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What Tyranny of Relativism?

March 22, 2013

Via the Anchoress, I see that Pope Francis has continued his predecessor’s use of the phrase “dictatorship of relativism” to describe a spiritual poverty of our present age:

But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the “tyranny of relativism”, which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.

I must confess I’m not seeing much of this relativism that “makes everyone his own criterion.”  Admittedly, I’m not a pastor of any sort.  Aside from TMI on Facebook, I don’t hear any confessions.  Maybe a lot of people outside my small circles admit to thinking of themselves as their own criterion or would do so if pressed, but this would surprise me.

I observe the occasional relativistic argument, but these are almost always presuppose an objective principle.  When some of my friends defend an “anything goes” approach to national security, they’re being relativistic, but within defined objective limits.  They hold national security as an absolute good.

My more socially progressive friends disagree with the popes on the issues of reproductive freedom and contraception and the meaning of marriage, but they’re just as absolutist about their moral principles as the Benedict and Francis are about theirs.  They believe abortion and contraception and same-sex marriage are objective rights that the state should recognize.  Even the live-and-let-live types who say “Believe what you want as long as it makes you happy” state a criterion beyond themselves.

Yes, countless individuals lie and cheat and display nothing but disdain for the truth–you don’t have to look outside the Catholic Church to find them–but I wouldn’t call what they do by the name of relativism, as if theirs were a comprehensive theory.  They just don’t care about truth: affirming or denying it philosophically ain’t on their radar.

I see widespread disagreement about the truth and its criteria, the occasional apathy or disdain for it, and intellectual laziness too near for my comfort.  I wouldn’t call any of these dispositions by the name of relativism, a word denoting a specific kind of theory or doctrine about truth itself.  There are various forms of relativism, but as far as I can tell, none of these rules contemporary mainstream culture.

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80 Comments
  1. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    March 22, 2013 1:41 pm

    Excellent post! Can you please email it to the Pope?!

    What they are really trying to get at, but don’t have the cojones for, is identifying the “I don’t give a shit” attitude about anything as the real problem. And you are 110% right, that a developed or even pragmatic theory of “relativism” is something more rarefied than that “I don’t give a shit” attitude.

    Why would they always want to stay on the level of faux rhetoric, which anyone with half a wit can see is a straw man completely. Simply because the “I don’t give a shit” attitude describes how a huge section of the Roman Catholic faithful has always survived with their Church with “many warts”. Ironically, it is the “I don’t give a shit” attitude that has allowed the RC church to long continue — to its own detriment in my view– with its ex opere operato blase attitude about its own comportment. So, by comparison talking about the “dictatorship of relativism” makes it sound like some high-road has been identified.

    Lastly, anyone who tells me that the internal vibe of Catholic schools is not more often than not a kind of de facto “I don’t give a shit”, I will call a pure liar. In a sense one is being trained there in that very attitude. Of course, on top is a super-structure of belief and ideal. But the kids don’t manifest it. So, the Pope can continue with his rhetorical flourishes. But he surely is smart enough to know that he comes from the very continent that perfected and apotheosized this attitude. “Se Acata, pero no se cumple” Or “Se Obedece, pero no se crumple” has been the summation of the Latin American attitude for centuries. Basically in Church terms it translates: “We believe, but we really don’t give a shit.”

    If this is not their reality, then they have to start demonstrating it to the world. For the first part, the “Se Obedece” is no longer a given, nor should it be. It should be a personal conviction, for transcendental reasons. But you have to give a shit first. And that is not easy for most real Catholics, or it it were, they would have at least threatened to leave the RC church a lot more than they have historically. A paradox.

  2. Paul Connors permalink
    March 22, 2013 3:42 pm

    In the case of abortion, those who claim it as a right say that if the mother chooses to abort, then society and the state should protect that ability. And if the mother chooses not to do that, then society and the state should also protect that ability. Any idea that the choice to abort is always wrong is rejected.

    That is relativism.

    Those who claim that this act is wrong are variously described in negative terms as bigots, ultra-conservative, religious right, backwards-thinking, anti-women, pro-poverty, or whatever. And an aim is made at taking power away from them, and enacting laws that compel them to act in support of relativism.

    That is the dictatorship of relativism.

    Got it?

    (And for the other issues you mention, the relativism acts either in similar ways, or in subtly different ways.)

    • March 22, 2013 4:56 pm

      No, I don’t get it. If someone says abortion is always morally okay because the nascent life is not a person with inalienable rights, that would be wrong, but being wrong here doesn’t make one a relativist. You could make a relativistic argument for abortion, for example saying that abortion cannot be categorically condemned because the morality of killing is always and entirely relative to particular situations and circumstances, but that ain’t a commonly made argument.

      As for your dictatorship of name-calling and democracy, I’m not moved. Laws compel behavior. Living in a democratic society in which people disagree with one another will mean that we disagree with laws that are passed. So what do you do? You work to change the laws you disagree with and enact ones you believe just. If you can do that, then you’re not in a dictatorship, not in any meaningful sense. That’s what the pro-choice people I know are trying to do. They see abortion rights as an issue of justice, and if you have a conception of justice, then you’re not in the world of relativism.

      • mrskrishan permalink
        March 22, 2013 5:57 pm

        O dear Kyle we give you enough rope and now you’ve gone and hung yourself, “…and if you have a conceptio of justice, then you’re not in the world of relativism.”

        Go read Alexander McIntyre’s “Justice, whose Justice?” and come back and debate the merits of your “conception” vs McIntyre’s conception of universal phronesis (the natural law written in the hearts of all men of good will – that’d be men and women who don’t contracept their minds of course, for sterile minds can’t conceive of anything other than their own self-pleasuring POV, forgive the base puns but your started the analogy I just threw it back in your face).

        You are of course free to be a man of ill will, but that makes you a relativist, y’see? That would imply you prefer features that accrue a relative incoherent advantage to you or your ilk, over features that accrue coherent benefits to a fertile common good for all, including those not of your ilk.

        • March 22, 2013 6:24 pm

          My conception of justice? I haven’t outlined my conception of justice. But thanks for the rope.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
          March 22, 2013 8:36 pm

          Alasdair [Not "Alexander" --but I bet you already knew that ,poser] McIntyre is one of the most wan intellectuals in all of intellectual history. Warmed-over Thomism presented as if it were some great wisdom. Spare me really.

      • Paul Connors permalink
        March 22, 2013 8:32 pm

        “If someone says abortion is always morally okay because the nascent life is not a person with inalienable rights, that would be wrong, but being wrong here doesn’t make one a relativist.”

        Sure. (I didn’t claim otherwise.)

        “You could make a relativistic argument for abortion, for example saying that abortion cannot be categorically condemned because the morality of killing is always and entirely relative to particular situations and circumstances, but that ain’ a commonly made argument.”

        Sure. (And, again, I didn’t claim otherwise.)

        But looking at (e.g.) Planned Parenthood’s main page for abortion it says: “If you are trying to decide if abortion is the right choice for you, you probably have many things to think about.” The words right choice for you are relativist. PP doesn’t think that there is any kind of right answer we can find by examining the situations and circumstances that the mother finds herself in. All that counts for them to provide the abortion is the mother’s view of her situations and circumstances. If the next day some other mother with the same situations and circumstances decided that abortion wasn’t right, PP would respect that. This is relativism. I.e. the standards of justification for the choice vary from person to person, and depend on the person, not at all on the actual situations and circumstances.

        “…if you have a conception of justice, then you’re not in the world of relativism.”

        I think not: Someone is still a relativist — in some particular issue — even if they think that being a relativist in that issue is a matter of justice. (I’m a relativist about Coke vs. Pepsi, but I still think it a matter of justice that you should be free to choose between them, or refuse them.)

        “You work to change the laws you disagree with and enact ones you believe just. If you can do that, then you’re not in a dictatorship, not in any meaningful sense.”

        The state choosing to implement policies that I morally disagree with is something very different from the state requiring me to violate my conscience. The first can be commonplace in democracies; the latter is where the line is crossed into dictatorship.

        • March 22, 2013 8:46 pm

          “The words right choice for you are relativist.”

          Possibly, but not necessarily. Planned Parenthood doesn’t consider abortion to be a moral evil, so this statement of theirs isn’t about the morality of abortion, but personal suitability. You hear the same words asked in regards to a lot of medical procedures, drugs, and so forth, but no one thinks “Relativism” when they hear them.

        • Paul Connors permalink
          March 22, 2013 10:26 pm

          “Planned Parenthood doesn’t consider abortion to be a moral evil, so this statement of theirs isn’t about the morality of abortion, but personal suitability. You hear the same words asked in regards to a lot of medical procedures, drugs, and so forth, but no one thinks “Relativism” when they hear them.”

          What (e.g.) PP thinks of what they are doing is not the point. To explain what the popes mean by relativism requires only that (a) direct abortion is an objective evil, and that (b) PP thinks that objective situations and circumstances are never ever sufficient to determine the morality of abortion, that its morality varies from person to person, and that PP’s own morality in carrying out the abortion is solely to be judged by each individual mother.

          For PP to be accurately termed relativist does not require their agreement!

          Then the dictatorship comes in when (e.g.) a state requires pharmacists to dispense drugs that are abortive. I.e. it legislates that people must cooperate in a relativist way.

