The Result of Relativism

Someone in the combox observed that absolute moral standards demand an autocratic authority structure to enforce them, and this leads to the repression of individual freedoms. “All morality is relative”, so the argument goes, “therefore individuals must be free to make whatever moral choices they think are best.”

The problem with this, of course, is that living together in community ultimately means that there has to be some rules. Like it or not, one simply cannot go around doing whatever one pleases. The question then arises, “Who makes the rules and why certain rules and not others?” The  easy answer is the creed of the occultist: “Do as you please but harm no one.” There are three problems with this creed: First of all, who decides what “harm” is, and the second problem is more disconcerting–”Aren’t there some people who deserve to be harmed?” The third problem is, “Without moral absolutes as guidelines how does one establish anything like justice?”

Allow me to elaborate: It sounds all well and good that everyone should be allowed to do as they please as long as they harm no one, but what is “harm?”  If a man has sex with a woman and they enjoy the encounter you could say no harm is done, but what happens when he doesn’t call her again or she tosses  him on one side later? Has harm been done? When someone does a shady business deal for his own benefit and another person loses out has harm been done or is that “just business”? Those in favor of this creed are often “pro-choice” so can a person do as they please, but then destroy the unborn child? That’s doing someone harm isn’t it? In fact, when pressed, unless you’re living totally for others all the time–whenever you do something self centered aren’t you harming someone somewhere even if only a tiny bit?

The second problem gets even more complicated. Aren’t there some people who deserve to be harmed? The film Django was a bloodbath, but all the people who were killed were bad people. It’s okay to “Do as you will but harm no one.” But what happens when people so harm others? Shouldn’t they be punished? In other words, shouldn’t they be harmed? This is where the third question comes in, and it is one of justice. Without any absolute standards of morality how can there be any form of justice other than revenge?

If everyone is doing as they please, and what pleases me displeases you is it any wonder that you would then seek revenge? What logical argument is there against this? None that I can think of. How can there be such a thing as justice or how can there be such a thing as mercy unless there is a moral absolute by which to set the standard?

This then leads to the most disturbing question of all. If moral relativism is true and everyone should be free do as they please who decides what laws society should live by? The only one who can decide this is the strongest person. The one with the largest and strongest police force  or the one with the most money and power decides what is best for society, and this is why relativism always leads to tyranny. Without any greater moral authority and any greater moral absolutes the rulers of the state decide what is best for all, and they will have no hesitation to enforce those arbitrary laws if they see fit. This struggle for power will ultimately mean that the strongest person wins and the person with the most power is inevitably also the most selfish, cruel and tyrannical.

Thus the moral relativist who longed for freedom will eventually be enslaved. Pope Benedict speaks of the “dictatorship of relativism.” What he may not have intended is that not only is relativism a kind of intellectual dictatorship, but eventually it leads to literal dictatorship.

Rather than being an enlightened move forward for a society, moral relativism is a disturbing move backward, for the only two forces which can keep in check a relativistic-minded populace are the fear of revenge or the threat of state enacted punishment.

The only other thing which the relativist has to offer is the naive idea that somehow people will simply behave themselves and be good and nice and kind to others and somehow live by the creed “Do as you will but harm no one.”

The only people they are fooling are themselves.

 

  • Lynda

    Many societies have become totally demoralised by the indoctrination of moral relativism, which is to say anti-morality. The people become immune to the truth and will not accept it, no matter how obvious, or how absurd their denial of it. They follow the dictates of the atheistic, relativistic ideology because they have been taught to value human power and prestige over the truth. Most state-controlled schools have for generations avoided teaching pupils to reason, apply logic, think issues through methodically.

  • Michael

    The false dichotomy between moral or ethical absolutism and moral relativism blurs the valuable discussion people of all religions or indeed none at all should be having and indeed need to be having, especially now in the fast changing world.

    The Catholic tradition of natural law allows scope for even non Christians to join in the discussion because as the Epistle to the Romans describes this law as written in their hearts. As a non believer I can equally ascribe our common sense of justice as a product of our shared humanity. No matter what we must not, as the President said at his inaugural yesterday, give in to name calling. To say that because atheists lack belief in a God or Gods they are by consequence moral relativists is to demean the principles and values that many non believers cherish. It would be akin to saying that Christians live by their moral principles for fear of “revenge or the threat of [God] enacted punishment.”

    And the attack that these values celebrated by non believers are recent and in some ways perhaps arbitrary and open to reversal is true in the first case and I hope not in the second. Take for example freedom of speech or freedom of belief. These are both relatively recent acknowledged rights, not having been held by all societies historically and not even by some none Western societies today. They are perhaps an example of absolutes we can all share and confirm and those are the type of shared values we should seek to cultivate so they won’t be reversed.

    Where the difference in ethics resides however between believers and non believers is almost exclusively with sexual practices. And to many now unfortunately Catholic morality, with its long tradition of ethical thought, stewardship of creation, and social justice is becoming now, at least in popular culture, synonymous with sexual morality.

    If believers or non believers focus exclusively on our differences, and proclaim our differences to be intractable because of false descriptions of the other side then the only people we are fooling are ourselves.

    • Paul Rodden

      Hi michael.
      A moment’s reflection shows ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of belief’ are nothing of the sort. That’s why I don’t accept them. They’re incoherent, ideological hogwash. They’re merely soundbites with no substance.

