ETHICAL RELATIVISM: AN OXYMORON?
In 2006, the Cardinals of the Catholic Church were meeting in Rome after the death of Pope John Paul II to elect the new Bishop of Rome. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presided over the opening Mass and gave a homily to the College of Cardinals that was heard around the world. Of all the subjects that could have provided the basis for a compelling homily that pivotal day on the world stage, the soon-to-be Pope chose to denounce ethical relativism. Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, warned a world in mourning with great eloquence and conviction that no great civilization could be built or grounded upon relativism, that relativism obscures rather than promotes truth and that relativism means nothing more than “power trumps.” The message may have been lost on many that day, including many Christians. But there is no doubt that every college student will encounter the many faces of relativism on a daily basis in many humanities courses. Just what is this thing called “relativism” and why is the Catholic Church so opposed to it? These questions are the subject of this short “primer” on ethical relativism.
“Ethical Relativism” is defined by many college philosophy and ethics texts as a viewpoint that considers truth, including moral truths, to be relative to a particular society, culture or individual. According to this viewpoint, truth is neither absolute nor universal but is dependant upon and defined by the norms, laws, traditions, standards and beliefs of a particular culture or the beliefs, values, experiences and opinions of an individual. The “truth” of ethical relativism may be taught in sociology, English, psychology, human geography, politics and many other humanities courses because it is obvious to most that the world has a rich diversity of people, cultures, societies and nations, and that many differences exist, sometimes great or striking, with regard to the laws, conduct, norms and beliefs of the various cultures, societies and nations that inhabit this same earth. Thus, in many courses, the working assumption or implicit presupposition is that truth and morality are relative to particular societies, cultures and even individuals.
Today throughout American colleges and universities, moral or ethical relativism is hailed and proclaimed tacitly, if not explicitly, as the philosophy of tolerance, multiculturalism, reason and, ultimately, knowledge and understanding. To be fair, it is a wonderful way for sociologists, anthropologists and geographers to describe “what is” rather than “what ought to be.” Without a doubt, relativism encourages academic efforts to learn about other cultures, tribes, societies and nations, a goal that is rightly consistent with the goals of reasonable, intelligent and educated people. A relativistic mentality also underscores the many academic initiatives to teach diversity and multiculturalism throughout the humanities curriculum since it arguably serves to foster respect and appreciation of other human beings and the differences that exist between us. Ethical Relativism, like many philosophies, may also stimulate critical thinking or provide opportunities to eradicate prejudice or practice charity and virtue when we choose not to judge others, even to refrain from offending someone or to assist the individual or societal efforts of others to improve their lives. None of these reasons are solely attributable to relativism though and all are equally valid as goals sought by good, just and virtuous people in the above disciplines. The long and short of it: moral or ethical relativism is grossly oversold to college students and is too easily and uncritically accepted by them.
Two specific types of relativism, i.e., cultural relativism and individual relativism, are generally taught to and accepted by the vast majority of students, and surprisingly, by many catholic college students. William H. Shaw, a Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University, has written insightful essays entitled "Relativism and Objectivity in Ethics" and “Relativism in Ethics” that define and explain these two types of ethical relativism in a direct, concise manner:
“This view is generally called ‘ethical relativism;’ it is the normative theory that what is right is what the culture says is right. What is right in one place may be wrong in another, because the only criterion for distinguishing right from wrong – the only ethical standard for judging an action – is the moral system of the society in which the act occurs. Abortion, for example, is condemned as immoral in Catholic Spain but practiced as a morally neutral form of birth control in Japan. According to the ethical relativist, then, abortion is wrong in Spain but morally permissible in Japan. The relativist is not saying merely that Spanish believe abortion is abominable and the Japanese do not; that is acknowledged by everyone. Rather, the ethical relativist contends that abortion is immoral in Spain because the Spanish believe it to be immoral and morally permissible in Japan because the Japanese believe it to be so. There is no absolute ethical standard independent of cultural context, no criterion of right and wrong by which to judge other than that of particular societies. In short, morality is relative to society.
A different sort of relativist might hold that morality is relative, not to the culture but to the individual. The theory that what is right and wrong is determined by what a person thinks is right or wrong, however, is not very plausible. The main reason is that it collapses the distinction between thinking something is right and its actually being right.”