          “You hear the same words asked in regards to a lot of medical procedures, drugs, and so forth, but no one thinks ‘Relativism’ when they hear them.”

          Because they aren’t generally issues of intrinsic evils.

        • March 23, 2013 9:16 am

          My point is that “relativism” is a poor word for what the popes and you mean. You seem to think that being wrong about the intrinsic status of an intrinsically evil act, and acting accordingly, makes one a relativist. It doesn’t. It makes one wrong. That’s it.

          If you were to say that, for example, personal autonomy justifies any action, then you’re speaking in a morally relativistic way. Here you would be implying a theory of morality, one that reduces (relativizes) the moral calculus to an ends-justify-the-means analysis, at least where personal autonomy comes into play.

        • Paul Connors permalink
          March 24, 2013 4:14 pm

          “My point is that ‘relativism’ is a poor word for what the popes and you mean. You seem to think that being wrong about the intrinsic status of an intrinsically evil act, and acting accordingly, makes one a relativist. It doesn’t. It makes one wrong.”

          We probably need to clear up terminology. If someone believes that all ethical judgments are not absolute, but relative to particular persons, then one can call them ‘relativist’, but it would be clearer to call them something like ‘universal relativist’, or ‘metaethical relativist’. That’s because I can see nothing particularly wrong with calling someone a relativist when only the context of a particular issue is under consideration, rather than all issues.

          However, that is a secondary point. More importantly, moral relativism comes most strongly into play when it is proposed as a solution to the problem of deciding what to do when two moral beliefs about actions are radically incompatible. For example: person A says that for them to perform action X is morally acceptable; person B says that the same action is not morally acceptable and that they will not cooperate or help with it in any way. How is this to be dealt with?

          A proposed morally relative way of dealing with this incompatibility comes in two steps. The first step is to say that if person A is the one making the decision, then their choice is the one that counts, and that person B must not interfere with this choice. Depending on the exact circumstances, that first step indeed could be acceptable. (For example, if person A proposes drinking alcohol, and person B believes this to be wrong, a possible resolution would be for person A to drink alcohol, while person B does nothing to actively support that action.)

          The second step takes things firmly into the zone of the morally relative. It is to say that not only is person A’s choice the one that counts, but also that person B may sometimes have to do something to support person A’s choice. To be clear: although person B thinks it is morally wrong to do anything to support person A’s action, the proposal means that in some circumstances unacceptable to person B they nevertheless must act in support of person A.

          It is this second step which amounts to a dictatorship of relativism, when it is enforced by the state’s laws.

          In a Catholic context, two examples of this second step would be the legal requirement that Catholic pharmacists must supply drugs whose specific purpose is abortion, and the legal requirement that employers must specifically fund contraception.

          This dictatorship of relativism is nothing to do with the difficulty of accommodating different beliefs in a plural democracy: it is a deliberate overruling of conscience by the state. (And I ought to point out that reading various comments about the original post makes me wonder if people have a good grasp of exactly what conscience is, and what it is not. A plural democracy can run perfectly well without ever stamping on conscience.)

      • Kerberos permalink
        March 23, 2013 11:05 pm

        I wish this site allowed “Likes” – so many articles & posts deserve them. This is one of them.

  3. mrskrishan permalink
    March 22, 2013 5:44 pm

    Beware dualistic conceptions of justice (aka the IVF of so-called open-minded Christians: we have the means to do to it, we can agree on a price for it, and regulate the contractual terms, then its just) defined as a justice owed to human persons by human persons for human persons (ie the heresy of the greater good for the greatest number). What a faithful Christian has to be concerned with is the justice we owe our Creator… how many souls does he desire eternal common good of heaven for? How many do we exclude from this conception of justice by indulging ideology that denies their is an eternal common good, or relativism that denies the very real harm sin wreaks in the present moment that abides and corrupts unless reconciled in the mercy of God?

  4. March 22, 2013 7:03 pm

    I feel like I encounter relativism quite regularly. But it tends to be inconsistent. It says things like, “If you think abortion kills a human person, then you shouldn’t do it, but since I don’t think it kills a human person, I am perfectly free in this regard.” (I actually just saw this argument yesterday on Facebook.) This person is not, of course, a strict relativist. They believe in truth and the truth they affirm, knowingly or not, informs their approach here. They think abortion doesn’t kill a human person, but since there is no harm in some people not having abortions, they can magnanimously grant those of us who do think abortion kills a human person to carry our children to term. Their relativism is a cover for a much more insidious form of tyranny: “Here, believe what you want, just don’t believe it so strongly that you think it has any claim on anyone other than you. Only my beliefs have that privilege. But I’m gonna frame the argument in a way that I hope you won’t notice that.”

    I think this is the tyranny our various Popes are concerned with. Professed relativism becomes absolutism very quickly.

    • March 22, 2013 7:36 pm

      This is precisely right.

    • March 22, 2013 8:38 pm

      I would call this disagreement about legislating morality rather than relativism. There are actions I think are morally wrong that I wouldn’t want outlawed, but that doesn’t make me a relativist. It may mean that I have prudential reasons for not banning an immoral action. Or it may mean that I suffer from moral confusion or perhaps sloppy thinking. In the interest of accuracy and precision, I think it better to identify the actual train of thought (or lack thereof) rather than categorize all of these as relativisms. Otherwise, we end up with a word that’s suppose to refer to something specific that instead comes to mean not much at all because it’s used too loosely.

      • March 25, 2013 6:15 pm

        I agree that the term “relativism,” like most terms, can become far too facilely applied. Labels are very tempting. On the other hand, it is helpful to have them in order to identify some basic trends. I, for one, feel like I encounter quite a bit of what the Popes have termed relativism in daily life. But I live in Vancouver. ;)

        • Ronald King permalink
          March 25, 2013 6:55 pm

          Vancouver is where I got lost in January on our way to our daughter’s wedding at Whistler, and, after reading a sign that I would have to pay a toll to cross a bridge, there was no toll booth to be found. Does anyone do the speed limit there or is it relative?)

    • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
      March 22, 2013 11:43 pm

      Brett,

      What, pray tell, is the alternative in a pluralistic society?? I find all of it distasteful, and tragic. But whom would you personally throw in jail?? Whom would force to do such and so?? Legal morality, as opposed religious morality, is all about the push comes to shove of requirement. There are no easy or pleasant answers in this case, in that we can all agree. But saying that only one way of seeing it is potentially moral, is quicksand.

      Tomorrow societal morality, or an interpretation of what is “natural” could dictate that having more than one or two kids is immoral/. Will you like it when society dictates such ideas?? Mutatis mutandis….

      • March 25, 2013 6:13 pm

        The alternative to what? Dishonesty and inconsistency?

        Seriously PPF, I wonder if you ever get bored by your own cynicism.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
          March 25, 2013 10:31 pm

          Well, Bret, no offense, but you are lulled into lack of appreciation for all the freedoms you enjoy by dint of always having had them. What you think is cynicism is my deep thankfulness for NOT having to live like most people have lived in human history. With tyrannies far greater than “relativism”. meditate of the ravages of war and mayhem that regularly visited most lives because of mere difference in belief. Do you think perchance that is a “cynical” observation, or a mere grim factoid. No it was real life for most of human history.

          I am glad in a way that people like you live with such a luxuriant sense of complacency for their freedoms. it shows how deeply they are entrenched. So entrenched in fact that no matter how hard certain sectors of this free world of ours fulminate about poor women being “murderers” when they make a bleak choice not to have child, the truly wise in this free world are not going to buy into that trope of fanaticism. it may be tragic, and I personally think so, but tragedy is part of freedom on these gray areas.

          That is what it means to be an adult in this free world of ours. Grow up.

        • March 26, 2013 9:25 am

          I thought this was unfair. The arrangement we make living in a pluralistic society is to a large extent to allow people freedom of conscience. It is not relativism, when respecting others as responsible and morally autonomous individuals, to believe that they are obligated to do what they believe is right, even when we disagree with them. If I believe that there is nothing morally wrong with gambling, or dancing, or drinking alcohol, or smoking marijuana, or having an abortion, it is not dishonest or inconsistent of me to maintain that people who believe those things are indeed wrong and go ahead and do them anyway are committing moral offenses by acting against their own consciences. On the other hand, if I believe all those things are wrong, it is not up to me to condemn people who do not believe they are wrong and do them. It is nor relativism for Catholics to respect the right of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Evangelicals, and so on to live according to what they believe to be right. In fact, in the United States, we mutually agree to defend the right of people to practice religions other than our own. The USCCB calls it our “first freedom.” Is it relativism for American Catholics—who “know” they have the “one true faith”—to stand up for the right of American Muslims to practice Islam? In essence, defending Muslims’ right to practice Islam in the United States is saying that while Catholicism is right for Catholics, Islam is right for Muslims. But I certainly wouldn’t call that relativism. I’d call it respect the freedom of people we disagree with.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
          March 26, 2013 8:01 pm

          David,

          I basically agree with you, I think, but there’s this. Catholics are alone, I believe, in having the ambition to have an over-arching philosophy (thomistic natural law, natch) which willl somehow still be the ruling viewpoint, even with people they don’t agree with.

          My response, is, nice try fellas!

