Truth and Goodness and Rationality: Interview with Anselm Mueller


We’re pleased to share this interview with Anselm Winfriend Mueller, our 2017-18 visiting scholar, who is a visiting professor this quarter at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He spoke with Johann Gudmundsson, a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

Johann Gudmundsson: For many years, you’ve been pursuing the thought that to act well is to act from practical reason. How are truth and goodness related to rationality? Do you think that there is a deep affinity between goodness and truth?

Anselm Winfried Mueller:  Can we reasonably ask whether what you ultimately aim at in acting, rather than just whatever happens to attract you, is really good? – I think we can. At least, we take it for granted that in principle the question has an answer. For, in a year’s time, you may think you were wrong to aim at what you aimed at (much as you may come to think false what you believed to be true a year before). Such a thought makes sense only if there is a standard of goodness by which to evaluate purposes objectively (much as beliefs are evaluated objectively by the standard of truth). So ascriptions of goodness will themselves be true or false.

What is the place of rationality in this context? – To manifest knowledge, a statement has, as a rule, to be based on adequate reasons. Theoretical rationality is to this extent the way we reach truth. But a statement can be true without manifesting knowledge. By contrast, the goodness that we achieve in acting well depends unrestrictedly on what reasons we respond, and don’t respond, to. To act justly, for instance, is: to be motivated by others’ rights; to act courageously is: not to be turned away from important pursuits by the threat of danger etc.

JG: In the mid-20th century, questions relating to ethical language were in vogue, and reflection on moral discourse and meaning was held to be crucial. For example, a central question was whether ethical statements, qua speech act, should be understood as full-blown assertions or not. Those questions have faded from spotlight in recent years. How do you estimate the significance of language for ethical thought?

AWM: Quite generally, the way we talk about things supplies significant hints at their correct understanding. This is so with talk about actions and their moral qualities as much as it is with talk about causes, numbers, social institutions, or whatever.

Now, in order to improve our grasp of the relevant concepts, attention has to be directed at the interaction between the ways we talk and the ways we act. What philosophy needs to get clear about is the different roles that different uses of words play in the wider context of human social life. So philosophers have rightly become critical of arguments based simply on “what we (don’t) say”.

But, as far as I can see, present day analytical philosophy suffers more from the opposite error: its practitioners are often insensitive or indifferent to the problematic character of formulations required or admitted by their theories, when by taking notice of it they might have discovered, e.g., that the phenomena they were hoping to cover by a unifying account were in fact more disparate than this account allowed.

JG: It seems that there are two kinds of good that pertain to human beings. On the one hand, there’s individual well-being or happiness. On the other hand, there’s moral perfection. Would you be happy to draw this distinction? If yes, how do you think individual happiness and moral perfection are related?

AWM: I can’t say that I would be happy to draw that distinction. Shouldn’t one feel honored to belong to a species noble enough to find their happiness guaranteed by adherence to reason realized in a life of virtue, as the Stoics taught?

Unfortunately, this doctrine is a sort of philosophical self-deception. It is indeed true, I think, that a person cannot be happy without attempting to lead a virtuous life. And also, that human happiness cannot but consist in the satisfying use of reason. But we just have to acknowledge that serious suffering tends to prevent the virtuous person from being happy.

Moreover, although the practice of virtue is typically a source of happiness, there are other things as well, such as family life or the successful pursuit of a worthwhile project, that may well be constitutive of the (limited) happiness a man is able to attain. I agree that it won’t make you happy to pursue such a project by evil means. But this does not mean that ethical virtue is the feature of your pursuit that secures your happiness.

So honesty requires us to answer your first question by acknowledging the distinction between happiness and moral perfection. The second question may be one of those that it is the task of philosophy to raise and keep alive although it cannot answer them. As Kant observed, we just cannot discard the idea that there “must” be a way in which the pursuit of virtue issues in happiness. This, too, honesty requires us to recognize. I suspect it is even part of virtue itself to think, with Socrates: It cannot, ultimately, be to my disadvantage to pursue it.

JG: You probably would agree that the aim of philosophical activity is to get clear on certain fundamental notions. The aim of practical philosophy then would be to clarify notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality. Do you think that practical philosophy can also be of practical guidance by providing answers to substantial moral questions? Or can such answers only be reached beyond philosophy, for example in public discourse, individual conscience or religious traditions?

AWM: It would be pleasant for practical philosophers to think of themselves as benefiting humanity by giving the kind of guidance you mention. But I think their ambitions have to be more modest.

I am not a skeptic about the possibility of showing that human life is in need of moral norms. But, first, such demonstrations remain theoretical: they explain moral requirements, and they give you reason to believe that doing this and avoiding that serves human flourishing; but they do not thereby already give you reason to do this and avoid that. And, second, nobody – philosopher or not – will adopt a moral norm such as: not to cheat, or: to take responsibility for one’s children, or: to refrain from cruelty, because of a philosophical demonstration; for one’s conviction of the need to comply with such norms will almost certainly be more certain than one’s confidence in any philosophical argument for them.

