George Saad is quite mistaken about the causes or effects of the ennui that he claims affect the majority of students at the U of C (“It’s All Relative,” 11/17/09). It is not a result of relativism, a term with multiple meanings which Saad conflates, nor is it the result of skepticism, an attitude that we should all take in evaluating claims of universal truth. Quite simply, every student at the U of C learns both necessary and contingent absolute truths—the necessary ones in the math class, and the contingent ones in the science classes.
The concept of moral certainty that Saad claims is the correct position to take is very troublesome. He insists that vices and virtues are real, but offers no way to know them, see them, or interact with them. I know the physical world exists because I can sense it. Can we sense moral values in the same way? Given the extent to which birth control is opposed by religious figures in the United States, I think the answer is no. Can we have a legitimate moral belief that abortion is wrong? The Pope, who is no intellectual slacker, has such a position. Can we have a legitimate moral belief that abortion is in some circumstances mandated? The Talmud, again a product of thousands of years of debate, says that abortion is mandatory to protect the mother, and is almost never a sin. Someone must be wrong here if we are to take the realist position.
Relativism does not mean that all ideas are created equal. Rather it asks that we evaluate each idea identically, asking about its foundation and consequences. Is this not a way to attain the truth that Saad claims exists? And if we see that two beliefs are incompatible, but both potentially true, is it not better to pick one honestly than to conceal this fact in sophistry?
This does not lead to a destruction of the capacity of interpersonal relationships, nor does it exempt us from actively considering our ideas. It is the blind certainty of Saad that destroys curiosity and exploration, and will ultimately be futile.
Class of 2013