In his book On Liberty, John Stuart Mill lays the foundation for liberal thought and his ideas have penetrated many aspects of democratic rights and freedoms. His concern emanated from the fact that considerably more people (due to manifold revolutions in Europe and the United States) were involved in the legislative process and political decision-making than previously when it has been restricted to the monarchs and nobility. Like Constant, Tocqueville, and many contemporaries of his day, Mill feared the tyranny of the majority would infringe or suppress the vital interests of an individual who dared to disagree with the mob.
Heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, Mill gave three arguments in defence of the individual’s right to express himself through ideas and opinions that were novel or contrary to the norms of the day. First, he posited that the idea that had previously been thought false or misguided might actually be true and ample proof would be provided in time. Second, if the idea showed itself to be false, then the criticism and argument that went towards disproving it would inevitably strengthen the truth of its counterpart. Thirdly, the idea might not consist of the whole truth, but may in fact be merely a part of it, in which case we ought to consider it all the same. Healthy debate of new ideas is conducive to the progress of society and contributes to the self-development of an individual who conceives such hypotheses and embarks on such investigations.
When modern intellectuals sneer at the seemingly self-righteous and superstitious claims to truth by various religions (in particular, at the monotheistic ones), they forget that they themselves subscribe to a religion of sorts. When they say, “God is dead” and exult to the highest heaven and cosmos that scientific research and empirical observation has liberated us from such moribund and backwards religious traditions, their lip service is to Science and prize her conclusions and theories as the only truth worth considering and others moot. I would not go so far and draw comparisons between religious rituals and scientific methodology, but the empiricist who says, “I have no God” neglects to mention that he has replaced Him with another idol.
The disenchantment of the world has been an ample point of critique for many postmodernists (and whatever romanticists there may be left). However, these little reflections are meant to examine Truth, which is like a precious diamond, which consists of many facets. The diamond is worth more in one piece, but we cannot simply leave it as a lump of ore. We must chip away at it and put effort into brushing away the dirt, so that we are sure to increase its value and clarity. In no way do I wish to undermine any of the particular truths that are produced by science, but seek to present every feature of this diamond on equal terms in its proper light.
As a frequently exercised view on the moral landscape, many people share a feeling of “tolerance” towards the various moral standards that exist in our world due to varying cultural norms, social conditioning, or ancient laws. Indifference, ignorance, or sheer disdain of moral objectivity due to its seemingly major drawbacks (i.e. the claim that there is only one moral truth or set of truths) would be better explanations of this phenomenon. Thanks to these postmodern philosophers, many people just shrug and say, “That’s fine, if that’s what you believe”, which is not a very healthy approach to finding any meaningful answers to the questions, “How must I act? What is the (common) good?” I realize that morality is not a truth to be prized above others, but it is an integral part of the human make-up which moral relativism seriously undermines.
Firstly, moral relativism does not allow us to question why we adhere to a given moral standard and why, say the cannibal, does not. The loose theory does not presuppose that there are valid rationales behind particular moral notions of good or evil, for example the right to life and security of person. Secondly, how can we have moral progress if we do not have this “critique” mechanism? Movements like universal suffrage, abolition of slavery or the emancipation of women would not have happened if people had remained neutral or unintrusive in the ethical order of others. As well, the claim that all morals are subjective because cultures and psychological situations vary is in itself an objective claim and to dispute this is to rend apart the entirety of moral relativism. A final flaw in moral relativism dictates an assumption that moral standards are culturally isolated, rather than influenced by cross-cultural relations and the diversity of moral behaviours that flow between cultures through global interaction. Various ways of understanding right and wrong inevitably find their way into the foundations of many religions and spiritual beliefs of other cultures.
I do not mean to undermine tolerance or favour one set of moral standards above another, but where do we draw the line? In such cases, moral objectivity has its uses and should not be discarded if we consider that most moral standards have both a popular and practical appeal, especially within a species that prizes ideals and consistently works towards the rapid improvement of its fellows and their respective lifestyles.
“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.” – Immanuel Kant
When the critical and skeptical David Hume brutally rejected any knowledge that we obtained by any other means than empirical experience (and even of this, we could not be sure that our perceptions reflected true reality), it was said that Kant was the one to scramble to save the broken shards of the Enlightenment and the power of reason. In my eyes, “scramble” is not the appropriate word to describe an intellectual giant who has refuted the pessimistic cynicism of a philosopher who offered no solution, only despair. Without the objectivity of truth and ability to find such truths by our deliberative, conscious, and rational capacities, what is man but a worm?
The synthesis of sensual perception as organized by a priori intuitions within the mind formulates an image of reality that is distinct and clear, not chaotic and jumbled. The mere power of the mind to organize such information is astounding and Hume has obviously not accounted for this. Not many people know of this great debate so many centuries ago, but I am merely expressing my awe of Kantian argument that there is a true reality apart from subjective perceptions we may have, which is made known to us by reason: Cogito ergo sum.
What is Truth? Is it subjective or objective? Is it rational or empirical? Is there one truth or many? By what standard can we define and employ it? What is its purpose and does it matter? Is it meant to be hidden or dismissed because ignorance is bliss or set upon a hilltop that all may be enlightened? How shall we acquire it? Can we ever know it? Is it an ideal or reality? Who has authority to define or use it? Can we as human beings judge ourselves by such truth(s) that we find and erect standards accordingly? And who will keep us to account? Why is Truth to be desired? For if we cannot answers these, we are truly lost. I make no claims to finding the answers, only to capturing the glimpses, the lifting of the veil, before the door is shut again.