One of the “big questions” of the Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life (VHML) project at the University of Chicago asks whether self-transcendent orientation helps ordinary virtuous activity. In her 2015 blog post, Dr. Candace Vogler noted how, on the one hand, the terms virtue, happiness, and meaning of life appear in “broad, educated, popular culture,” but on the other hand, self-transcendence does not.
In a blog post earlier this year I introduced a conceptualization of transcendence as something native to the human experience. Beginning with a simple dictionary definition of the verb “transcend”: “a) to rise above or go beyond the limits of; b) to triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of: to overcome,” I went further to define transcendence as an experiential meaning-making process (Fig. 1) that helps a person form extraordinary connections both within and beyond the self with others, in time and space. A transcendent orientation, then, would be some natural part of our human construction. Transcendence as I have defined it can have an iterative quality, and if sufficiently repeated with personally relevant, extraordinarily positive or negative events, could reinforce or strengthen one’s transcendent orientation. I omit the “self-” prefix to transcendence because that aspect is included in my definition of transcendence above. The relationship between transcendent orientation and ordinary virtuous activity may then be explored in many ways. One possible approach, for example, would be to posit and test whether those with a sufficiently strong transcendent orientation will be more likely incorporate virtuous activities in one’s ordinary, day-to-day life, than those with a weak transcendent orientation.
In my dissertation, I defined transcendence as a process rather than as an event or state of being, making it potentially trackable. The process also has at least two possible outcomes: a) stabilization of one’s sense of self, allowing the person to more firmly root himself or herself in response to the question: “What am I?” and b) extraordinary connections within and beyond the self, giving the person coordinates within space-time, tagged with the memory of specific, meaningful events. These coordinates in moral space could then be referenced in future situations. My dissertation tracked transcendence, its inputs, and its outputs in resilient American service members who survived a POW experience and wrote about it later. It confirmed the presence of this process when they attempted to establish meaning with extraordinary, personally relevant, positive or negative experiences during their imprisonment.
Anti-transcendence, the contrary to transcendence, can also happen, in which attempts to make meaning of personally relevant, extraordinarily negative events fail. These kinds of events carry anti-transcendent markers, or those that would normally inhibit meaning-making from occurring. In the case of anti-transcendence, an unresolvable clash has occurred between the event and the person’s meaning-making apparatus, and the person is unable to surmount those anti-transcendent markers. Anti-transcendence only occurs when a person fails to attach proper meaning to a personally relevant and extraordinarily negative event. If the person fails to make meaning of a personally relevant, extraordinarily positive event, that memory eventually gets relegated to the realm of everyday events with no significant outcome. Such an event carries markers that would normally catalyze meaning-making, but a failure to establish meaning of such a positive event is unlikely to carry negative effects. This latter occurrence is not anti-transcendence; rather, the event simply exits meaning-making, perhaps to re-enter at a later time, or never again.
Anti-transcendence can result in one of two deleterious outcomes: a) destabilization of one’s sense of self and b) severing of extraordinary connections within and beyond the self. Anti-transcendence was detected in two of the Vietnam War POW memoirs I analyzed in my dissertation, both of which occurred shortly after their “breaking points” under torture. One service member experienced destabilization of his sense of self, describing that he was at the point of suicide and was reduced to an animal. The other experienced a sense of severing the extraordinary connection he had with his fellow POWs; he stated if he ever saw his fellow POWs, he wouldn’t be able to hold his head up, experiencing a profound sense of shame. He initially self-identified as a “failure” in this moment of anti-transcendence before entering a subsequent round of transcendence in which meaning was successfully established of his breaking point, with the help of his fellow POWs, and those extraordinary connections were reestablished. I believe that a deeper study of both transcendence and anti-transcendence is necessary to inform the relationship between a transcendent orientation and ordinary virtuous activity. Transcendence may reinforce or strengthen that orientation, while anti-transcendence may diminish or disrupt it.
Recently, I had the opportunity to take a two-year assignment with a community of men who regularly ponder and discuss the big questions that The Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life project has posited over the past two years. The Oblates of the Virgin Mary (OMV) is an international congregation of Roman Catholic priests and brothers, trained in giving the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and seasoned in the realm of spiritual discernment. They also understand openness to transcendence, which might be analogous to the idea of transcendent orientation, as native to human experience. Openness to transcendence as an inherent quality of the human person is taught as part of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church (paragraph #130).
I sat down with sixteen of them one evening in their US-based seminary. These men hailed from such places as Nigeria, Brunei, the Philippines, Mexico, Canada, Minnesota, California, Florida, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and other parts of the United States. They came with equally diverse educational backgrounds, including tradesmen and those with undergraduate and/or advanced degrees in theology, history, physics, computer science, robotics, nursing, journalism, film, molecular biology, psychiatry, accounting/business, and more. We were gathered that day to discuss their founder’s writings, who thought deeply about and acted on the idea that there is an ultimate good worth striving for, which extends far beyond one’s own personal or immediate needs. Venerable Bruno Lanteri founded the OMV as a spiritual community over 200 years ago with a mission that was directed towards the ultimate good of others in the Piedmont region of Italy and the surrounding regions. It grew to serve thousands of people all over the world. Today the men of this community carry on that mission in Europe, the Philippines, Nigeria, the Amazon region in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and the USA.
