Tuesday, June 01, 2010

What is “moral relativism?”

Moral relativism is the denial of an objective, absolute standard upon which morality rests. It is, in Western European culture, a result of the Romanticist response to the Enlightenment. Because Enlightenment led to a rejection (in some circles) of Christian morality as a guide for behavior, a vacuum existed. Romanticism (and Transcendentalism in America) stepped in to fill that vacuum.[i] In a sense, these two related movements finished, in the moral sphere, the work that Descartes had unwittingly begun in the “turn to the subject.”[ii] They displaced the center of the moral compass from Divine revelation to human intuition. The problem is that in so doing, they rejected the foundation for all morality. As John Paul II put it, “Thus, giving himself over to relativism and scepticism… he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself” (Veritatis Splendor 1). What suffers first in moral relativism is an absolute sense of value, with the exception of an absolute value of freedom apart from natural law (VS 48).

Servais Pinckaers points out the beginning of this trend and its dangers in the work of Catholic ethicists of the mid-20th century. Prior to the Vatican II council, the Catholic ethicist taught a well-established set of principles in regards to moral standards and acting to a degree like an extension of the magisterium of the Church.[iii] However, with the new “openness to the world” following Vatican II, many ethicists began to use methods from the behavioral sciences, sometimes without regard to the moral foundation already present, or as Pinckaers calls it, the “irreducible character of moral knowledge.”[iv] Ethicists who do not recognize this character “will be limited to a ‘shifting morality’ adapted to the prevailing opinions of a given time or milieu.”[v] Proportionalism and consequentialism are two such moral systems, both of which were condemned by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor 79. Ashley also notes the promise of assimilating the “results of modern science” provided that we rethink the results to remove “the distortions of Enlightenment philosophy.”[vi] Pope Benedict XVI has also spoken out numerous times about the “dictatorship of relativism,” which begins by promising freedom but ends as dogmatic and rigid as many people accuse the Church of being.

i. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 8a—Lesson Fifteen,” International Catholic University, 17 April 2010, .
ii. Benedict Ashley, “Philosophy for Theologians—Lesson 3: The Intellectual Ambiguities of Contemporary Culture,” International Catholic University, 28 February 2010, .
iii. Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 75.
iv. Ibid.
v. Ibid.
vi. Ashley, .
Post a Comment