      For example, if someone actually believed in freedom of belief and speech, they wouldn’t post in blogs for starters, because they would be respecting the freedom of belief and speech of others. If they post it proves they don’t believe in a totally open freedom of expression and ideas. Posting actually proves they believe some beliefs and speech are wrong, or superior to others – and that’s the very thing you’re arguing in your comment. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

      You don’t want freedom in these areas. You want us to agree with you and fall in line with your worldview, and so we’re not free to have an alternative viewpoint. Anyone who really believed in freedom of speech and belief would be indifferent to goodness and evil, truth and error. To be otherwise, would be to refute that principle. So, your comment is totally question-begging because your presuppositions are unjustified and, if anything, refuted by your own words. Your comment commits suicide.

      I’m not against non-believers. Just their rather snooty superior air, as if they’re the arbiters of truth and justice – so we’re allowed to play – but only if we do so nicely and by their rules. The problem is that I find those rules extremely intolerant of viewpoints which do not agree. So much so, that the possibility of prison is on the horizon for us Christians, and just how does that embody free speech and freedom of belief?

      In a similar way, the same thing happens in discussion with Evangelicals… If I return a proof-text to defend the Catholic Church I’m actually assenting to the validity of Sola Scriptura. I’m tacitly claiming the Evangelical principle is right, because I’m allowing them to dictate the criterion by which Christian truth is judged by responding within their frame of reference, rather than my own. In other words, the Evangelical is imposing his own ‘plausibility structure’ upon me, and the non-believer does the same.

      The Church isn’t about imposing, but proposing (as Blessed John Paul II never tired of saying). The Church is primarily about being holy and getting us to heaven rather than fixing existential problems, although sanctity naturally does that in its wake. The Church is like a piano teacher, not a tyrant. The only way you’ll be a good pianist is by submitting to the discipline of the teacher and practising. The Catholics to whom the non-believers and Protestants love pointing because of their evil behaviour are always those who’ve stuck two fingers up at the piano teacher.

      I’d suggest that sanctity, expressed in genuine love and virtue, trump freedom of speech and belief, because we actually desire the former, and mistakenly think the latter will get us there without the former.

      • Michael

        ” if someone actually believed in freedom of belief and speech, they wouldn’t post in blogs for starters because they would be respecting the freedom of belief and speech of others. If they post it proves they don’t believe in a totally open freedom of expression and ideas” I can’t believe you just said that. Do you honestly think that’s what freedom of speech means.

        Freedom of speech means that I and each person has the right to express his or her opinion in a public forum (Technically on a private blog that is not the case as Fr. Longenecker has the right to filter inappropriate posts ). You may say I am wrong and you and that is your right. You are even free to distort the meaning of what freedom of speech is an that is your right. I will disagree with your definition and that is my right but I will defend your right to say it and that is my responsibility as a citizen.

        You may make the generalization of non believers as “snooty” and “superior”. Some are but most aren’t (I hope I fall into the latter category) . And making generalizations like that is counterproductive to informed discourse and blanket statements about groups of people is something that most moral systems seek to discourage.

        • Paul Rodden

          Hi Michael.

          My point was that people don’t have free speech. It’s an impossibility unless you want anarchy. We are not allowed to express opinion if it contravenes certain ‘Golden Calves’. People in England have been prosecuted for merely expressing ideas on a blog. I’d agree they were terribly distasteful comments (disrespectful of the dead). ‘Freedom of speech’ has to take place within Government-defined parameters, and that those parameters are arbitrary, often based on some immediate, moral panic. What’s more, before those ‘distasteful’ comments were made, they would not have been seen as committing an offence, so the wrongdoing and punishment are both decided and performed retrospectively. Is that right? Should I be prosecuted for something that wasn’t illegal when I did it?

          Now, just saying ‘I can’t believe you just said that’ isn’t an argument. You need to show me – logically – that if you believe (i.e., really believe) in the total freedom of speech and belief, you can be moved. Should any belief or speech be ‘tolerated’ whatsoever the consequences? In other words, even if I try to persuade, convince, or convert them in the kindest fashion, I’m actually attempting to shut down their speech – and therefore their beliefs – aren’t I? Because, if I’m successful, those words will no longer be spoken by them. That’s my point.

          I’m simply saying they’re great sounding nostrums, but we don’t actually believe in them. Should I be free to believe it’s OK to chat up a 10 year old girl and express that without recrimination? Because that’s how the language in relation to homosexuality has changed. Disgust at the former is still legitimate, disgust at the latter isn’t – any more.

          Whatever we claim, de jure, when the tyre hits the road, we don’t really believe in free speech, de facto. In other words, we don’t practice what we preach. Freedom of speech is nice in theory, and works only there – inside my head – like the way Communism worked.

          Fr William Smith, the Moral Theologian, is quoted as saying, “All social engineering begins with verbal engineering”, and I’d argue we see that playing itself out on a day-to-day basis, especially in the media, undermining the moral fabric of our society through ‘free speech’ – or what some would consider ‘pushing the envelope’.

          Until recently, the media has been attacking the Catholic Church at any opportunity over ‘sex abuse’. But, a few months ago, a famous and well-loved (late) celebrity was found to be a serial paedophile (one report said there were 214 cases against him). Suddenly, they started finding celebrity and political paedophiles all over the place through a sting operation.

          But then the guardian openly published an article on ‘intergenerational love’ and how it’s not bad if the minor consents – and there wasn’t any particular outcry.

          Have you heard of the ‘Overton Window’? It’s an interesting ploy in politics and the media, and I have to say that ‘free speech’, with any momentum behind it can, potentially, have disastrous social and moral results.

          As to the snootiness, it’s the assumption that their ‘plausibilty structure’ is the superior one.
          Plausibility Structure being, ‘a social arrangement wherein one is surrounded by a consensus which reinforces that consensus’, as Collins Dictionary puts it.