Although I did not plan or anticipate that this discussion would relate to the VHML project or transcendence, it turned out that the group chose to spend a significant portion of the evening talking about a potentially linked concept: spiritual joy. Spiritual joy is a topic preserved in the writings of their founder. It is an outcome of deep thinking about goods that go beyond one’s own comfort or immediate gratifications. This reflection is not meant to be an exhaustive academic treatment of the topic, but rather an account of the discussion that yielded some potentially useful concepts in the quest for a deeper understanding of transcendence.
Let’s begin with Ven. Bruno’s definition of spiritual joy:
“Spiritual joy is a joyous affection of heart produced through sufficient thought about present spiritual goods. What are these goods? Participation in the divine nature (as children of God), union with Jesus Christ, being in the bosom of the Church as her sons, God’s special protection, the gifts of the theological virtues, the sacraments, the communion of saints, grace, friendship with God, the merits of our actions, the glory of heaven that is already almost ours because of the firm hope we have…this is the joy that we must seek.” [The Spiritual Writings of Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri: A Selection, pg. 91 – 92]
This joyous affection of the heart required the activity of “sufficient thought” on a subject, “present spiritual goods.” I asked these priests and seminarians to say more about how they understood this dynamic. One priest said, “At Mass, I think people can mistake joy for irreverence. Going to church should be enjoyable. It should be something that brings a smile to your face because you’re with your community, you’re with your brothers and sisters. I think that’s the way God intended it, and we in the modern world seem to be missing out on that spiritual joy that should be present.” A seminarian reflected on what attracted him to this congregation on his first visit: “Spiritual joy was one of the most memorable experiences I had on my visit. Being in community here for the first time gave me a sense of joy, ‘at home-ness,’ a place where I could be comfortable.” The sharing in joy was very attractive to him. Both men gave considerable thought to certain present spiritual goods that Lanteri mentioned, but these reflections weren’t made in a vacuum. Personally relevant, extraordinary events, like worship, or a “come-and-see” visit in the midst of vocational discernment were “inputs.” Both also noted the importance of a certain outcome: making extraordinary connections beyond oneself, perhaps the beginnings of solidarity.
They went further to say that spiritual joy can be contagious. When I asked how it gets spread, they responded that it can happen at the personal and the communal level. They said that it can be spread by how one authentically exudes spiritual joy in the public square, treating others with the kindness and gentleness that stems from one’s personal, close, relationship with Jesus. A community, if filled with the kind of focus on the spiritual goods that Lanteri mentioned, can also help spread that spiritual joy.
Curious about what opposes the “contagiousness” of spiritual joy, I also asked them how they think it is quenched in the world, since several of them cited its lack or absence in modern society. One seminarian mentioned that many people simply fail to recognize it when it happens. In other words, people may have experiences of spiritual joy, but because they do not know how to recognize it, they fail to make meaning of it, and it is soon forgotten. This would reflect a similar dynamic in my model of transcendence, when a person fails to make meaning of a personally relevant, extraordinarily positive event, and it gets relegated to the realm of everyday events. Another seminarian mentioned that people sometimes need to be reminded to ask the Lord for it, to actively seek it by pondering those present spiritual goods more deeply.
They also drew on their experience in discernment of spirits when discussing how spiritual joy may be quenched. These priests and brothers use St. Ignatius’ rules of discernment, which describe the actions of three sources of information on the discerner: God, the human discerner himself or herself, and the devil (also known as the enemy of human beings). This community is intensely trained in these rules and in giving the Spiritual Exercises, which incorporate those rules on retreat. I asked them what they thought were the top strategies of the enemy to quench spiritual joy in the modern world. The first response came from a senior priest. “Disruption of community life. If you disrupt community, you can disrupt everything.” Community could mean neighborhoods, parish communities, or religious communities. These were places where people live and work together on a day-to-day basis, calling for the practice of ordinary virtuous activity. One seminarian also noted how fomenting jealousy and taking offense where none was intended can also quench spiritual joy. Another seminarian noted that preventing sufficient thought about spiritual goods was a way to prevent spiritual joy from ever occurring, which could be caused either by oneself or by the work of the enemy. For example, in a later passage of Ven. Bruno’s writings, one could lose sight of spiritual joy by one’s own sloth, sins, or by tribulations and adversity. Alternatively, the devil could also work against a person’s concentration on present spiritual goods by offering temptations or distractions. The seminarian recalled a literary example of such a tactic in his reading of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The demon Screwtape recalls the danger of awakening a person’s reason, and tells the story of a “patient” he had, who was an atheist, and used to read in a museum. Rather than allow arguments to form in the mind of this reader, he suggested to his patient that it was just about time for lunch, knowing that getting him back into the street would prevent him from thinking further.
