What if I was to tell you that I recently read in Scientific American about a neurological study, which indicated that the reasoning faculty in human beings originates in a certain region of the cerebral cortex of the brain. Further, that this same study found this section of the human brain to be more developed and with greater electro-chemical activity in males than in females. The study therefore concluded that males are naturally more prone to thinking rationally than females.
What is your initial reaction? Do you find yourself accepting or doubting the study? Are you happy, indifferent or angry about what it concludes? Are you suspicious of the motives behind the study, or mine in presenting it, or not? Do you find yourself searching your mind for supportive evidence and arguments or opposing ones?
Another example: What if I told you that the Western Report magazine was trumpeting a new federal political party in Canada. This new party has as one of its central platforms the preservation and promotion of family values and the re-establishment of the place of God in our nation. To this end, upon election they intend to begin censoring any immoral content in books and movies distributed in Canada, to bring in laws restricting divorce and punishing adultery, and mandating observance of Sunday as a day of rest.
What is your initial reaction? Are you excited or anxious about this new party? Do you find their ideas fascinating or frightening? Are you ready to call their office and volunteer to canvas support or call your friends and warn them about this party?
Both these instances are fictitious. But they serve a real purpose. They draw from us a visceral reaction and engage our critical faculties. This initial reaction to new information or ideas hints at where our philosophical presuppositions lie. It tells us the underlying convictions that we hold true and dear.
Every person intellectually approaches truth claims and ideas with his own habitual presuppositions. These assumptions form a kind of cognitive filter through which claims and ideas must initially pass. They help determine one’s reaction and response to any truth claim or idea. Some of these intellectual presuppositions come from one’s family background. Many of them come from one’s cultural milieu. Constant exposure and habitual use of them makes their influence nearly imperceptible. Yet they have a profound influence on our understanding and judgment.
When new ideas or issues come to the fore that are perceived as having a bearing on an underlying presupposition only those views intuited as conforming with it are evaluated positively. All others are either spontaneously dismissed or held in doubt, suspicion, or disbelief. The presupposition itself is not questioned. What is questioned is anything that is perceived as challenging or contravening it. In a sense these assumptions are as much moods of the individual or culture as philosophical postulates.
In our modern Western culture there are several inter-related moral presuppositions that have become so dominant and pervasive that they have become accepted as the norms by which other values and ideas are judged. They underlie much of the media and political discussion that goes on today. These presuppositions are unquestioningly assumed to be true and good. They are treated as if self-evident. Almost everyone wants to be thought to possess them as part of his or her character. In this sense they are analogous to the classic four Cardinal Virtues.
A virtue is a good quality that we have developed to the point of being able to exercise it with a certain constancy, consistency and ease. Whether this good quality is of attitude or action it has become habitual to our character through constant exercise. As a habit it is like second nature to us, so much so that not to act accordingly becomes more difficult than to act on it. For example, a person possessing the virtue of honesty is one who consistently tends to be trustworthy in word and action. If such a person unpreparedly tells a lie often you can tell right away because he is so awkward and obvious at doing it. It is out of character. A dishonest person can spontaneously tell a lie without even flinching. He has developed it to a vice (i.e. an immoral quality exercised with a similar constancy and ease).
Plato first elucidated the four classic Cardinal Virtues. They are Courage, Temperance, Justice, and Prudence. As ‘cardinal’ virtues they are the good actions or attitudes upon which other virtues are ‘hinged’ or depend. For example, courage is the ability and willingness to deny oneself, even suffer, in order to realize a greater good. Courage is necessary if one is going to make much progress in the spiritual and moral life. We must be willing to stand up for what we know is right even if it causes others to oppose us; even if it costs us financially or in friendships. We have to be willing to stand up to ourselves as well if we are to avoid falling into disordered pleasures or attractions that tempt us. If we do not gain the virtue of courage then we will not truly possess the virtues of chastity, honesty, loyalty, love, etc. These depend, are hinged, on courage.
I have called this talk ‘The Four Cardinal Virtues of Secularism’ only by analogy to the classic Cardinal Virtues. What I am suggesting here is that moral standards have changed and are now determined in relationship to other hinge “virtues.” These “cardinal” virtues are considered fundamental attitudes necessary for all Canadians to possess in a “multicultural,” “pluralistic” secular society. All good people are therefore expected to possess these qualities and possess them in the manner expected. Not to possess them properly is judged reprehensible. They are civic virtues. These new Cardinal Virtues are:
- Pluralism (a relativistic attitude toward truth, religion and morals)
- Tolerance (a non-judgmental approach to contrary opinions and “lifestyles”)
- Equality (giving equal value to any individual or cultural differences)
- Freedom (emphasis on individual autonomy in moral decision making)
Much of the reason why I can assume you impulsively reacted negatively to the two hypothetical news stories I presented earlier is because these four presuppositions probably exist in you too. We too are members of this particular secular society. It colours our own way of looking at things. We have been indoctrinated in these ‘virtues’ all our lives — in our education system, through the entertainment & news media, through the government and courts, and through our friends and colleagues.
Diversity, open-mindedness, equality, and liberty are not bad things in themselves. Properly understood they are in fact very good and important things. But my problem with their present-day use is fourfold:
1. They are used in an undefined or ill-defined manner. Undefined they act more as slogans to gain an emotional response than as precision terms to gain intellectual insight. Ill-defined they give credence to notions previously not signified by the terms. Such use encourages misuse. Thus a vice can borrow the name of a virtue. This is how, for example, egalitarianism has become synonymous with equality and usurped the latter’s honoured place in Western thought.
2. They have been disconnected from other goods that demarcate them. Tolerance, for example, is meant to serve justice, love and truth. It is in defining these other goods that one determines the nature and extent of tolerance.
3. They have been made absolutes when in fact they are relative. Such exaggeration and lack of context can pervert their meaning and purpose. Freedom, for example, is not an end in itself (i.e. does not exist simply for its own sake). It exists for the sake of choosing amongst various human goods. It cannot make a wrongful act into a good act simply because it was freely chosen. Nor is it a trump card that supercedes all other moral evaluations.
4. They are used to promote politically and culturally favoured views rather than to judge them. Diversity, for example, is praised in our society as a good thing. Diverse views about morality (called “values”) or truth (called “opinions”) are seen as a good in themselves. Critiquing the various “values” or “opinions” with the intention of eliminating erroneous ones (while incorporating any insights) is seen as arrogant and intolerant. Yet a diversity of opinions on a subject is good only insofar as it is a means of discovering truth. Diversity is not for diversity’s sake but for truth’s sake.
This is an apologetics website. Apologetics comes from the Greek word apologeisthai, meaning, “to defend oneself.” In a Christian context 1 Pet. 3:15 is often referred to where it says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” Catholic apologetics is that attempt to present a reasoned defense of our beliefs. It is as old as the Faith itself. St. Paul was an apologist to the Jews. He explained and defended his new faith in Christ through the use of Old Testament Scripture. In the second century St. Justin Martyr used Greek philosophy as an instrument of apologetics to reach a sophisticated pagan audience. These have become the two intellectual staples of apologetics: Revelation and Reason.
Yet, within our contemporary secular culture doing apologetics with the average person has become a very difficult to almost impossible task. Why? An important part of the problem is that Catholic apologetics assumes that there is an objective truth. This is used to help guide a person to an appreciation of Catholic belief. If one is dealing with a Protestant the Catholic apologist will make use of Scripture to demonstrate that the claims of the Catholic Church and Her teachings are objectively founded on or compatible with what Protestant’s accept as revelation. If one is dealing with a non-Christian the Catholic apologist will seek to demonstrate that some Catholic beliefs are rationally necessary (existence of God, existence of the soul, a moral law natural to man) while others are compatible with known facts and reason. The sources of evidence brought into play here might include philosophy, religious history, the sciences, and commonsense. The problem with these methods in the contemporary context is that modern secular people do not just doubt the articles of Catholic faith. Contemporary Western people doubt in principle that there is an objective truth on which a faith can be based — whether rational or revelatory. They are skeptical of claims to a knowable objective truth.