William Shaw’s widely-read essays are published, in whole or part, in popular college texts such as Doing Ethics (2d ed.) written by Lewis Vaughn (W.W. Norton & Co. 2010); Ethical Theory: A Concise Anthology by Heimrr Geirsson and Margaret Reed Holmgren (Broadview Press 2000); Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism by William Shaw (Wiley 1999); see also: Morality and Moral Controversies: Readings in Moral, Social, and Political Philosophy, edited by John Arthur (7th Ed.)(Pearson/Prentice Hall 2005)
The common thread underlying both cultural and individual relativism is that actions or conduct are not inherently right or wrong. Rather, the morality of one’s actions are determined by the specific qualities of the observers, i.e., by reference to the values of the individual or of the culture or society to which the individual belongs. In ethics, however, ethical relativism is either a controversial doctrine of morality or one that is not credible at all. (See, e.g., L. Vaughn, Doing Ethics (W.W. Norton & Co. 2007); J. Olen, J. VanCamp & V. Barry, Applying Ethics: A Text with Readings, pg. 5 (9th Ed.)(Thomson/Wadsworth 2008); R. Solomon and C. W. Martin, Morality and the Good Life, at pp. 21-22 (4th ed.)(McGraw Hill 2004)).
The individual relativist holds the belief that all individuals have their own truths or moral codes. The unique experiences, preferences, upbringing and perceptions shape the values, beliefs, preferences and knowledge of every individual differently and, as a result, the conclusion that truth is subjective in nature becomes irresistible and makes perfect sense to an individual relativist. It is common to hear such a person echo the sentiment that what is right for one person is not always right for another and that no one can or should impose their own beliefs on another individual.
Consider for a moment what would occur if every individual were the sole arbiter of the morality of his, her or another’s actions. Inevitably, the notions of judgment, ethics, morality and truth would be rendered incomprehensible, superfluous and irrelevant. The subjectivity of such an “ethic” would preclude any effective argument or judgment on it, particularly when one does not share the same experiences, upbringings, culture, opinions or beliefs, but perhaps even when one does! In the end, only the individual (and possibly those whom he allows or agrees with) can “judge” the rightness or wrongness of his own actions – but then by what standards? The individual relativist will often fail to articulate a coherent, reasonable, non-objective standard that is neither of his own making nor infused with his own prejudices or experiences, and he or she will ultimately suffer from uncertainty, confusion and a lack of moral clarity precisely for this reason. More often than not, the individual relativist’s opinion is little more than self-justification for his own actions and/or consistent with his self-interest or need for acceptance.
To be sure, the individual relativist may sincerely believe that he or she knows right and wrong when they see it and might even be compelling in his or her explanations. But true to form, an individual relativist will always consider morality to be subjective and based purely upon one’s own experiences, beliefs, opinions, emotions and perceptions. When pressed, an individual relativist might echo the “sentiment” of the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume to the effect that moral distinctions “are not the offspring of reason” but of passions and desires. In his famous (or infamous) work entitled A Treatise on Human Nature, Hume states that “[r]eason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any office, other than to serve and obey them.” (Bk. 2, pt. 3, iii). An individual relativist may also resort predictably to subjective notions like value, worth and utility (ala utilitarian theory, courtesy of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer) to “justify” certain actions that can appear sacrificial in nature but that are ultimately contrary to and disrespectful of the Christian notion that human life is a gift that is inherently good, sacred and of inestimable value and worth. An individual relativist may also refer to himself as an ethical egoist, subjective relativist, agnostic, libertarian, liberal, humanist or even a freedom fighter! Of course, the individual relativist is simply doing the best he or she can within the limited moral foundation that relativism offers to make sense out of something never before encountered. The individual relativist will likely agree that man, not God, is truly “the measure of all things.” As Professor Shaw correctly perceived, the individual relativist confuses the difference between thinking that something is right and its actually being right!