          I generalise because I’ve yet to meet someone (but might do one day) who’s a non-believer who accepts the Christian frame of reference at least as equally valid as his own. As I said, to an Evangelical, I’m a lesser Christian if I don’t work within his frame of reference, and what you’re doing is assuming the superiority of your own. What’s your ‘flourish’, “Double points if you can find one that isn’t related to sex.”, then?

          • michael

            Freedom of speech certainly has limitations from the obvious yelling “Fire” in a crowded movie theatre and inciting people to perform violent actions. But most Western countries enjoy freedom of speech with few limitations. (Britain with its libel laws being one exception)

            Bur here’a the difference. I’m perfectly permitted to say I disagree with homosexuality and think it’s a sin but I am not allowed to say homosexuals should be put to death even if my Scripture says so. The former is an opinion, the latter is an incitement to violence.

          • Nan

            Freedom of speech relates to government suppression of speech, not to interactions with individuals or non-government entities. Limitations on speech may be placed by others, such as website or blog owners who suppress comments or ban people. While we may not agree with the banning or suppression of comments, it’s somebody else’s sandbox.

          • Michael

            Nan – Exactly. I d not have freedom of speech here, Fr. Longenecker, as he is perfectly right to do, can edit the posts. I do not have freedom of speech at work. I did not have freedom of speech when I was in the military. But I do have the right of free speech in society and I have the responsibility to ensure others do as well.

  • Paul Rodden

    Wish I could say it like you do, Fr!

    There’s an article today up on catholicexchange.com by Ken Connor in relation to gun control, Killing Begets More Killing which I think sums it up nicely:
    …As frustrating as it is for supporters of responsible gun ownership to witness the irresponsible politicization of this issue, we are seeing how government reacts when free men cease to govern themselves with virtue and restraint. When the social consensus unravels and each person becomes a law unto himself, government must intervene to restore order. In the process, men become less free and the law becomes more and more repressive…
    (http://catholicexchange.com/killing-begets-more-killing/)

    This is happening big-time, here in England. As evidence of ‘harm’, Government is beginning to look at what they’re calling the ‘pornification’ of Children – clothing, access to internet porn, early sexualisation, etc..

    They think it’s ‘dreadful’ but their proposed response seems to be draconian whilst they also want to continue to promote their gay agenda, contraceptives for minors, sex ed in the early years, and the idea that anything which takes place between consenting adults is fine as long as it doesn’t ‘harm’…

    If it’s legal to prescribe contraceptives to a minor (pre-teen even) without her parents consent (as it is in UK), for example, how can sexual activity with her be called ‘paedophilia’, particularly if you’re even doing it behind her parent’s back, and you’re banging on about the ‘sanctity’ of ‘marriage’ (between two gay people, too) and ‘the family’ as politicians are at the moment?

    Bizarrely, the current rhetoric sounds like blessed John Paul II on the Theology of the Body (words like ‘dignity’ and ‘sanctity’, etc., being bandied about), but once you scratch the surface, you realise what’s at work: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” (Casey vs. Planned Parenthood) But, which, as you point out, Father, is actually in the hands of the most powerful.

    Relativism is incoherent and proven to be one of the few completely self-refuting concepts in Philosophy, yet it’s the very ethical model those who claim to be men of reason cling onto as their moral paradigm. To me it just proves they’re not men of reason but sophistry and prejudice.
    How can you take someone who argues using a self-refuting principle seriously? Yet it’s the dominant principle of so-called rational men, including AC Grayling.

    Autonomy without virtue is a recipe for disaster. As to autocratic structures being required to enforce absolutes, then my son’s piano teacher is obviously a tyrant.

  • veritas

    After a long study a person decides that Jews, blacks and others are harmful to his society. They control the banking system and greedily accumulating most of the wealth. He decides the are causing great harm to the majority of the citizens of his country and destroying the economy.

    He knows for a fact that the mentally retarded and handicapped are causing his society to become weaker and are a drain on his country’s resources, resources that need to be used for the good of the majority.

    For the greater good, for the good of all, he decides they need to be eliminated.

    The Final Solution.

    Result: – six and a half million people are carefully rounded up and trucked to efficient gas chambers and disposed of in crematoria.

    Thank you moral relativism.

    Thank you atheistic no ultimate right and wrong.

    Thank you humanistic – “There are no absolutes. What I think is right is as valid as what you think is right.”

    Thank you survival of the fittest.

    Thank you Nietzsche and God is dead replaced by Superman.

    Thank you Nazism and Communism.

    • michael

      Are you equating atheists with having the morals of WWII facists like Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar , Petain and Pavelic? I think with a moments reflection you’ll realize why that’s unjustified.

      • Paul Rodden

        You can’t refute veritas with that comment because we simply don’t know the morals of atheists. There is no ‘canon’ which says Atheists (should) believe X, Y, Z, morally or (should) behave in a certain way.

        It’s likely that they’re not as evil, but your ‘appeal to reflection’ is simply a non sequitur. It guarantees, nor verifies, anything about the moral beliefs or practices of atheists. It’s persuasive, but by no means evidence against the claim. You – like me – simply cannot know. Your comment is mere conjecture as, despite being likely, it’s not conclusive by any means. Your argument is powerfully emotive and suppositional – just like the one it’s attacking – but neither are rational.

        • Michael

          Veritas was equating fascism with moral relativism which is in some religious circles ascribedto non believers. I gave a list of WWII era fascist leaders and the common thread among them wasn’t atheism. That was the reflection I was asking for.

          You don’t know the morals of atheists. Then ask them, read their writings, listen to their talks but until you do, don”t describe them all as moral relativists. Again I ask name one person of note who subscribes or advocates to moral relativism. Again I do not know any modern ethicist who would advocate it.