It is not that it has been demonstrated to them that objective truth does not exist or is at least unknowable. This is not an intellectual conclusion they have come to based on sufficient evidence. Rather it is a moral expedient made necessary by a social vision. Objective truths go contrary to the type of ‘pluralistic’ society being promoted. In this supposedly pluralistic society one must be willing to assume, in principle, the equality of differing morals, ideas, and cultures. This is a prerequisite attitude needed to make this new society come about. Thus the denial of objective truth is more an act of the will than of the intellect; more a choice not to entertain any exclusivistic truth claims than a conclusion based on rational proof. The virtues therefore needed by citizens of this new society are the four we shall discuss. They are the civic ‘virtues’ of our pluralistic secular culture.
These new secular virtues are already so deeply ingrained that the general listener is unwilling to engage in reasoned debate over truth claims. This unwillingness is partially because the general listener lacks the necessary interest or competence but it is also because he is unwilling to go where such reasoning may lead. It might lead him to acknowledge certain ideas as true and other ideas as false; that some actions are good and other actions are bad; that some people can be in the right and others in the wrong. This will make him seem (in his own eyes and in that of others) intolerant, elitist and dogmatic. Worse yet, it may lead him to discover that he is living by falsehoods, has perpetrated evil, and that the one in the wrong may be himself. Better to deny any objective truth exists or is knowable. Easier to retreat into familiar and comfortable cliches that validate subjective choices rather than judge objectively. Better to deny reality than to violate the Cardinal Virtues of Secularism. For it is these virtues which today denote one as a good person and a good Canadian. Intellectual confusion definitely exerts a strong influence here but it is not alone. Social conformism, cowardice and moral corruption may also be factors.
G. C. Lichtenberg: “With most people, doubt about one thing is simply blind belief in another.”
In the Introduction of his bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), the late philosopher Allan Bloom well described this situation as he met it in the classroom:
“There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. These are things you don’t think about. The students’ backgrounds are as various as America can provide. Some are religious, some atheists; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor, some rich. They are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in a moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society. That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of their response when challenged — a combination of disbelief and indignation: ‘Are you an absolutist?,’ the only alternative they know, uttered in the same tone as ‘Are you a monarchist?,’ or ‘Do you really believe in witches?’ The latter leads into the indignation, for someone who believes in witches might well be a witchhunter or a Salem judge. The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness — and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings — is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.
The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated. The best they can do is point out all the opinions and cultures there are and have been. What right, they ask, do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others? If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, ‘If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?,’ they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place. It is not that they know very much about other nations, or about their own. The purpose of their education is not to make them scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue — openness.” (pp. 25-6)
William Drummond: “He who will not reason, is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not, is a slave.”
Note: Philosopher of science, Michael Ruse, in The Darwinian Paradigm (1989), uses Bloom’s example of suttee (burning of widows on their husband’s funeral pyre) as being totally alien to Western custom & morality but goes on to say it is wrong for us to judge it as a bad thing. One would like to ask Ruse if the same non-judgmental moral posture should be taken to slavery in the Sudan, inter-tribal violence in Rwanda, female infanticide in China, wife beating in Saudi Arabia, etc., which have long historical and cultural pedigree? Given a real choice would the slave hold the same moral posture toward slavery as the master? If Ruse believes the morality of these actions is strictly cultural what would his view be of people bringing these cultural differences with them to his country should they visit or immigrate? Should they be allowed to continue such practices? If he says no, then it can be argued he is not really open to multiculturalism and favours the imposition of the dominant or domestic culture’s moral norms on others. How about tourists or workers from his country that travel to these foreign destinations? Should they be treated according to the regional norms? One wonders about the integrity or honesty of people like Ruse who make such brash and irresponsible claims. For the sake of what: Notoriety? The maintenance of a pet theory? In order to appear of “open-minded” or “sophisticated”? To avoid any objective morality that interferes with modern lifestyles?
John Henry Newman: “Men go by their sympathies, not by argument.”
Knute Rockne: “Most men, when they think they are thinking, are merely rearranging their prejudices.” *
Henri de Lubac: “Everybody has his filter which he takes about with him, through which from the indefinite mass of facts, he gathers in those suited to confirm his prejudices….Rare, very rare are those who check their filter.”
* Rockne’s observation is on the mark. I am tempted to slightly modify it to: “Most men, when they think they are thinking, are merely rearranging cliches.” Much of people’s intellectual exertion is simply the process of doing a mental inventory of conventional cliches or slogans to find the one/s they think most suitable to the situation or issue at hand. In the past these might have been religious and moral cliches. Today they are secular and relativistic cliches. For example: If the issue of a Christian’s religious practice comes up, depending on the context, one or more of the following cliches (in these or similar words) may be heard to excuse a non-practicing Christian’s absence from church:
1. I’m spiritual but I’m not religious/I don’t believe in organized religion.
2. You don’t have to go to church to pray to God/I practice my religion in my own way.
3. The churches are full of hypocrites/Going to church doesn’t prove you’re better or mean you’re good..
4. The churches are just after your money.
5. I don’t have the time to go to church.
6. When I was young… (retell any ‘traumatic’ incident — which need be nothing more than the reprimands of a priest or nun, or your parents forcing you to go to church — that can be used to justify one’s permanent non-attendance). This is the ‘church as a negative experience’ or ‘church as victimizer’ cliche. If one has no personal incident to report then scandals on the news or from history can be substituted (religious wars, Inquisitions, Crusades, sexual abuse scandals, etc.).
7. When I went to church I was taught… (that all non-Catholics go to Hell; that wives are to be submissive to their husbands; that all other religions are diabolical; etc.). This is the ‘churches as promoters of narrow-minded bigotry’ cliche. If nothing one was taught by a priest, teacher or parent comes to mind then one may substitute a perceived Church teaching that is popularly rejected.
8. When my children get older they can choose for themselves what they wish to believe/I believe all religions have something good to teach us.
9. Christians are so judgmental/Christians think themselves better than everyone else.
10. No one has the corner on God/God isn’t found just in churches.
None of these statements deals directly or profoundly with the fundamental issues for which the Church exists: If there is a God can we truly know what He is like (has God revealed Himself)? What has God made us for and how do we achieve that end? In what manner is God present and active in us and in the world? What in us or in the world is not of God and what is to be done with it? How does one give fitting worship of God? How is knowledge of God (His revelation) passed on? How does God assist our lives? The purpose of the Church — of “religious practice” or “church attendance” — can only be properly understood in response to these and similar questions. Giving superficial responses or misunderstanding the real issue only keeps one spiritually and intellectually (if not morally) superficial and misdirected.
The same method — of dealing in cliches — is also applied to other issues; e.g. abortion, contraception, euthanasia, homosexuality, pornography, wealth and possessions, daycare, etc. Cliches are used to sell ideas in a similar way that jingles are used to sell products. They tell us little of the truth-value of the idea or product but they do appeal to popular sentiments and sound good.
Let us now examine the Cardinal Virtues of Secularism in order to see what merit there is in them and how they are often misunderstood or misused.
The Theory of Relativity
Author Paul Copan, in True for You, But Not for Me, gives this hypothetical situation:
Imagine you are at a busy intersection when a multi-car collision occurs. Everyone runs into the intersection to explain his or her side of the story. “You pulled in front of me!” “But I had the right of way. Don’t you know red means stop?” Pedestrians who witnessed what they saw interject. A trucker with an elevated view of the intersection weighs in. Then perhaps the guilty party, admitting he went through a red light, admits it but tries to excuse himself saying, “I was talking on my car phone. I wasn’t paying attention to the light.” For all the post-accident debate, when a policeman arrives & begins to take notes one truth is clear: An accident happened. And in time, other truths will be determined. Ultimately, a description of the accident will emerge that corresponds to reality.
[If this case were to go to court a judge could not simply rule that the contradictory accounts of what happened are equally true because, after all, reality is pluriform or maybe even unknowable. Each person has his own valid perception of reality. It would be arrogant or judgmental of the judge to question it. A judge who took such an approach would not be a judge for long.]
