"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Why relativism is a dictatorship

As Dean of the College of Cardinals a few days before his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger gave a homily to his assembled colleagues in which he asserted:

Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching”, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards. We are moving towards 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.
As an American with two Ivy League degrees and experience in quite varied settings, I find that prognosis pretty obviously true. And I have been pleasantly surprised by the extent to which Church leaders have accepted it. But of course there is dissent. The most interesting I've come across to date is from the Italian Catholic philosopher Dario Antiseri (pictured), whose orthodoxy and resumé both seem unimpeachable. His argument is worth rebutting.

His thesis is that relativism, properly understood, is the antidote to idolatry. As such, it is a vital service to God's people rather than an attack on their faith: "a spy in the service of the Most High," in the words of the article's title. Now as I read the article, which I urge you the reader to do too, I quickly saw that once the premise be granted, the conclusion does indeed follow. So I want to focus on the premise: what does Antiseri define as relativism?

What's mostly at issue is moral or ethical relativism. Antiseri rejects Ratzinger's characterization of that stance as quoted above. Of course nobody disputes the fact of pluralism in ethics and all other philosophical matters; the question is what conclusion is to be drawn from it. Here is the kernel of Antiseri's answer:

But once we have established that ethical conceptions are different, the next, inevitable question is the following: do we have available to us a rational criterion, one that is valid for all, according to which we can decide which ethics is best in that it is rationally founded? A question of that kind, the nucleus of every ethical theory, cannot find a positive response if "Hume's law" holds true. Hume's law tells us that prescriptions cannot logically be derived from descriptions, with the consequence that the basic values of an ethical system, the fundamental ethical principles, are in the final analysis founded upon each person's choices of conscience, and not on arguments of a rational nature.
If that argument is correct, then from the fact that one cannot derive an "ought-statement" from an "is-statement," it follows that our "fundamental ethical principles" cannot be based on rational arguments but rather on "choices of conscience." Relativism, then, is merely the acknowledgment of the logical force of Hume's law and the conclusion Antiseri thinks follows from that law.

Moreover, if relativism so defined were true, then it would have exactly the further consequences that Antiseri so eloquently describes. It would be the indispensable basis not only of democratic government and religious toleration, but also and especially of our ability to receive divine revelation as something from outside and above us, binding us willy-nilly, rather than as a product of our own limited, fallible reason. So understood, relativism is win-win all around: it allays the secularist fear of fundamentalism even as it prevents believers from confusing their own ideas with God's and thus falling into idolatry.

The problem with Antiseri's approach is that his central inference is subtly invalid. From the fact, if it is a fact, that one cannot derive 'ought' from 'is', it does indeed follow that one cannot fashion one's "fundamental ethical principles" by reason alone. The notion that man, by reason or any other means, can set up such principles for himself is the basic error of all forms of secular totalitarianism as well as of easy, undergraduate relativism. But it does not follow that our "choices in conscience" of such principles are non-rational. The very widespread belief that such does follow is indeed the premise of today's "dictatorship of relativism." But it is not true. Given the subject matter, one can find reasons for acknowledging what one's reason does not establish. What's fitting, indeed indispensable, as a precondition of sound moral reasoning is not thereby either established by reason or outside the realm of reason. It's a given. And it is supremely rational to acknowledge it as a given.

Now the question: "A given of what?"—God, nature, both, or something else—is indeed worth debating. I believe that, as expounded by Thomas Aquinas, theistic natural-law theory is the best way to answer that question philosophically. And I'm sure the Pope would agree. But that, though my rational preference, is not my main point against Antiseri, which is that such a given is neither irrationally given nor irrationally chosen. It cannot, to be sure, be rationally demonstrated. But that doesn't make it arbitrary or in any other sense non-rational. What cannot be demonstrated as a matter of deductive necessity is not thereby illogical. It may itself be necessary as a set of premises for sound reasoning.

Of course there remains the matter of ethical "pluralism." The question how to account for ethical pluralism, both across cultures and among thinkers within a given culture, is well worth discussing and has been amply discussed. If anybody thinks that giving such an account is a problem for Ratzinger and his defenders, I'm willing to adumbrate one in response to specific objections. All I'll say here is that the values Antiseri wishes to preserve—popular self-government, religous toleration, approprate humility before God and each other in face of our various differences and blindnesses—can and ought to be preserved on the kind of "absolutist" morality Ratzinger defends.

For further reading, I recommend Aquinas' Treatise on Law (Summa Theologiae I-II, Q. 90-106) and CS Lewis' The Abolition of Man.
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