          Freedom of though, means freedom of thought. It means stuff you don’t agree with. Catholics often seem to me like spoiled brats who if they cannot control the game through Natural Law, want to take their ball and go home. Welcome to reality folks. Welcome to the jungle.

        • March 26, 2013 11:04 pm

          Brett, I’ll go further than some of the others here and argue that in a pluralistic society, inconsistency and dishonesty are features, not bugs! Look: We allow the psychoactive alcohol as a sacrament for Christians and Jews, but ban ganja for Rastafarians; peyote for Native Americans has been back and forth, legally; and the Uniao do Vegetal won the right to use ayahuasca. We don’t force adult Christian Scientists or Jehovah’s witnesses to have medical treatment or blood transfusions they consider wrong, but there have been several cases where parents of those faiths have been prosecuted for not giving their children appropriate medical care. And so on. Complete consistency could be achieved only in a society with one religion (or one established religion) with the means of enforcing its dogmas. That need not be theocracy properly so-called, but it would be something few of us would want to live under, even if our own faith was the one in charge.

          As to dishonesty, in this fallen world it does serve a useful purpose as social lubricant. I don’t tell my neighbors that their new baby is the ugliest I’ve ever seen even if I think so! So am I supposed to say the Temperance advocate has a stupid, world-denying view and that I’m glad he can’t call the shots? Should certain Christian groups call Jews Christ-killers in public? Should I tell my Protestant friends that they’re heretics, or they tell me I’m not saved and will likely split Hell open? (And I don’t mean irenic evangelism–I mean over-the-top rhetoric)

          In the 19th Century people were more honest, and Know-Nothings burned Catholic churches, and Jewish kids had to be careful not to get beat up by their Gentile classmates. People were also more consistent: if you went to public schools, you had to read the Protestant Bible and pray Protestant prayers even if you were Catholic. Do we really think such a society, more consistent and honest than ours, is preferable? Is that really what we want?

    • March 25, 2013 6:23 am

      @brettsalkeld “Only my beliefs have that privilege.”

      How does any individual’s belief that abortion does not kill a human person make a claim on the actions of any moral agent who believes that it does?

      • March 25, 2013 6:08 pm

        Precisely the same way that an individual’s beliefs that infanticide does not kill a human person would. To suggest that, “If you don’t think abortion is right, then don’t have an abortion,” is a dishonest rhetorical sleight-of-hand that nobody accepts for killing other groups of people. To say that children in the womb may be killed for any or no reason is a massive claim about the rights of a whole category of people, not simply the expression of some private conviction that doesn’t affect anyone beyond the person who holds it.

  5. Dante Aligheri permalink
    March 22, 2013 10:17 pm

    I agree that relativism might seem like an overstatement, but I think the Pope – whether this could be called abstraction or foresight, I haven’t decided – saw things in a very broad, almost Hegelian sense. However, I have seen people think like this, especially in academia. I think Peter Paul Fuchs is nearly right. Relativism is basically the widening of the public sphere into a value-neutral zone, i.e., secularization (I do not intend that to be pejorative). People don’t want to offend other people and so they sacrifice logic and reason and give up the search for public truth altogether. I have seen students argue that it is not right to judge the practices of other cultures such as human sacrifice or female “circumcision” – which seem morally repugnant. Perhaps a better way to describe relativism is pragmatism.

    Granted, I think this is a lashing out against all things Western. Hence, science itself is regarded as a historical construct by the postmodernists, a mere hegemony in a Marxist lens instead of something universal. What I find very ironic is that it was precisely this positivism – i.e., scientism – which became the catch-all spectre of “Modernism” in the early twentieth century. Yet, early twentieth century Thomists such as Larrigou-Lagrange could be equally positivistic in his own way. Now, more so in the so-called “soft” academic fields, postmodernism has gained control – which lends itself to the “dictatorship of relativism.” Ironically, the storied theology of Balthasar seems to reflect this current. The spectre of Modernism is the polar opposite of the spectre of Relativism.

    In some ways, I feel like we are reliving the tension between the Enlightenment and Romanticism all over again. Allied with “relativism,” therefore, are historicism and postmodernism.

    However, Kyle Cupp is also correct. Relativism can sometimes become a “spooky” thing much like Modernism and Masonry. Thinking in vast (or just academic, perhaps?) scales like Pope Benedict XVI often did lends itself to reification – which perhaps I did in the above paragraph. As you point out, even relativists have a core value – namely, pragmatic tolerance of all points of view.

    In fact, I would suggest that the Pope is in this way allied with Richard Dawkins. Both believe in one Truth, which makes an empirical claim about our lives. On the other hand, perhaps Stephen Jay Gould – no disrespect intended – could be said to be a “relativist” – or, at least, a pragmatist.

    In sum, relativism is real; however, we must resist the tendency of making it into a boogey-man of the West by allying it with whatever things we oppose – i.e., hedonism or atheism (no disrespect intended). Strong atheism, I would contend, is not relativist at all but a precisely the consistent ideology which Pope Benedict might actually be on the same page with, at least from an epistemological perspective. At this point in my thinking, I probably would agree with him.

    I hope this doesn’t seem too confusing or rambling.

    • March 23, 2013 2:41 pm

      I think that was a great analysis, Dante!

      I too think the Popes have been talking less about individuals and more about structures or systems. Just because individuals don’t hold relativistic philosophies in terms of individual philosophy in the abstract doesn’t mean that there aren’t currents in society that can broadly be called “relativistic” in their structure, exactly because of how all the individuals are holding their own values.

      It’s like how Soviet Russia could be utterly “capitalist” on the world stage like any other nation-state even though, internally, it tried to be socialistic. But it was simply embedded in a capitalist world-system it couldn’t escape.

      There can be Relativism even without any individual Relativists.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
      March 23, 2013 5:03 pm

      Dante,

      First, let me be oblique: were you just watching a recent episode of Hardcore Pawn, from the Chicago pawn operation? LOL

      You have raised a number of really interesting questions. I can see where you got the “value neutral” idea, but I think you have to take it a step further to grasp the point. The “I don’t give a shit” attitude is not even “neutral”, since neutral actually implies some poise or balance in the middle, even if it cloys as being the merely lukewarm Jesus excoriated. Significantly, though I think you are getting real warm to it — as we used to say in hide and seek– in mentioning your students who will not even even bring themselves to condemn heinous crimes in other cultures, based on some “multi-culti” sense. Again, though, a true multi-culti position would take some knowledge and work. The “I don’t give a shit” attitude is just on a less effortful level entirely. It is basically default nihilism, without even the desire or initiative to identify itself as nihilism per se.

      This is why I continue to say to all my interlocutors online that, though I am a critic of the RC church and not a fan really (‘cept of the old art and music at this point} I feel I am realistically on the side of that same church in the broad tectonic shifts of culture. Whatever one might say, the RC church is not on the nihilistic “I don’t give a shit” side hierarchically at all, and likely never will be. It is just that it has been so vexed in recent times that much of its de facto culture has, in tragic irony, fed that same nihilism that it inherently is opposed to. Truth is stranger than fiction.

      The outgoing Pope was convinced, apparently, that a devil was loose in the Curia (or something like that). I think the etiology is mostly cultural.

    • Kerberos permalink
      March 23, 2013 11:26 pm

      Is it wrong to exterminate an entire town ? This is done several times in the Book of Joshua – see chapter 10 in particular. If Joshua had done in the 1940s what he did (or is described as doing) in that book, he would gone the same way as Eichmann did, or Hoess, or other Nazis hanged for war crimes. Yet in fact, Obersturmbannfuehrer Joshua is listed in the 1954 edition of the Roman Martyrology as a Saint. (Whether he is in the new edition, IDK.)

      This is disconcerting. How is one to avoid relativism of some kinds ? If none are allowed, then history is flattened out, and the Church is stuck with the idea that a massacre by Joshua can be a saintly deed, while the destruction of Lidice remains a horrible crime. This strict anti-relativism leaves no room for the variations in human ethics and ethical perception, nor for variations in ideas about the moral character of God. The idea leaves no room for doctrinal development – logically, the ancient idea of Sheol as a sort of Jewish Hades is assimilated to the much later Christian hope of eternal life, even though this would falsify the meaning of the OT texts. The danger of this type of anti-relativism is that it allows a lot of room to metaphysics, and precious little to the variations & alterations that are part of living in history.

      “It is just that it has been so vexed in recent times that much of its de facto culture has, in tragic irony, fed that same nihilism that it inherently is opposed to.”

      ## And how ! :(

      • Dante Aligheri permalink
        March 24, 2013 1:18 pm

        Yes, you bring up an interesting point, the skeleton in the closet of all Abrahamic religions. Honestly, here’s how I approach it. In spite of herem rhetoric in Joshua, other passages in the same book and Judges indicate the Canaanites survived intact. The latter book suggests a more “settlement” rather than “conquest” model.

        Maimonides, Joshua 11:19, and the Jerusalem Talmud (Shevi’it 6:1) suggest that Deuteronomy 20 ought to be translated as “all” cities were offered a peace treaty, the difference being the Canaanites (if they refused) would placed under herem and in the “distant cities” only fighting men were to be killed. I know that medieval rabbis, I forget whom, had also said Joshua’s warriors were to leave the battlefield open for noncombatants to escape, but I find this suggestion – unlike the previous one – to be unsupported by the Torah itself.