We live our lives relying on the belief objective truth exists. We gather evidence, we weigh credibility, make difficult judgments. In the end we arrive at a close proximity to truth. Truth is more than our subjective reporting of a car crash. It has objective existence. It has universal application.
Plurality as an observable fact is obviously true. There are many different cultural beliefs and ethical opinions out there. No one would deny that. Pluralism as a philosophical conclusion from this fact is not as obviously true. Just because there are differences of belief or opinion does not mean that all beliefs or opinions are equally true. In fact they cannot be. Opinions and beliefs that diametrically oppose each other (e.g. God exists vs. God does not exist; moral norms are absolute vs. moral norms are relative; the world is round vs. the world is flat) cannot both be true if they are speaking categorically of the same thing. This is why ideological ‘pluralists’ try to escape this dilemma in one of two ways:
1. Claiming there are no universal truths — or at most only some empirical ones — that can be known with certainty, only personal or cultural viewpoints (i.e. no knowable objective truths only subjective opinions). This is the approach of the skeptic: He denies truth.
2. Claiming contradictory views can be equally valid (i.e. logic doesn’t apply). This is the approach of the subjectivist: He denies error.
Neither of these propositions can be demonstrated, of course. In fact they are contrary to reason, lived experience, and commonsense. But they are the necessary intellectual prerequisites of an ideological pluralism. In this area those who normally consider themselves critical minded generally shut off their critical faculties.
We cannot simply jump from a descriptive claim (i.e. there are many different opinions on any given subject) to a prescriptive conclusion (i.e. all opinions should be held as equally true). You can’t just jump from an is to an ought. One must demonstrate by weight of evidence and strength of argument that such a prescriptive conclusion is warranted. However, accepting the nature of evidence and the logic of argument in itself will undermine radical pluralism —- since radical pluralism must assume objectivity is not possible only subjectivity. And facts and logic have that impolitic tendency to exclude contradictory, irrational, or illusory ideas and beliefs (i.e. radical pluralism).
“Pluralism,” in its popular contemporary usage is simply a euphemism for relativism. It is often prefixed with another word like “cultural” pluralism or “ethical” pluralism that betrays this understanding. It is the idea of relativism being applied to select areas of human endeavour; usually religious and moral. Therefore, in examining relativism we shall be examining the philosophical foundation of pluralism.
Relativism is not new: Protagoras, the Greek sophist (c. 500 B.C), maintained that the individual was the standard of truth. Plato cited him as saying, “man is the measure of all things.” Consequently, any given thing “is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you” (Cratylus, 386a). Shakespeare quoted 16th century French essayist Montaigne to similar effect: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Relativism, and its corollary subjectivism, is not a new idea. But its dominance of a entire culture is new. It has gone from being a fringe minority philosophy to the mainstream majority view.
1. Appears supported by cultural anthropology and history.
2. Appears more open-minded to other beliefs and opinions.
3. It seems a pragmatic way of dealing with inevitable and seeming insoluble differences of opinion.
4. Recognizes that one’s own opinions, once thought certain, have sometimes changed. Since wrong before why not again? Tentative conclusions seem more appropriate than definitive ones.
5. It is a pragmatic solution to living in a multicultural society and within a global context.
6. It seems to offer protection of individual conscience and liberty.
8. It allows one to take a neutral or impartial stance on divisive issues; to remain on the sidelines rather than enter the foray. It is a non-committal, comfortable stance.
9. It denies power to political and religious institutions in directing peoples’ lives, thus favouring individualism.
10. It appears a more skeptical and critical minded position in regard to authority and convention. It gives the appearance of thinking for oneself.
11. It is a popular and accepted view amongst one’s peers.
12. It demands little commitment, conversion, study or thought on moral or religious issues.
Not to be a relativist is to risk being:
1. A narrow-minded, intolerant bigot
2. An arrogant and judgmental hypocrite
3. A censorial absolutist or fascist
4. A cultural imperialist or racist
5. A religious fundamentalist
6. A gullible dupe
Relativism is everywhere and has many different faces:
1. Objective relativism: No universal objective truth. All is relative to person or group. Even empirical science can be seen as simply a mental or cultural construct. All is opinion.
2. Religious relativism: A particular religion can be true for a particular person or culture but not for another. No religion is universally true. Religious beliefs are little more than accidents of birth. If one were born in India you would be a Hindu, in Canada a Christian, in Saudi Arabia a Muslim.
3. Moral relativism: There is no objective right or wrong and no moral absolutes. What is seen as good in one culture may be seen as bad in another. What was thought right yesterday may be wrong today. “Different strokes for different folks.”
4. Cultural relativism: There are many cultures, past and present, in the world. They have held many differing beliefs and values. No one culture can therefore claim to be The One. Each culture is its own self-referent. It cannot be judged by the standards of another. Who are we to tell another people what to believe or how to behave?
Back in the mid-1990s an author did a small, random sample interview of over twenty students at a large American university. The students were asked if there was such a thing as absolute truth — truth that is true across all times & cultures for all people. All but one respondent answered along these lines:
“Truth is whatever you believe.”
“There is no absolute truth.”
“If there were such a thing as absolute truth, how could we know what it is?”
“People who believe in absolute truth are dangerous.”
The lone exception was an evangelical Christian who said absolute truth was in Jesus Christ. If that makes you think evangelical Christians have escaped the enticements of relativism think again:
Paul Copan, who reported this instance (in True for You, But Not For Me ), also reported a Barna poll conducted around the same time. It showed that of the 88% of Christians who described themselves as “born-again” and said they agreed with the statement, “The Bible is the written word of God, accurate in all it teaches,” 53% of them agreed with the statement, “There is no such thing as absolute truth.”
Relativism says truth is not fixed by outside (objective) reality but decided by the individual or group for themselves (i.e. is subjective). Truth isn’t discovered but decided/manufactured. Truth isn’t unchanging but ever changing; not only in insignificant matters, like taste and fashion, but in significant matters like religion and morality too. This, of course, is self-contradicting. The contradiction lies in the fact that the subjectivist claims that truth really, objectively, is subjective. That the one unchanging truth is that all truth is ever changing. That the one discovered universal truth is that truth is not discovered but culturally or individually manufactured.
Let us now critique relativism using some of the common cliches or slogans associated with it. In this I am indebted to Copan’s book.
“THAT’S TRUE FOR YOU BUT NOT FOR ME.”
On the surface relativism sounds relaxed & easygoing. But relativism has one absolute: THIS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, ALL TRUTH IS RELATIVE (a universal claim that there are no universal claims. It is self-falsifying.) Does this apply to empirical science as well as morals and religion? If one says no, then note the consequences of even this limited confession. If one admits that there are knowable objective truths demonstrated as such by empirical science one is also saying many cultures and peoples — past and present — have erroneous ideas about the natural universe (including aboriginal peoples).
One can ask someone who claims “true for you but not for me”: If my belief is only true for me why isn’t this relativist view only true for you? Do you want me to adopt your view? (Self-excepting fallacy: You are applying the statement to everyone but yourself: You want others to hold your view to be true). If your position is true than why argue it? The most you can do is present it. And if others shrug their shoulders and ignore it they are only giving it the acknowledgment your claim implies it deserves. It’s true for you but not for them. There is nothing substantial to be had from your opinion if all views are relative.
This view is based on a failure to distinguish between the subjectivity of our judgments and the objectivity of truth. The subjective aspect of truth lies in the claim a person makes about the veracity of his judgment. The objective aspect lies in the agreement between his judgment and the reality he is judging. The objective aspect is the primary one. The truth of a statement resides in its correlation to reality not in its relation to the individual judging it.
Joubert: “Those who never retract their opinions love themselves more than they love truth.”
A says: “There is a butter block in the refrigerator.”
B says: “There is no butter block in the refrigerator.”
If both are speaking of the same thing and of the same time then there must be and not be a butter block in the refrigerator. But this is impossible. How to resolve the dilemma? Answer: Open the refrigerator and look (see which claim corresponds to objective reality; which claim is true). This is commonsense.
