The Dangerous Error of Ethical Relativism

Author: Prof. Robert Spaemann


Prof. Dr. Robert Spaemann

Prof. Spaemann comments on the "Doctrinal Note" of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, nn. 2-3

The Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith criticizes a prejudice that has become a constitutive element of "political correctness" in the Western world. The prejudice can be summed up in four theses: 1. The highest values of a liberal democratic order are tolerance and pluralism. 2. Tolerance is irreconcilable with the conviction that one possesses an absolute and definitive truth. 3. The juridical order of a liberal state is based exclusively on the will of its citizens. It cannot, therefore, presuppose any ethical principle whose universality is recognized by only a part of them. 4. There is no reality such as "natural law". Law can only prohibit actions that are contrary to the will of those affected by the consequences of these actions.

The prejudice, underlying these theses of ideological liberalism, is not only wrong but dangerous, and more specifically dangerous for the liberal legal state. The haphazard application of these principles initially conceals their grave consequences. I shall now critically examine the four theses.

Pluralism, absolute relativism, unity of truth, goodness

1. Pluralism is a word with many meanings. Creation is "pluralistic". There is an enormous plurality of species, of human beings, of races, nations and cultures and these, in turn, contain a plurality of groups and individuals. This plurality constitutes the world's riches. A reduced plurality would mean an impoverishment. An impoverishment of what? Of the one world. If the world were not one, if being were not one, then it would make no sense to speak of pluralism as a richness. Our concept of "being" embraces all that exists. To say that something exists outside being is self-contradictory.

The same goes for the concept of truth. Those who say that something is like this or like that thereby exclude that it might not be so. And if they assert that no one can truly know that something behaves in such a way and not otherwise, then, precisely, they are again affirming something, and this assertion is either true or false. If something such as a plurality of truths were to exist, then the contrary would also be true and therefore, in actual fact, precisely nothing would have been affirmed. Newton's law of universal gravity is either sound or unsound. Without a universalist concept of truth all scientific research would immediately come to a halt. Another issue is that of the adequacy of our concepts, if we are speaking of non-empirical realities. This is not our topic. Since we can think and speak of God only with images, God himself has given us a satisfactory image of himself in Jesus Christ. "Those who have seen me, have seen the Father" (Jn 14,9).

However, it is not only the concepts of being and of truth that are universalist by definition, but also the concept of good. "Good, if it is manifested, is common to all things" Plato says. If we say that pluralism is good, this phrase only means something if the very word "good" has an unambiguous meaning. If good and evil are relative, then these words are in fact meaningless. First of all, we would not be able to condemn crimes against humanity. In one of his addresses, Heinrich Himmler, the SS commander of the "Third Reich", praised the altruistic morals of the torturers of Auschwitz, who with no prospects of recognition or personal advantage were liberating humanity from the cancer of Judaism. Notoriously, there also exists an altruism of evil. But here, to speak of "evil" can be interpreted by the relativist only in the sense that our sensibility differs from that of Himmler. The relativist must avoid passing a judgement on whose sensibility is higher than another's since in his logic there is no criterion for good which is not relative. If, in the fifth century B.C., the Greeks believed that they had found such a criterion in the concept of physis or "nature", this happened, in the relativist's opinion, because they were not yet aware of the cultural conditioning of human customs.

Actually the opposite is true. The moment the Greeks became aware of this conditioning, through travel accounts, among other things, they began to seek a non-relative criterion by which to distinguish between better and worse customs. That such a criterion ought to exist is already shown by the fact that human beings discuss it. Questions of taste cannot be disputed. Good and evil can be, because judgements on good and evil always imply a universalist approach. Moreover, in the vast majority of cases, the human family generally agrees on what is to be praised or condemned. When there has been no ideological brainwashing, gratitude, children's love of their parents, fidelity, honesty, courage and compassion are recognized everywhere as being beautiful; while ingratitude, betrayal, falsehood, cowardice, and cruelty are known to be something that is wrong.

Christianity did not invent these virtues but only contributed to their unlimited free development. It freed them from the constraint of having to yield constantly to the need for self-assertion. Christianity teaches that those who do God's will can leave to God the care of their self-preservation. This alone allows for absolute moral values.

Tolerance based on relativism or based on convictions

2. Relativism, in short, has only one virtue, tolerance. But here too, it is contradictory. Relativism itself cannot give a foundation to such a reality as tolerance. Why should tolerance be a value? Why does it foster the internal peace of a community? Can the peace of the community be fostered by the repression and elimination of all dissidents? And should we not also show tolerance to the religions and world views that favour intolerance? Is not one conviction as good as another? Many relativists favour the tolerance even of intolerance, many favour intolerance in the face of intolerance and for them any authentic verifying conviction, that is, a conviction that considers a contrary conviction to be false, implies intolerance. Wherever tolerance is not secondary, that is, when it does not derive from something else but is the supreme value, it is transformed into intolerance of what alone, in reality, gives tolerance its value: the sacredness of conscience.

In itself, the human eye would have no value if light and visible reality did not exist. A person's convictions would have no value if there were no truth and good to which the conscience and conviction are oriented, even when, in a single case, they may be mistaken. The dignity of the human person is based on this reference to the truth. Instead, tolerance is withdrawal from this dignity. Relativism denies the value of what is in fact the only foundation of tolerance: convictions. Interreligious dialogue, world views and verifiable convictions become impossible whenever the dialogue itself replaces the convictions, and anyone with convictions who is not prepared to question them or transform them into mere hypotheses is declared unfit for dialogue. This dialectic is anything but purely theoretical. Today liberal intolerance is clearly gaining ground in the Western world. Those who resist it are marginalized as "fundamentalists".