        Still, this is hardly a consolation. Finally, according to John Sailhamer (Pentateuch as Narrative) and Scott Hahn (Kinship by Covenant), the Torah Law in the Pentateuch was not originally planned but imposed following Israel’s successive falls at a series of events – the failure to ascend Mt. Sinai, the Golden Calf, and the idolatry of the goats. Israel entered the Land already cursed under a tutelary (or punitive) system. The prophets Ezekiel and Joel suggest this, the medieval commentator Rashi, and St. Paul himself takes this position by calling the Law a pedagoge and result of sin designed to indict sin in Galatians. There is a very real tension between the ethical conduct demanded of Adam through Noah (Noahide Law), Abraham (more universalist “El/Eloah worship”), Moses (particularist “YH-H worship”), and then under the New Covenant of the latter prophets, Second Temple Judaism, and claimed by Christianity (universalist). Indeed, this tension was what resulted in Christianity (as bringer of the New Covenant) and Islam (as a restoration of Abraham’s universalist covenant in El/Allah worship) in the first place. It seems to me the Pentateuch implicitly suggests God’s priority of the Abrahamic Covenant over the Mosaic Tutelary Covenant.

        Granted, this has two problems. First, this can become antinomian supercessionism. However, I think that Jewish splinter groups like Christianity and Essenism require this to some degree. In fact, supercessionism itself is written in Judaism in the first place, given the latter prophets. Second, God becomes a Relativist in that He gave different people different Laws; this is an unavoidable conclusion, I think.

        Part of the underlying problem has been the adoption of “rights” language (as A Sinner pointed out somewhere above; indeed, as he points out, this Enlightenment liberalism implicitly undermines the Church’s older moral framework in Aristotelian Virtue Ethics) which, while helpful, absolutizes the person even in sovereign presence of God and Nature – which, obviously in the world we live in, do not respect our rights. Truth be told, the closest thing I can think of in Judaism regarding “absolute” human value is when a Second Temple rabbi said that God made humanity from one man so that we might know harming one man is harming the whole world (which is implicit in Genesis’ lex talionis metaphysic). Granted, the Church has adopted this language when fighting abortion, the death penalty, and euthanasia.

        At the same time, this epistemological frame (which the Church has now endorsed) is very difficult to use against same-sex marriage and has backfired.

        You are correct. There is little way around the dilemma you pose.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
          March 24, 2013 3:18 pm

          You biblical guys,

          I wish I was more up on that fancy biblical stuff to participate interesting in that discussion, for in the end, you seem to be making a point that I really like to see made. But since this all started here with a reflection on Pope Francis’ enunciation of his view, I will add this. The day he was elected I realized something must have happened because, on vacation in Miami Beach, we got back from lunch on South Beach to my friends’ house which is one block away from St. Patrick’s Church on the Beach, and its bells were peeling like mad. The same St. Pat’s where many of my extended family members had gone to grade school, because St. Rose of Lima in the Shores had not been started yet ( and biblical connection that is the parish that Raymond Brown came from too!). And the same St. Pat’s where I did my first “apostolate” in the seminary– and remember well going to get the “Blessed Sacrament” and take it to Mount Sinai Hospital.

          The quirky part is that now the big Howard Johnson’ Hotel right across from
          St. Pat’s has been become the Rohr Talmudic University, and most of the people who walk in front of my friend’s place are orthodox Jews. But believe me, my friend’s place is perfectly located, so people are walking around everywhere it is so convenient. Anyways, it makes me all thing, by way of serendipity, that the answer to these conundrums of relativity-versus-objectivity might be better served by some Jewish Wisdom, and perhaps the answer could be more Talmudic than anything else. And as those bells peeled, that corner of the world, with intersecting religions, which I like, could be a symbolic metier for that needed sense.

        • March 24, 2013 3:31 pm

          To me it’s simple–I don’t, as a matter of fact, believe that God did command genocide. The historical accuracy of large parts of the story of the occupation of Canaan by the Israelites is a matter of much contention, so how accurate the scriptural reportage is can be argued. Really, though, that doesn’t matter. Even if we debate details, or whether some Canaanites survived, or were offered treaties, etc., the fact remains that God is portrayed as ordering things that all civilized people would consider monstrous abominations and crimes against humanity. Trying to excuse it by arguing that the context was different then doesn’t work, either. If genocide was OK in a certain context in Bronze Age Palestine because God said so, how do we know He might not condone it again?

          I’d take antinomian supersessionism a step further here: For us as Christians, everything has to be viewed in the light of Christ. If in that light genocide is always wrong (and I think it definitely is from a Christian perspective), then it was wrong then, too. Since Christ is the human face of God, and since he teaches a doctrine that would oppose genocide, therefore we conclude that God did not command genocide to Joshua. More broadly, I’d tend to toss out any part of the Old Testament not in line with the God of love as revealed by Christ in the New Testament. I’m not a Marcionite; but I think the New Testament has to be our ultimate criterion.

          Thus, I’d read the nasty parts of the Old Testament as somewhat like negative examples. In short, they don’t indicate what God is like, but how He gets interpreted by ancient barbaric people (and the Jews were no more–or less–barbaric than anyone else of the time), and as an object lesson to us not to project our frailties and nastiness onto God.

        • Flowerson permalink
          March 24, 2013 8:50 pm

          Depends which “God” we’re talking about. Not that I’m saying there are two Gods in the Marcion sense. But nevertheless, what Christianity has revealed about God is a sort of dynamic tension between Law and Grace. The God in Joshua (or portrayed in Joshua) is God acting in perhaps the maximally “Law-emphasized” way in the whole Bible. There is nothing unjust about what goes on there; if we believe in God seriously, He is lord of life and death, and so theoretically could deputize others to carry out His office there (as, indeed, the State does in capital punishments).

          However, turmarion is sort of right in that this doesn’t mean that God portrayed in such a way as maximally emphasizes justice and arbitrary capricious power is “the whole picture.” Indeed, if this facet isn’t seen in the context of the Whole (including the New Testament) it is a distortion. It’s not that we should say that “God” didn’t command these things in one sense. But God is a dynamic in human life or society, as it were, and this was a stage of God’s development (or, rather, His progressive revelation in human consciousness, the unfolding of the inner logic of the God Idea, as we can’t imagine God in the absolute sense actually changing), but only a stage.

          To use a now hackneyed analogy, God is an elephant, and Joshua felt the sharpest point of the tusk.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
          March 24, 2013 10:36 pm

          turmarion,

          We do not need to go back to biblical times to have this discussion. I have an example which proffered online so many times, and no one takes the time to answer it. But I think it is the perfect point, so I will offer it for the umpteenth time. To wit, Pope Julius II at one point excommunicated all of the citizens of Venice. In Canon Law and Moral Theology at that time such an excommunication meant that any person so excommunicated could be put to death. This is not a point of historical debate. So, from that point of view, it would have been fine if any child, any infant living in Venice could have been put to death. Fine with Canon Law, fine with Moral Theology. How does this cohere with modern notions of Pro-Life, etc. as the long-held position of the RC church. As I see it, it doesn’t.

          The historical context is that, in fact, many of these excommunication were NOT taken to the nth degree. But, still, in point of fact, we do NOT know how many people- men, wine, children– died because of such condemnations. The point is, they could have with no moral condemnation from the same Church that is making all these pronouncements today.

          Will, someone, please explain this apparent conundrum. What happened to Dominic the Dominican from Rome, he has not chimed in for a while??

        • March 26, 2013 9:35 pm

          You can’t just say “at that time such an excommunication meant that any person so excommunicated could be put to death. This is not a point of historical debate.” Where is the proof of this??

        • March 26, 2013 10:50 pm

          Flowerson: There is nothing unjust about what goes on there; if we believe in God seriously, He is lord of life and death, and so theoretically could deputize others to carry out His office there (as, indeed, the State does in capital punishments).

          Well, taken to its logical limits, this would permit God, in theory, to command the Holocaust or the killing fields of Cambodia or nuclear war or anything, and those who defend such ideas would come down to saying, “He is the Lord of Life, and He is the potter, we the mere pots. Who are we to say anything against Him?”

          Well, if one takes seriously that we are made in God’s image–that we have intelligence and understanding–and if one believes, as I do, that God gives us a certain autonomy and even gives us slack to criticize even Him, even defeat Him in argument, then there is no reason to accept such a view. I, in fact, think that the argument that Joshua’s men were acting as God’s deputies to kill innocents in order to work His inscrutable will are wrong, immoral, and bs. Yes, we know only parts of God, like the blind men and the elephant, and yes, God is “good”, “merciful”, “just”, etc. by analogy, as Thomists would point out. However, we can’t be Humpty Dumpty and make words mean whatever we want them to. If “good” as applied to God allows for cold-blooded genocide at His command, then it’s lost all meaning.

          Peter Paul, totally agreed that what you describe was immoral and wrong, Canon Law or no Canon Law. I’m basically a universalist, but if I weren’t, I wouldn’t be looking for Julius II in Heaven. I am Catholic, but that doesn’t mean I think the Church–or the Popes in question–were right on such things.