Relativistic notions are apparent throughout eastern and western philosophy and are laid bare in the works of the ancient, Pre-Socratic philosophers. In the first sentence of an ancient book entitled “On Truth,” the famous Sophist Protagoras of Abdera sums up the relativistic view: “Of all things the measure is man: of existing things, that they exist; of non-existing things, that they do not exist.” Protagoras, like other Sophists, was a traveler and an astute observer of different cultures and customs as well as a renowned teacher of rhetoric for hire. Many today, like retired Professor Douglas Soccio of Shasta College, view the Sophists “as the first social scientists, combining as it were, anthropology, psychology, and sociology to produce a particular view of social life and human nature.” Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy, pg. 83, (6th Ed.)(Thomson Wadsworth 2007). Sophists like Protagoras concluded from their travels and observations that every culture and society believed that the customs, traditions, mores and norms that it held were right and good, notwithstanding any apparent differences in thought and practice by other cultures and societies. The Sophist view also held that each custom, law, tradition or practice seemed reasonable and right to the culture or society that practiced them. Some went so far as to declare that cultural or societal practices that were deemed barbaric or uncivilized became harder to dismiss the more one learned about and understood the specific culture or society. According to Protagoras and the Sophists’ world view, what is “right” is purely a function of the cultural or societal laws, traditions, customs, etc. of any given culture or society. Put another way, ethics is little more than a cultural construct.
But there is more. From this, Sophists observed that the people who were generally the happiest in a given culture or society were those who influenced or made the laws, customs and traditions in that culture or society. Not surprisingly, the primary lesson from the Sophists was apparent to those who wanted to be happy in life: strive for a social or societal status that allows you to make or influence the laws, customs and mores of society! The pragmatic nature of these teachings allowed all individuals a way to climb the ladder of success on equal terms in Athenian society constrained only by societal consensus and led ultimately to the simple conclusion that right, wrong and moral truth do not exist independently of one’s cultural or societal laws, customs, norms, etc. As a result, relativism offers its adherents a double-edged sword that both affirms one’s own moral code and render his critics silent. How does it accomplish this? Surely by now you’ve heard the common refrains that one should not judge a culture or society that unless one fully understands it, man is the measure of all things, and what is best for me and mine is not always what’s best for you and yours. To a cultural relativist, the best, most correct or “right” opinions are those that are generally accepted by a culture or society, even though they may differ from culture to culture, society to society or even from time to time within a given culture or society. To do otherwise is to act in an immoral fashion, according to a cultural relativist!
Since the Sophists were not generally native Athenians, there is a significant element of self-interest in their thesis and conclusions. The Sophists were cultural outsiders to Athens and, as such, were considered to have been “barbarians” by Athenian society, though educated and sophisticated ones. It was precisely this quest for power and acceptance that the Sophists were preoccupied with that is reflected in their pragmatic and practical philosophy of utility. The lynchpin for “right,” according to the Sophists was simply what worked in a given society. In truth and in practice, relativism is a conformist philosophy, not a progressive one, that advises persons to simply do whatever works in his or her culture to succeed. Boston College Professor Peter Kreeft addresses relativism and makes these arguments in a powerful, compelling way in his book A Refutation of Moral Relativism: Interviews with an Absolutist (Ignatius Press 1999). See also Dr. Kreeft's website for excerpts and audio from his book.
Subsequent philosophers have expounded upon these relativistic themes and thoughts. Plato writes through his character Callicles in Gorgias that man by nature seeks power and the stronger, superior man appears to have the natural right to dominate the weaker members of society. Such a notion finds a home in Darwin’s The Origin of Species and in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and his concept of the “overman,” though even Nietzsche warns of the dangers of individual relativism. The “elitist” nature and philosophy of relativism have been manifested throughout the course of human history in many individuals, including the person of Adolph Hitler, in many practices, including slavery, racism, infanticide and ethnic cleansing, and continues to do so today, particularly with regard to terrorism, realpolitik, globalization and international affairs.