Limits of tolerance: authority is God-given v. will of the majority

3. Unlimited tolerance is impossible. We expect foreigners to adapt to a country's customs. Each one must be expected not to oppose the basic rules for human coexistence. If someone's erroneous conscience prompts him to become a terrorist, then he must be prevented from doing what his conscience orders. Since constraint prevents him from this course of action, his conscience is respected. In fact, no one is bound in conscience to do what he is prevented from doing. Indeed, for the relativist, there is no difference between a sound conscience and a warped one. He admits of no super-subjective criterion which would allow him to make this distinction.

The state order, therefore, in the relativist vision, does not correspond to a "nature of things" desired by God, but only to free will. In a democracy, the will of the majority prevails in decision-making. But does this mean that there is a natural law of the majority to claim every and anything from the minority? Where does one reasonably draw the line? The relativist recognizes only two alternatives: the effective acceptance by those concerned or the practical prevalence of the majority. Both these alternatives are unacceptable. Effective acceptance by those concerned makes it impossible to claim something from someone if he denies his adherence. This means anarchy. Domination in

practice, hence the law of the strongest, is not a law but the quite the opposite. Every ordering of human life that deserves the name is born from the desire to set limits on purely physical domination. The relativist does not recognize the foundation of these limits and therefore only recognizes their alternative: anarchy or tyranny. This alternative is inevitable, if there is no order founded on the reasonable nature of the human being, which is simultaneously legitimate and limits political power.

After the end of the Second World War, the great Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, the "confessor" Bishop, said to the Catholics gathered before the ruins of Münster Cathedral: "What we have just experienced, tyranny, persecution, terror and devastation, is God's punishment for what, in 1919, the Germans wrote at the beginning of their Constitution: 'Every power of the State derives from the people'. We have now experienced the power of the State that is derived from the people and now is the time to reflect on the one legitimate origin of all state power, including that of the democratic state, God". Already, Plato wrote that no man but God alone is the Lord of the human person. Just as the Pope does not owe his authority to the Cardinals who elected him, so the democratically chosen political man does not owe it to the people who elected him. For him too, what Jesus said to Pilate still stands: "You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above" (Jn 19,11). The limits of his power have the same origin as the legitimacy of this power: the natural moral law in which the divine will is manifested for us.

When a parliament approves legislation that contradicts this order, the duty of loyalty comes to an end. When the majority of a people decide, or approve, to eliminate or reduce a minority to slavery, it is the right and duty of every citizen who understands the injustice of this law to oppose it, and stand by the minority to help those who are threatened and to work for an order that will force the majority to give up this injustice. If it were to be objected that a religiously motivated minority did not possess this right, the response could only be: We do not impose a religion upon you. But in this particular instance, we seek to prevent you from resorting to violence or killing innocent people, even if you believe you have a right to do so. And in doing this we defend the legitimacy of the order on which your power itself is based.

Dignity of human nature v. dignity of human will

4. Ideological liberalism recognizes this argument conditionally. But it accepts only one limit to human action: the will of the interested party. It rejects all the laws, by which persons are limited, starting with the premise that nothing should be inflicted on anyone against his will. But the will is too ambivalent a reality to be able to replace the concept of "human nature". The will can be manipulated. It is possible to imagine breeding slaves, by genetic manipulation, who are fully in agreement with their condition as slaves. Why don't we do it, if something like the dignity of human nature does not exist, but only the dignity of the will? Today perversions such as sadism and masochism are openly disseminated, on condition that a sadist associates with a masochist.

A tricky case now awaits the judgement of liberal relativists. Shortly before Christmas it became known that via the internet a cannibal had found an accomplice who was willing to have himself killed and eaten. It all happened with their mutual agreement and no outside intervention. From the relativistic point of view, therefore, this was not a crime.

Is this not an opportunity to return to reflect on the concept of natural moral law?

Doctrinal Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on some Questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, nn. 2-3

2. b) A kind of cultural relativism exists today, evident in the conceptualization and defence of an ethical pluralism, which sanctions the decadence and disintegration of reason and the principles of the natural moral law. Furthermore, it is not unusual to hear the opinion expressed in the public sphere that such ethical pluralism is the very condition for democracy. As a result, citizens claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value. At the same time, the value of tolerance is disingenuously invoked when a large number of citizens, Catholics among them, are asked not to base their contribution to society and political life —through the legitimate means available to everyone in a democracy—on their particular understanding of the human person and the common good. The history of the 20th century demonstrates that those citizens were right who recognized the falsehood of relativism, and with it, the notion that there is no moral law rooted in the nature of the human person, which must govern our understanding of man, the common good and the state.

3. Such relativism, of course, has nothing to do with the legitimate freedom of Catholic citizens to choose among the various political opinions that are compatible with faith and the natural moral law, and to select, according to their own criteria, what best corresponds to the needs of the common good. Political freedom is not—and cannot be—based upon the relativistic idea that all conceptions of the human person's good have the same value and truth, but rather, on the fact that politics are concerned with very concrete realizations of the true human and social good in given historical, geographic, economic, technological and cultural contexts.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 March 2003, page 10

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069