          • Paul Rodden

            Hi Michael.
            I’m beginning to think you might be misunderstanding what Moral Relativism ‘is’. Moral relativism is the absence of any advocation. Moral Relativism is a privation of morality. It is not a positive moral viewpoint, but it’s negation.

            Moral relativism is what most people today mean by ‘tolerance’, and plenty of people advocate this ‘tolerance’: the refusal to judge ethical viewpoints as misguided or wrong. Moral Relativism is to promote free speech and freedom of belief. Comments like, Live and let live’, ‘Each to his own’, ‘We have to agree to disagree’, ‘That’s just your opinion’, and phrases like them, are classic tell-tale signs of the ‘presence’ of Moral Relativism: i.e., the absence of Morality.

            Groucho Marx is reported to have said something like, ‘Now there’s a man with an open mind. It’s so open, I can feel the draught from here’.

          • Paul Rodden

            As to the morality of Atheists – because there are no atheist Traditions or dogmas – you are asking me to judge atheist writings at Time t1. But we cannot know – because your method is inductive – you are simply assuming what all those atheists who haven’t yet written or you haven’t asked, believe, based on the past. You are proposing a hypothesis contrary to fact.

            In informal fallacies, it’s called ‘Black Swanning’ (see the work of Sir Karl Popper on this issue). Just because you haven’t come across any Black Swans, doesn’t mean there aren’t any black swans. In the same way, you cannot predict what set B believes based on what set A thinks, when set A has no objective rules or criteria in the domain you’re discussing to which set B has to comply. So, from your set A (what famous atheists in the past have said) you cannot derive what set B (modern ordinary atheists) believe. You can only talk about those you know about.

            Induction cannot make any statements about the future, only its current experience. That’s why your statement is question-begging and conjecture because you simply can’t say what other atheists believe based on what others in the same category have said in the past – unless you have a specific Tradition and dogma – and the attendant assent to those.

            Atheism, bizarrely, is obsessed with ‘great names’ (AKA authority) yet denies it to anyone else. What all the atheists you point to believe is simply neither here nor there. Their fame doesn’t make them authoritative or credible. What makes someone credible in a domain is their capacity to submit to the rules and criteria of the domain. But if that domain has no criteria or rules…

            Scientific method is good. It has rules and criteria: Tradition and dogma. But genuine science knows and admits this, and realises the limitations on its method. But it understands the limitations of its domain because it is knows itself to be a tool for a specific purpose, whilst ‘scientism’, in essence, is trying to use the ‘can opener’ of scientific method as a multi-tool to fix everything: I need a hammer – here’s a can opener, I heed a saw, here’s a can opener…

            Scientism simply asserts itself as THE Epistemological model without any justification. It merely asserts that ‘everything has to be verifiable’ without giving any evidence to support that claim.

          • michael

            “I’m beginning to think you might be misunderstanding what Moral Relativism ‘is’. Moral relativism is the absence of any advocation . Moral Relativism is a privation of morality.” I all too well know what it means and it is why I am so forceful in refuting it.

            Because someone, bet they non believers or adherents of other denominations or adherents of other religions, happens to disagree with your moral precepts does not make them amoral or a moral relativist.

            It would be akin to atheists saying the only reason that believers aren’t raping, stealing and murdering is because they fear God’s retribution. It is an scurrilous claim that is more condemning of the accuser than the accussee. I view the tarring of all non believers with the smear of moral relativism in the same light.

          • michael

            “Atheism, bizarrely, is obsessed with ‘great names’ (AKA authority) ” When a Catholic is asked about their teaching they refer to the pope or bishops. I only mention that because with the pope going around decrying atheists as relativists, it would be only appropriate if he names some. Otherwise I’ll start equating all Catholics with my crazy libertarian Catholic brother-in whose views on enforcing Catholic morality would make most Catholics cringe.

      • Wladyslaw

        No, just saying that moral relativity and I would think that most atheists are moral relativists, inevitably leads to dictatorships like Stalin, and Mao.

    • Niemand

      After a long study a person decides that Jews, blacks and others are harmful to his society.

      Blacks? Are you sure you’re not confusing the Nazis with the US based, Christian KKK? I’ve seen propaganda posters from WWII era Italy, at least, that condemned lynching.

      They did, of course, have something against Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals. Coincidentally, the Catholic church also condemned each of these groups within recent years. Indeed, it still does. Perhaps it wasn’t atheism and moral relativism that the Nazis looked to for inspiration but rather Christianity and moral “absolutism”. (Though, really, can the organization that sponsors the Jesuits be called a “moral absolutist” organization?)

  • michael

    I don’t know of any moral relativists. I don’t know of any serious person who advocates that all actions are subject to personal wishes and that all ethical principles and proscriptions can be altered arbitrarily. Outside of a few libertarians this strawman of moral relativist doesn’t exist.

    Instead what we all are experiencing is an common evolving of moral principles. Here’s a good example. In WWII mass bombing of civilian targets was done by both sides with the approval of most members of society. Post WWII this was increasingly opposed with opposition rising with the civilian bombing in the Vietnam war and with repulsion against terrorist attacks on civilian targets. We now engage (unfortunately) in warfare where deliberately targeting civilians is unacceptable (fortunately) and indeed breaking that moral principle has been responsible for indicting and convicting various political and military leaders.

    The charge of moral relativism arises because of the declining importance of religion in many people’s lives and the changing sexual mores. One may certainly despair of such trends but there is no ethical way to force conformity to what some view as traditional values save state authoritarian injunctions and punishments.