You should recall too that Plato's work The Republic dealt with cultural relativism and other prevailing philosophies in ancient Greece. It is a work that you will (or at least should) encounter often throughout your college years in many different contexts. In a well-studied passage at the outset of his work, Plato debates the meaning of Justice through his characters Socrates and Thrasymachus. The latter character appears as a cultural relativist and contends that Justice is nothing more than a societal concept that always serves the interests of the stronger party or parties. Socrates through questioning and clarification casts significant doubt on Thrasymachus' cogent arguments and provides a platform by which Plato can further explore the depths and meaning of Justice, as well as the purposes of government and human nature. Like most, Plato cannot accept a notion of Justice that puts a wise, innocent man to death for teaching virtue and living a life of service to "the God" and mankind. The serious study of "Justice" is something every college student, and particularly Catholics, must begin to undertake in college. It will take you on a challenging journey that will touch on virtually every aspect of your humanities curriculum and can provide you with a substantial glimpse of the Divine in the process! It is well worth the effort - and it starts in a meaningful way, as The Republic does, with the rejection of relativistic notions concerning Justice and Truth!
A Critique of Relativism
It should come as no surprise that Pope Benedict vehemently and repeatedly denounces the notion of relativism as meaning little more than "power trumps" and as an “evil” that ultimately harms every civilization that embraces it. In April 2005, then-Cardinal Ratzinger warned against "building a dictatorship of relativism" that rejects “anything as definitive and who’s ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” In 1996, Cardinal Ratzinger had called relativism "the central problem for the faith at the present time." In his 2002 work Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (Ignatius Press 2003), Cardinal Ratzinger again called relativism “the central problem” and noted that “there are things that are wrong and can never become right (killing innocent people, for instance; denying individuals the right to be treated as humans and to a way of life appropriate to that); there are things that are right and can never become wrong. In the realm of politics and society, therefore, one cannot deny relativism a certain right. The problem is based on the fact that it sees itself as being unlimited. And now it is quite consciously applied to the field of religion and ethics.” (Truth and Tolerance @ 118-19). Like his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI continues to warn that relativism, by rendering one’s experience all-important, detaches itself from what is actually good and true and thereby ultimately leads “not to genuine freedom, but to moral or intellectual confusion, to a lowering of standards, to a loss of self-respect, and even to despair.” ( World Youth Day Address, Barangaroo, Sydney Harbour, July 17, 2008 ).
The notion of subjective or ethical relativism at its core is illogical, impractical, inherently contradictory and contrary to many of the fundamental truths of reality as they are taught by Jesus Christ and His Church. As Catholics, we are not a relativistic people. We are (or should be) believers and witnesses to the Nicene Creed of our forefathers and the truth of Jesus Christ as the second person of the Holy Trinity. We stand convinced as a people of God that objective truth, sin, good and evil actually and truly exist and that a living, just and merciful God offers His love, redemption and salvation to all of mankind. Our Christian consciences must be properly challenged by and formed through the Word of God and the traditions of our one, holy, universal, and apostolic Church. A plethora of good books, works and websites are readily available to help you further the study of your faith, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the many books and works cited throughout this website. From them all, the message is clear with regard to ethical relativism, i.e., it is not a logical, practical or desireable approach to morals and values.
Despite these words, many Christian students will continue to struggle with their faith, upbringing, experience and benevolent nature. We all recognize the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments and the well-known scriptural warning to judge not, lest ye be judged. We all understand that Jesus’ love, mercy and compassion have filled us with a sincere desire to give people the benefit of the doubt and the need to offer forgiveness for wrongs done even to us. As a result, we often hesitate to reject relativism and to give this theory the benefit of the doubt – particularly when we have doubts about some aspect of our own Christian religion. We may even begin to believe that Catholicism is <gasp!> consistent with ethical relativism. It is not.
In his classic, bestselling book The Closing of the American Mind, Professor Allan Bloom uses insights gained through more than 30 years of teaching in higher education to peer directly into the hearts, minds and souls of the American student. (See, generally, A. Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, pp. 25-6, 38-9 (Simon & Schuster 1987)). At their core, he finds students with backgrounds, experiences and opinions as diverse as America but uniform in their belief that openness and tolerance are the sole and meaningful virtues that serve “as the great insight” of the times. To Professor Bloom, it is relativism that makes this “insight” plausible given the diverse, competing claims to truth and the apparent differences in human beings and their ways of life. As a result, the view that truth is relative becomes acceptable to students without much scrutiny given to the proposition. Harvard Professor Harvey Cox refers to his students in similar fashion as “benevolent but uncomfortable relativists.” H. Cox, When Jesus Came To Harvard: Making Moral Choices, pg. 8 (Houghton Mifflin 2004). Professor Bloom observes that according to the relativist’s view, actual or “absolute” truth becomes the enemy of tolerance and is perceived to be the agent of intolerance. From this perspective, Professor Bloom observes that the limiting, shortsighted nature of cultural relativism easily serves to confuse and ultimately to destroy the concepts of natural rights, our own reason, the true ends of education and goodness itself. It is the uncritical acceptance and tolerance of everything that by, its very nature, renders relativism impractical, destructive, intolerant and unable to open itself to the very virtue of openness that it seeks to promote. Put another way, “[w]hen man is shut out from the truth, he can only be dominated by what is accidental or arbitrary.” J. Cardinal Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, pp. 191 (Ignatius 2004).
