Register for Wojciech Giertych,”The Moral Theology of Aquinas: Is it for Individuals?” and afternoon seminar on infused virtues, Feb 8-9

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We’re pleased to share these events presented by our partner, the Lumen Christi Institute. For further information, contact Michael Bradley, Communications and Events Coordinator, mbradley@lumenchristi.org.
On Thursday, February 8, the Theologian of the Pontifical Household, Wojciech Giertych,will deliver a lecture at the University of Chicago titled “The Moral Theology of Aquinas: Is It For Individuals?” The lecture is free and open to the public and will begin at 4:30pm. Registration is requested: https://www.lumenchristi.org/events/979.

On Friday, February 9, Giertych will lead an afternoon seminar for graduate students and faculty on “Grace, Free Choice, and the Infused Virtues.” The seminar will be held atGavin House, home of the Lumen Christi Institute. Registration is required. Seminar readings are available beforehand to participants. Please register here:https://www.lumenchristi.org/events/981

Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP, is Professor of Moral Theology at the Angelicum in Rome, where he has taught since 1994. In 1975, he entered the Polish Province of the Dominican Order. He studied theology in Kraków and was ordained a priest in 1981. For a number of years Fr. Giertych was a professor of moral theology and the Student Master, a formator, in the Dominican House of Studies in Kraków. In 1998, Fr. Giertych was called to the General Council of the Dominican Order, serving first as the Socius for Central and Eastern Europe, and then as the Socius for the Intellectual Life. In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Fr. Giertych the Theologian of the Papal Household – a position he currently holds under Pope Francis.

New and forthcoming books by our scholars

9781107155329Michael Gorman, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Catholic University of America is the author of Aquinas on the Metaphysics of the Hypostatic Union, June 2017, Cambridge University Press.

Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics at the University of Birmingham, is the author of Virtuous Emotions, forthcoming in May 2018, Oxford University Press.

Heather C. Lench, Associate Professor & Department Head, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M University, is an editor on the volume Functions of Emotion, Springer, in January 2018.

 

51fVH4MrJuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg514VAhuihzL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgOwen Flanagan, James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University is the author of The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral PossibilityOxford University Press, 2017 and co-editor of The Moral Psychology of Anger, forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield.

 

 

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Nancy Snow, Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing, edited The Oxford Handbook of Virtue, Oxford University Press; it includes a chapter on Aquinas by Candace Vogler.

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 Paul T. P. Wong,Founding President of the Meaning-Centered Counselling Institute, Inc., has a chapter in The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology, edited by Nicholas J. L. Brown, Tim Lomas, Francisco Jose Eiroa-Orosa. London, UK: Routledge.

Assessing the difference between meaning and purpose

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This is part 4 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

Part #4: Assessing the difference between meaning and purpose.

In the three previous posts, we saw that the question of the meaning of life is a late 19th Century invention, which effectively displaced what had previously been the dominant question about human life, namely its purpose or goal.  Now we may take stock of the significance of this shift.

 

To suppose that the question of “the meaning of life” is a timeless, universal question, would be to insist that it captures what is formulated in terms of the question about man’s ultimate end or good or purpose.  This would be very hard to sustain.  The question of the purpose of life, if taken seriously, is intrinsically teleological and essentialist.  It presumes that there is such a thing as true human fulfillment, rooted in human nature, which reflects a definite purpose or intention of its maker.  In Aristotelian terms, the question implicates three of the four causes: in asking about the end (final cause) of man, it presumes that there is an essential human nature (formal cause), which has been communicated to man from an agent (efficient cause).

 

Put another way, to ask after the purpose or end of human life is at once to create a field for practical moral questions – How should we live? For what end should I act? – and to frame that field in the context of fundamentally metaphysical questions – what is the true origin, nature, and destiny of human beings?  This is exactly what we see reflected in the the design of the whole of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae – which places the moral reflection of the Secunda Pars (previously mentioned) in relation to God, as creator of human nature (explored in the Prima Pars), and Who alone can lead us to the fulfillment of our end (explored in the Tertia Pars).