Nevertheless, philosophers need not despair of their public utility. On the one hand, people who already listen to the voice of virtue are in a position, and will be ready, also to learn, for their practice, from theoretical reflexion on what you call substantial moral questions – on how to carry on in view of considerations that may have escaped them. On the other hand, and possibly even more importantly, good philosophy is needed to refute the brand of bad philosophy that claims to show that morality is an illusion, or that what it enjoins is “authenticity” in the pursuit of your likings, or the like – the kind of claim that is sensational or shocking enough to make it into the media and is hailed by those already tempted to deceive themselves, or compromise, where moral requirements challenge their questionable inclinations.

I am not myself enough of a columnist to take on the task of facing popular versions of misguided philosophical claims. The job that your question well describes as clarifying “notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality” is (I hope!) more congenial to my temperament and talent. So I cheerfully resign myself to peaceful exchange with those enviable colleagues who engage in both “philosophizing for philosophers” and “philosophizing for the world”.


Johann Gudmundsson got his Magister Artium degree in Philosophy and German studies from the Universität Leipzig after having studied there and at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. He then worked as a research assistant at the Universität Leipzig and as a coordinator of a project funded by the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina on institutional and quality problems of the German doctorate, and now a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

May 10: Jennifer A. Frey “Elizabeth Anscombe on Living the Truth” at Lumen Christi, UChicago


We’re thrilled to share this upcoming program featuring our co-Principal Investigator JenniferA. Frey, speaking at a program sponsored by one of partners, the Lumen Christi Institute.

May 10 | University of Chicago

Free and open to the public. For more information and to register, visit: REGISTER HERE

Elizabeth Anscombe was one of the most important and influential analytic philosophers of the twentieth century. One of the last lectures she delivered was titled, “Doing the Truth.” In it, she sets out to identify and clarify a specifically practical mode of truth as the proper goal of a specifically practical mode of reasoning and knowledge.  This talk will explore how Anscombe understands practical truth by relating it to her influential theory of the intentionality of action; its ultimate suggestion is that “doing the truth” just is living a good human life–i.e., knowingly performing actions in accordance with true judgments of right practical reasoning.  The person who achieves this truth is virtuous, someone who can stand as an exemplar (or rule and measure) for those who seek the truth but have not yet realized it in their lives.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. She was previously a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department. Prof. Frey holds a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, and a B.A. from Indiana University-Bloomington. She is the co-Principal Investigator on “Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life.” Her further research interests include the history of ethics, especially medieval and early modern.

Frey Lecture Poster

Cultural relativism

Samurai standing on stairway in night forest with the red moon on background,illustration painting

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


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?

Lost in the rain

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


[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.

On Truth and the Foundational Role of Precepts

Fresco Saint Thomas Aquinas
Fresco Saint Thomas Aquinas


(repeated for context, from yesterday’s Part 1 of this 2-part series)

The birth of the “new natural law theory”—whose two primary exponents are Germain Grisez and John Finnis—can be dated with some plausibility to 1965, the year in which Grisez’s article on the first principle of practical reason appeared in the journal then called Natural Law Forum. Over these fifty plus years, these two scholars have associated the theory with the thought of the Angelic Doctor with varying degrees of insistence. The article just mentioned calls itself a commentary on the relevant article in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinasand the first two—and most theoretical—volumes of Grisez’s now three-volume work The Way of the Lord Jesus both contain separate indexes to the works of St. Thomas, the first with over 650 entries. Finnis has published fairly recently a substantial volume entitled Aquinas: Moral, political, and legal theory, and the longest entry in the index of his more recent Collected Essays is dedicated to Aquinas. (Coming in at a close second is Aristotle, and this pair leave the rest of the field far behind.)


But, although certainly neither Grisez nor Finnis would ever reject out of hand a thesis proposed by Aquinas, they have both quite candidly declined to follow him in some important—even central—regards. Grisez, for instance, is critical of Thomas’s way of conceiving man’s ultimate end and Finnis maintains that “Aquinas’ efforts to follow Aristotle in classifying types of justice—its species, parts, and associated forms—yield no really clear and stable analytical pattern.”


Given, then, this situation, the present excerpt from a longer essay delivered at the Symposium Thomisticum in Paris, June 2016, does not address directly the question whether the new natural law theory as a whole is genuinely Thomistic: both Grisez and Finnis would be happy to acknowledge that, in certain regards, they depart from Thomas’s teaching. It considers rather specific interpretations of Thomas by Grisez and/or Finnis which the present author believes are mistaken. Showing that these interpretations are not consistent with Thomas’s thought is to present strong evidence that the new natural law theory ought not to be considered Thomistic. Here in this excerpt I briefly consider article 7 of question 64 of the secunda secundae, about “whether it is licit for someone to kill someone in self-defense.”