In actuality, the notion that truth is relative is little more than an illusion. If you are fortunate, you will be provided with materials at some point during your college studies that are critical of the concept of ethical relativism. Strive to understand the logic of the arguments that are made against ethical relativism even if you are not yet comfortable with objective or critical thought. This is a tremendous opportunity to work with an intellectual concept in order to learn to think critically and to gain critical insights that can be used in many ways throughout (and way beyond) your college years.
Ethical relativism is not generally considered to be a credible theory of morality or ethics. According to Princeton University Professor Robert George, "it seems the heyday of moral relativism is over, . . ." R. George, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis, p. 18 (ISI Books 2001). The discipline of ethics highlights "normative" theories of ethics, meaning concepts of right and wrong as they should or ought to be. The validity of Relativism as an anthropological, sociological or philosophical theory is rooted in its descriptive nature. The doctrine also has an inherent focus or bias in favor of our differences over common human experience. As a result, it is not well-suited as a basis for ethics and a discerning eye will readily spot many of the inconsistencies, impracticalities and the illogical, contradictory nature of the doctrine. For example, relativism often preaches tolerance as its supreme or universal virtue, though it denies any such virtues or universal truths exist. If intolerance or intolerant cultures are not morally equivalent to tolerant persons or cultures, then relativism actually promotes an universal virtue! Indeed, the very notion that there are no moral absolutes lies at the core and teachings of ethical relativism and is itself an absolute statement. The result: relativism is illogical and contradictory at its very core!
The oft-cited article by Professor Shaw mentioned above (“Relativism in Ethics”) is a familiar article that examines the "truth" of relativism. Shaw raises several reasonable and significant concerns about the theory of cultural relativism that he believes must be addressed in critical fashion before he could consider relativism to be a “coherent” ethical theory. Initially, Shaw ponders the thought that non-relativistic ways or methods may explain moral decisions in many circumstances and questions the correctness of the relativists’ central belief that the views of society are conclusive on matters of right and wrong. Many moral and enlightened individuals do not equate law with morality in a determinative or conclusive fashion and many more recognize that laws legalizing slavery, racial discrimination and a myriad of other practices can be rightfully considered to be morally wrong and unjust. Yet, Shaw reminds us that a cultural or ethical relativist would not condemn the legal practice of slavery nor the lawful slaveowner but rather the one criticizing slavery because any attempt to project the standards of one society onto another is viewed as ethnocentric and illegitimate. To a cultural relativist, “[w]hatever a society takes to be morally right really is right for it.” J. Arthur, Morality and Moral Controversies at pg. 38. Even dissenters who protest “injustice” within that same society can be perceived as encouraging illegitimate or immoral conduct if the dissent involves lawful conduct or actions that are acceptable to the majority. To a cultural relativist, the society or culture always defines right and wrong and society or culture is always infallible or "right" by definition and cannot be otherwise judged. Professor Shaw demonstrates how nonsensical the cultural relativist’s mindset can be in this regard.
