Absolute Truth Corrupts Absolutely: The Necessary Incorporations and Limitations of Post-Modernism in Liberal Philosophy
By David Metcalfe
January 1, 2019
Red or Dead
I want you to imagine that we live in a world where hats have magical powers. There are two kinds of hats: red and blue.
By wearing a red hat, people live an average of 20 years longer, never get sick, are kind to all people, follow the law, work hard at their jobs, are 30 IQ points higher, and are always happy.
Wearing a blue hat basically does the opposite; it decreases a person’s life span by 20 years, causes them to get sick quite often, be hostile and violent towards people, break the law, be lazy at their jobs, lowers their IQ by 30 points, and makes them sad all of the time.
The right decision for an individual to make is obviously to wear the red hat. In a world like this, we would undoubtedly manufacture as many red hats as we possibly could, and make sure all people have access to one. A world of “red hatters” would be basically perfect.
But what if some people wanted to wear a blue hat? And more so, what if someone wore a blue hat and went around convincing others to wear a blue hat? Now they are not only hurting themselves, but causing others to do something that hurts them.
Or what if parents raised their children to believe that red hats were the bad ones, and the blue hats the good ones? They expose them only to propaganda literature and films that promote blue hats. The children then grow up objectively worse and many continue wearing blue hats their whole lives.
The “blue hatters” are responsible for all of society’s ills, from crime to disease to poverty, etc. A society with only “red hatters” would be paradise on earth. So, for the betterment of humanity, it would be the government’s responsibility to ban blue hats and only allow red hats to be made and distributed. They would have to ban any “blue hat” propaganda and manufacturing. But if “blue hatters” still persisted, they may have to be killed. After all, a few deaths to bring about the paradise of all humanity would be a small price to pay.
Identifying “Blue Hatters”
When We Get It Wrong
St. Thomas Aquinas believed that heretics were “blue hatters”. Adolf Hitler believed that Jews were “blue hatters”. Joseph Stalin believed that the bourgeoisie were “blue hatters”.
In Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote,
“With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith that quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death. On the part of the Church, however, there is mercy, which looks to the conversion of the wanderer, wherefore she condemns not at once, but ‘after the first and second admonition’, as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death.”
Aquinas defined “heretics” as anyone who didn’t fully believe the doctrines of the Catholic Church. The Bible is very misanthropic to people who don’t “properly” follow God; committing genocide against them in the form of a massive flood, identifying them all as sinners who deserve death (Romans 6:23), saying they are all horrible people and can only be good if they accept Jesus (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), among many other instances. Aquinas believed he had “absolute truth” on all matters of doctrine regarding salvation, and disagreeing with him could not possibly be legitimate intellectual inquiry. So, to rid the world of “blue hatters”, he promoted the killing of thousands of innocent people.
In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler wrote,
“Only the Jew knew that by an able and persistent use of propaganda heaven itself can be presented to the people as if it were hell and, vice versa, the most miserable kind of life can be presented as if it were paradise. The Jew knew this and acted accordingly. But the German, or rather his Government, did not have the slightest suspicion of it. During the War the heaviest of penalties had to be paid for that ignorance.”
Adolf Hitler believed the Jews were responsible for all of Germany’s problems. He thought they continually conspired against the nation and resulted in its ruin. He believed that a world without them would be perfect. He “knew” with absolute certainty that this was the case. So, to rid the world of “blue hatters”, he promoted and implemented the killing of millions of Jews.
Joseph Stalin once said that,
“When the Bolsheviks came to power they were soft and easy with their enemies . . .we had begun by making a mistake. Leniency towards such a power was a crime against the working classes. That soon became apparent.” (Applebaum, 2007).
Joseph Stalin believed the bourgeoisie (the wealthy business owners) were the cause of Russia’s problems. He implemented a form of Marxist, ultranationalist dictatorship. He believed with absolute certainty that this was the best form of government, and he needed to do anything to make sure it succeeded. So, to rid the world of “blue hatters”, he implemented “The Great Purge” in which he arrested and killed millions of innocent people.
If there is a certain group of people that are awful, and society would be perfect without them, then why be lenient? Why not hunt and kill them for the greater good?
It’s because St. Thomas Aquinas, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin were wrong. They thought they had found the “blue hatter”/”red hatter” distinction, but it wasn’t true.
When We Get It Right
Atheists, Jews, and Capitalists are not evil people who damage society, so when we give them a “blue hatter” designation, innocent people are persecuted, which is evil. We may then say that we should never identify anyone as “blue hatter”. But consider America’s approach to ISIS.
ISIS is a group that identifies all non-Muslims as “blue hatters”, and kills or enslaves anyone they deem not a “proper Muslim”. But in order to stop them, we have to identify ISIS as “blue hatters”. We have to say with absolute certainty that ISIS members are bad and should not be allowed to continue their actions, on threat of death.