“True for you not for me” is impossible to maintain when fundamental moral conflicts arise: What if you think liberal democracy is good but your political leader believes in dictatorship? What if you believe in extensive civil liberties but the police chief does not? What if you think racism is wrong but your children’s teacher thinks not? What if you believe in fidelity in marriage but your wife thinks adultery okay? What if you think stealing is wrong but your children don’t (and steal from you)? What if you think one should be justly remunerated for one’s work but your employer thinks paying you below the minimum wage is fine? For the true relativist who uses the “true for you but not for me” cliche the only logically consistent response would be, “Well let’s just agree to disagree.” In reality there are laws or conventions against many of the latter behaviours listed above. But what are these laws based on? An objective morality rooted in our human nature or simply community standards? If only community standards what if those standards change (either by judicial action or popular fashion)? Then is racism right? If there are no objective moral norms then, in the end, all law is simply a person or group imposing their standards on another. Then might is right. To the victor go the spoils.
“BUT SO MANY DISAGREE, RELATIVISM MUST BE TRUE.”
This is confusing the difficulty of finding truth with the impossibility of finding it. Think back to car accident we opened with. It takes effort & diligence to find out the truth. And sometimes we discover it with certainty while other times only tentatively. (No-fault insurance seeks not to find out the truth. It simply decides all will be held equally culpable. It is better called “Everyone’s fault insurance”) We are not denying that truth can be elusive. The challenge is to struggle to discover it. No one said truth is easily known without effort, disagreement, or possible error.
e.g. A mother hears the sound of breaking glass in the kitchen. Upon entering she discovers a glass cup broke and milk spilt on the floor. When she confronts the two children present about it they both deny spilling the milk. Disagreement doesn’t mean the milk wasn’t really spilt or both are equally innocent or blameworthy but that it is not immediately clear what happened. And even if sound argument and evidence points to one particular culprit one cannot expect he will necessarily be pleased with the conclusion or admit its veracity.
Disagreement may be caused by things other than the relativity of truth:
-personal bias (rationalizations, family and cultural values, philosophical assumptions)
-personal benefits (a particular position serves one’s lifestyle or gains some other advantage)
-lack of necessary knowledge (not having all the facts)
-lack of necessary competence (one is not grasping the issues or arguments well)
-lack of humility (pride of opinion) -most people will not argue with a physicist over the laws of physics or with a cardiologist over the workings of the heart. This is because they recognize they lack necessary knowledge and competence (that the professional knows more in his respective field). But most people feel qualified to pass judgment on any matter of morals or religion, more so to consider their views equally valid to any other. Popes are not held infallible but one’s own opinion is held so “for me.” But what does it mean to say that “for me” cloning human beings is wrong? It’s either right, wrong, or morally neutral. It cannot be Tom, Dick and Harry right, wrong, or morally neutral. We are not moral laws unto ourselves. You can no more have a private religion or private morality than you can have a private sun or moon. Science describes the physical universe. Religion seeks to describe the spiritual universe and moral philosophy seeks to describe the moral universe. As such they must be big enough to encompass the whole of their respective domain not small enough just to contain just you. Claims to private religious “beliefs” or morality ends up being nothing more than an extension of personal ego — an exaltation of one’s opinion.
The fact that individuals and cultures have differed as to what is right and wrong (e.g. Aztecs believed human sacrifices good, Jews thought them wrong) does not mean that it was right for the Aztecs to murder innocent people any more than the Southern slave owner thinking slavery was right made human beings into property. What are culturally relative is opinion about what is right and wrong, not right and wrong themselves. Yet even opinion as to right and wrong are not wholly relative to cultures. No culture has ever existed which taught a totally different set of values. For example, honesty, justice, courage, wisdom, self-control were never all thought to be evil, and lying, theft, murder, cowardice, and selfishness are never all thought to be good. Disagreement is not over the existence of right or wrong, nor over the goodness of courage and badness of cowardice, but over what constitute right and wrong and what entails courage and cowardice.
John Henry Newman: “Men are too well inclined to sit at home, instead of stirring themselves to inquire whether a revelation has been given; they expect its evidences to come to them without their trouble; they act, not as supplicants, but as judges.”
“YOUR JUST USING WESTERN LOGIC”
Allan Watts was an Anglican clergyman who became a Buddhist. After spending years trying to reconcile the two (i.e. make Christianity more like Buddhism) he concluded Christianity was “incorrigibly theistic” and “invincibly self-righteous” (of course he wasn’t being incorrigibly pantheistic or invincibly self-righteous in concluding this!). He concluded that the two could not be reconciled. To justify the rejection of Christian truth claims he denied logic as binding on all. Rationality is “Western logic” and he chose “Eastern logic” instead. Some feminists do the same thing, calling the principles of rational thought “male logic.” So do those cultural pluralists who relegate logic to “European,” “Greek,” or “white” thinking.
To reject basic principles of logic runs into real problems:
Everyday conversation doesn’t get off the ground without it. Without the principles of logic what we say could have verbal coherence without needing to have intellectual coherence. “I am a peanut butter sandwich” is verbally coherent (it is grammatically correct and we know what the words signify) but intellectually meaningless. If one denies the principles of logic then one cannot affirm or deny the truth of what I have just claimed about myself. You can theoretically deny logic but you cannot live that denial, only live in denial.
Logic is transcultural in that all people use it. They often do not recognize this fact because they do not consciously know the principles of basic logic. Further, they often apply them sloppily. What certain Western philosophers (like Aristotle) did was name, clarify, and extrapolate the nature and principles of logical thinking. Logic’s principles are as transcultural as the mathematics and empirical sciences which depend on them. They have simply not been admitted as such. There is a difference between living by a reality and consciously recognizing the fact. Planes, genetic engineering, computers only work because logical thinking works. Logic is used in conjunction with empirical data to advance scientific and technological knowledge. Those who claim logic is just ‘Western’ or even ‘Greek’ thinking have never demonstrated how another supposedly alternative mode of thinking can give comparable scientific or technological results. One has to ask, does physical nature operate in a ‘Western’ or ‘Greek’ manner?
Science and technology arises as the fruit of logical principles (like causality) being applied to empirical data. This gives us objective knowledge of the physical universe. Logic can also give us objective knowledge of the metaphysical universe. It is a tool of philosophy as well as of empirical science. In fact logical principles were discovered in the context of philosophical inquiry. In philosophy use is made of what Mortimer Adler calls “common experience” (i.e. the day to day experience all human beings have as the result of consciousness) rather than “special experience” (i.e. data discovered by investigation in the empirical sciences or historical research). While this alters the type of knowledge one gains and the amount of certitude it gives, it does not eradicate truth claims and turn everything into opinion.
“YOUR VALUES ARE RIGHT FOR YOU BUT NOT FOR ME”
When someone told the great British essayist Dr. Samuel Johnson that one of his dinner guests believed that morality was a sham, Dr. Johnson responded, “Why, sir, if he really believes there is no distinction between virtue and vice, let us count our spoons before he leaves!”
Moral subjectivism has been conditioned into us by talk of “personal values” instead of “moral laws.” The very word law suggests something more definite and objective. We do not speak of “subjective laws.” “Values” suggests something subjective in the sense of relative to the subject; “my values” or “your values” or “society’s values.”
Many people who claim to be relativists are not consistently so. We simply cannot function without a moral standard of existence. Paul Copan tells a story he claims true: Throughout a course a student challenged one of his professors by claiming all morality is relative and so one cannot judge others by one’s own standard. What is right for you is not necessarily wrong for me & vice versa. At end of the course the student handed in the final exam for which he had studied well. When his mark came in, instead of the “A” he expected there was an “F”. Shocked & infuriated he stormed into the professor’s office demanding an explanation. “This is unfair!” he exclaimed. “Did you say unfair?” responded the professor, “By who’s moral standard, yours or mine?”
It is said that a liberal often ceases to be liberal when it is his toes being stepped on. The same can be said of a relativist.
Willis Player: “A liberal is a person whose interests aren’t at stake at the moment.”
[One may say the same of a relativist]
Would you uphold the autonomy of all ‘values’ if someone took a sledgehammer to your car? If someone molested your daughter? If someone plagiarized and took credit for your work? If you say of each of these instances “that’s wrong!” the culprit could legitimately respond, “By whose values? Let’s just agree that we disagree.”