In addition, Shaw raises substantial issues with regard to defining what is morally permissible in a given society or culture. (See Morality and Moral Controversies at pg. 39). Many people are members of several different societies or cultures at the same time. Defining the culture or society is the first practical difficulty a cultural relativist faces. Shaw asks a few simple, fundamental questions such as what constitutes a majority in any given society – 51%, 75%, 90% approval of the population? What happens if no majority exists, is discernible or can be sustained in a given society once a law passes? What happens in large nations like the United States if regions, states or even local communities have majority views that are culturally different from the nation as a whole? Do cultures and subcultures in a society count in determining the “societal” view? How are they defined and can an individual belong to more than one culture, subculture, etc. if there are overlapping loyalties, cultures or societies? One can see that by merely raising important questions like these, a refinement of thought on the part of any cultural relativist becomes essential – one that for a relativist must lead inevitably to only one societal standard by which any member of that society can be judged.
Shaw comes to the express realization that “ethical relativism must be false as a theory of normative ethics” after considering the relativist’s view that a society’s definition of morality or its moral practices may change from time to time “but they do not get better or worse.” Ibid. To a cultural relativist, the moral code of any given society is equal to, no better or no worse than that of any other. There is no meaningful or cognizable standard, therefore, by which to compare, criticize, praise or improve upon any societal moral code since to do so would be ethnocentric and would bespeak the verboten concepts of right and wrong, moral mistakes and moral progress. Such verbiage of a cultural relativist means little to Shaw, particularly when the random practices of infanticide or torturing children are considered acceptable. For Shaw, these foundational notions of cultural relativism are unreasonable, impractical, and simply too much to bear for those endowed with reason and common sense. University of San Diego Professor Lawrence Hinman says of ethical relativism that “[a]ll it can tell us is that everyone is right in his or her own world. But the question for the future is how to determine what is right when worlds overlap.” See L. Hinman, A Pluralistic Approach to Contemporary Moral Issues: Diversity and Consensus, Introduction at xv (3rd Ed.)(Pearson/Prentice Hall 2006)(ethical relativism “proves to be singularly unhelpful in the long run . . . . fails to provide guidance for resolving disagreements”).
Professor Mary Midgley also scrutinizes the assumptions and implications of cultural relativism in another commonly-studied article entitled “Trying Out One’s New Sword” and concludes that relativism is neither practical nor comprehensible as an ethical theory. See J. Arthur, Morality and Moral Controversies, pp. 33-36; L. Vaughn, Doing Ethics, p. 37 (W.W. Norton & Co. 2007). In her article, Midgley tests the efficacy and practicality of cultural relativism by invoking the ancient Japanese samurai practice of trying out one’s new sword on an unsuspecting, innocent victim prior to using it in battle, a custom that is horrific by all measures of civilized society today. Midgley believes that the power of moral judgment is a necessity and that, notwithstanding this recognition, the cultural relativist will try to justify the barbaric samurai practice as right, moral and just in accordance with his values, customs and principles. Not only will he try to get you to understand such a practice, Midgley contends, but the relativist defender will more than likely try to persuade you to agree with his customs and principles. By doing this, Midgley exposes the hypocrisy of the relativist and the implausibility of adhering to the fundamental, relativist principles that: (a) prohibit judgment, and (b) claim that foreign customs or practices could never really be understood! Midgley rightfully contends that we are able to make reasonable judgments about cultures that we do not fully understand by critical inquiry and reference to basic moral principles and, moreover, that even a relativist would have us do so by attempting to solicit a favorable response, including our agreement, to the practice being discussed. Put more simply, to respect another is to render a favorable judgment about him or his culture. See also L. Vaughn, Doing Ethics at pp. 28-9. Judgment, therefore, is a moral necessity and, as Midgley says, when we find something to be a serious moral truth or principle in one culture, we must apply serious moral truths or principles to other cultures if we are to take those other cultures seriously, particularly our own which is often difficult to comprehend. In this regard, cultures help us to identify and evaluate “the range of comparison, the spectrum of alternatives against which we set what we want to understand.” Arthur, Morality and Moral Controversies, p. 35; Vaughn, Doing Ethics, p. 38.
As Midgley suggests, a cultural relativist must be truly non-judgmental to avoid hypocrisy and, if that is attainable, the relativist is in actuality a moral isolationist. Midgley views moral isolationism itself as immoral precisely because it prohibits reasonable judgments and often serves as cover for intellectual laziness, ordinary ignorance and prejudice. She reminds us that learning, judging and thinking critically are, in fact, hard work – the very type of hard work that our ancestors engaged in and that we must continue to undertake to be educated, respectful and just people. Midgley even posits that our own culture, a diverse, pluralistic society, could never have been formed under isolating relativistic principles since they generally presuppose a separate, unmixed culture or society.