 

By contrast, the question of the meaning of life almost seems formulated precisely to avoid both the moral field and metaphysical frame.  Meaning is subjective, placing an emphasis on the interior life, feelings, emotions, awareness, consciousness.  What makes me feel purposive doesn’t necessarily speak to the question of an intrinsic, essential purpose.  “Meaning” does indeed suggest directionality – something is meaningful or significant if it makes reference to something else.  But this is not the directionality of action toward an end, rather it is the directionality of symbol to what is symbolized.  To ask about the meaning of life is almost to ask an aesthetic question: what will my life evoke, what will it represent?

 

As a consequence, notice what questions further arise after we open up the question of “the meaning of life”: is it the same for everyone, or a matter of individual perspective?  Do we make meaning, or discover it?  Do we entertain the possibility that there is no meaning?  If my life feels meaningful to me, is it really meaningful?  These are existentialist questions – questions of real moral seriousness, to be sure, but raised from a position disconnected from a moral or metaphysical framework.  By contrast, notice what further questions arise from the question of the purpose or end of life: where does it come from?  How can I achieve it?  Is this or that action compatible with it?  These are questions of theology and ethics – questions of moral seriousness strongly rooted in a metaphysical framework.  The question of life’s meaning places an emphasis on subjective fulfillment; the question of life’s purpose can include that, but relates the notion of personal fulfillment to a question that draws one outside of oneself: what is my life for, how can I bring my life into its intended order.  It is the difference between asking what might happen to make me feel fulfilled given my circumstances, and asking what should fulfill me in light of the true structure of reality.

 

So consider the kind of answers one could give to the old, more permanent question about the goal or end of life: virtue, happiness, union with God, life everlasting.  “Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”  No wonder the authors of the Baltimore Catechism, like Thomas Aquinas, could use the question of human purpose to structure an instruction in Christian wisdom.  Do answers like this even make sense as answers to the question of the meaning of life?  One would have to say, in Kierkegaardian fashion, only if one chose to make the leap of faith, to believe those answers, to make them meaningful for you.

 

Alasdair MacIntyre has defended a teleological approach to ethics by connecting it to the possibility of making life intelligible as a narrative.  This might sound like it is a version of making life “meaningful,” although MacIntyre strongly denies an easy equation between an Aristotelian purpose and existential meaning.  Simply finding meaning cannot be the telos of life.  True, if one is not aware of a purpose in one’s life, one will feel that one’s life is meaningless, but that doesn’t mean that “living a meaningful life” makes sense as the goal of life.  MacIntyre is even willing to allow that Kierkegaard, for instance, did have a teleological view of life.  Kierkegaard departed from Aristotle in his understanding of the mode of perceiving one’s actions as oriented toward a telos.  MacIntyrean narrative is a kind of rationality, but Kierkegaard (as Tolstoy) was eager to place “meaning” outside of rationality.  For Kierkegaard, man’s fundamental motives are more a matter of non-rational psychological mechanisms – hence Kierkegaard’s “ethical” reasoning is closer to “aesthetic” feeling than to more familiar forms of rational intelligibility.

 

So it is not a surprise that, even when taken seriously as the ultimate question of human life, it is widely recognized that the question of the meaning of life is highly personal.  Unlike the question of the end of man, which is a general question about the essential good of human nature as such, the question of the meaning of life is individualistic and particular.  The strength, and the weakness, of the question is that it seems to put the weight of responsibility on the one asking it to supply an answer from his or her own private, inarticulate resources.

 

As a consequence, those who take the question of the meaning of life most seriously seem to turn the question around, and make it less a question of abstract moral theorizing than a question of personal commitment.  As earnestly characterized by Viktor Frankl, the question of the meaning of life seems to transform from a common question about human life, to a personal question about finding one’s unique vocation.  Describing the challenge of life in the concentration camp, he says:

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

 

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.

 

So even for Frankl, concerned as he is with helping to find meaning in the face of what could so easily seem meaningless, the question of the meaning of life admits of no general answer, and is not even the right question to ask.

 

Next:  POST #5, EPILOGUE: THE MEANING OF LIFE AND THE CRISIS OF REASON

 


Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.

Cultural relativism

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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.

Partial relativism and skepticism

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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.

Why worry about moral relativism?

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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.

  1. Varieties of Relativism
  2. 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

[i] http://www.vatican.va/gpII/documents/homily-pro-eligendo-pontifice_20050418_en.html

[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.