Is there no real moral difference between a Mother Teresa & an Adolf Hitler?
“DO WHATEVER YOU WANT SO LONG AS YOU DON’T HURT ANYONE”
This is a common approach to the dilemma of pluralistic moral views. It is a legitimate moral principle properly understood. In fact it is a reformulation of the first precept in ‘natural law’ moral philosophy. But if reformulated in the context of moral relativism or if selectively applied it has problems.
What makes “hurting someone” an absolute if all values are relative? It seems like an arbitrary sneaking in of an absolute moral principle where before all was said to be relative. Can you demonstrate its absolute character? And if you can then moral relativism is proven false. What allows you to introduce your own qualifier to moral relativism? If you why not me? How about, “Do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t violate existing moral norms or contravene legitimate authority.” That seems equally reasonable and maybe even more universally recognized. If one responds that maybe the existing moral norms or legitimate authority are wrong the obvious question is, “By what objective standard?” Does the “not hurting anyone” norm have any exceptions (such as in cases of self-defense or law enforcement)? If it does what principle determines the exceptions? Is this like a game where you make the rules and then make your own exceptions to the rules? Why must I play the game by your rules?
Also, elaborate on what exactly is meant by “hurt”? Is it being used narrowly here to mean only physical injury? Or does it include emotional or psychological injury as well? Does it include injury to one’s own or another’s moral character or reputation? Does it include harm done to one’s own or another’s spiritual life or soul? These type of injuries can often have profounder consequences than physical injury. If it includes all these then I can more willingly accept it since it encompasses a more complete understanding of human nature and its well being. Unfortunately, used as a cliche such understandings are rarely considered and I suspect not intended. For it would risk upholding “traditional” morality and of cramping one’s lifestyle.
The pain of a black eye goes away quickly but the pain caused by betrayal (e.g. adultery, financial embezzlement), humiliation (being mocked or reduced to begging), or rejection (divorce, being fired from a job, abandoned by a parent) can last much longer and go deeper. Does the injury to someone’s moral character (e.g. a schoolmate encouraging a child to steal and lie; a boy encouraging an immature girl to have sex) easily repair itself? Is a professor who takes sport in undermining his students’ belief in God or respect for parental authority not doing serious injury?
Peter Kreeft probably hit the nail on the head of relativism’s popularity with this observation on sexual conduct (in this case divorce) found in the concluding chapter of his book, A Refutation of Moral Relativism. It is written in conversational fashion:
“Suppose there was some other practice, not divorce, and not connected to sex in any way — let’s call it X — that had three results. First of all, it betrayed the person you promised never to betray; it broke the most solemn promise you ever made in your life, your promise to that person you claimed to love more than anything else. It deliberately lied to him, cheated on him, threw him away like garbage, after you said to him, “Trust me, come to me, I will never abandon you.” Second, suppose X also betrayed your children, broke your promise of security to them, scarred them for life — the vulnerable little ones that you procreated, that you are responsible for, that you promised to protect. Suppose it hurt them more than anything else in their whole life and made it twice as hard for them to be happy and succeed at anything, especially their marriages. Finally, suppose X undermined your society as surely as termites undermine a house. Suppose X turned the bricks your society was made of into sand. It destroyed the most fundamental of all building blocks of society, the family. Suppose X did to millions what it did to your family: it destroyed people; it destroyed lives; it destroyed your society. Now imagine X didn’t have anything to do with sex. Wouldn’t X be universally condemned? Would any sane human being speak up in defense of X? Would anybody even tolerate X? Yet those three things are exactly what divorce does, and yet you tolerate it; you defend it; you do it….
“Betrayal is universally condemned, betraying people, breaking solemn promises — unless it’s sexual. Justice and honesty and not doing other people harm, all these moral demands are accepted — until they interfere with sex. Helping society, building it up, improving others’ lives — everyone admires this, until it involves sex….the driving force of moral relativism in [our] society seems to be almost exclusively sexual….[we] use the philosophy of relativism to justify knocking each other up whenever [we] feel like it.”
In this Kreeft is merely expanding on an insight from C. S. Lewis’ last published work, We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’: “The sexual motive is taken to condone all sorts of behaviour which, if it had any other end in view, would be condemned as merciless, treacherous, and unjust.” Sex is modern man’s religion.
Hans urs von Balthasar: “Sin obscures sight.”
I would expand on Kreeft’s and Lewis’ insight. Moral relativism began as an intellectual permissive to sexual vice but has since spread into other realms, namely business and medical ethics. In hospitals the criteria used by “medical ethics boards” for determining what is permissible seems to be little more than (1) the autonomy of the individual (2) what is medically possible, and (3) what society will accept at this time. In other words finding out what individuals want, if you’ve got it, and what the reaction will be to supplying it. This is hardly anything one needs a PhD in ethics to discern. But such boards do save appearances! It makes professionals and institutions appear reasonable, restrained and responsible. In business ethics much the same applies. It is largely what the individual businessman desires to achieve, is competent and competitive enough to get, and what present laws allow. Of course being clever in getting around the laws to achieve your goals is not necessarily frowned upon. “All is fair in love and war (and business).”
It is natural that relativism should spread into these areas. The worldly, autonomous individual (read “egoist”) seeks sensual gratification, physical vigour and material comfort. Medical research, especially in genetics, may soon give longer life, greater youthfulness, and a more ideal physique. Why let any moral restraint interfere with what you want and is available for the taking (the same mentality as in sexual libertinism)? In business there is plenty of money to be made by the clever and ambitious, so why not go for it (same consumer mentality as exists in sex and medicine — which are also lucrative markets for businessmen)? The common rationalization in each area is: 1. It’s available 2. I want it. 3. Therefore why shouldn’t I have it? Nothing more profound than that. Sometimes there is no beauty in simplicity.
[An aside: We are not really living in a pluralistic society. We are living in a secular society. As such it seeks to have public institutions (i.e. courts, schools, media, etc.) guided by non-religious beliefs and principles. (Christian) religious beliefs are understood as a personal, private matter that should have no social consequence. At best they are treated benignly but more often with disregard, suspicion or contempt. Morality finds its source neither in religious belief nor in natural law philosophy but in the dominant ideologies. In our present society I can see two main ideological groups battling it out for supremacy in a not-so-pluralistic fashion. One is the radical individualists. The other is the social utopianists. Christianity has been successfully marginalized in this contest. Amongst those on the individualist side you generally find capitalists, libertarians and hedonists. Amongst those on the collectivist side you generally find feminists, environmentalists, and socialists. There are many individuals and groups that mix elements of both ideologies, sometimes with a seeming disregard for consistency. Influenced by both sides to varying degrees are academia, the courts, and the media. Occasionally these two broad ideologies find some common ground (as when dealing with the Christian religion or sexual mores) but often they are in conflict. In the 1960-80s it appeared as if the social ideologues were politically triumphing. Today it appears as if the individualists may be ahead. Ironically Christian groups or churches often tend to align themselves with one side or the other. There are the utopian Christians who emphasize the “social gospel” and support government intervention; then there are the individualistic Christians who emphasize personal morality and support free enterprise. The United Church seems to be more the former, the Pentecostal churches more the latter]
The emphasis on religious pluralism in public policy and law was initially a tactic used to undermine Christianity’s former pre-eminence and influence in the West. It allowed courts and campuses to relegate Christianity to the status of one-religion-among-many (even though at the inception of “multiculturalism” 95% of Canadians identified themselves as Christian. Now it is nominally around 80%. Only 2% identify themselves as members of another religion). That allowed Christian morality to be reduced to one-morality-among-many (a “value”). All religious beliefs are treated as strictly a private matter. That is to say, not allowed to have a direct influence on public life. Here secularism reigns and non-religious ideologies fight for supremacy. All religions are treated equally in the sense of being equally excluded from policy making and considered irrelevant. They are relegated to the level of cultural customs. They are viewed as matters of taste rather than truth: A personal preference. One respects them in the same way one respects differences of dress, cuisine or opinion. Where religious and secular values conflict it is usually the secular perspective that triumphs. This is supposedly because secularism is ‘neutral.’ But is it?