        • Flowerson permalink
          March 28, 2013 11:04 pm

          But turmarion, God “kills” each of us. It’s Him, in the end, who severs body and soul. The means are merely a question of Providence

          I’m not claiming that God, as a personal being, wanted or “actively commanded” the actions described in Joshua

          But given that it’s unclear that those events actually even historically took place, we have to consider the meaning of the story AS inspired Scripture. What does it mean to say that a story in which God commands the ban…is inspired?

          Saying “God would never do something like that” as if the story must simply be dismissed as “false,” or some sort of clever obfuscation wherein God is teaching by “showing us what He’s NOT like but what barbaric people think He’s like.” Neither is consonant with the notion of Scripture as inspired or with any sort of traditional notion or indefectability.

          Rather, what I mean by the elephant analogy is more that, indeed, God didn’t “in the real world” order the genocide (and, indeed, there is no historical evidence that the Canaanites were, in fact, put under the ban in real life). But, the story seems to serve as a “parable” that reveals “one side of” God. The most wrathful side. Abstracted from all other sides.

          Of course, in real life, a “side” of God cannot be thus abstracted. (As this particular case shows, it would be terrifying if they could be!) But, in the form of literature, in Scripture, a “facet” of God can be shown teased out and abstracted in “pure” form, even though in reality it, of course, it only ever exists “in compound.”

  6. Ronald King permalink
    March 23, 2013 7:53 am

    Kyle, Could the statement “dictatorship of relativism” be an example of an incomplete understanding of how and why the human soul suffers and what is needed for the healing of that soul.

  7. trellis smith permalink
    March 23, 2013 8:48 am

    I too am baffled by this papal rhetoric seemingly meant to skewer the progressive consequentialist mode of ethical appraisal and its departure from the traditionalists deontological system of ethics. because ultimately the deontological is not an orthodox approach to Christian ethical thinking. Tobias Haller has a wonderful recent post where he states…. “Jesus himself appeared to take a consequentialist approach for much of the time — not looking at acts in themselves, but in a larger context including intent prior to action and results in the wake of action…He also adopts a strictly teleological ethic when he speaks of knowing virtue by the fruits it bears. In other words, there is a strong subjective element in the ethical teaching of Jesus; and his Summary of the Law.”

    • March 23, 2013 2:32 pm

      I don’t think traditional ethics are deontological at all. At least, they weren’t supposed to be. The Christian ethical system is Virtue Ethics, not consequentialism OR deontology.

      • trellis smith permalink
        March 24, 2013 3:18 am

        In so far that Love is the absolute this is true. Yet I would argue that virtue ethics has a strong component of subjectivity and determines an ethical action on a case by case basis that deontological ethics would never employ. In fact all three components are found in Christianity, it would be hard to escape the deontological in a religious system based on the Law. However the RC Church compounds the difficulty in continuously overlaying the Natural Law, an overarching moral system presupposing an objectivity in what is a conditional moral universe which at its heart is relative and relational, More often than not mere constructs that it passes as objective truth are merely cultural prejudices masking as an absolute moral code.
        The natural law code is forever condemned by its begging the question in assuming as its necessary premises answers to that which it purports to address. Of all the moral codes it is the least likely to bear the Christian message wherein love of God and neighbor is paramount.

        Mr, Cupp has hit the nail squarely on the head that this ” tyranny of relativism (and the relativists)” is no more than an argument ad hominem of traditionalist absolutists trying to coop catholic orthodoxy, an argument that has not advanced our understanding of the ethical dilemmas we are currently encountering. The present pope would be well advised to let the philosopher pope retire entirely and give rest to a hopelessly useless idea. the new pope’s primary instinct to serve the poor would be far more productive in advancing a moral order.

        • March 24, 2013 9:06 pm

          Hm. As I understand Christian morality, there is a tension between law and grace, but also no ultimately mutual exclusion. One can believe the law is what condemns without believing that it’s what saves.

        • trellis smith permalink
          March 27, 2013 12:56 am

          Thanks Sinner while I can appreciate the paradox, ultimately the contradiction of condemning and saving cannot hold. Is not Christ, who does not condemn and as fulfillment of the Law sums up the Law as Love, then any Law Mosaic or Natural is subject to the law of Love. “Love God and do what you will”.
          It is not a tension as Grace trumps Law every time. If as Paul says that no one is saved by following the Law then all the more maddening for the pontiff to promulgate even as the the lowest common denominator a moral code on a the basis of an errant moral philosophy of Natural Law. Not only will this misdiagnose the morality of an action but additionally it is quite a departure from true orthodoxy and thus a profound waste of time detracting from the true mission of the Church.

        • March 28, 2013 11:39 pm

          “ultimately the contradiction of condemning and saving cannot hold.”

          To be clear, I said that the Law condemns but is NOT what saves.

          I don’t see grace as “trumping law every time” because Grace is always the grace to fulfill the Law, ultimately.

          What I mean is something like that “the Law” should be interpreted as something like “the ideal.” It is the eschatological vision, the image of what a perfectly realized saint looks like.

          In this sense, it is what condemns, because it is the “standard” against which our “falling short” can be measured in any given area. This standard of perfect holiness, of ideal human wholeness and integration and virtue, can indeed be elucidated in some spheres (that of natural virtue, at least) by something like a concept of “Natural Law” because our fulfillment is rooted in human nature, and it’s silly to imagine that the investigation of philosophical-anthropology would have nothing to say about this

          However, it does NOT thus follow that we are saved by “living up to” the standard, even if that were possible (though I sort of doubt it; it’s very hard!)

          For an analogy I consider health (as we’re talking about spiritual health here). The “Law” when it comes to health…would be a description of what a perfectly healthy person is like. This Law is what “condemns” people as sick, inasmuch we know when a person is sick based on them deviating from the description of health, falling short of it, missing the mark.

          However, you will note, it does NOT follow that a person is cured simply by “acting healthy,” as if the way one becomes healthy is by trying (by will-power) to enact or fulfill the image or description of a healthy person, as if suppressing the symptoms cures the disease. No, that would be a sort of “spiritual cargo-cultism” confusing cause and effect.

          If there is a problem with conservative/fundamentalist interpretations of “traditional” morality, it is not in the affirmation of what the content of the Law is (Christ fulfills the Law because the Law is Christ-likeness!) but rather in the question of how we are to engage it and appropriate that Law. It seems to me that many conservatives are under the impression that the
          Law is something to be imposed from without at every moment, when really the Law is a “destination,” and it’s Grace’s job to get us there.

          There’s no doubt about what the the aim of the game is. People who call for the magisterium to “change the Law” strike me as wrongheaded. It’s clear that the aim of the game is, say, to get the ball through the hoop as many times as possible (and it’s likewise clear to me what perfect virtue looks like, and the traditional description is pretty accurate).

          However, there are two approaches to this. The first understands the injunction “Get the ball through the hoop” in a positive sense, and shoots as many times as it takes. They may miss 100 times (but that’s grace!) but because of that process, they get the ball through the hoop 30. The second type, the Pharisees, are more concerned with “not missing” than with actually scoring, and so while they may never miss a shot, they only shoot 10 times.

          There are still right and wrong answers, but the game of life is about getting as many right answers as you can, not about getting as few wrong answers as you can.

  8. Mark VA permalink
    March 23, 2013 9:12 am

    I think you raise a relevant question, Kyle, what is the relationship between what’s known as relativism and firmly held beliefs?

    As I see it, you are right, generally there are objective principles held when an argument is discussed, and often they are at odds. For example, when the argument is the nature of marriage, some uphold the principle that it is a human institution, thus subject to change, while others uphold the principle that it is a sacrament, thus not subject to change. Both sides are equally sincere in upholding their respective principles. So far, this is by observation only, but it points at an unresolved problem.

    Going further, perhaps the problem can now be recast as a question: is it possible to be, at the same time, sincere yet wrong, on a given question? But now we’ve introduced an element that points to an absolute – the word “wrong”, and implicitly, its opposite, “right”. So this specific example is now transformed into “What is the truth with respect to marriage”?

    I think it is at this time that the “dictatorship” or “tyranny” element creeps in – a strong aversion to transforming a given question into a search for truth, a refusal to examine, and possibly change, one’s firmly held beliefs – sincerity trumps all. The tyranny reveals itself to be this refusal to allow a search for truth, for one’s self and for others, and relativism is its prelude – a mere observation that, on any given question, “many viewpoints exist”. What remains is emotion and raw political power, as Brett Salkeld indicated in his post above.

    There is an old joke on this subject. The Party boss visits a factory to the assess the level of political consciousness of the local proletariat. After all are assembled, he asks: “Comrades, what is two plus two?” To which they respond in unison, with the correct answer: “How much would you like it to be?”

    • Kerberos permalink
      March 24, 2013 12:03 am

      “I think it is at this time that the “dictatorship” or “tyranny” element creeps in – a strong aversion to transforming a given question into a search for truth, a refusal to examine, and possibly change, one’s firmly held beliefs – sincerity trumps all. The tyranny reveals itself to be this refusal to allow a search for truth, for one’s self and for others, and relativism is its prelude – a mere observation that, on any given question, “many viewpoints exist”.”