So how is America’s treatment of ISIS any better than Aquinas’ treatment of heretics, Hitler’s treatment of Jews, or Stalin’s treatment of bourgeoisie?
The first reason is that America’s “blue hatter” designation is grounded in clear, unbiased reality. There is no propaganda or unfounded assumptions. We don’t need to pretend that all atheists are horrible and wrong, that all Jews are anti-Germany, that all capitalists are enemies of the working class. We can merely state the facts as they are, and based on the facts, we can universally agree that what they’re doing is killing innocent people.
The second is in America’s foundational liberal values. In condemning the acts of groups that wrongly designate “blue hatters”, we ourselves have to label the perpetrators as “blue hatters”. Because, if we are going to value rights to life and liberty, we then have to say that extreme infringements on those rights are significantly detrimental to society, and need to be stopped by reasonable means.
Blue Hatters Almost Never Exist
Whenever a society labels “blue hatters”, they are almost always wrong. We already saw four wrong examples (atheists, Jews, bourgeoisie, non-Muslims), but even in America, we’ve given that designation to those accused of being witches in the infamous “Salem Witch Hunts”, to LGBT people, to black people seeking to escape slavery, to communists during McCarthyism, to early members of the Mormon church, and more recently, we’re seeing the “blue hatter” designation begin to be put against Muslims, Mexicans, and the media by Trump and his followers.
We need to be extremely skeptical and hesitant of any “blue hatter” assertions to an entire group of people. Sometimes we are inclined to think that a certain way of life or a certain way of thinking is the best way to live and believe. This is manifest in religions, political ideologies, moral philosophies, laws, and various cultural values and practices. It is fine, important even, to believe in a certain concept or idea. But we need to realize that we do not have absolute knowledge of most things. We do not know with certainty whether a certain worldview on any matter is absolutely true.
It was in this doubt of absolutes that liberalism was conceptualized. John Locke embraced empiricism, which suggests significant limitations in human knowledge due to the inability to acquire all existing information. It is this uncertainty that gives people freedom to live and believe as they so choose. You do not have the freedom to believe that 2+2=5, for example, due to its high degree of certainty in being 4. You do, however, have the freedom to believe that chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla, or vice versa, due to the fact that there is no objective certainty.
We do not know how to live or what to believe about most things, and as such, we grant a huge degree of freedom to people. However, for a society to function, we need to have certain core values. These core values may limit our freedom to believe and act against them, but they actually work to maximize our liberty. In the social contract, we do give up the freedom to infringe on the freedom of others, but we also find a much greater freedom in that. While we can’t dictate the lives of others, no one can, in turn, dictate our own lives. We are completely free as individuals to find what is the best mode of life and work towards the most reasonable, effective and accurate beliefs we can arrive at. For this reason, liberalism avoids dogma enforced only by authority, and instead relies on reason and evidence.
And while reason and evidence can help us gain more truth on certain matters, they are limited in their capacity, as there is always more evidence to be gained and flaws in our reason that may not be apparent to us. That is why, on some matters, especially those relating to one’s personal life, liberalism affords us a process of self-discovery, in which we are free to find a mode of life suitable to our best happiness. Our dedication to reason and evidence combined with a healthy skepticism results in a society that finds truth where it can, and remains humble in areas it can’t. Dogma is in extending absolutes into areas where we don’t have the necessary knowledge, and results in not only wrong, but terribly damaging, philosophies.
From the dogmatic assertions of Aquinas, Hitler, and Stalin, we can see that absolute truth corrupts absolutely. This is because, many times, people think they have absolute truth in their ideology, when really, they are biased and ungrounded. To combat this, we need a dedication to reason, evidence, and skepticism, and a recognition that the vast majority of abstract knowledge forming ideologies is conjecture, and will undoubtedly be improved upon by future generations. We are, after all, experimenting. America is the great experiment of liberal democracy, and has shown good results in comparison to totalitarian regimes. But new theories and experiments may come about in the future that prove better, and our dedication cannot be to a dogmatic liberalism but to one as far as reason and evidence will take it.
In moving away from narratives of “absolute truth”, we have the freedom to identify, live, and believe as we wish. “Blue hatters” are very rare in liberalism, and only exist if they themselves designate others as “blue hatters” without grounding. Through the incorporation of post-modernism in liberal ideology, we are able to maximize human freedom. On limiting post-modernism, we are able to maintain a dedication to reason and evidence where possible. The balance of these will take the continued thought of intellectuals from a variety of fields, and is an ever changing endeavour as new information and ideas come into our knowledge. The enterprise of human knowledge is an optimistic one; towards the moral and scientific betterment of humanity as a whole, but must be mitigated by intellectual humility.