Most religions and cultures have strict moral guidelines to sexual behaviour. Homosexual behaviour is generally rejected. Premarital sex and promiscuity are generally reproved (though sometimes inconsistently with regard to males). Our society wants a wide-open sexual ethic. Apologists for sexual libertinism shop through anthropological or historical records for obscure tribal practices or defunct cultures to validate their case. Margaret Mead’s misinterpretation of Samoan mores was used exactly for this purpose. She became a celebrity and spokesperson because of it. When the major world religions and non-Western cultures are in conflict with libertine sexual mores, the multicultural consensus is negated in favour of the libertine view. This is seen as “tolerant” because, so the argument goes, you are not forcing your values on individuals, just encouraging a live and let live attitude. But of course this is not true. One is explicitly disregarding and affronting commonly held norms and even teaching such to children in school “sex education” courses. Likewise, when the inevitable conflict of individual rights arise (e.g. as when a landlord refuses to rent an apartment to a homosexual “couple” on religious or moral grounds) the state steps in and imposes the libertine standard. Religions are to keep to their rites and rituals, their bells and smells. Sexual norms held almost universally outside the secularized West are to stay outside. What many traditions consider immoral comes out of the closet and into the public square. Traditional morality and religious beliefs are then forced out of the public square and into the closet. Why many people can’t see the aggressiveness and intolerance involved in this is because they are equating tolerance with not forcing others to act in the same way (e.g. not forcing others to live common-law but allowing them to marry if they wish). Yet they are forcing others to accept and support, socially, legally and financially, behaviours that offend them (e.g. giving legal sanction and financial support of common-law relationships).
The falsity of “multiculturalism” is especially evident when one looks at the present emphasis on the rights of the individual. In virtually all past civilizations and non-Western cultures community norms took precedence over individual freedom. The good of the community was seen as more important than the freedom of the individual. Yet in our “multicultural” society individual freedom is generally given more emphasis and latitude. Yet this is contrary to the traditional norms of virtually all other cultures. How can this be multicultural?
[An Aside: When our society eventually legalizes polygamy it will not be out of a newfound ‘tolerance’ of different religious beliefs or foreign cultural practices (although it will likely be presented as such) but because in sexual mores we don’t want to draw definitive lines. And a society that accepts promiscuity and serial monogamy is eventually going to have trouble rationalizing why not polygamy?]
John Kekes, inst Liberalism
Peter Kreeft, efutation of Moral Relativism
Peter Kreeft, C. S. Lewis for the Third Millennium.
Robert George, The Clash of Orthodoxes.
Paul Copan, True For You But Not For Me.”
Dennis McCallum, Death of Truth.
William Watkins, New Absolutes.
Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind.
[The texts and comments given below are to help introduce the reader to an objective criteria for establishing and judging truth claims in general and in morality and religion in particular. It is only an introduction. Further reading is needed and so some helpful texts are suggested. The section between the asterisks may be skipped if you wish to proceed to the next secular ‘virtue’]
What is Truth?
What is truth? While there are many different theories, the commonsense answer is truth is that which corresponds (is in agreement) with reality.
Aristotle: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true; so that he who says of anything that it is, or that it is not, will say either what is true or what is false; but neither what is nor what is not is said to be or not to be.” (Metaphysics)
Thomas Aquinas: “For all knowledge is achieved by way of some assimilation of the knower to the thing known, an assimilation which causes the knowledge: thus sight is aware of colour because it suffers modification by the kind of the colour. So the first way in which what exists relates to mind understanding it is by harmonizing with it — a harmonizing we call the matching of understanding & thing — and it is in this matching that the formal notion of truth is achieved. ” (On Truth).
G.E. Moore: “To say that this belief is true is to say that there is in the Universe a fact to which it corresponds; and that to say that it is false is to say that there is not in the Universe any fact to which it corresponds.” (Some Main Problems of Philosophy, 1953)
Peter Kreeft: “All theories of truth, once they are expressed clearly and simply, presuppose the commonsensical notion of truth that is enshrined in the wisdom of language and the tradition of usage, namely the correspondence (or identity) theory. For each theory claims that it is really true, that is, that it corresponds to reality, and that the others are really false, that is, that they fail to correspond to reality.” (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 1994).
Philosophically, lying would be impossible if words did not have a correspondence to an objective reality. Statements could not be judged true or false but only grammatically correct or incorrect. Moreover, conversation would break down. Statements inform by claiming to correspond to the reality about which they speak. But if reality is unknowable then statements would inform you of nothing. Saying, “It is raining outside,” would then be a grammatically correct but meaningless statement. But it is not. And everyone knows how to verify it (by looking outside). We check to see if it corresponds, not to linguistic usage, but to reality. The same is true of a statement like, “To intentionally kill an innocent person without justifiable cause is murder.” It is understood to be addressing a moral reality. It too can be verified (by looking at the act committed, the intention of the actor, the circumstances surrounding the act, and by rationally applying moral standards).
Truth is not relative to space & time: “The pencil is to the left of the pad” the relativists would say is dependent on perspective (where you are standing). But “Pierre Trudeau is Prime Minister of Canada” if said in 1970 was true, and if said of 1970 is still true. It is absolutely true. Perspective is understood as part of context (i.e. in what way you are speaking about something).
The objectivity of things being true or false does not change. What can change is our opinion of what is true or false. Majority opinion does not make something true. What makes it true is if opinion corresponds to objective reality. e.g. once most peoples and civilizations believed the earth was flat. But what was once held by many to be true is now known to be false. Has the earth changed to suit our opinion or our opinion changed to suit the earth?
Truth is not relative to persons: The mind does not create truth or falsehood but beliefs. Once a belief is created by the mind, the mind cannot make the belief true or false. What makes a belief true or false is its correspondence to reality.
Knowability of Truth
Before we know what things are we know that things are. Before a baby knows who he is or what the things are surrounding him he knows that he is and things surround him (i.e. being. In philosophy the nature of being is dealt with in metaphysics). Before we can examine how we know (in philosophy called epistemology) we must first ask what we know (in philosophy called ontology). We must begin with reality perceived then go to the mind perceiving it. If one begins with the knowing mind (ala Descartes) we can’t make a bridge to external reality. We get stuck in our thoughts and ideas. Like the insane man who is lost in his own thoughts they become more real and certain to us than any objective reality. We become prisoners of our own subjectivity. Commonsense dictates that one needs to begin with a belief in objective reality.
First principles are the basis for concluding what is & what is not (objectively real). Premises must be more certain than their conclusions. First principles of knowledge are derived from the most basic premise about reality — its being (existence). Before we know what something is we know that it is.
First principles of Being (that which is apprehended): First principles are self-evident propositions in that they cannot be demonstrated or denied because all other knowledge is based on their assumption. Once you understand the terms and what they designate they show themselves to be true. For the predicate arises necessarily from reflection on the meaning of the subject. For instance: “Everything that begins must have a cause for its beginning”; “A whole is greater than any of its parts”; “Good ought to be done, and evil ought to be avoided.” They are self-evident, in that they do not need to be proven because they are the prerequisite of all proof. They are indemonstrable in that all demonstration/proof is dependent on them. They are the basis for all other argument. To argue against first principles one must use them in order to try to refute them. No matter how hard you try you can deny them in words but not in thought.
Avicenna: “Those who deny a first principle should be beaten or exposed to fire until they concede that to burn and not to burn, or to be beaten and not to be beaten, are not identical.”
They are principles in that it is from them that something else proceeds. Self-evident first principles of logic include:
principle of identity (A is A) – a thing must be identical to itself. If it were not it would not be itself. Being is intelligible. If not we could not conceive of anything.
principle of causality (If A then B. B therefore A) – Only being can cause being.