      ## How is this not applicable to the CC herself ? Many viewpoints on many matters do in fact exist – not to recognise this is to embrace something resembling a Churchly solipsism. May they shouldn’t exist – but in actuality, the actuality the Church has to cope with even if she would like not to, they do exist. And they exist for reasons – so deploring and condemning them does nothing to show they are not valid, or at least as valid, in one way or another, as the Church’s convictions. (It is at least conceivable, even if untrue, that contradictory truths are reconcilable in a “higher synthesis” -cf. the “blind men & elephant” idea).

      If the Church does not respect the convictions of others, it is asking to be treated with as little consideration as it is prepared to give its neighbours. Yet again, it is fashioning a rod for its back. And this could so easily be avoided. Ranting & raving about relativism will get it nowhere fast.

      People have to be met where they are, just as they are, as the hymn recognises – which is what Jesus did: He did not wait for the crucified brigand to get down off his cross & go and stop being ritually unclean before He would deign to speak to him. Too often the CC tends to treat the best as the enemy of the good – for example, it requires absolute orthodoxy from all, and won’t give people credit for at least trying to come up to its standards; even when it changes the orthodoxy. Good intentions don’t count.This is legalism. In Lewisian terms, and referring to “The Pilgrim’s Regress”, the attitude is that of the “Tough-Minded” – and Lewis is not complimenting such people. This merciless, orthodoxist – not orthodox – approach is not virtuous. And – bearing in mind the review of “Evangelical Catholicism” – there is nothing evangelical about it.

      If your analysis is correct, the Church is requiring of others an openness she refuses to exemplify in her own life. Not for the first time, she is begging to be accused of double standards, and, indeed, relativism. If that is a misunderstanding of her position, she needs to do a lot more to avoid being misunderstood.

      • Mark VA permalink
        March 24, 2013 1:09 pm

        Kerberos:

        In your apparent eagerness to attack the Catholic Church (by the way, I assume you are not Catholic), you’ve misunderstood what I wrote, and went on a tangent of your own making.

        Your aggressive way does not lend lend itself to an exchange of views, much less to an analysis of difficult questions.

  9. Julia Smucker permalink*
    March 23, 2013 11:17 am

    Kyle, it seems to me all you’re really saying here is the same thing C.S. Lewis said at the beginning of Mere Christianity: that every quarrel (especially when it involves a question of fairness) at least implicitly presupposes an objective principle. A pure and coherent relativism is therefore impossible, since any argument from relativism will inevitably contradict itself.

    Brett has said it well: “Professed relativism” exists, but it is inconsistent and, turning back on itself according to its self-contradictory nature, easily becomes its own form of absolutism.

    • March 23, 2013 1:19 pm

      Relativism is incoherent, I agree, but it’s also not as prevalent as its made out to be. “Relativism” has become a term for “moral theories/ideas I disagree with,” which makes it seem as though it’s everywhere, when in fact relativism as theory has little cultural impact compared with other theories currently at work (e.g., liberal rights language). It’s inaccurate to paint our age’s “spiritual poverty” as a dictatorship of relativism. It’s a misdiagnosis of the important problems. Our age doesn’t need to hear proof that absolutes or objective realities exists; people largely accept such things, implicitly if not always explicitly. The problems are more complex and complicated: truth is undervalued, from apathy and disdain; erroneous objective principles and values are championed, good is called evil and evil good, etc. Each of these problems has distinct solutions, a truth clouded by categorizing them all under the name relativism.

      • Kerberos permalink
        March 24, 2013 12:11 am

        “It’s a misdiagnosis of the important problems.”

        ## That does not bode well for the Pope’s ability to do anything about “the important problems”. If the laity can see more clearly on this issue than the Pope, and perhaps other bishops too, that is very bad news indeed.” What is the good of a Pope whose teaching misguides his hearers ? The problems are endless.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blind_Leading_the_Blind

      • March 24, 2013 5:35 am

        I think that “dictatorship of relativity” needs only to be replaced by “dictatorship of situational ethics” to make the Popes’ positions more accurate. If you think the apartment building in Kabul houses only innocent civilians, you try to avoid bombing it. But if you think it also houses an al-Qaida chieftan, you bomb it anyway–innocent civilians be damned! It is pragmatism, not “relativism” that is the culprit.

  10. March 23, 2013 1:33 pm

    I have to say that I’m totally with Kyle and Peter Paul Fuchs on this. Now let me make it clear that I oppose abortion as I put forth the following for consideration:

    There are churches that consider drinking alcoholic beverages to be a sin, something which is always wrong and never justified. I remember reading a book by one such (a contemporary, not stuff from a temperance society of the 1800’s) who said that if it could be proved that Jesus drank real wine, not grape juice, he (the writer) would be forced to leave Christianity, since such behavior would show that Christ was not, in fact, Divine. Now let’s look at what Paul Connors says:

    What (e.g.) PP thinks of what they are doing is not the point. To explain what the popes mean by relativism requires only that (a) direct abortion is an objective evil, and that (b) PP thinks that objective situations and circumstances are never ever sufficient to determine the morality of abortion, that its morality varies from person to person, and that PP’s own morality in carrying out the abortion is solely to be judged by each individual mother.

    Now, let’s consider a Christian of the type in the first paragraph—let’s say he’s a member of the Temperance Society, and that he is opposed to the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) which has just legalized alcoholic beverages in his jurisdiction. Now let’s cut and paste Paul’s original a little:

    “What (e.g.) the ABC thinks of what they are doing is not the point. To explain what the Temperance Society means by relativism requires only that (a) drinking alcoholic beverages is an objective evil, and that (b) the ABC thinks that objective situations and circumstances are never ever sufficient to determine the morality of alcohol, that its morality varies from person to person, and that the ABC’s own morality in carrying out legalization of alcohol is solely to be judged by each individual citizen.”

    Interesting, huh? The issue isn’t really about relativism or what is or isn’t an intrinsic evil; the issue, as Peter Paul pointed out, is that we live in a pluralistic society. Not everyone agrees that abortion—or drinking alcohol—is in fact an “objective evil”. The Magisterium—or the Temperance Society—can preach such until they’re blue in the face; but that won’t change the minds of those who just plain disagree. Paul Connors says, “The state choosing to implement policies that I morally disagree with is something very different from the state requiring me to violate my conscience.” However, Christians who believe that alcohol is an objective and intrinsic evil would say the exact same thing about the state’s permission of liquor stores. It is also an overstatement to say that the state “requires” you to “violate your conscience”, unless it is a violation that abortion—or liquor stores—even exist, whether you have an abortion or buy a beer or not.

    Brett: Here, believe what you want, just don’t believe it so strongly that you think it has any claim on anyone other than you. Only my beliefs have that privilege. But I’m gonna frame the argument in a way that I hope you won’t notice that.

    Once more: How is this different from privileging our beliefs that alcohol is not intrinsically sinful and allowing it, despite the fact that some believe it is evil and that drinkers are going to hell?

    I think what it boils down to is whether or not a pluralistic society is worth the necessary compromises intrinsic to it or not. In other words, is it better to have low coercion even though some things that some groups will consider to be intrinsic and objective evils will be permitted? Or is it better to have a more or less theocratic state that imposes restrictions on such evils from the point of view of one particular religion, even though that’s going to oppress those who believe otherwise?

    Put it another way: Do we want Ireland in the 40’s or Saudi Arabia now as long as it stops abortion and such? Are we willing to put up with an unexamined and unassailable religious establishment (and too bad if some girls get sent to Magdalene houses, or some boys get abused, or, as in Saudi Arabia, all other religions are banned and practitioners of other faiths can be jailed or executed) in order to quash “objective and intrinsic evils”? This is a serious question that few seem to want to address; and I follow Kyle and Peter Paul in thinking that it’s not really about “relativism” at all.

    • March 23, 2013 6:52 pm

      To say that moral truth is objective is to say that it is also true for the person who rejects it. Statements like “Marriage is a relationship possible only between partners of the opposite sex” or “Abortion is the deliberate termination of a human life” are true for everyone, whereas “Alcohol is intrinsically evil” is not true. Not just for us, because of our Catholic point of view, but for everyone, no matter how much they may insist otherwise. However, because a pluralistic society demands that we tolerate behavior we find morally objectionable, Pope Francis is suggesting, even Catholics no longer the objectivity of moral truth. Instead, we take a “true for me but not for thee” position on issues like this, as do many of our secular counterparts. In that sense, we most certainly are relativists.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        March 23, 2013 10:50 pm

        Ron,

        Read Thomas Aquinas’ defenses of the pure evil of slavery, and that should put your exclusivity in perspective.

        • Dante Aligheri permalink
          March 24, 2013 1:43 pm

          Or, for that matter, the defense of slavery in the Bible.

          Now, granted, Biblical slavery is very tightly controlled at least by the time of Deuteronomy to the point where it becomes indentured servitude.

          Still, it’s there. And, indentured servitude and debtor’s slavery have also been rejected since the beginning of the twentieth century.

          Interestingly enough, however, I did recently find that a few Church thinkers did oppose slavery absolutely – namely, St. Gregory of Nyssa and Bl. John Duns Scotus. But, unfortunately, they had very little impact.