When discussing the antidotes to these diabolical tactics, one mentioned the needed presence of gentle, well-formed leaders with the proper training to help unify communities. A second mentioned the need to remind one another to seek and ask for spiritual joy from the Lord, in prayer, in spiritual direction, and by following the personal example of Jesus. A third recalled the importance of spreading good reading, the kind that encouraged the reader to keep pondering the present spiritual goods, and inspire him or her to do more for others.
Returning to one of the big questions of the Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life project, is it possible that self-transcendent orientation may affect ordinary virtuous activity? Dr. Vogler sketched out manifestations of self-transcendence in her 2015 post that includes working on behalf of bettering the community in a way that helps strangers; engaging in spiritual practices that allow one to participate in a community organized by the need to be right with one another and to show due reverence for the sacred; and acting in small ways or big ways that are guided by one’s relation to something bigger and better than oneself.
There is a profundity to her question. Perhaps one way to the answer could involve more conceptual digging upstream. For example, is it possible that transcendent orientation is reinforced or weakened by how people handle personally relevant, extraordinarily positive or negative events, which in turn, has a downstream effect on the presence, absence, frequency, or intensity of ordinary virtuous activity? Can transcendence, defined as process rather than event or state of being, shed some light on these dimensions of transcendent orientation? Time will tell. I am grateful to have spent some time with such thoughtful scholars in the VHML project and look forward to hearing more about where the dialogue goes. Cheers!
Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.
Pak, Cabrini. “Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis.” PhD diss., The Catholic University of America, 2017.
The Oblates of the Virgin Mary. The Spiritual Writings of Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri: A Selection. Italy: Oblates of the Virgin Mary, 2001.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Openness to Transcendence and Uniqueness of the Person.” Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2003.
Vogler, Candace. “Self-transcendence the missing link in research on virtue, happiness, and meaning in human life?” Oct. 22, 2015, The Virtue Blog, https://thevirtueblog.com/2015/10/22/self-transcendence-the-missing-link-in-research-on-virtue-happiness-and-meaning-in-human-life/, accessed Nov. 19, 2017.
 “Transcend,” Merriam-Webster dictionary website, accessed Mar. 4, 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transcend.
 Cabrini Pak, “Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis” (PhD diss., The Catholic University of America, 2017): 161; 172 – 173.
 “Transcend,” Merriam-Webster dictionary website, accessed Mar. 4, 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transcend.
If you’re in the area, we recommend this event hosted by our partner, The Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing and The University of Oklahoma, which is directed by our scholar Nancy Snow.
The Moral Life of Children: Toward a Richer Understanding
James D. Hunter, Ph.D.
LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion,
Culture and Social Theory
Executive Director, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture
University of Virginia
This is a free, public lecture.
Thursday, December 7, 2017
6:30 PM – 7:30 PM CST
Oklahoma Memorial Union, Scholars Room (3rd floor) 900 Asp Ave., Norman, OK
The world we live in—the world that children are inheriting—is complex, confusing and dangerous, but also filled with opportunity and possibility. To make one’s way in this world not only requires intelligence and sophistication, but even more, wisdom, courage, fortitude, hope and, not least, compassion. Are the ways that we understand the moral life of children today—and, in turn, are the resources we provide them—adequate to the challenges they face? There are good reasons to believe they are not. If that is the case, then we may need to rethink the paradigm of moral formation anew and from the ground up. It is an ambitious project, but one that is essential for all who are concerned for and care about the coming generation.
About Professor Hunter
Professor James Davison Hunter is LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia. Hunter has written nine books, edited three books, and published a wide range of essays, articles, and reviews—all variously concerned with the problem of meaning and moral order in a time of political and cultural change in American life. More recently, he published The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age without Good or Evil(2000), Is There A Culture War? A Dialogue on Values and American Public Life (with Alan Wolfe, 2006), and To Change the World (2010). These works have earned him national recognition and numerous literary awards. In 1988, he received the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion for Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. In 1991, he was the recipient of the Gustavus Myers Award for the Study of Human Rights for Articles of Faith, Articles of Peace. The Los Angeles Times named Hunter as a finalist for their 1992 Book Prize for Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. In 2004, he was appointed by the White House to a six-year term to the National Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2005, he won the Weaver Prize for Scholarly Letters.
Since 1995, Hunter has served as the Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Under his direction, the Institute sponsors university-wide colloquia, provides doctoral and post-doctoral research support, holds conferences, fields national surveys of public opinion on the changing political culture of late 20th and early 21st century America, and publishes an award-winning journal, The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture.
Note: This is a 3-part series of the essay Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and Moral Relativism.
Part III: Cultural Relativism
Many people come to affirm moral relativism because there is so much moral disagreement, both within a culture and across cultures. These people think that the fact that there is no agreement is a sign that there is nothing to agree about, no objective truth that cuts across cultures.
This disagreement isn’t recent either. Certainly the Jews and the Romans profoundly disagreed about how to live, about what was OK to do and say and what wasn’t. The ancient historian Herodotus, who was writing in mid fifth century BC, relates the following anecdote of the King of Persia:
He summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians…who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing (Herodotus 440BCE; trans. Sélincourt, 1988, pp. 219- 20).
