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Words, we are told, present two aspects to us - denotation and connotation. A word's denotation is simply and only the thing to which the word refers. The connotations of a word comprise the ideas associated with the word's referent. Let someone utter the word "horse" and immediately the image of one of Earth's most beautiful animals comes to mind. And in its wake that image will draw cowboys and the Cavalry, Santa Anita and gamblers, the shiny little surrey with the fringe on top, steeplechases and fox hunts, and others from a long list of images that have accumulated within our culture over the millenia.
These essays have laid out for you the denotation of the word "Relativity". It's certainly more complex than the denotation of "horse", but it's a denotation nonetheless. It's also more Štherial than the denotation of "horse" and, consequently, its connotations tend to be more abstract. I want to talk about one of those connotations, one that does us no good at all.
At one time or another we have all heard someone pass judgement upon some bit of behavior and then heard another person shrug off the judgement by saying, "Everything's relative". Everything is relative, they say, so nothing matters and anything goes. In this manner Relativity is made to endorse nihilism. Is that endorsement legitimate?
I suppose that it was inevitable that someone would make such a use of Einstein's theory. Consider the state of the world (at least that part of it that we call the West) at the time in which Relativity came into Western Civilization's limelight. Five and one-half years previously, in the Spring of 1914, people had seen themselves living in the most prosperous, most decent, most advanced society ever to grace the world up to that time and they had no reason to suspect that the progress that had brought them to that blissful state would ever end. Yet only a few months later those same people watched that wonderful civilization casually and gratuitously throw itself into an orgy of destruction that shattered that happy assumption of endless progress and raised serious questions about the stability of the foundations upon which that assumption had been built.
Amid the postwar chaos Relativity was a grace that Science bestowed upon a battered and weary Humanity. Like the first rays of the sun's light slanting through the clouds of a passing storm, it shone onto the tempest-tossed world the hope of a better future. It was a bona fide miracle and as a consequence Science gained some of the authority of godhood. Unfortunately, too many people, when confronted with signs of divinity, set aside their critical faculties and become prey to subtle manipulation. Yes, after the Great War many people saw in Science the means to redeem civilization, but some, disillusioned by the scope of the destruction that had been made possible by the very civilization that it devastated, saw modern civilization as an evil thing to be subverted and destroyed. Those latter people sought to demolish civilization by erasing the collective values that make a complex modern society possible, that erasure being accomplished on the authority of Science. If everything is relative, then there are no absolute values, such as justice or property, and we must revert to the state of nature, as the hippies sought to do in the 1960's.
But Relativity does not endorse nihilism. Einstein made that clear when he expressed dismay over the idea of moral relativity and said that he wished that he had insisted that his theory be called the Theory of Invariants. You see, moral relativity is an intellectual fraud and I offer three lines of reasoning in support of that statement.
First, the statement that "Everything is relative" is meaningless. The word is used but the sentence does not denote any kind of relationship. In order to express a proper relationship between two things we need a statement somewhat like "Santa Claus is thin relative to an elephant". Of course, we don't think of Santa Claus as being thin and it's only in a relationship to something even fatter that we can bear to apply the word to the jolly old saint. An honest moral relativist would thus be obliged to say something like "Theft is good relative to murder" in order to make a meaningful statement. But that statement does not make theft a good thing any more than being thinner than an elephant makes Santa Claus thin.
Second, in saying that "Everything is relative" the moral relativists are trying to assert their belief that there can be no absolutes in morality; that is, that there is no absolute standard of right and wrong that is the same for all people at all times. Whether that belief is true to Reality or not, it takes a lot of gall to claim that it is endorsed by a theory whose first postulate states clearly that the laws of physics are the same for all observers, regardless of their relative positions, orientations, or motions. As you have seen, there are absolutes in Relativity, there is a universal sameness underlying all of Reality. There is law-like order in the Universe at the most fundamental level and that fact can never serve as an endorsement of nihilism.
And third, we must question whether a theory that describes the actions of stars and of cosmic rays has any legitimate application to human behavior. What we have is the reverse of the infamous pathetic fallacy, in which fallacy we impute human intentions to nonhuman entities. That fallacy and its reverse both come from the very human tendency to make metaphors and then to forget that they are metaphors. In the Seventeenth Century the regularities abstracted from observations of nature were called laws by analogy with the rules created by governments and then, forgetting that it was an analogy, some people represented Newtonian physics as a divine endorsement of the British monarchy. But if it is philosophically incorrect to impute human intentions to nonhuman entities, then it is equally incorrect to draw behavioral imperatives from the regularities that we observe in nonhuman entities. The Theory of Relativity simply has nothing to say about human morality.
Of course we can make an analogy between morality and physics. We might, let's say, have a "Newtonian" ethics representing an absolute morality. For example, a Newtonian moral commandment might be "Never lie". On the other hand, we could also have an "Einsteinian" ethics, a moral relativity or situational ethics. As an example, we can consider a case in which the Gestapo comes to Dutch family harboring Jews and asks whether they have seen any Jews. In that case the Dutch folk know that lying to deny a person something is bad and they also know that getting people murdered is bad. They cannot avoid committing one or the other of the sins, so how do they choose? We would almost surely say that they must choose the lesser of the two evils. But what criterion do they use to judge the relative badness of the actions? And that's where the analogy fails.
In physics we make an analogy between Reality and mathematics. Where necessary we validate that analogy through our observations of what actually exists in Reality. But morality doesn't denote something that actually exists. It presents us with Ought instead of Is, so when our analogy fails us, as it did above, we must find some other criterion to guide us in fixing our theory.
There may come a
day when philosophers can finally devise a theory of good and evil that is as
compelling as are some of our theories of physics and some part of that larger
theory may actually be called a theory of moral relativity, in analogy to
Einstein's theory, but today is not that day and what is called moral relativity
today is neither moral nor relativistic. If we are ever to have a true theory of
good and evil, we must dismiss the nontheories and the irrelevancies based on
too much envy of the physical sciences. We will need less of Einstein and more
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