse any number of horrible evils (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.), any other authority to which we might defer has the potential of being the product of some smaller group’s bigotries, or even of being a brilliant doctrine gradually attenuated by time and increasingly anachronistic.
Part of the dilemma of our lives, and of our political battles, is that there is no ultimate authority to which to turn to determine what is right and what is wrong; instead, we are left to thrash it out among ourselves, with competing narratives and arguments.
It reminds me of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in which the theme was the quest for understanding what “quality” means. It seems so simple and obvious when unexamined, but becomes so subtle and profound when looked at more closely!
It’s not that truth, or “right” and “wrong” are relative, and can be whatever people want them to be. Rather, it’s that they are elusive, and disagreements concerning them are resolvable only by the parties to the disagreement, drawing on all other information and insight that may exist in the world, but without the benefit of any final arbiter.
(Of course), people can agree on a final arbiter, whether it be human agency, or some legal or moral document, or (as is usually the case) some combination of the two. That is how we govern ourselves, by drafting Bibles and Constitutions and creating clergies and judiciaries (along with executive and legislative branches to implement and modify the legal structure). The challenge is to continually refine these mechanisms for resolving moral and legal disputes, so that they continuously approach some ideal of service to human welfare, along all dimensions that we might identify.