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Truth and morality

December 17, 2012

A quote to which I’ve returned many times. From Notre Dame historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto:

“The retreat from truth is one of the great dramatic, untold stories of history. . . . For professional academics in the affected disciplines, to have grown indifferent to truth is an extraordinary reversal of traditional obligations; it is like physicians renouncing the obligation to sustain life or theologians losing interest in God -‑ developments, formerly unthinkable, which now loom as truth diminishes. The trashing of truth began as an academic vice, but the debris is now scattered all over society. It is spread through classroom programmes, . . . In a society of concessions to rival viewpoints, in which citizens hesitate to demand what is true and denounce what is false, it becomes impossible to defend the traditional moral distinction between right and wrong, which are relativized in turn. Unless it is true, what status is left for a statement like ‘X is wrong’ where X is, say, adultery, infanti­cide, euthanasia, drug‑dealing, Nazism, paedophilia, sadism or any other wickedness due, in today’s climate, for relativization into the ranks of the acceptable? It becomes, like everything else in western society today, a matter of opinion; and we are left with no moral basis for encoding some opinions rather than others, except the tyranny of the majority.”

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Truth: A History and Guide for the Perplexed (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 165-66.

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