Nothing does not exist, and only what exists can cause existence. If a thing cannot sufficiently explain its own being then it must have a sufficient explanation in something other than itself (i.e. another being). e.g. I am. But I need not have been. Therefore I came into being because of something other than myself.
principle of non-contradiction (If A then not non-A) – a thing cannot be and not be at the same time in the same manner. Being cannot be nonbeing. Opposites cannot be the same. e.g. Margaret is my natural mother. Mary is not Margaret. Therefore Mary is not my natural mother.
principle of the excluded middle (either A or not A) – between being and nonbeing there is no middle ground. e.g. Either Margaret is my natural mother or Margaret is not my natural mother. Margaret cannot be both. Either Jesus is God Incarnate or Jesus is not God Incarnate. Jesus cannot be both.
principle of finality – Every agent acts for an end. Every proposition has an end in view; some meaning it is seeking to communicate.
Even the skeptic of reason still continues to use reason in voicing his skepticism (e.g. either logical principles are true or they are untrue. I believe they are untrue. Either X or not X. Not X. He is using the principle of the excluded middle to deny logic!). He is skeptical of the validity of logic but not skeptical of the validity of his own skepticism. Is this true skepticism or self promotion?
To say “Western” rational thinking is not universally applicable is to make a rational claim: Western logic denies contradictions. I think contradictions are possible. Therefore I deny Western logic. If A then not non-A. Non-A therefore not A. Refuting it proves it!
We all affirm the existence of an object reality and use logical principles every day (although not always well). e.g. A man comes at you wielding an axe. You plead with him, “Please do not (physically) kill me.” He replies, “I am not going to (physically) kill you. I am simply going to cut off your head.” “But that will (physically) kill me!” “That,” he responds, “is just Western logic!”
Reason, however, is not limited to logical thinking. The object of reason (as opposed to the subject/person reasoning) means all that reason can know. This includes three kinds of things: Truths that can be understood by reason, discovered by reason, and proved logically. For example one can understand what the sun is made of by reason alone, discover other planets by reason alone, and prove the Pythagorean theorem in geometry by reason alone. All, however, are dependent on the validity and application of first principles.
John Henry Newman: “Good sense and a large view of truth are rare gifts.”
Objective Moral Norms
Here we shall quote at length from the late Mortimer Adler’s Great Ideas from the Great Books (1963):
“…Social scientists today insist that our moral judgments simply reflect the “mores” or customs of the society to which we belong. They tell us that a system of morality merely expresses the values in vogue at a given time and place. What is thought right in some societies or cultures is thought wrong in others. They conclude from this that there is no objective right or wrong, and no way to determine what is good or bad for all men.
An even more radical moral relativism is espoused by those who regard all moral judgments as nothing more than expressions of individual preference or personal taste. They think that calling an action or attitude good or bad is just like saying ‘I like chocolate’ or ‘I loathe milk.’ It is simply a matter of taste, and that is all there is to it. In dealing with the problem of judging works of art, I hold the view that there are objective standards of artistic excellence which make it possible for us to render sound critical judgments about works of art. Such critical judgments are objective, not subjective. Beauty is not simply a matter of personal taste, about which there can be no dispute.
What holds for beauty holds for good and evil, for right and wrong. Just as we can tell whether a person has good taste in a particular art by seeing whether he likes objects that have real artistic excellence, so we can tell whether a person’s opinions about moral matters are sound by seeing whether he approves things that are really good or actions that are objectively right.
To understand this, it is necessary to distinguish between what is ‘really’ good and what only ‘appears’ to be so. If I say that whatever I desire or like is good, then I fail to make this critical distinction. But if I say that I should desire some things because they are good, then I recognize the difference between the real and the apparent good.
Let us take the extreme example of the miser who desires nothing but money. To accumulate it and keep it, he starves himself, goes around in rags, suffers ill health, deprives himself of the company of other human beings, cuts himself off from learning and culture. This man is living as he likes, but is he living well? Is this the way that he, or any other human being, should live? Nearly all of us would say that the miser is a fool and that his life is utterly miserable. Our agreement here is based on our recognition of the fact that man has certain natural needs. These should be satisfied. The things which satisfy these natural needs are really good for us. For example, knowledge is one of the real goods because all men by nature desire to know. Friendship is another real good because man is social by nature and craves love. Food, clothing, and shelter are real goods because of our biological needs.
These things are good and necessary for all men, whether they consciously desire them or not. A man may say that he has everything he wants, when he has wealth or power or fame, but that does not change the objective facts about what he really needs in order to lead a good human life. He is like a man who is suffering from hidden malnutrition while indulging himself in a diet he likes.
If moral philosophy is to have a sound factual basis, it is to be found in the facts about human nature and nowhere else. Nothing else but the sameness of human nature at all times and places, from the beginning of Homo Sapiens, can provide the basis for a set of moral values that should be universally accepted. Nothing else will correct the mistaken notion that we should readily accept a pluralism of moral values as we pass from one human group to another or within the same human group….
It is our human nature that determines what is good for us. Things may ‘appear’ good to us because we happen to desire them, rightly or wrongly. But what is ‘really’ good for us is that which, to fulfill our nature, we should desire, whether we do or not. Social customs or private preferences cannot change that.
…by ‘natural law’ we mean principles of human conduct, not the laws of nature discovered by the physical sciences. Many thinkers who espouse natural law see it at work in both the human and nonhuman realms, but their main interest is in its special application to man. According to these thinkers, the natural law as applied to physical things or animals is inviolable; stars and atoms never disobey the laws of their nature. But man often violates the moral rules which constitute the law of his specifically human nature….
The first precept of natural law is to seek the good and avoid evil. It is often put as follows: ‘Do good unto others, injure no one, render to every man his own.’ Now, of course, such a general principle is useless for organized society unless we can use it to specify various types of rights and wrongs. That is precisely what man-made, or positive, law tries to do.
Thus, the natural law tells us only that stealing is wrong because it inflicts injury, but the positive law of larceny defines the various kinds and degrees of theft and prescribes the punishments therefor.
Such particular determinations may differ in various times and places without affecting the principles of natural law. Neither Aquinas nor Aristotle thinks that particular rules of laws should be the same in different times, places, and conditions.
You may ask how the natural law is known. Through human reason and conscience, answer the natural-law thinkers. The natural-law doctrine usually assumes that man has a specific nature which involves certain natural needs, and the power of reason to recognize what is really good for man in terms of these needs.”
Some have argued that history and anthropology demonstrate that there is no natural moral law, no objective morality. What is considered wrong in one society may be defended as right in another. It is true that different societies have applied moral principles differently. But that does not mean that there are no moral principles or that the principles themselves are relative. It only means moral principles have been understood and applied imperfectly. As Adler notes, natural law establishes the principles. Positive law (i.e. cultural norms) applies them. e.g. All societies see courage as a virtue and as something to be admired. None see cowardice as such. Likewise loyalty is encouraged, betrayal is condemned. They may apply these moral principles in different or even inconsistent ways but none says courage is bad and cowardice is good. The discrepancies in application can be due to:
-a personal or culturally limited understanding of the principle
-a biased or self-servingly restrictive application of the principle
Is the claim that “morality is culturally determined” a culturally determined claim?
If social norms are definitive then how is social reform possible or valid? e.g. how could the social dissent of Martin Luther King Jr.’s and the civil rights movement be justified? If each society’s norms are self-validating then how can the norms of one society or group of societies be used in morally judging another? e.g. how could Canada and the U.N. be justified in judging apartheid as wrong and imposing sanctions on South Africa?
If social norms are not definitive then what is? Personal norms? Then the dilemma presented above becomes even greater. By what standard do you settle disagreements or conflicts originating between persons holding differing “values”? By strength of argument? But how can one argue that another should behave according to your personal values? If not by strength of argument then by strength of force? Intimidation as a form of values-clarification!
If morality is based on personal preferences then what right have you to “impose” your values on another (including your own children)? If you think lying and truancy wrong but your daughter thinks not, skips school and lies to you, how do you resolve the issue? If not by objective standards of right and wrong then by force or intimidation? Might is then right. You have the power therefore you use it. Later, when she has more power then she can impose her own will. Teenagers sometimes interpret parental moral authority in this manner. Not the authority of truth and goodness to which all must conform (even parents) but the authority of power and control. Our society has developed a somewhat adolescent attitude to moral authority.