    • Darren Szwajkowski

      @ michael
      There is some truth when you say “moral relativism arises of the declining importance of religion in many people’s lives and the changing sexual mores.” But specifically, this charge is made when the Truth declines in people’s lives and when sexual mores are degraded to “it’s just sex.” Who makes this charge of moral relativism? The pope of the Roman Catholic Church. I do not see any heretical faction of Christianity claiming a moral relativism. They are just allowing society to dictate their faith for their faith is not faith in God but faith in society, in secularism. You, yourself, are a “moral relativist” just by arguing against the fact that there is a moral truth? The question is not how can something be relative but what is it relative to? There must be a truth that something else is relative to. And btw, associating Hitler, Stalin, etc. with atheism is justified as they did not believe in God, they believed in themselves. The thing that is not justified is to assume every atheist is like Hitler. Though, I have a question for you. If there is no God, then where does good come from? Is good and bad just terms that “humanity created” like Nietszche thought? Nietszche’s thoughts only lead one way, into an insane assylum where he eventually landed.

      • michael

        “There is some truth when you say “moral relativism arises of the declining importance of religion in many people’s lives and the changing sexual mores.” ” Clarification – I said the charge of moral relativism arises because of that, not moral relativism is a product of those factors. Huge distinction.

        I have not argued against moral truth or moral absolutes only against the accusation made by many that those who may disagree with their moral precepts are moral relativists.

        Note : Stalin was certainly an atheist, Hitler was certainly not (see for instance http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/09/17/list-of-hitler-quotes-in-honor/)

    • Paul Rodden

      I force conformity on myself whenever I want to achieve an end. I look to people who’ve travelled the path before me. We see it all around us in sports, music, dance, art, etc.. These are steeped in tradition, and need tradition, or else they decline in excellence.

      Deliberately targeting civilians is only unacceptable because there’s not been a recent case where it’s been advantageous to do so. When it does, all the justifications of ‘necessity’ will come out. It’s one of the problems of Legal Positivism, the dominant approach in modern jurisprudence.

      • michael

        But then you will see me and many other atheists opposing it. The question is if it is a moral absolute, where was the opposition to bombing in the Second World war and where is the opposition to the nuclear weapons aimed at civilian targets that under this moral code is totally unjustifiable.

  • James

    Moral relativism *is* an incoherent position, which is why no one actually holds it. (Or perhaps they do, but don’t talk about it. It would after all be the only logical course of action for people who hold a moral position that makes its own defence impossible.) Quite a few people claim to be relativists, but I think that’s generally a conscious or unconscious cover for their own moral views. The dominant ethical position in society today (at least those parts of society with which I’m familiar) is a doctrinaire and intolerant moralism that brooks little dissent, let alone open opposition, while disguising its – in reality extremely contentious – moral positions as pragmatism. No one is a relativist about murder; almost no one is a relativist about female genital mutilation; everyone is a relativist about ice cream. In my experience moral relativism is largely an attempt to render the established position (or what will soon be the established position) immune to challenge by claiming that the question is not a moral one. Thus, argues the ‘relativist’, while everyone should be free to hold their own position, no one should be allowed to challenge the (‘purely pragmatic’) status quo.

    • michael

      Well if no one is a moral relativist why is it a problem? “Quite a few people claim to be relativists” Can you name any, are they people of any influence or intellectual standing?

      “The dominant ethical position in society today (at least those parts of society with which I’m familiar) is a doctrinaire and intolerant moralism that brooks little dissent,” That sounds like moral absolutism to me.

      “No one is a relativist about murder” Unfortunately yes. Decisions are made in the halls of power that condemn innocents to death in pursuit of a “higher” goal. In the killing of terrorists it is accepted that innocent children, while not directly targeted, will be murdered. It’s called collateral damage, to ease the consciousness of those who do it and whose governments commit the action. But it is the taking of an innocent life,

      Can you give and example of an “attempt to render the established position … immune to challenge by claiming that the question is not a moral one. “. Double points if you can find one that isn’t related to sex.

  • Christoph Rebner

    Radical individualism, radical egalitarianism, omnipresent and omni-impotent government, the politicization of culture, and the battle for advantages throug politics shatter a society into fragments of isolated individuals and angry goups. From Robert H. Bork “Slouching towards Gomorrah”

  • veritas

    Michael asks,
    “Are you equating atheists with having the morals of WWII facists like Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar , Petain and Pavelic?”

    That’s exactly what I am saying.

    These last two centuries have been absolutely the bloodiest by far in human history. As a result of the Age of Enlightenment, human beings decided they knew more than God. In fact, they decided God either did not exist or was irrelevant. Human pride convinced mankind that they could do anything they wanted and they could determine their own morality independent of God.
    Nietzsche proudly proclaimed the death of God. Nietzsche gave the German people the philosophy that underpinned Nazism. Hitler loved Nietzsche’s idea of Superman, the golden haired, blue eyed trim athlete that was glorified in Nazi art and literature.

    There was no room at all for the mentally deficient, the deaf, the blind, the crippled. They were nothing but a drain on the whole state. They drained valuable resources and manpower that could be used by everyone else.

    Then there were the other races, such as the Jews, who were far too successful by half and were a threat to the greater German community.

    Pure logic could be used to prove that a Final Solution was the only answer.

    Once God is out of the picture the argument is won by those with the most muscle.

    Stalin, Pol Pot and many others have similarly set about eliminating those who stood in their way.
    This atheistic age has brought more death and destruction than any other age in human history.
    So I most certainly do blame the atheists for this debacle. Their false ideology has so much to answer for.

    Moral relativism begins with something like, “You can’t tell me what I can do in my bedroom!” then inevitably and inexorably moves on to, “You need to be eliminated because you don’t bring practical benefit to the greater population.”

