Friday, November 2, 2007

The Grand Sez Who

Yale law professor Arthur Leff found himself caught on the horns of a dilemma when he used the existence or nonexistence of legal standards to present the issue of the "old absolutes" versus the "new relativism." The same issue is presented with the statement that something is either true or not true or right or wrong. To make his point, Leff invoked "the grand sez who" that is identified with both the playgound and the barroom, depending upon the age of the combatants: no matter what one person says, the other person's retort is -- "Sez who?"

This blog sets the stage for the relativism vs. absolutism debate by using the intellectual equivalent of "the grand sez who." The basic problem is presented when anyone suggests that something is either right or wrong. In reply, the other person says, "What gives you the right to tell me what is right and what is wrong?" Indeed, the issue is the same whether the situation involves a barroom brawl or an academic discussion.

In his Duke Law Review article, Leff reviewed the history of ideas and then adopted both sides of the dilemma. But the 21st century requires that we find a better solution to this age old problem. Leff concluded his article with the new and the old value systems in sharp contrast. He said, "Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us 'good,' and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.


Napalming babies is bad.

Starving the poor is wicked.

Buying and selling each other is depraved...

There is in the world such a thing as evil.

[All together now:] Sez who?

God help us."

We have to develop a global consensus that replaces the "sez who" dilemma of right and wrong -- of what is true and what is not true. Unfortunately, we have to deal simultaniously with the issue on two separate fronts: On one hand there is the ongoing conflict within Western civilization, especially the traditional/early modern vs. the late modern/postmodern. What is to be the enduring legacy of the West? On the other hand, the West is engaged in external conflicts with its global neighbors, especially the world of Islam. Can the West survive, or will it go the way of all the other great civilizations that had their day in the sun and then passed from the scene?

Where do we go from here? We cannot go back to the "good old days," and there is no middle ground to be found, any more than there is a middle ground between the positive and negative poles in a storage battery. We must find a way to go forward by developing a new consensus, that is, a general theory of value that will appeal to all people, at all times and in all places. I invite anyone and everyone to join the conversation.

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