Insofar as we take Herodotus to be putting forth a view here, it would be what we now call cultural relativism. This is a species of moral relativism insofar as it says that morality is relative to cultures, and it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally true for the people who are born into it. So, what is morally true for an aboriginal tribe in what is now called Australia is true for them but not true for we Americans, and vice versa.
Cultural relativism is a species of moral relativism. A cultural relativist believes that morality is relative to cultures, and that it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally acceptable and mandatory for the people who are brought up under them and for no one else.
A version of cultural relativism was put forward in 1947 by the American Anthropological Association, in response to the UN Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man. The AAA was against such a universal declaration on explicitly relativist grounds. They argued that moral belief and practice is entirely determined by culture and that there is no way to legitimately demonstrate that the values or customs of one culture are superior to any other. They further chastised western political institutions for imposing their own culturally situated ideology of “universal rights” upon other nations. In their statement on human rights, the anthropologists asked:
How can the proposed declaration be applicable to all human beings, and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America?[i]
Their worry was that the declaration of universal human rights was just colonialism masquerading as liberation. Unmask this, and all we are left with is the ideology of the “white man’s burden” all over again. So, instead of declaring a regime of universal rights that all cultures had to respect, the anthropologists argued for “respect for differences between cultures” which is “validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered.” (1947, 542) The anthropologists also claimed explicitly that:
Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any declaration of human rights to mankind as a whole. (Ibid)
The first thing to say about this fascinating document is that its appeal to science does no argumentative work. For just as there is no “scientific” method to “qualitatively evaluate” moral beliefs, there is also no “scientific” method to determine that qualitative measures are the only legitimate standards of knowledge. To say that science hasn’t yielded an adequate moral theory is just to state the obvious and pretend that something substantive follows from it. But we cannot infer from the fact that science doesn’t yield moral knowledge the conclusion that there can in principle be no moral knowledge, as moral knowledge may simply not be scientific in character.
Setting debates about what moral knowledge is aside, notice that here we have the familiar refrain to “respect diversity” rather than interfere and impose, because moral standards are relative to cultures, and that failure to recognize this belies a crude parochialism. This position doesn’t have to assume, by the way, that other cultures have to respect diversity as well, so it needn’t be self-defeating in the ways we have previously discussed. [There is a complication here, however, about a so-called “right of men to live in terms of their own traditions” casually asserted in the document, but let’s be charitable and pretend it isn’t there]. The statement just says that within our western culture we should respect diversity and be tolerant of cultures dramatically different from our own. This may mean, by the way, that women continue to be treated as inferiors to men and denied political rights, education, and any semblance of control over what happens to their bodies, that homosexuals may be executed, that honor killings may continue, or any other number of things that look like moral atrocities from our contemporary western point of view. The consistent cultural relativist will, on these matters, have to live and let live.
We can further complicate this issue. In her wonderful essay, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Mary Midgley describes the following custom of Samurai warriors in Medieval Japan:
There is, it seems, a verb in classical Japanese which means ‘to try out one’s new sword on a chance wayfarer.’ (The word is tsujigiri, literally ‘crossroads-cut’). A Samurai sword had to be tried out because, if it was to work properly, it had to slice through someone at a single blow, from the shoulder to the opposite flank. Otherwise, the warrior bungled his stroke. This could injure his honor, offend his ancestors, and even let down his emperor. So tests were needed, and wayfarers had to be expended. Any wayfarer would do.”[ii]
What interests me so much about this example is that it brings up yet another iteration of cultural relativism, what Bernard Williams has called “the relativism of distance.”[iii] Williams is deeply skeptical that one can judge any culture when there is significant historical distance between the judger and the time period judged. Williams thinks that moral beliefs are radically contingent, such that it would be a mistake to assume the authority to judge those who came before us. According to Williams, judging the past is basically an empty, self-congratulatory exercise; it is patting oneself on the back for having the good fortune to be born in more enlightened times. More specifically, Williams argues that appraisal of the past does not satisfy two conditions for genuine moral judgment: (1) shared interests and projects in common, and (2) a practical question of what to do.
What can we say to Williams or to our benighted anthropologists? Is it true that we should refrain from judging cultures? This is a difficult question, to be sure, because we should be wary of the dangers inherent to judging others—they are real. But one thing seems certain to me, and that is that adopting cultural relativism doesn’t solve the problem of our relationship to the past and to other cultures, but arguably just makes that relationship more strained and insincere.
For one thing, as Mary Midgley herself pointed out, if we adopt relativism in either sense, it makes learning from other cultures and time periods very difficult (if not impossible). For if we cannot censure another culture we also cannot praise it (for that too, would be to make a moral judgment about it, which I have blocked myself from doing). In order to enter into genuine dialogue and exchange with another culture or time period, we have to be able to identify what we find good and what we find bad in it—otherwise we are entirely closed off to it. If we cannot enter into this conversation, which depends on moral judgment, then we have no hope of converging on a shared worldview and we have no hope of genuine cultural exchange. A dialogue can only take place from where we are, a place of real commitments to specific values. Insofar as relativism asks us to give up our commitments, it asks us to be isolated and closed off from other cultures and time periods. It encourages us to see the other culture as radically other, thus blocking any genuine attempts to seek common ground and a common identity. This tends to drain the value out of historical and cross-cultural engagement, which can have dangerous political implications.
