Way back at the height of the Enlightenment there was a test administered which “proved” that women are less rational than men. The test involved offering people moral situations which were supposed to be straightforward, and then asking whether the person involved had acted morally or not. One of the questions involved a man stealing some food. Male respondents consistently answered these questions “correctly,” with a simple “yes” or “no” whereas the women often said “It depends,” or suggested that more information was needed. Clearly the women were muddle-headed and couldn’t tell right from wrong. At least, that’s the conclusion drawn by the (male) researchers administering the study.
Actually, the women were right. It’s not that they weren’t thinking clearly, but that they were refusing to think in the simplistic, reductionist terms demanded by the test. This isn’t a comment on gender, but rather a comment on the inadequacy of the kind of deontological morality that was in vogue in 18th Century Prussia – and which would have been drilled into the heads of male schoolchildren from a young age. The women, quite instinctively, distinguished between moral agents, moral acts, and moral principles whereas the men had been trained to collapse their ideas into a rigid, one-size-fits all system of ethics in which the only thing that mattered was the abstract nature of the principle at stake.
Contemporary moral relativism is, to a certain extent, an overreaction against this kind of reductionistic moralism. Basically, the belief that all true moral maxims could be universalized, and that actions could be easily judged without reference to their context, produced a lot of very ugly fruit. Misogyny, colonialism, racism, and elitism all flourished in the Enlightenment soil, fertilized by the belief that anyone who failed to come to the same moral conclusions as an educated European gentleman was naturally “irrational” and thus “inferior.” (Ayn Rand’s objectivism is, of course, the same kind of overt ethical snobbery translated into a 20th C American industrialist paradigm.)
Eventually, the cracks in this system began to show and slowly the people who had been oppressed by the ideals of modernism began to insist on their dignity. In the aftermath, any claim of moral objectivity or ethical absolutism became immediately suspect: we had been down this road before. It had led us into the horrors of social Darwinism, eugenics and “ethnic cleansing.” A pure cultural relativism, which refuses to impose any external scheme of judgement on other peoples or their values seemed like the only safe way to avoid repeating such excesses.
Such relativism is, of course, unsustainable: we can’t pass judgement on the values of 18th Century Prussia without asserting some kind of objective moral framework against which those values fail to measure up. But that doesn’t mean that we can wholly dismiss the relativist’s critique, or that we should content ourselves with the obvious, and often somewhat smug, refutations of relativism as a hard moral philosophy.
At its heart, relativism appeals because it reintroduces a number of genuine moral truths into ethical discourse. It recognizes that morality does not take place in a vacuum, on a tabula rasa, or in the realm of pure reason. It acknowledges that morality itself is a part of our incarnational reality, and that it must conform itself to the varied circumstances and situations of embodied human life. Just as human nature itself is capable of a functionally infinite number of instantiations and permutations, so too are the Divine and natural laws.
What this means, in practice, is that although principles are constant and absolute across different social and individual contexts the actual application of those principles must be conditioned by the circumstances of the act and the intentions of the agent. The introduction of these latter two factors does not represent a watering down or a dissolution of the timeless moral tradition, but rather a retrieval of something that was lost in early modernity.
The moderns, in their enthusiasm to do away with a theistic God, craved a kind of objectivity that could be situated in relation to the human person without reference to a Divine judge. God could scrutinize the hearts of men and tease out the innumerable extenuating factors and cultural conditions that might influence the morality of a billion disparate acts. He was capable of balancing the scales of justice just as He was capable of numbering the stars. Enlightenment Man was not. Classical and Medieval ethics, which had insisted that the Right Act must be performed at the Right Time, in the Right Way, for the Right Reasons, were simply too unwieldy to meet the needs of the Brave New Modern World. It was therefore necessary to scale ethics back to something simpler, something that could be grasped in its entirely by a human mind.
Unfortunately, many “conservative” Christians seem unaware of the degree to which problematic Enlightenment ideals have infiltrated Christian intellectual culture. In their zeal to avoid the incursion of problematic postmodern ideals they end up rejecting valid postmodern critiques which are aimed not at the Christian tradition, but at the cancerous entrails of modernity. The result is a largely fruitless tug-of-war between equally erroneous systems of thought, the adherents of which look with contempt on their interlocutors for missing the “obvious” truths that form the bedrock of their own philosophy.
A more responsible approach (and this is, in fact, the approach taken by the Vatican) involves discerning a middle way that avoids both the Scylla of simplistic absolutism and the Charybdis of hard relativism. It includes a willingness to engage in complex moral debate and discernment, to apply the truth in a way that respects individual conscience and social conditions, and to enter into fruitful and respectful dialogue with those who are in error. It demands an equal portion of fidelity to the teaching and humility before the truth. A recognition that Truth is not something which we possess, but rather someone who possesses us.
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