    Moral relativism lets Professor Peter Singer smugly explain why a lab rat has much more value than a baby born with a handicap. Moral relativism brings us abortion, infanticide, and murder of elderly hospital patients.

    Moral relativism lets Hitler calmly explain why Jews have damaged the economy and need to be removed.

    Moral relativism lets Stalin eliminate tens of millions of citizens to further the good of the greater Soviet.

    • michael

      Finally someone mentions the name of an ethicist that they claim is a moral relativist, Peter Singer. I’ve read numerous of his articles and several of his books and he is a utilitarian, not a moral relativist. I find myself disagreeing with most of his conclusions because I disagree with his premises. He promotes equality between all sentient creatures and therefore comes to rather radical conclusions.

      While I disagree with him, at times very strongly, I don’t doubt his convictions and would never say he was a moral relativist, rather he is a person of rather strong, unflinching, absolute principles. They are just principles I, and I assume you, disagree with.

      That said, after reading one of his articles or books, I have a hard time eating meat for a few days.

  • Niemand

    Speaking of moral relativism, it seems that the Catholic church is arguing that fetuses aren’t people after all. At least not when their money is at risk. Thoughts?

    • michael

      Perhaps they’ll bring back the teachings of Pope Gregory XIV and limit abortion to formed fetuses or St. Thomas Aquinas and abortion occurs only after quickening.

      • Niemand

        The fetuses in question were 7 months old, so that wouldn’t help in this case.

        • michael

          So true. I know money is important in this case and that the hospital wants to avoid paying out as much as possible in cases like this but you think they would have veto’d this defense. Probably they’ll claim they had no choice. It was in the hands of the insurance company.

          • Paul Rodden

            Hi Michael
            Doesn’t this little thread show some snootiness and sarcasm? I think you’ve just proved that point I made, too. I think I am now justified in my generalisation especially as the very person who said (proper) atheists aren’t like that, does it.

            I’m not going to discuss further, but just make the point that I discuss things in political forums. I don’t bring up God. I don’t eHeckle. I debate.

            One of the things I have to say – again based on evidence – is that I’ve never seen an atheist or Protestant eHeckler on any Catholic blog who – when commenting on Catholicism – has a clue what they’re going on about. That’s also what I mean by ‘snootiness’. It’s the assumption that they can shout their mouths off making stupid remarks without any justification, apart from the anaemic, cherry-picked, ‘history’ and ‘examples’ they relay as ‘evidence’ (which they’ve got from Ditchkins and their entourage, or some fundie preacher).

            The biggest problem is that, despite you thinking all religious people are stupid because they believe in mumbo-jumbo, we’re not.
            We would actually agree that those who believe in mumbo-jumbo (Astrology, Tarot, crystal healing, and anything New Age) – religious or not – are rather gullible and superstitious and probably not very bright, but others don’t believe in mumbo-jumbo. Others have done the philosophical and theological legwork required – not to justify mumbo-jumbo – but to see that the claims of religion stand up.

            In other words, what atheists tend to attack are: A) Religious Fundamentalism, B) Biblicism C) Superstition, D) the behaviour of evil Christians or institutions which claim to be so. But I’d be with them on that, because I think those things are nonsense and need critiquing, too.
            But the atheists I ‘meet’ never touch on Catholicism, per se, because when it comes to what we actually believe – as orthodox Catholics – they show themselves to be totally clueless. They haven’t done the groundwork – and so they just state things that simply aren’t the case.

            So, when you come in here, quoting silly examples or cherry-picking quotes ‘Catholics’ or ‘Catholic institutions’ have made (as if everything that calls itself Catholic, is Catholic), you just sound like the average Born Again Christian who just believes what his pastor or the latest fundie book he’s read has told him what Catholics believe.

            You’ll find that all those bad popes and corrupt Catholics your ideologues have filled your heads with are actually condemned in the face of Tradition. Their actions may have been approved by all sorts of experts, Cardinals, and even corrupt popes, but it doesn’t make them approved by the Tradition – and that’s the locus classicus of Catholicism, not people’s own pet theories, evil actions, or approval and sanction in numbers or how ever high they are up the greasy pole…

          • Michael

            It was a bit catty. But it also shows that the Catholic Church is just as capable of moral relativism as it’s so eager to claim people who disagree with some of its are.

          • Justin M

            1) Is the hospital owned by the Church, or is it (more likely) independent?
            2) If fetuses are legally non-persons in that state, is that the hospital’s fault? Why can’t the hospital use all means of defense available to it?
            Quite frankly, but using this defense, I think the hospital has advanced the pro-life cause because now the ridiculousness of the “fetal non-person” is in the open for everyone to see.

          • michael

            1) It was a Catholic hospital and a bishop is looking into it. http://blogs.westword.com/latestword/2013/01/fetuses_arent_people_lawsuit_catholic_bishops_review.php

            2) “If fetuses are legally non-persons in that state, is that the hospital’s fault? ” If abortions are legal in a state, is it okay to have one and is that the woman’s fault?

          • Justin M

            Um…. No, it’s not ok to have one…. Abortion is murder. What does that have to do with this situation?

          • michael

            Justin – Exactly. For a Catholic abortion is murder and the unborn child is a person. Just because the laws sanctions and action doesn’t mean that one is morally free to use that as a justification for one’s action. The hospital officials, in this case is not being true to their morals, and adopting a immoral defense (from a Catholic perspective). The bishop in this case has no legal ability to change their defense, will undoubtedly apply moral persuasion to have them change their defense.