        • March 24, 2013 2:12 pm

          And do we not agree that Thomas was wrong, just as much as (or, really, much more than) those who today might insist that alcohol is intrinsically evil? My “exclusivity” is a defense of objective truth, not a defense of what specifically anyone–however authoritative–might claim that truth to be.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
          March 24, 2013 3:01 pm

          Dante and Ron,

          Depends entirely on what one means by “objective”. There’s that famous rub. When Catholics use the term they mostly mean something that is consistent with some sense that Thomas used. It is in that sense that his manifestly faulty intuition or deduction or mere parsing becomes very problematic for the one offering the term “objective” in the first place. I feel it is much less problematic for someone like me who is not freighted with those those Thomistic metaphysics and their history.

        • March 24, 2013 3:48 pm

          Ron: “Alcohol is intrinsically evil” is not true. Not just for us, because of our Catholic point of view, but for everyone, no matter how much they may insist otherwise.

          Make it ““Alcohol is not intrinsically evil” is not true. Not just for us, because of our Temperance point of view, but for everyone, no matter how much they may insist otherwise.” Thus a Catholic and a proponent of Temperance are going to be totally unable to have dialogue.

          And do we not agree that Thomas was wrong, just as much as (or, really, much more than) those who today might insist that alcohol is intrinsically evil?

          Now we do, but try making that argument to someone of that period!

          Horribilu: People may believe alcohol use is wrong. They don’t believe it directly or immediately kills a person or constitutes murder. Even if it were a sin, it would be (in itself, deleterious effects aside) ‘s a “victimless” sin.

          Horribilu, there are people out there that believe that alcohol is intrinsically evil, that the person who uses it is the victim, and who fell as strongly about is as pro-life people feel about abortion. You might not see it as analogous, and I might not, either, but they do. BTW, in the 19th Century, hundreds of patents, child-raising books, sermons, and general social pressure excoriated the victimless sin of masturbation.

          Ron again: Instead, we take a “true for me but not for thee” position on issues like this, as do many of our secular counterparts. In that sense, we most certainly are relativists

          I’d distinguish functional relativism from metaphysical relativism. Unless everyone agrees 100% on every iota of moral belief (which isn’t even true in a theocracy, and certainly isn’t so in a pluralistic society), it’s necessary to say of some things, “Look, we have to take some position on it–ban it or legalize it–regardless of the beliefs of those who disagree.” Thus, if we say that a Temperance activist is free to think alcohol is the tool of Satan while denying him the right to outlaw it, we are functionally relativist in that we don’t treat his belief as any more right or wrong than that of one who has no problem with alcohol. However, metaphysically speaking, maybe the Temperance activist is right for all we know, and we imbibers are all going to hell in a bibulous handbasket.

          The thing is that if you’re going to have a pluralistic society, then functional relativism is a feature and not a bug. If you don’t want a pluralistic society, then you have to make an argument as to whose religion and moral system gets to predominate and why everyone else should be OK with that. Good luck trying to make that argument.

        • Paul Connors permalink
          March 24, 2013 6:01 pm

          “The thing is that if you’re going to have a pluralistic society, then functional relativism is a feature and not a bug.”

          Some kinds of relativism can exist in a pluralistic democracy. Some other kinds will start to tear it apart. To keep up the example of drinking alcohol: if society starts to say not only that drinking alcohol is permitted, but also that anyone selling drinks in their shop must always include alcoholic drinks, or that when a toast is offered everyone present must drink it in alcohol, or that employers must specifically pay for each employee’s bar bill, then the line has been crossed from democracy into totalitarianism.

        • Horribilu permalink
          March 24, 2013 8:58 pm

          A sin where the individual is “victimizing themselves” is not the same as a crime where another person’s rights are violated. You really can’t violate your own rights.

          Banning alcohol is an attempt to legislate private individual virtue. Fighting abortion is an attempt to protect human beings from having their rights violated. They are NOT comparable.

          “Intrinsic evil” someone might believe both are, but things can be intrinsically evil in different ways, and also people can oppose an intrinsically immoral thing NOT because of it’s immorality, but because of it’s criminality (ie, because it is hurting other people; the State exists to preserve my rights “where my nose starts.”)

      • March 24, 2013 6:29 am

        What is meant by the word “marriage” is not something found in nature. It is a man-made definition and therefore subject to change. Polygamy, e.g. is standard practice still in some societies. As for “the deliberate termination of a human life,” this, too, is not always seen as an intrinsic evil. It is allowable, as a morally sound choice in, for instance, “Just War” theory. Also throughout most of Church history, capital punishment was a morally valid practice. If capital punishment is no longer a moral choice, this mutability merely serves to illustrate the point I’m making. Turmarion poses the key question: “I think what it boils down to is whether or not a pluralistic society is worth the necessary compromises intrinsic to it or not.” Catholics are not going to impose a theocracy anywhere on this earth–most especially not in any of the Western democracies–so it is a waste of time even talking in those terms. “True for me, but not for thee” is the best you’re going to get.

    • Horribilu permalink
      March 23, 2013 9:24 pm

      Yeah, there’s a difference Turmarion. It’s the difference between Morality and Ethics. People may believe alcohol use is wrong. They don’t believe it directly or immediately kills a person or constitutes murder. Even if it were a sin, it would be (in itself, deleterious effects aside) ‘s a “victimless” sin. So there is room to debate whether it should be “enforced” (though, certainly, no room to debate that certain bad effects that violate the rights of innocents need to be opposed). Abortion, however, is to pro-life folks…a crime with a victim. It’s not just about stopping sin or enforcing morality, it’s about defending someone’s rights which are being gravely (and in extremis) violated. Therefore, there is a duty to stop it to protect the victim. The best way to stop them, to protect people, may not be criminalization, that may not be the best use of State resources, etc. But there is no doubt that if you believe something is murder, you have a duty to try to STOP it somehow (generally speaking, at least; we obviously can’t stop all victimizations in the world) even if someone else thinks it’s okay. In other words, it’s ethics, not just morals. A violation of rights in the external sphere, not just a question of trying to impose internal private virtue on someone else’s soul. Trust me, for pro-lifers, the question is not about stopping a sin in the soul of the mother, really, it’s about saving the life of the child.

    • Kerberos permalink
      March 24, 2013 12:49 am

      @turmarion:

      Very clearly stated. That – if I understand your reasoning correctly – is what allows gay marriage to be a right, even though on Catholic presuppositions it can be no such thing.

      If the CC wants to define it as possible only between people of opposite sexes, that is its business. But it does not follow that other groups must have the same understanding of marriage. The mode of human procreation, though a reality unaffected by orientation and sexual choices, is not the only possible index of the reality of a marriage – and it is not clear that only sacramental marriages are marriages. “Making little Catholics” seems rather pointless, if the marriage is a true marriage, but also violent or loveless. If a gay couple love and protect their children and bring them up well, the theological defects seem to be of little importance. Life is too important to be reduced to a theology exam – but the CC tends to do that. For the institutional CC, the reality of human love, even if between the “wrong” people, seems to matter far less than dotting the correct Is & crossing the correct Ts.

      The problem with the CC’s outlook is that it is trying to monopolise the word marriage, and to deny others their own definitions of marriage. It is not even consistent, for it says not a word in criticism of the highly unCatholic marriages of Muslims – if it does not regard Muslim polygamy as a “threat to marriage”, why the fuss about gay marriage ? Where are the denunciations of the perverted & anti-Christian unions of Muslims ? They are never made.

      But why not ? From a Catholic POV such unions are as heinous – if in a different way from gay marriage – as what many gay people have done or hope for. It is very difficult to smother the suspicion that gays are being denounced because they are an easy target – there is no Gay Jihad to lob grenades through presbytery or church windows. But denouncing the far from Christian marriages of Muslims might just have deadly consequences. If this is their attitude, then the bishops are acting like bullies – & that deserves no respect.

      If the bishops have an argument against gay marriage that is not flawed in some way, what is it ?

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      March 25, 2013 11:50 am

      Turmarion, I’m seeing a false dichotomy here in the implication that the only alternative to complete ecclesial silence on moral matters is the advocacy of absolute theocracy. The pope is not talking about any kind of legislation of morality at this point; he is merely raising a broad cultural critique. If you want to argue that this critique is overgeneralized, you may have a valid point, but nothing in the critique itself suggests theocracy as the solution to the problem he attempts to name.

      • Ronald King permalink
        March 25, 2013 1:42 pm

        Julia, I know that I am not qualified for theological or philosophical debates, however, from a psychological perspective to use a phrase such as “tyranny of relativism” to describe a free and pluralistic society appears to exhibit a lack of understanding of the complexities of interpersonal relationships. That phrase is loaded with emotional baggage which sets up an antagonistic image of the Church in relationship to the secular culture. There is research which has shown relationships which work exhibit 5 positive statements for every 1 negative statement. Those which do not work exhibit 2 negatives for every 1 positive. In human relationships it is the hurt which we remember most.

      • March 25, 2013 1:51 pm

        Perhaps we’re actually on the same page, Julia. I agree that abortion (for example) is intrinsically wrong, and I don’t think morality in general is relative–murder, theft, etc. are wrong regardless (although, of course, culpability may vary). What I’m saying–and what I think Kyle was saying–is that a lot of people who take up the attack on “relativism” are not “raising a broad cultural critique” but trying to make actual application of ethical principles into a zero-sum game.