I want now finally to return to our opening remarks about the dictatorship of relativism. I want to suggest that there is something totalitarian about relativism after all.
When all truth is relative, which really means when there is no intelligible notion of truth at all, the rational discourse that is a necessary condition for a viable democracy becomes impossible. As rational animals, we cannot escape the fact that we have to form beliefs and make choices that are informed by them, and we cannot escape the fact that some of these beliefs are going to inform our most basic social institutions. Some values of necessity must prevail over others. If we refuse to acknowledge any objective measures of truth that are publicly accessible and in principle available to anyone, then all we have left to determine which beliefs and values determine social life is individual or collective will to power (whether this be the will of the oppressor class to maintain its status, or the will of the oppressed classes to gain power, is of no matter). In such social conditions, the clever and ruthless will prevail, and in absence of the power to persuade people to follow them, they will have to resort to violence to ensure that their private vision prevails over its competitors.
So freedom and equality really do depend on truth, they really do depend on some publicly accessible measure to which those in power can be held to account. And so we were wrong to think that relativism is a friend to democracy and equality. Quite the contrary, it is its enemy. For truth helps us to transcend ourselves; without truth, we inevitably collapse into ourselves, into our own private needs and desires. In that condition, we will either dominate or be dominated; either way, we will not be truly free.
[i] “Statement on Human Rights” American Anthropologist, Vol. 49, No. 4, part 1 (Oct-Dec, 1947), pp. 539-543.
[ii] Mary Midgley, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Heart and Mind, St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
[iii] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Routledge, 2011.
Note: This is a 3-part series of the essay Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and Moral Relativism. Part I was “Why worry about moral relativism?”
Part II: Partial relativism and skepticism
People may think that what they read in their chemistry, physics, and biology textbooks are objectively true, or at least, that there is some reality that could determine whether the claims in these books are true or false, but that there is no objective truth to be found in a book on ethics, politics, or aesthetics. That is, one could think there are truth makers relative to some domains and no truth makers relative to another; in the latter sort of domain, all perspectives are equally valid because there is nothing that could serve as a measure to adjudicate between rival truth claims. Such a view would not be self-refuting. But that doesn’t mean that the view is any good (self-refutation is a pretty low bar for theorizing). I will limit myself to discussions of moral and cultural relativism.
Before I talk about what moral relativism is, let me stave off confusion by saying what it isn’t. It isn’t moral skepticism. The moral skeptic doubts our claims to possess moral knowledge. But this is not the denial of objective truth; rather, it is a denial that we have reliable access to that truth.
Alternatively, a skeptic may deny that moral claims function like regular beliefs at all. On this view, moral claims are just statements about one’s own personal preferences, such that moral disagreement is an illusion. Disagreement is an illusion because statements of preference are not truth-apt—they are not susceptible of being true or false. If I say I like ice cream, and you say ice cream is gross, we are not disagreeing about anything objective. We are saying something about ourselves—viz., that you and I have different reactions to eating ice cream; I have a pleasure response, and you don’t. Similarly, if I say I don’t like murder and you say you do, we aren’t disagreeing about objective facts about what it is ‘to kill the innocent’ but merely stating our own responses to it when it happens.
There are other forms of skepticism, but skepticism is not our topic. The moral relativist thinks there are no objective truths that could settle moral claims, but that moral claims do assert private or personal truths. Consider a moral disagreement like this: Lucy thinks that rape is impermissible is true, whereas Linus thinks that rape is permissible is true. Both claims can be equally true according to the relativist—true from each person’s first personal perspective. But neither claim is objectively true, and so neither claim demands our allegiance.
One thing that is weird about this point of view is that it can in principle have no practical upshot, because as soon as one tries to make moral relativism practical one is caught in a performative contradiction. For example, suppose you are at a frat party and you see Jack trying to rape Jane, who is only semi-conscious. Suppose you believe that rape is wrong—really, terribly wrong—in which case you will want to stop him. But you cannot stop him if you are an ethical relativist, because you will have no ground on which to do so. As a relativist you are committed to the belief that Jack’s value judgments are true for him and equally as good as your own, and Jack plainly doesn’t think that rape is wrong. Perhaps he thinks it expresses his will to power, or perhaps he thinks so long as he has drugged a woman and makes sure that she doesn’t get pregnant, then he isn’t really doing anything bad to her. Let us suppose that you are a decent person, so you are horrified by what Jack is doing and thinking. As a relativist, however, you have undermined any ground you might have otherwise had to object to his behavior. As an ethical relativist, you cannot impose your belief, your truth, on someone else. At best you can say that what he does is upsetting you, but of course, Jack will only stop if he cares about that. But Jack doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that puts other’s needs before his own; I mean, think about what he is doing to Jane. Hopefully you can see the problem.