          • Justin MD

            Huh? The hospital isn’t justifying any action here. Nowhere have I read that the hospital aborted the babies. As far as I can tell the hospital broke no Catholic moral law in treating these patients. However, there was a tragic outcome, and a likely unavoidable one from what I can tell. And besides, this is a wrongful-death case, not an abortion case. The law there apparently says that in cases of wrongful death, unborn babies are not legal persons. If the hospital is simply arguing for the same legal protection that any secular institution would, then I don’t see a problem with it. Do I like the argument? No. But that isn’t the point. If, on the other hand, you can show that the hospital treated the babies as non-persons at the time of treatment, then yes, I agree that they are being immoral.

          • Michael

            The Hospital has a number of defenses they can make in this case but to hide behind a immoral law (from a Catholic perspective) is the height of hypocracy. And I assume this bishop will point that out but then the hospital will reply that it’s up to their lawyers and insurance companies (the same excuse many dioceses used when treating abuse victims so immorally. And paradoxically, my statement will be in agreement with the bishop and you will be the apologist for the hospital’s action.

            I’ll check in a week or so too see what the bishop says.

          • Niemand

            As far as I can tell the hospital broke no Catholic moral law in treating these patients.

            I can’t speak to Catholic moral law, but if the report is accurate, a number of medical ethical rules were broken: The OB did not return the page. If he had, he might have been able to do a stat c-section and save the twins. The hospital did not appear to have a backup plan for when the OB did not return a page. Did they attempt to call his cell? Call another OB? Get the ER attending to do the surgery? As far as I can tell, they did not do anything more than call a single OB and give up when he didn’t respond.

            But be that as it may, how can the Catholic church, which runs the hospital, claim that the fetuses shouldn’t be considered people for the purposes of a wrongful death suit but should be for the purposes of an abortion? That seems like moral relativism at its worst to me.

          • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

            You clearly are not very aware of the situation of Catholic hospitals in the USA. Many of them do not deserve the name ‘Catholic’ as they endorse a whole range of positions and practices that are contrary to Catholic teaching.

          • Michael

            Justin – Followup. I said the hospital was wrong under Catholic moral teaching, you disagreed. The hospital has acknowledged that mistake.

            “In the discussion with the Church leaders, CHI [Catholic Health Initiatives] representatives acknowledged that it was morally wrong for attorneys representing St. Thomas More Hospital to cite the state’s Wrongful Death Act in defense of this lawsuit,” the hospital organization said in a statement. “That law does not consider fetuses to be persons, which directly contradicts the moral teachings of the Church.”
            http://www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=16984

  • Michael

    As to moral relativism with regards to murder. A rather wooden presentation and one swear word (appropriate in the context however) but raises the question is murder or attempted murder of an innocent ever morally justified.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_hYOy-rpIo&feature=youtu.be

  • veritas

    Singer is the moral relativist supreme – and an odious man!

    He, unfortunately a fellow country man of mine, argues that a human child has NO more value than any other animal and, as I said before, has argued that a laboritory rat has more value than a human child who has a deformity.

    Once God is gone and there are no absolutes, once anyone can put their case for any conclusion, then Singer can argue for infanticide of those who HE deems less valuable.

    How can anyone possibly support any of this man’s arguements? It goes beyond Hitler’s view.
    It shows moral relativsim in the clearest light possible.

    • michael

      Prof. Singer is many things but not a moral relativist. A moral relativist would be someone who would maintain one position in one place and time and another for a different place and time. (Barauk Spinoza argued that nothing is inherently right or wrong. He might be a better candidate) A moral ralativist might say for example slavery is wrong now but it was okay in ancient Greece. Or intentional bombing of civilians is wrong now but it was okay in WWII.. Prof. Singer never makes statements (to my knowledge) like that.

      What Prof. Singer has are ethical principles, which I don’t agree with, that states that all sentient life is to be valued (human and animal) and one must not discriminate between them.

      He is, in fact, very principled. Read his famous essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” ( http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm ) first shown to me by a nun who taught the first philosophy course I ever took. It’s a challenging essay and I’m sure its why she showed it to us. I’ve subsequently read several of his books for the explicit reason that I disagree with him but I find his writings jar my complacency.

    • michael

      Additional Note : I just reread Singer’s essay. Thirty years and it’s still a challenge. I had forgotten he had this quote in it from St, Thomas Aquinas “Now, according to the natural order instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man’s necessity from such goods. Equally, whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: “The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless.”Now, according to the natural order instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man’s necessity from such goods. Equally, whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: “The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless.””

      From an atheist perspective, from different initial assumptions, Prof . Singer arrives at the same conclusion as a Doctor of the Catholic Church and perhaps her greatest theologian.

  • veritas

    It may be argued by some that Singer is not a moral relativist, because he would not consider all opinions on moral issues to be equally worthy of consideration. With that I heartily would agree.

    However, once God and absolutes are eliminated, all positions have to be given equal weight.
    Then of course, the questions arises, “Whose opinion wins the day? Whose opinion becomes law?”
    It becomes a question of who has the most muscle. The bully wins. Don’t argue that, following the American dream, the problem of who is right is solved by voting.
    Who ever proved that majorities are right? Majorities can be hideously wrong. Remember that in the final analysis Hitler was voted into office.

    Peter Singer has argued that consensual sex between humans and animals is OK. As someone replied, “Do we determine if Fido consents by whether he wags his tail?”
    Peter Singer has also argued that parents should have the right to KILL THEIR CHILDREN UP TO A COUPLE OF YEARS AFTER THEIR BIRTH if they deem the particular child to be a drain on their family or of less value than a new child might be!

    This is monstrous stuff. This is worse than anything Hitler argued for. If people of the ilk of Singer got into real power the consequences are too frightening to imagine.

