Chapter director Stephen McAndrew of State University of New York University at Buffalo (UB) tells us about his new book and dives into its major themes in this insightful interview.
What is the book called? What is it about?
The book is called "Why It Doesn't Matter What You Believe If It's Not True." The book examines the tension between international human rights and moral relativism, arguing that universal human rights don't make sense if moral truths are relative. It then argues that God is the source of universal moral standards that undergird what I call in the book "the human rights urge.
To make its case, the book reviews how philosophy has moved from the objective truths of Plato's Forms to post-modern paradigms where truth is held to be contingent on societal indoctrination. It then looks at how this philosophical assumption collides with the reality of how we act when faced with human rights atrocities. It also looks at what a world where truth is contingent on societal indoctrination could look like through the example of George Orwell's "1984".
What is the goal you are trying to achieve with this book?
My goal is to challenge those who dismiss Christianity but wish to live in a world where individual human rights are cherished, to accept that moral values must be objective and not subjective and relative, and then show how the Christian worldview provides the best explanation of the existence of objective moral values.
Consequently, I wrote the book to appeal to those who might not otherwise pick up a Christian or apologetics book. In particular, I used secular sources that a non-Christian could not dismiss as lacking in credibility.
Why is our post-modern society so willing to accept a relative theory of truth at odds with universal human rights?
A relative theory of truth is appealing if we apply it to ourselves, i.e., I can do what I want. There is no absolute authority to whom I have to answer for my actions. It is much less appealing when we realize that a relative theory of truth also entails others being free to do to us as they wish. In the book, I argue that the narcissism prevalent in post-modern society blinds us to the fact that if truth is relative, there is no restraint on anyone's actions - we are too busy focusing on what we want to do.
Post-modern society doesn't focus on the contradiction between a relative theory of truth and universal human rights, even though it is quite obvious, because I think the ability to think ideas through logically has been diminished by the post-modern culture, which is saturated by information but not knowledge. Just look at the abundance of sound bites. Society has subcontracted the task of thinking to others in the media. Many tend to only look to sources with whom they already agree.
Historically, how and when did they shift away from absolute moral truth?
I think that beginning with the Enlightenment society began to increasingly look to science to provide answers about ultimate reality; to explain the world without God. In philosophy, eighteenth century Empiricism and twentieth century Logical Positivism, attempted to explain reality in solely material terms, but ran into philosophical cul-de-sacs such as the problem of proving the reality of the external world. Other twentieth century philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger abandoned the attempt to discover absolute truths about an ultimate reality. Instead, they contended that truth was a human construction, and so changed over time. So, as I explain in the book, the move from absolute truth to relative truth was motivated by the desire to explain the world without resorting to the transcendent. When that failed, rather than returning to an acceptance of theism, philosophers abandoned the search for absolute truth, moral or otherwise.
What happened historically to bring about the contrasting awareness of universal human rights?
I know that it's a cliche in apologetics circles when morality is raised to talk about Hitler and Nazis, but the Second World War caused a paradigm shift in thinking about universal human rights. The Nuremberg tribunal held there were crimes against humanity, certain universal moral standards that were inviolable no matter what society you were raised in. Before, individuals were to be punished by the states of which they were citizens. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights followed in 1948. Nuremberg stripped perpetrators of human rights abuses of the defense of state sovereignty. Since World War Two international institutions designed to investigate and punish international human rights abuses have continued to proliferate.
You talk about George Orwell’s book, 1984, in your book. What is the relationship?
In my book, I talk about how in a world in which truth is relative, familiar concepts such as justice, love, and freedom could be eliminated or turned into something quite repulsive to us. If truth is relative, whoever controls language can control thought. If the concepts of democracy or slavery have no fixed meanings, their meanings could be changed over time. In 1984, Orwell portrays a world when a totalitarian regime control language and have used this power to distort the meaning of language to control the population. A world where "War is Peace" and "Freedom is Slavery" is not one many will find palatable or plausible, but if truth is relative, such a world is possible. Further, in 1984, there is no possibility of a moral hero, such as a Solzenhenitsyn or a Martin Luther King Jr., speaking truth to power. The novel chronicles the failure of the protagonist, Wilson Smith, to even hold on to the simple truth that "2+2=4".
To learn more about Stephen, you can visit his personal profile here.
If you're also interested in picking up a copy of his book, look no further. You can find it here on Amazon.