All this is to say that the ethical relativist can only be a relativist in theory but not practice. That’s pretty weird, because we typically think that our ethical beliefs are supposed to translate into action—they are supposed to be practical. But now it looks like the only time this is possible is when my actions only concern me, because only then would I not be imposing on anyone else in trying to realize my own private vision of the good. Good luck identifying what actions those are! If you can find any—and I personally doubt that you can—they will certainly be few and far between. Most of what we do either directly involves others or affects others in fairly obvious ways.
This point about the practicality of judgments about the good is important, so I want to dwell on it a bit longer. I have already argued that we cannot escape making judgments and having beliefs—as creatures with an intellect, this is our plight. But we are not merely knowers, we are also actors, and so we have to deliberate from a first person perspective not only about what to believe but also about what to do. But just as the question about what to believe is transparent to the question about what is true, so also the question about what to do is transparent to the question about what is good or desirable to do. When we choose some action in some circumstances, we choose it because we think it is in some sense good (either that it is pleasant, that it is fitting, or that it is instrumentally useful to the attainment of some other good we are also trying to secure); alternatively, we choose some action because we think that it avoids some evil, but avoiding evil is just a way to maintain or preserve one’s good. So, just as the intellect orients us to the truth, the will orients us to the good. For this reason Aquinas says that the will is a rational appetite, it is a capacity or tendency to pursue what the intellect judges is good to pursue. But no one wants to choose what is merely apparently good—people want things that are really and truly good for them. According to Aquinas’s theory of vice (where vice is the opposite of virtue, the dispositions to act well), even the vicious person is after real human goods. For instance, the greedy man is after wealth, a real good; the greedy man’s trouble is that he wants this good inordinately, which causes him to wrong others and sacrifice higher goods, which ultimately causes him to wreck his life.
So, from within the first-person perspective of human experience—of deliberating, making choices, and acting—moral relativism looks like it is a denial of central and inescapable aspects of human experience. And this is because the moral relativist holds that there is no such thing as objective goods for humans to seek in their choices. But then choice itself starts to look pointless, if not impossible. For if choice isn’t about getting onto real goods, why choose anything at all? The very act of choice seems to depend on the thought that you can secure a real good for yourself—perhaps even a good life on the whole. And again, as rational animals who must make choices, a commitment to the pursuit of real goods seems to be our plight.
The fact that ethical relativism is deeply impractical and untrue to human experience certainly undercuts the motivation many had to adopt it in the first place. For if one adopted relativism because she was practically committed to advancing values like freedom, equality, and tolerance, she now finds herself in the awkward position of being unable to advocate effectively (if at all) on behalf of it, and equally unable to realize this value and maintain her relativism. For as soon as she tells someone else to be tolerant, she is contradicting herself. If tolerance, freedom, and equality are really goods, then they are truly goods, and things that are truly good ought to be realized in our individual and collective actions; indeed, we should arrange our lives and our societies so that we can secure and maintain these goods. Once we see that relativism undermines these possibilities, it becomes rather less appealing.
Tomorrow: Cultural Relativism
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.
Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and the Moral Life
Part I: Why worry about moral relativism?
The title of this essay, “Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and the Moral Life,” refers to Pontius Pilate’s question to Christ in John’s Gospel. Of course, it is hard to say what exactly Pilate’s intentions were in raising this question—perhaps it was to absolve himself of any consequences of his actions, perhaps it expresses his skepticism that truth is all that relevant to the deeply pragmatic and compromised political decisions he has to make, including the judicial condemnation and execution of an innocent man, or perhaps it is a deep skepticism that anyone can, as Christ says, “bear witness to the truth.” But however we interpret that scene, one thing is certain: Pilate’s question is a perennial and personal one for all of us; it has not and it will never go away. It is a question we will inescapably confront, again and again, precisely because, as rational animals—i.e., creatures with an intellect and will who make judgments, assertions, and choices—we cannot avoid seeking what is objectively true. The truth is inescapable for us because even if we try to say that there is no objective truth, we are thereby trying to say something objectively true. This reality about us, that we seek out and must conform ourselves to the truth in every sphere of human life, is what all forms of relativism, which is the denial of objective truth, attempt to deny.
But why should we worry about relativism? The answer is simple: because young people often think they have to be relativists. Certainly students in my classes, especially my classes in moral theory, are often scandalized by the idea of making truth claims. The tacit assumption they bring into my class is that making moral judgments is a bit presumptuous, illiberal, and worst of all, unkind. Of course, the intelligibility of these objections to making moral truth claims depend upon very serious moral truth claims of their own—viz., that it is truly bad to be illiberal and unkind, that humility is truly good, that it is truly good to respect one another’s life choices, and so on. I will return to this point later on. For now, I want us simply to notice the following interesting fact: that the principle reason to adopt moral relativism in the first place, which is the idea that there are no objective truths about what is good or bad in human life, depend upon moral beliefs that are taken to be objectively true. This self-contradictory stance is the first sign that there is something deeply wrong with moral relativism.
