1. Pluralism and the Global Village
There is considerable doubt and confusion in the modern world about the existence of objective values and ethical standards and about how we can find them if they do exist. And many people point to these doubts and confusions about values as the source of misunderstanding and strife in the “clash of civilizations” seen throughout the world today, often erupting into violence and terrorism, as well as in the polarization of our politics within and between nations.
Can the ancient quest for wisdom about the good and the right be retrieved or reconceived in a way that would allow us to respond to these modern doubts about objective values and ethical standards? I suggest here a way this might be done.
Doubts about the possibility of objective values and ethical standards have their source, I believe, in two inescapable conditions of the modern world—pluralism and uncertainty. By pluralism, I mean just the fact that we live in a world of many conflicting voices, philosophies, religions, ways of life and points of view on fundamental matters, including ethics and values.
Such a pluralism is made more insistent by two inescapable features of the modern world. The first is the creation of a global order through information technology that puts people in daily contact with views and values different from their own. The second is the spread of democratic societies that allow and encourage differences of point of view within individual societies.
The familiar image of a “global village” may be the wrong one for this new order of things since most villages of the past shared a common heritage of traditions and beliefs. A better analogy would be a global city in which different cultures and ways of life mingle and are forced to confront one another; or perhaps even a new Tower of Babel. In Nietzsche’s image, seeing a thousand different tribes beating to a thousand different drums, we become the first people in history who do not believe we own the truth.
2. Perelandra and the “Modern Fall”
How such wonder in the face of conflicting alternatives can lead to doubts about which view of the good may be true is nicely illustrated by a scene from C. S. Lewis‘s fantasy novel, Perelandra. Lewis describes the journey of a man named Ransom to the planet Venus—called “Perelandra” in the novel and described as an Eden-like world of islands floating on water and covered by exotic foliage. (Quite the opposite of the real Venus, which is very hot and high pressured, more like hell than Eden.)
There Ransom meets a solitary human-like creature, a woman who tells him that her god, Maleldil, has commanded her to search for a man of her own kind who also inhabits this planet. Ransom’s conversations with the woman are interrupted one day when he says that the islands floating on water on which they stand are making him queasy. He suggests they move over permanently to the “fixed land”—the land that does not float on water.
The woman in reaction is horrified by this suggestion, telling him that the one thing her god Maleldil has forbidden her or anyone to do is to stay overnight on the fixed land. Ransom’s response then confuses the woman. For he says that in his own world, on Earth, everyone lives on the fixed land, night and day, and no one thinks it is wrong. In her confusion, the woman wonders whether there are different meanings of good and evil, right and wrong, and whether God may command one group of people to live one way and others to live a different way. In her confusion, she is tempted to go with Ransom over to the fixed land: If others can do it, she reasons, why can’t she?
The thoughtful reader suddenly realizes that these two figures are reenacting the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, with Ransom playing the serpent, tempting this new Eve in her alien Eden to do the one thing her God has commanded her not to do. In the original Biblical story, the command is to not eat of the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Eve eats of this fruit and Adam also; and by succumbing to temptation they come to “know good and evil” and are banished from the Garden.
In Perelandra, however, Lewis is suggesting a different—a distinctively modern—version of the “knowledge of good and evil.” The new awareness that tempts and confuses us is the awareness that there may be more than one right way of living and that our way may not be the right one or the only right one. Like the woman on Perelandra, we may then say: If others can do it, why can’t we?
Thus ends moral innocence—the secure feeling that the rights and wrongs learned in childhood are the only correct or true ones, unchallengeable and unambiguous. By knowing other ways of life and entertaining doubts about our own, we learn something about the complexities of good and evil. But the learning comes with a bitter taste. Having bitten into the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in this distinctively modern fashion, we live “after the modern Fall,” so to speak. We have lost our moral innocence.
3. Uncertainty and a Deeper Philosophical Problem
But pluralism by itself would not be a problem is it weren’t for another crucial feature of modernity—an uncertainty about how to show which of the competing views is right. This uncertainty, it turns out is based on a deeper philosophical problem. There is a troubling circularity involved in trying to prove the universal or absolute rightness of one’s point of view from one’s own point of view in a pluralistic world.
To show that one point of view is right and other competing views wrong, you must present evidence. But the evidence will be gathered and interpreted from your own point of view. If the dispute is about good and evil, some of the evidence will include beliefs about good and evil that are not going to be accepted by those who have fundamental disagreements with your values in the first place. Your values must be defended by appealing to other more fundamental values that are also yours. Perhaps you will refer to the Bible or the Qu’ran or the Bhagavad-Gita or some other sacred text, which is not going to be accepted by those who have basic disagreements with your point of view in the first place. (Even those who share your sacred text may not interpret it as you do).
There is a troubling circularity in such debates, the circularity of defending your own point of view from your own point of view, of defending your values or beliefs in terms of other values or beliefs you hold, but others may not. The problem arises because we are finite creatures who always see the world from some particular perspective, limited by culture and history. How can we climb out of our historically and culturally limited points of view to find an objective standpoint about values above all the competing points of view?
This problem haunts the modern intellectual landscape. It is the source of trendy new theories, such as postmodernism and poststucturalism, among others views, that make much of the fact that we always see the world from some limited point of view—a “conceptual framework,” or “language-game,” a culture or tradition or a “form of life.” As a result, all judgments about good or evil, right or wrong—indeed all judgments about anything, some would argue—are relative to the point of view or framework or culture or history from which they arise.
If this is the case, how is it possible to show that one way of viewing the world, our own or any other, is universally or objectively right and others wrong, when we must assume the presuppositions of a particular point of view to support our claims? This question—prompted by pluralism and uncertainty—is the point of departure for the discussion that follows.
 Nietzsche, The Will to Power. Trans. By W. Kaufman and R. Hollingdale. New York: Random House, 1966: section nos. 5, 749, 1011. I am indebted to Kathleen Higgins for these references.
 C. S. Lewis, Perelandra. New York: Collier Books, 1962.
 E.g., Lyotard 1987.