Archives - Philosophy: Page 19
Author: amparo enriquez (Fri Feb 03, 2006 2:47 pm)
JUST before he became pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned that Western culture was sliding toward "a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." In his first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), Pope Benedict XVI does not use the word "relativism," but he does fault modern people for missing the transcendent meaning of love and instead caring for one another just because we feel like it.
Is that relativism, and if so, is it wrong? Some varieties of relativism may be confused, or even pernicious. But others are essential to any serious, well-developed worldview — even the pope's.
Pope Benedict's worry is that individual autonomy has been elevated above moral absolutes. But ethicists have long distinguished between what they call defeasible and indefeasible moral claims. Defeasible claims are rules of thumb that nevertheless can be overruled for countervailing moral reasons.
Surely many moral duties are defeasible, and in that sense relative. We all recognize that although lying is typically wrong, under certain circumstances — to protect someone's life, for example — it is justifiable. Yet the fact that one moral claim can sometimes give way for another does not mean that the first claim is groundless, any more than traffic laws are invalidated because ambulances can run red lights.
This is a point the pope can appreciate. In November, he barred those who "practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture" from entering the seminary or being ordained. At the same time, the Vatican directive enjoined respect for gays and left open to interpretation the distinction between "deep-seated" and "transitory" tendencies, which has led some to speculate that it would permit the ordination of a sexually mature, celibate homosexual.
Most significantly, it does nothing about current gay priests. If homosexuality is, as the church's catechism holds, "objectively disordered," why not an outright ban? One reason might be the priest shortage in America. An objectively disordered priesthood is better than none. Non-absolute standards, anyone?
The pope has used the term "relativism" to describe not only non-absolute standards, but also uncertain ones. The alternative to certainty, however, is not nihilism but the recognition of fallibility, the idea that even a very reasonable belief is not beyond question. If that's all relativism means, then it is hardly the enemy of truth or morality.
Accepting that we are fallible doesn't keep us from thinking that we're right. It just keeps us from thinking that we couldn't possibly be wrong. And that's a good thing. The ability to revise beliefs in light of new information is part of what makes having a mind worthwhile. It worked for a young German theologian who (according to his biographer, John Allen) in the late 1960's began a transformation from Vatican II reformer to enforcer of the faith. Even the church itself has been known to self-correct every once in a while (see Galileo and Darwin).
What Pope Benedict calls relativism are actually the values of secular liberalism: individual autonomy, equal rights and freedom of conscience. But it is easy to conflate what liberals affirm with the way they affirm it. Liberalism tells us that our way of life is up to us (within limits), not that the truth of liberalism is up to us. It entails that we tolerate even claims that we doubt, not that we doubt even the claims of tolerance. Many liberals themselves are guilty of this confusion, which can manifest as all-values-are-equal relativism (especially common among freshmen in ethics classes, at least until the instructor informs them that because all grades are equally valid, everyone will be receiving a D for the course).
True, secular values can turn a civilization inside out. In post-Christian Europe, entire nations have been plunged into endemic health, skyrocketing education and hopelessly low rates of violent crime. Indeed, it's hard to build a decent society without secular values, and "Deus Caritas Est" acknowledges this: "A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the church," where politics is "the sphere of the autonomous use of reason." The role of the church is to "bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good," not to "impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith."
Perhaps a future encyclical will concentrate on the truly harmful kind of relativism. This is the misguided multiculturalism that keeps Western liberals from criticizing the oppression of women, religious minorities and apostates in Islamic societies for fear of being accused of Islamophobia. In such cases we should not shrink from the ideals of autonomy and equality but affirm them openly for what they are: objectively defensible principles of conscience.
The important contrast is not between absolutism and relativism, as the pontiff would have it, but between secular values and their traditional religious alternatives. He can accuse secularists of believing in the wrong things. But that's not the same as believing in nothing