But perhaps the worry is deeper. Perhaps relativism is worse than just philosophically unserious or insufficiently reflective—perhaps it is positively bad for society and needs to be actively guarded against. Consider the following remarks from then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his homily to mark the beginning of the conclave that would eventually elect him Pope:
“We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”[i]
Ratzinger’s remarks are a bit cryptic and certainly dark. Obviously a dictatorship is something we don’t want to be building up unawares! But why would Ratzinger call relativism a dictatorship? If relativism is the idea that there is no objective truth such that all opinions are basically on a par, to many ears that sounds pretty democratic and tolerant, the exact opposite of an authoritarian dictatorship! Moreover, in a liberal, democratic society such as ours, in which we all have an equal right to determine the future course of things, relativism may present itself as the only workable perspective—viz., the only standpoint from which one can be truly liberal and respect others.
A natural response is to say that Ratzinger is getting things backwards. It isn’t relativism that oppresses us; rather it is the appeal to objective truth that is intrinsically illiberal—the real threat to individual liberty and personal autonomy. Relativism simply encourages everyone to “speak their own truth,” as Oprah would say, and to live according to their own personal and authentic vision of the good life.
In this talk, I am going to suggest that a truly liberal democratic order—one that preserves true freedom and equality—depends upon mutual recognition of and respect for objective truths, most especially, objective truths about the nature of human beings and human life, and what human beings need in order to live well and flourish together.
To show this, I will first go through a variety of kinds of relativism that one might encounter these days, arguing that each version is both problematic and unappealing. Along the way I will say a few things about what I think truth is generally, why truth is inescapable for us as rational animals, and why truth is necessary for a proper account of freedom.
- Varieties of Relativism
- Protagorean or global relativism
Not all relativisms are equal, and some are easier to dismiss than others. Let us begin with the most vulgar sort, the kind of thing well-meaning people sometimes say but don’t really believe. This is the sort of relativism that is often attributed to the Sophist Protagoras (a character we know about because of Plato’s discussions of him). Of course, being called a sophist is not a compliment, so as you can imagine, Plato was not a fan. The idea, roughly, is that there is no such thing as an objective measure of truth independent of us, so there is no way to adjudicate between your own beliefs and anyone else’s.
For example: Jane says that global temperatures are rising due to greenhouse gas emissions; Jack says that the current warming trends are part of the natural order of things, and that greenhouse gas emissions have made a negligible contribution to the current upward tick. The relativist comes along and says that there is no truth of the matter either way, because there is no mechanism that could serve as a measure to determine which belief, Jack or Jane’s, is objectively true.
We have to be careful here, because relativism isn’t just disagreement; after all, genuine disagreement depends on the idea that there is some objective truth and thus something to disagree about. Relativism also isn’t the skeptical claim that we cannot be certain about our access to reality—that the evidence is too complicated or tricky. Relativism is the much stronger claim that each belief is equally true or equally good qua belief. The world is as it appears to you, and the world is at it appears to me. But this is all that there is and there can be: mere appearances. Or, if we want to talk about reality, there is your reality and my reality, but we needn’t think these realities will converge upon a single reality independent of our own individual perspectives.
This view is famously self-refuting. Suppose that you go to study under Protagoras, and he tells you all about relativism. Why is he telling you this? Presumably he is trying to teach you something he believes is true. If he did not think it was true, why would he assert it and try to get you to believe it? It is obvious that, whether he admits it or not, Protagoras thinks that relativism is true, and not simply for him. And he has to think this, otherwise believing in, asserting, and teaching relativism to his students are pointless and absurd exercises. Protagoras’s theory is self-refuting, because its content is at odds with the nature and purpose of theorizing and teaching in general: putting something forward as true, as something that other right thinking people ought to believe.
To defend these claims I should say more about truth in general and how it relates to judgment, assertion, and belief. But first, let me say something about what I (following Aquinas) think truth is. Traditionally, philosophers have thought of truth as the way things are, so truth is related to being. Propositions—the judgeable contents of judgments, assertions and beliefs, like ‘it is raining now in Anchorage Alaska’—are either true or false. So, it either is the case or is not the case that ‘it is raining now in Anchorage.’ I don’t know, and so I don’t have a belief about it either way, but the way things are right now in Anchorage is going to settle whether anybody’s belief is good or bad.
Now, Aquinas thinks that truth is not simply the way things are but the way things are in relation to the intellect.[ii] The intellect, or the capacity for knowledge and understanding, relates one to being by way of truth. A judgment or belief is good or bad if it is true, and for it to be true is to relate the person to reality in the proper way. For instance, to know that there is a podium here is to be related to the podium in a certain way. As Aquinas says, it is an adequatio between the intellect and the thing (res).
So, to believe some proposition, p, just is to take p to be true; to assert something is to say that this is the way you take things to be. Aquinas would agree with the Harvard philosopher Richard Moran, who argues that belief is transparent to the truth.[iii] That is, from the first-person perspective, I treat the question of my belief about p as equivalent to the question of the truth of p. This means that if I am deliberating about whether to believe that it is raining in Anchorage, I am deliberating about whether it is true that it is raining in Anchorage, is to deliberate about whether it is actually the case that it is raining in Anchorage. When I am trying to make up my mind about what to believe, I am trying to figure out the truth—the activity of theoretical deliberation is unintelligible without reference to the truth.