    • Michael

      As I said I find many of Prof. Singer’s conclusions unacceptable because of the premises he starts out with.

      It’s obvious in looking around the world today that relying on a God or Gods to give us direction is hopeless. Even within mainstream Christianity, if you take any modern moral issue, you find intelligent people, of good will, who study and pray, who earnestly seek the truth, coming up with conflicting conclusions on moral issues we all face. From abortion, birth control, divorce, euthanasia, feminism, gays, … there is absolutely no consensus.

      One is left with two conclusions. First one’s own religion is right and ones own ethical conclusions are the right ones. All others are just simply wrong despite their equal claims to the contrary. Or that relying on a unseen, inscrutable, distant God whose Bible offers conflicting advice of morals is not the way to proceed.

      Instead we look to our shared human experience, our empathy towards others, our reason, discussion, our history and science to help formulate the best world we can make for the greatest number of people. And we do it with the humility that our opinions on issues may not always be right and that we should always be open to change and improvement.

    • Michael

      I take it you didn’t read his article. It’s not like his more recent writings, which I and most other readers heartily disagree with. His article from from 1971 however is not one I disagree with, it’s one I, ashamedly, want to disagree but try as I want, I can’t

  • Christoph Rebner

    Church proclaims absolute Truth, the Wisdom of the Father. If it fails to act accordingly, it functions as a speaker, which might fail. Fortunately there is a technician for the object and a Healer for the subject. Both of which do not compromise what had been spoken into the microphone :-)

  • reverend robbie

    Way to hang in there Michael. I actually claim to be a relativist, but it may be an issue of semantics. I think if people share values then morals become objective because I see morals as strategies for upholding values, and there can be more or less effective strategies.

    In my mind, you can’t talk sensibly about morals unless you primarily value human well being. Morals just don’t apply to any discussion other than that of how best to achieve human well being (our the well bring of conscious creatures, as Harris would say). To try to discuss morals without that shared value is like saying you would like to help me score touchdowns by teaching me to swing a bat. Bats just aren’t part of the vocabulary of football.

    In that sense, given a basic value, morals sort of become part of the natural laws. Sure sometimes the strategy may be tough to evaluate, but we do have a standard to measure against.

    So the logical question from the absolutist would be “who’s to say that we should share this value for human well being?” To which my answer would be, “I am… and you are… and the rest of or fellow citizens are.” And what will we say to that person who decides to pee in the pool we’re swimming in? Are we powerless unless we can claim that a supernatural lifeguard instituted a no pee rule? No we tell them to get along, that we have a reasonable rule about pool peeing, and we will enforce it if we have to.

    Then what if the pool peeer is really big or there’s a lot of them? Well we may not be able to enforce our rule or even get the rule past a vote, but that doesn’t make the rule unreasonable, nor does it make pool peeing moral.

    So I guess that while I see morals as objective, its my position that we must chose or values that makes me, colloquially at least, a relativist. And its my belief that I can still stick up for that value that makes me comfortable with this relativism. If you want to hold a different value then you’re free to, but I’m going to oppose your position and ally with people that share my value. And I don’t need good to tell me to value human well being. And while it may be effective to tell others that a supernatural being insists that we value it, I have no evidence of that and would feel dishonest representing it as true.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Catholics deal with the difficulty between objective morals and the reality and complexity of life by distinguishing between the moral action itself and one’s responsibility or culpability for it. An action is deemed either right or wrong and that objective judgement stands. The objective judgement is derived from a combination of natural law, divine revealed law, human tradition and reason.

      However, one’s culpability for that action is variable. One’s culpability because of circumstances or intention may be negligible although the action is still wrong. So, for example, a lie is always a lie and is always wrong. However, a lie told without pre meditation in order not to hurt someone’s feelings at a party is so negligible as to be inconsequential. It is, however, still a lie, and still wrong.

      On the other hand, a lie told with planning and pre meditation in order to destroy someone else’s reputation or livelihood or even a lie which would lead to their death–would of course be very serious indeed.

      • Michael

        Small point about a lie. A lie is only wrong based upon the intention. I have been in situation where I openly lied to protect a friend from a beating. He was being threatened by a bully. I hid him and wen the bully arrived and asked if I had seen him said no. Was it wrong, absolutely. I saved him a thrashing, risked one myself and did nothing wrong.

        That said, most lies are wrong, even “white” lies. The only exception to the white lie is when one’s wife ask “Does this make me look fat”. Then it’s simply self preservation.

    • Michael

      reverend robbie – Thanks for the comment. By Harris did you mean Sam Harris ad his book “The Moral Landscape”, Fascinating book, but I find he doesn’t quite make a complete case for basing morals on science. That said, the field is so new, that give it ten years and much more research and publications and it will be fascinating.

      As to classifying your self as a relativist. Choosing or embracing different values or principles doesn’t make one a relativist, only say that the choice of those principles is arbitrary or that all princples could be equally valid.

      • Reverend Robbie

        I actually never read the book. These ideas are my own. I only agree with what I’ve heard is his statement that we should consider the well being of conscious creatures, to some extent, beyond those of just humans. Anyway, I don’t really care if I’m a relativist or not. I think my positions stand on their own regardless of semantics.

        I appreciate your diligence with these discussions. Well done.

  • reverend robbie

    That last comment was written on my phone over the course of an hour. Please pardon some typos from the Swype app on my phone.

    The words I intended should be clear from the context.

  • reverend robbie

    I agree with your statement father, all except that I don’t believe that there is a divine revealed law, and I think that belief in that can mess up the process of understanding natural law by adding unnecessary variables.

    Typing more because it appears that sentence was insufficient in length to get past the filter.


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