Thus far, we have seen that there are many criticisms of ethical relativism that can be made solely on the basis of logic and reason. It is a concept that seeks to deny the existence and possibility of absolute truth while simultaneously being premised on the absolute notion that no absolute truth exists! This apparent contradiction is found at the very core of the concept of relativism, a concept that, ironically, would not exist but for this absolute statement. So let’s recap just a few of the persuasive reasons why ethical relativism is not a credible moral theory to anyone with good common sense:
1. If no ultimate truth exists, no moral code is universally correct or absolutely superior to any other. To fail to recognize universal, moral principles is to fail to focus on obvious similarities and notions of human dignity, justice and universal human rights.
2. Ethical Relativism merely validates or justifies one’s own choices, passions and desires and is NOT a credible theory of morality.
3. Ethical Relativism, with its emphasis on power and acceptance, vitiates Truth and renders it irrelevant.
4. Pragmatism and Moral Realism, emphasizing practicality and usefulness, render everything negotiable and make “morality” nothing more than the equivalent of self-interest.
5. Cultural Relativism, by stressing conformity is not progressive but is regressive and trivializes or contravenes notions of individuality and individual relativism.
6. Relativism is itself inherently contradictory in that it is premised on the truth of an absolute, i.e., either that tolerance is a universal virtue or that there are no moral or universal truths.
7. Ethical Relativism is rooted in the virtue of power, serving as both a sword and a shield, requiring one not to judge what one does not understand yet freeing one’s own decisions from effective scrutiny and requiring their acceptance as an equally "right" way.
8. Ethical Relativism distorts and destroys the notion of "respect" and renders true respect, praise, progress, right and wrong, mistakes, etc. irrelevant and obsolete as judgmental notions.
9. Ethical Relativism is simply wrong since all opinions are NOT of equal value or merit.
10. Ethical Relativism is erroneously premised on the notion that people are incapable of sufficiently understanding other cultures and individuals to judge them.
11. Cultural Relativism is subjective in that it is difficult to objectively define one’s culture or society and its cultural or societal morality. Many belong to subcultures or identify with more than one culture or tradition.
12. Relativistic tendencies predispose one to resist thinking deeply and respectfully about philosophical and moral controversies and tends to result in intellectual laziness since it’s easier to accept all opinions than it is to sort through them thoughtfully.
In a lengthy but compelling passage in "Evangelium Vitae", at sections 19 and 20, Benedict XVI’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, teaches us that the notion of relativism, when applied to society, ultimately renders everything negotiable, negates and destroys true freedom and human dignity, betrays the foundations and ideals of democracy, and causes the sense of the divine and the sacred to be lost:
“The theory of human rights is based precisely on the affirmation that the human person, unlike animals and things, cannot be subjected to domination by others. We must also mention the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection. . . .
At another level, the roots of the contradiction between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in the notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them. While it is true that the taking of life not yet born or in its final stages is sometimes marked by a mistaken sense of altruism and human compassion, it cannot be denied that such a culture of death, taken as a whole, betrays the individualistic concept of freedom, which ends up by becoming the freedom of ‘the strong’ against the weak who have no choice but to submit.
It is precisely in this sense that Cain’s answer to the Lord’s question: ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ can be interpreted: ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Gen 4:9). Yes, every man is his ‘brother’s keeper’, because God entrusts us to one another. And it is also in view of this entrusting that God gives everyone freedom, a freedom which possesses an inherently relational dimension. This is a great gift of the Creator, placed as it is at the service of the person and of his fulfillment through the gift of self and openness to others; but when freedom is made absolute in an individualistic way, it is emptied of its original content, and its very meaning and dignity are contradicted.
There is an even more profound aspect which needs to be emphasized: freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth. When freedom, out of a desire to emancipate itself from all forms of tradition and authority, shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth, which is the foundation of personal and social life, then the person ends up by no longer taking as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed, his own selfish interest and whim.
20. This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself. Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to make his own interests prevail. Still, in the face of other people’s analogous interests, some kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual. In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is opening to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.
