What Tyranny of Relativism?
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.