April 20, 2005

Relativism, Ratzinger and Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan, in going through his protestations on the new Pope, is disputing Ratzinger (via Novak) on the relation of Nazism and Marxism to relativistic thought. Sullivan asserts that Nazism and Marxism are based on thinking their way is the scientific truth of all things. What he apparently doesn't realize is the disconnect between moral relativism and scientific determinism.

The Nazis thought - or at least said and argued - that race was scientifically determinative on the success and intelligence of humans. Some races are better than others, and some races and blights on humanity, in other words. They believed this was fact and truth.

The Marxists thought - or at least said and argued - that economics was socially determined and would eventually result in a humanity-wide communist world. Economics has a natural progression and communism is the final, highest result, they said. They believed this was fact and truth.

What Sullivan apparently misses is the moral relativism of both ideologies. The Nazis and Marxists were essentially sophists, taking some cues from postmodernist ideas. Nietzsche, often associated with Nazism, was essentially an early postmodernist. Other postmodernists in Europe associated themselves with various grains of socialism and communism, and Marxism generally. In fact, most pomos are socialists or anarchists or trending that way.

The Nazis and Marxists doubted the validity of most existing moral judgments; they argued that many of the currently existing values were fake, were inappropriate, could not be made, or were simply irrelevant. They didn't merely assault them as wrong, they assaulted the very foundation of moral objectivism on which the values were based. Without moral truth of any type, how could specific morals be true? This laid the groundwork for arguing Nazism or Marxism; once the old values were tossed out they were subsequently replaced with new ones.

Don't let yourself be confused by the hypocrisy you might notice. Relativists are almost necessarily hypocritical, because relativism, subjectivism, postmodernism or whatever you call it is not a sound basis for intellectual consistency. Indeed, how could you be that concerned about hypcrisy if you're arguing there is no moral truth?

And that's the distinction. First, it's hypocrisy; just because they were arguing certain things that seem to require moral truth, doesn't mean they were using relativism to undermine the moral truths of others. Second, it's a division between what they saw as scientific determinism and what they used as moral relativism.

It's almost important to remember that both Marxism and Nazism reduced men to their bodies and minds, but never their spirits or consciences. Consciences were ignored or turned into something almost meaningless. Marxism treats people as essentially bodies to be given food, water, sex and shelter. Some strains of Marxism treated the minds of people as well, giving them acceptance and love, but rarely encouraging the spirit or the conscience. Nazism as well reduced people to body and to the lower impulses of the ego. You are your race, the physical characteristics that you were born with, and your impulses to kill or dominate must be fed to the exclusion of almost anything else.

Naturally I'm both exaggerating and generalizing, but it's necessary to show the connection. Marxism and Nazism were indeed important parts of relativism, and came from many people who were direct heirs to the relativist and postmodernist spirit. Connecting the ideology of orthodox Catholicism to the ideologies of Nazism and Marxism is grossly simplified and basically a playground-caliber insult.


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