This is what is happening also at the level of politics and government: the original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people – even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the ‘right’ ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way, democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The State is no longer the ‘common home’ where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of the public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part. The appearance of the strictest respect for legality is maintained, at least when the laws permitting abortion and euthanasia are the result of a ballot in accordance with what are generally seen as the rules of democracy. Really, what we have here is only the tragic caricature of legality; the democratic ideal, which is only truly such when it acknowledges and safeguards the dignity of every human person, is betrayed in its very foundations: ‘How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In the name of what justice is the most unjust of discriminations practiced: some individuals are held to be deserving of defense and others are denied that dignity?’ When this happens, the process leading to the breakdown of a genuinely human co-existence and the disintegration of the State itself has already begun.
To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.’ (Jn 8:34).”
Professor Allan Bloom opens his book The Closing of the American Mind with a lament that his students saw the relativity of truth as “a moral postulate, the condition of a free society” that simply contravened the charter documents of the American nation. (pg. 25). The virtue of openness, Bloom says, had “won out over natural rights” in a Stalinist sort of way and the Constitution was somehow transformed via a relativistic approach to openness, freedom and equality into a promise of respect for blacks, Catholics, Jews, and all minority groups rather than its clear founding intent to serve as a “protection of the rights of individual human beings.” Bloom, Closing of the American Mind at pp. 33-34; see also article entitled "Allan Bloom and America." Pope Benedict XVI too agrees that relativism seems to be the current foundational basis for our democracy – which is said to be founded on no one’s being able to claim the right way forward – but which remains fatally flawed because it perceives itself to be “unlimited in scope.” Truth and Tolerance, pg. 118. Recall the words of Pope John Paul II above: “Freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth.”
The Church and its Popes clearly teach us that “freedom attains its full development only by accepting the truth. In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation and man is exposed to the violence of passion and to manipulation, both open and hidden.” John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, Sec. 46 (1991). As Catholics, we understand and appreciate that “[t]he Church is not in the business of designing and running governments” but we also recognize that the Church’s business requires it to form people who understand that true freedom “leads to genuine human flourishing.” G. Weigel, The Truth of Catholicism, p. 155 (Harper Perrenial 2001); see also Pope Benedict XVI, Charity in Truth, Par. 60. In this way, our freedom, virtues, values and goodness become “intimately” and “inextricably related.” The Truth about Catholicism, pp. 78-80. As Weigel writes, "[t]he Catholic Church thinks about democracy through the prism of its convictions about the nature of human beings, their hunger for goodness, and their yearning for a freedom that truly liberates." Ibid at p. 155. Relativists and the many critics of the Church like to exalt their openness and tolerance and often claim that the Church itself is intolerant or worse, not compatible with democracy. Such a claim is far from true and, in actuality, misunderstands both the meaning of “tolerance” and the nature of the church. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have consistently called the Church’s members to holiness and a “universal openness” to facilitate and encourage all so that they may find in the Church “the unsearchable riches of Christ,” and may through its advent nature come to be saved, have life to the fullest and know the Truth in Him. See: I Tim. 2:4; Ephesians 3:8; John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, Sec. 4, 11 (1979). As author George Weigel writes:
Tolerance, the Pope [John Paul II] was suggesting, does not mean avoiding differences, on the ground that there is “your truth” and “my truth” but nothing that both of us could ever recognize as the truth. Genuine tolerance means exploring and engaging differences, especially differences about ultimate things, within a profound respect – a respect for all those whose very humanity compels them to search for answers to the deeper questions of life. That is the respect demanded by the Catholic faith.”
G. Weigel, The Truth of Catholicism, p. 15 (Harper Perrenial 2001). The quest leads us to ponder the origins and scope of the natural law as well as the foundations of our own freedom, human dignity and religious liberties. Once one does, perhaps Professor Robert George’s assertion of the superiority of our natural law principles over secularism will become evident. R. George, A Clash of Orthodoxies: (ISI Press 2001). The suppression of the natural rights foundation of America, principles that John Locke clearly realized, may be the cracked door through which we have attained a living, evolving, relativistic Constitution. The Good News is, well . . . "the Way, the Truth and the Life."