To see how close the connection is between belief, truth, and reality, consider the following scenario. Imagine someone thinking to himself, as he looks out the window, that it’s raining, and then conjoining this with the thought that he doesn’t believe that it’s raining. This doesn’t seem possible. For this reason, Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that, “if there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely,’ it would not have any significant first-person present indicative.”[iv] The reason for this is that to believe something is to have settled the question for oneself about the way things are. Of course, I may be wrong. But to believe something is to make a claim that can in principle be correct or incorrect, and the measure here is truth, the way things are, or reality itself. From the first person perspective, the commitment to something beyond my own psychology is unavoidable. To believe and to judge is to transcend one’s own perspective, it is to put oneself in relation to things and to be held accountable to things beyond one’s self.
For this reason, Aquinas says that truth is that towards which the intellect tends by it nature, and that it is through intellect that we are open to reality. For Aquinas, truth is a relation between two terms, reality (res, things or beings) and intellect, our capacity to judge or know. I think we can think of truth in this sense as something along the lines of a constitutive principle, one that both defines and measures the activity of the intellect. That is, truth, as the constitutive aim of belief or judgment, both defines a belief as what it is—it is an aiming at truth—and it provides a measure of whether the belief is good or bad, because it is a good belief if it is true and a bad belief if it is false. As thinkers, believers, and asserters, we cannot escape truth. We are naturally and inescapably oriented towards truth in virtue of having an intellect in the first place—in virtue of being rational animals. We cannot turn our backs against the truth without thereby rejecting what we are.
Let us return now to global relativism. According to global relativism, everyone’s beliefs are true in a private sense. But now we can see that the idea of a private truth, of one’s own personal authentic truth, is nonsense. To make a judgment, form a belief, or to assert something is to do something essentially public; even if I never share my belief with anyone else, it still has an essentially public character, because belief makes a claim about the way things are independently of my perspective upon them. In judging, asserting, or believing, I am holding myself accountable to the world, to reality, which is a publicly accessible thing. Therefore, if you say you believe that there is no objective truth, no way that things really are, this amounts to saying that you don’t believe in belief. But of course, to say that you believe that there is no belief is to have a belief and to take that belief about belief to be true. There is no way to escape a commitment to truth; as rational animals, it is part of our nature.
This brings us back around to the ultimately self-defeating nature of global relativism. The relativist cannot help but assert his relativism, and in so doing, he cannot help but take it to be true for more than just himself. The relativist cannot escape what he is: a creature with intellect, by nature oriented to the truth.
Tomorrow: Partial relativism and skepticism
[ii] ST I Q16
[iii] Richard Moran, Authority and Estrangment, Princeton University Press, 2001
[iv] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. By G.E.M. Anscombe, Pearson, 1973.
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.
Note: This post is a reprint from the November 2017 article in Fulbright Hearts and Minds. The piece and more information about the Fulbright Specialist Program can be viewed here.
In August and September 2017, Professor Candace Vogler from the University of Chicago spent three weeks in residence at the Institute for Ethics & Society at The University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney, supported by a generous grant from the Fulbright Specialist Program.
Candace is a world leading moral philosopher, and one of the most creative minds at work today on how to translate the insights of moral philosophy into improving tertiary education environments.
Her expertise dovetails with the Institute for Ethics & Society’s research strengths in moral philosophy and ethics education.
Candace and researchers at Notre Dame share the conviction that integrating moral philosophy into university curriculums has a unique role to play in contributing to the intellectual and moral formation of all university students.
During her visit at Notre Dame, Candace delivered a public lecture, gave two keynote conference papers, taught a master-class on the history of moral philosophy, and facilitated a pedagogy workshop on creating community in the classroom.
She also consulted with researchers and senior leadership on how to develop connections between moral philosophy and professional education – a particular passion for Notre Dame in its commitment to providing an excellent standard of training for the professions.
The visit made a huge impact on students and faculty at Notre Dame, and led to the Institute for Ethics & Society being named an official partner institution with the University of Chicago’s $2.2m John Templeton Project “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life” – a partnership which will bring the Institute for Ethics & Society into a global community of scholars and allow it to further develop its research expertise in moral philosophy and ethics education.
Professor Sandra Lynch, Director of the Institute for Ethics & Society was responsible for the successful FSP proposal. “Winning this grant has opened many doors for us and stimulated our thinking, especially in relation to ethics education. Not only did we have the pleasure of engaging with and learning from Candace for three weeks, but the link has enabled us to begin building research linkages around the world.
“A number of our researchers have been admirers of Candace’s scholarship for many years. This grant has provided us with a pathway to continue benefitting from Candace’s expertise in the future, and we also expect it will provide a platform for discussion and dissemination of our research in years to come as we interact with scholars of moral philosophy and ethics education around the world.”
The impact of this specialist visit was also felt in the wider Australian academic community. Activities associated with her visit saw researchers and students from universities across Sydney, as well as from the University of Oxford, University College London, and Princeton Theological Seminary, gather at Notre Dame to learn from Candace.