        For example: May I vote for a politician who supports abortion as the lesser of two evils, on a balance? Or does that position trump everything else, so that if he is in accord with Catholic Social Teaching on everything but abortion, and his opponent is against CST on everything else but abortion, do I have to vote for the latter anyway? Does voting for the former make me a relativist? Does failing to fight tooth and nail for full implementation of every aspect of Catholic teaching make me a relativist? Or do I sometimes have to be pragmatic and say that sometimes things I think that are intrinsic evils have to be allowed as the lesser of two evils in a pluralistic society?

        Though he doesn’t say it in so many words, that, I think, is what Kyle is getting at. In short, there is a contingent in this country that wants to frame every ethical debate as zero-sum, win or lose, and to say that any kind of compromise at all is surrendering to relativism. That’s not what the Pope is saying–but it is what a lot of Catholics say he’s saying. That, in my mind, is a problem.

  11. Emmanuel permalink
    March 24, 2013 2:15 pm

    I thought that too but I recently had an interesting experience talking about ethics with a class of high school seniors. When pressed for a criteria for their moral decisions, every single one said that might made right and that there are no objective morals. Why can the government kill and not individuals? They have an army and police force. Where does the moral authority for laws come from? Nowhere, governments simply enforce their laws until they are overthrown. Can/should you keep slaves? If the benefits to you outweighed the consequences them yes.

    • Mark VA permalink
      March 24, 2013 3:32 pm

      Emmanuel:

      Your post caught my eye, because what you report is disturbing. I’m hoping that perhaps the students you’ve talked with were just indulging themselves in some immature and flamboyant cynicism.

      However, as best you can tell, when these students interact with one another in their “natural teenage habitat”, do their actions match their attitudes, as you reported them, or do they behave according to the conventional moral standards (i.e. the Decalogue)?

    • March 25, 2013 4:30 pm

      Emmanuel, your comment is right on target. Our little blog discussion has implications for the real world, and you spelled them out here. Not only that, but the mindset you recognized among the HS students will impact not only their behavior in college, but it will also be expressed in their lives as spouses, parents, workers and citizens. Public policy will reflect it, perhaps even more than it does now. Whether we’re talking “metaphysical” or only “functional” relativism, we will be the worse off for it.

    • March 26, 2013 8:15 pm

      I’m skeptical, not of your report, but that it means that these HS students are relativists. How they act in their own lives may be a better indicator of their moral vision than their confused answers, which may speak less to an ethical worldview and more toward their inability to justify one. I think of the scene in the second Terminator movie where the young John Connor tells Arnold not to kill anyone, Arnold asks why, and John can’t give him a reason beyond, “You just can’t; trust me on this.”

  12. March 25, 2013 2:01 pm

    Paul Connors: It is to say that not only is person A’s choice the one that counts, but also that person B may sometimes have to do something to support person A’s choice. To be clear: although person B thinks it is morally wrong to do anything to support person A’s action, the proposal means that in some circumstances unacceptable to person B they nevertheless must act in support of person A.

    The problem here is how you define forcing B to “act in support of A”. In the Temperance example, the legislators who vote in favor of alcohol sales are theoretically representatives of all the people (even though the people have conflicting goals and beliefs), and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is financed with money from taxes paid by citizens whether they want to or not. Thus, a Temperance advocate might argue that by his tax dollars going to support alcohol sales, or his representatives acting against what he wants, he “nevertheless must act in support of” things he finds morally repugnant, if only by proxy. Likewise, if a Jehovah’s Witness (who disagrees with blood transfusion) or a Christian Scientist (who disagrees with medicine altogether) has to buy insurance for their employees, their conscience is violated. If a pacifist pays taxes which fund the military, his or her conscience is violated; and so on.

    I can’t see any possible way to structure a complex pluralistic society in such a way that nobody at all ever has to do things, directly or indirectly, that support things he thinks to be morally impermissible. One might say, “Well, a pacifist’s taxes going to the Department of Defense isn’t the same thing as having to provide insurance that pays for contraception [even though said contraception isn't directly paid for by the employer]“; but a lot would say that it is the same thing. One person’s compulsion to support evil is another’s necessary compromise with society. Where does one draw the lines? There seems to be no clear answer to that.

    • Paul Connors permalink
      March 26, 2013 8:54 pm

      “The problem here is how you define forcing B to “act in support of A”. “

      By act I do actually mean some kind of positive action actually performed by B, and not merely having something happen which B would like not to happen.

      “…the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is financed with money from taxes paid by citizens whether they want to or not.”

      The state enforcing the payment of taxes by citizens is not necessarily going against those citizens’ consciences — it depends how it takes place. In a more conscience-friendly society if it is against person B’s conscience to pay taxes, they can refuse to pay. And then the state can use its power to come and take the money (e.g. by garnishment of wages).

      “… a Jehovah’s Witness (who disagrees with blood transfusion)”

      Similarly, society can use its power to enforce a blood transfusion but without (e.g.) forcing Jehovah’s Witnesses’ parents being the ones who must give their child the blood transfusion.

      “I can’t see any possible way to structure a complex pluralistic society in such a way that nobody at all ever has to do things, directly or indirectly, that support things he thinks to be morally impermissible.”

      I said act in support. The word act is important. This last claim of yours is very vague — what is meant by “indirectly”? A more conscience-friendly pluralistic democracy is much easier than you suppose.

      • March 27, 2013 11:16 pm

        In a more conscience-friendly society if it is against person B’s conscience to pay taxes, they can refuse to pay. And then the state can use its power to come and take the money (e.g. by garnishment of wages). Similarly, society can use its power to enforce a blood transfusion but without (e.g.) forcing Jehovah’s Witnesses’ parents being the ones who must give their child the blood transfusion.

        And these are more conscience friendly how, given that the result is the same? I imagine the person who refuses to write the check and the parent who isn’t forced to drive his child to the hospital (though an officer of the court does) wouldn’t feel that the end result was that much different. The distinction seems trivial to me.

        A more conscience-friendly pluralistic democracy is much easier than you suppose.

        I doubt it, but as John Lennon said, “You say you’ve got a real solution, well, you know, we’d all love to see the plan.”

  13. Thales permalink
    March 25, 2013 8:28 pm

    Even the live-and-let-live types who say “Believe what you want as long as it makes you happy” state a criterion beyond themselves.

    Huh? I don’t see the argument that this isn’t relativism. What criterion beyond themselves are you thinking of? Because I’m missing it.

    It seems to me that “Believe what you want as long as it makes you happy” is one of the quintessential expressions of relativism in our society. When people say that, they aren’t appealing to an objective standard of human fulfillment a la Aristotle’s happiness in the perfection of human nature. Instead, they are appealing to the term “happiness” which they are defining as “whatever makes you, the individual, happy, which might be different for another individual”….. in other words, relativism.

    • March 26, 2013 7:49 pm

      The statement implies that you ought to be happy. Happiness matters for those who say this thing. It is a state superior to unhappiness. And once you’ve granted this, you’ve opened the door to the wisdom of the human experience, not to mention wise minds from Aristotle to Shakespeare: virtue tends to make one happy while vice tends to make one miserable. You might not step through this door, but even standing before the threshold you’ve posited a hierarchy of values to which your and others’ actions should accord.

      • Thales permalink
        March 26, 2013 9:46 pm

        You might not step through this door, but even standing before the threshold you’ve posited a hierarchy of values to which your and others’ actions should accord.

        No, you haven’t — not to the average Joe who says to himself “Believe what you want as long as it makes you happy”. This average Joe would disagree with you and would say that he had not posited that there is an objective hierarchy of values and corresponding happiness that is outside of himself. Instead, the average Joe would say that he is defining happiness as whatever is pleasing to himself as an individual, and that this might differ between individuals…. i.e., relativism.

        Now, if you’re saying that the average Joe’s relativistic position is ultimately
        illogical, I’m with you. But that’s not the same as saying that there is no relativism. There are plenty of average Joes out there who hold relativistic (and ultimately illogical) positions.

  14. March 26, 2013 3:25 pm

    [Sorry if I'm repeating ground that has already been covered. I have not read all the comments.]

    I have always understood “dictatorship of relativism” to refer to the fact that we (in the rich Western countries) are forbidden to judge, because there is no objective morality, but rather everyone is entitled to act as he thinks best. This in turn is based on a presumed lack of knowable objective truth. I definitely find this attitude to be one of the predominant ones in our culture.

    Of course, the same people who would condemn you for judging the behavior of others based on an objective morality, are doing the same thing themselves, just based on a different objective morality (thou shalt not judge). This just proves that relativism is self-defeating. But the fact that it’s self-defeating doesn’t preclude people from trying to practice it anyhow.

    • March 26, 2013 7:53 pm

      I’m forbidden to judge? That’s news to me.

      • Thales permalink
        March 26, 2013 9:55 pm

        I’m forbidden to judge? That’s news to me.
        Our age doesn’t need to hear proof that absolutes or objective realities exists; people largely accept such things, implicitly if not always explicitly.

        Kyle,
        I dunno. It seems to me that the average public school or average secular college class has a lot of people who are teaching, learning, and thinking that it’s forbidden to judge or that there are no absolute or objective moral realities. Maybe you don’t run in those same circles.

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