 On Truth and the Foundational Role of Precepts

(Part 2 of 2)

But, importantly for our larger argument, what makes the species of act identified as ‘telling the truth about oneself itself’—but not every act in that species—a good thing to do is its correspondence to the moral precept enjoining telling the truth (which is founded upon the natural inclination to tell the truth). As Thomas says in ST 2-2.64.7—quite nearly quoting ST 1-2.94.2—what makes the species ‘defending oneself’ (but not every act in that species) good is the fact that “it is natural to whatever thing to conserve itself in being as far as possible.” By virtue of this inclination, says Thomas in ST 1-2.94.2, “those things by which the life of a man is conserved and the contrary impeded pertain to the natural law.”


The rest of ST 2-2.64.7c follows this same pattern of citing precepts of the law in order to justify the theses put forward. For instance, as mentioned above, after his initial remarks about what gives species to acts of personal self-defense, Thomas says that even some acts of that species are illicit, for instance, when the agent uses more violence than is appropriate. Thomas then says that, if the self-defender “should repel a force moderately, the defense will be lawful, for, according to law, it is licit ‘to repel force by force,” provided it is “with the moderation of blameless self-protection.'” These latter two phrases—vim vi repellere and cum moderamine inculpatae tutelae—are both taken from a canon in Gregory IX’s Decretalium Collectiones.3 Thomas would not have maintained that this canon, qua canon in the Decretals, belonged to the natural law; but he would certainly have regarded it as consistent with the natural law, which itself (following Augustine) he recognized as consistent with the eternal law.


Thomas also finds support for his position regarding “the soldier fighting against foes” and “the minister of a judge fighting against a thief” in law: that is, in precepts. In the section of ST 2-2.64.7c where these officials are mentioned, he does not indicate this legal basis, but only because he has indicated it just previously, in ST 2-2.64.3, where he quotes in this regard a passage attributed to Augustine which found its way into a canon in the Decretum of Gratian.


The foundational role of precepts is also apparent in the objections and responses of ST 2-2.64.7. One example will suffice to make the point. The first objection quotes a letter by Augustine, although Thomas is apparently taking the quotation (again) from the Gratian’s Decretum, for it begins where the canon in Gratian begins, which is not the beginning of the letter. The objection cites the beginning of the canon in favor of its position that it is illicit for anyone to kill in self-defense. Writes Augustine:


Regarding the killing of men lest someone be killed by them, the suggestion that it is licit does not sit well with me, unless perhaps the person is a soldier or obliged by virtue of a public function, so that he would not do this on his own behalf but for others or for the city in which he finds himself, having acquired the proper authority, if it accords with his person.


The objection uses the canon in order to argue not just that personal but also that public self- defense is immoral, finding particular weight in Augustine’s point that even one who has the proper authority cannot kill “on his own behalf” [pro se].


In his response, Thomas ignores the suggestion that Augustine’s words might be used in favor of the thesis that even public killing in self-defense is immoral. He says simply: “the authority of Augustine is to be understood as applying to that case in which someone intends to kill a man in order to free himself from death” [ut seipsum a morte liberet] (as when a man plans to kill his neighbor because he fears that in the future he may be killed by him). He might have added that a person killing in self-defense on behalf of the public good and with public authority is (per se) not doing so in order to free himself from possible death. But he does not go into this: he simply explains how the relevant law (deriving its authority from Augustine) is to be understood.


Thomas, of course, does not believe that every law proposed by human legislators or by custom is good law. He holds to Augustine’s adage that an unjust law is no law at all. Good human law is law that is consistent with the natural law and with eternal law. But determining what is consistent with natural and eternal law is not—or not simply—a matter of considering the goods that human beings pursue; and determining what is an act in accordance with natural and eternal law is not—or not solely—a matter of considering what an agent intends in performing an act. One comes to understand what is good law by immersing oneself or being immersed, preferably from youth onwards, in a healthy moral culture, and assimilating—not uncritically—its laws and customs by performing actions in accordance with them. If one is a scholar, even a pale imitation of Thomas Aquinas, one will want to study the legal tradition and (especially) its sounder interpreters in order to be able to recognize instinctively what is consistent with the higher law and to reject what is inconsistent.


1Modern editions of the Summa theologiae direct readers to ST 2-2.43.3 and 1-2.72.1.

2John Finnis, Germain Grisez, and Joseph Boyle, “‘Direct and ‘indirect’: A reply to critics of our action theory,” Thomist 65 (2001): 18-19. They also say in the same place that “it is not surprising to find Aquinas [in ST 2-2.64.7] framing his solution to that problem in terms of ‘intention’ rather than ‘object.'”

3Aemilius Ludovicus Richter and Aemilius Friedberg, edd, Decretalium Collectiones, vol. 2 of Corpus Iuris Canonici (Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1881), Decretal. Gregor. (col.800-801).

Rev. Kevin Flannery , S.J., is Professor of the History of Ancient Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.