C.S. Lewis made a pertinent statement about persons trying to create their own values: “Let us get two propositions written into our minds with indelible ink.
(1) The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of planting a new sun in the sky or a new primary colour in the spectrum.
(2) Every attempt to do so consists in arbitrarily selecting some one maxim of traditional morality, isolating it from the rest, and erecting it into an unum necessarium.”
Lewis’ second point is much of what this presentation is about. I would only add that in isolating (or decontextualizing) a ‘virtue’ from its order within a hierarchy of moral goods it quickly looses its original meaning and purpose. The word remains the same, like “freedom,” and so evokes the positive response the original meaning gave to it. But now it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding within the term a new meaning and significance that can disrupt the moral order and even undermine freedom’s original purpose.
Truth in Religion
Religious pluralist philosopher John Hick says that in the vast majority of cases religious beliefs are more accidents of geographical birth. If you were born in India you would be a Hindu, if Saudi Arabia a Muslim, if Thailand a Buddhist, if Mexico a Catholic. Therefore, he says, we should accept that religious claims are relative or pluralistic.
Statistically speaking Hick is correct. But what follows from that? He is mistaking a factual (descriptive) claim for a moral (prescriptive) claim. Because I was born in India I am Hindu is not the same thing as saying because I was born in India Hinduism should be considered true (for me). A descriptive fact is not the same thing as a prescriptive claim. Being born Hindu or Christian is no more a proof of the validity of the claims of these respective religions than to say that because I was born poor poor is a good thing; or that because I was born into communist China communism is true for me; or because I was born into a slaveholding culture slavery is right for me; or because I was born in a society that thought physical illness was caused by evil spirits evil spirits are therefore the cause of my illnesses. It may help explain why my sympathies may lie with such beliefs but it does not demonstrate the objective validity of those beliefs. Because people hold different views on the same thing does not make all views true nor make all views false; nor does it necessarily mean truth cannot be known.
The variety of religious beliefs no more entails the validity of religious pluralism than a variety of medical opinions about a patient’s condition validates medical pluralism. Medical opinions are either correct or incorrect with regard to the nature of a patient’s condition. One can legitimately argue, however, that in both religion and medicine the truth of the matter may not be evident and so various opinions permissible. Yet this still assumes an objective reality toward which the differing views strive, and the need of an objective methodology for discovery. And, if the truth in question is discovered (by reason and research in medicine; by reason and revelation in religion) then all previously held ideas are to be evaluated according to it. Some may be found erroneous, others more or less accurate, and one may even be correct. At this point the pluralism of contrary opinions ends. Within that truth, however, there may still be room for plural approaches that compliment rather than contradict it. In medicine this could entail different specialized schools of expertise, as well as derivative theories and procedures. In religion this could entail different schools of theology, as well as derivative theories and spiritual approaches.
A truth revealed by Him who knows infallibly is a certain truth. A truth discovered by him who is fallible is a less certain truth. That is why any truth revealed by God would be a more certain truth than a truth discovered by man. Thus the revealed truths of religion, if they exist, would be by definition more certain in their respective field than the discovered truths of an empirical science are in theirs.
If one accepts the proposition that geography or genealogy can determine truth then is it not also true that the religious pluralist is so because he was born in a pluralistic country? If so, then why is he applying his truth claim to views outside his immediate culture? How can the pluralist claim to be correct beyond his own culture, and more so, beyond his own self? If I am from the same general culture as the pluralist (as I am) but disagree with him (as I do) what is he to say? His pluralistic views are best for me too and I should adopt them? By what criteria: His own authority? But that would be anti-pluralistic. Common consensus? But neither is that pluralistic.
Hick claims ultimate reality is unknowable therefore all religions are merely human attempts to articulate the unknowable. But how does he know ultimate reality is unknowable? Does he know all things so as to know that ultimate reality is not one of them? If unknowable how does he know it even exists? Is Hick’s view of the unknowability of ultimate truth something that he thinks all religions must accept? Is he not denying the claim of a number of religions to know something about ultimate reality? In what way then is he a pluralist?
Some would say, “All religions are the same, deep down.” But such a claim can only be based on:
1. Abysmal ignorance of what the various religions actually teach.
2. Indifference to their various claims.
If one thinks religions are essentially alike then please define religion broadly enough to include Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam but narrowly enough to exclude Marxism, Freudianism, Platonism and Nazism?
Is it common belief in God that makes them the same? But classic Buddhism has no intrinsic belief in god yet Platonism does. Is Buddhism therefore not a religion while Platonism is? Why then is Platonism taught in philosophy departments?
Is it belief in a “higher power?” But this is an extremely vague concept. One could argue Nazism and Freudianism believe in “higher” powers albeit natural ones (i.e. the race and the super ego). Plato definitely did. Even material evolutionist can be said to believe in a ‘higher power’ (the evolutionary process itself) although they would not necessarily state it in such a fashion. Romantics can be said to believe in a higher power (i.e. emotional love). By this definition aren’t all people religious even those who claim to be non-religious? Is it not so vague a concept as to include all by delineating nothing?
Is it their ethical codes that make all religions the same? But their ethical codes are not the same, in the sense of having uniform moral positions and for the same reasons. Can sometimes opposing ethical views (e.g. Catholic acceptance of the moderate consumption of alcohol and Islamic rejection of it; Judaic monogamy and Islamic polygamy; Sikh acceptance of meat-eating and Jain rejection of it) be the same? Is what makes them all the same that they have ethical codes even if somewhat different? But atheistic materialists have ethical codes. Does that make their view religious — and deep down the same as the others? Is ethics another name for religion? They are not defined that way. Atheists would argue one can be ethical without being religious. In fact many militant atheists would argue that organized religion inculcates “unethical” behaviour by encouraging intolerant attitudes, enforcing moral compliance by fear tactics, and setting up puritanical standards that lead to hypocritical behaviour. Everyone has an ethic, but not everyone has a religion. Ethics may be a first step in religion but it is not the only or last.
Some people equate religion with personal tastes. They think that no judgment can or should be made upon various religious beliefs. It is like judging other people’s tastes in food or preferences in clothes. The problem with this approach is that religions do not claim to be matters of taste. Religions claim to be matters of truth. While one should respect persons of various religions and give their beliefs a fair hearing, nonetheless if religion is about reality (in fact ultimate realities) then religions can and should be judged according to their compatibility with known truths about reality. One could contend that a willingness to critically examine religious claims shows one is taking those beliefs serious. Can a pluralist really take the beliefs of different religions serious? The critical thinker asks of beliefs “what exactly and why?” while the pluralist says “whatever.”
If truth is objective then the criteria for judging the truth value of religions must be objective. Is such a criteria possible? Mortimer Adler sets forth criteria in his book Truth in Religion. Here I quote a brief summary made in one of his autobiographies:
“The unity of truth required that any religion that claimed truth — factual, not poetical, truth — for its beliefs had to be consistent and compatible with whatever truths were known at the time, with certitude or probability, in history, science and philosophy.
“Among the plurality of religions that claimed truth for their beliefs, those that were in conflict with one another in such claims could not all be true; as, for example, theistic religions that are monotheistic and those that are polytheistic, or religions that are theistic and religions that are nontheistic. Therefore, with regard to truth in religion, we are confronted with the question, which of the recognized world religions has the best claim to being true, or which among them has a better claim than others?” (A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror (1992))
Adler considers the various great world religions according to the compatibility of their beliefs with truths known with probability or certainty from history, science and philosophy. He thus demonstrates that an objective criteria of examining and evaluating various religious beliefs is possible.
Classic Catholic apologetics also tries to rationally approach the matter of truth in religion. It often begins with the meaning, universality, and necessity of religion. From there it moves to proofs for the existence of God. Then it discusses the purpose and need for divine revelation. It then would present evidence that divine revelation has occurred, moving on to the particular nature and content of that revelation. While many would claim Catholic apologetics is biased, it may be contended that so too are the views and arguments of the pluralist or atheist (no person is impartial with regard to their own convictions). Catholic apologetics, at its best, is willing to engage in rational argument with those who dispute it. I would contend classic Catholic apologetics argues in a more rational and objective manner, and engages opposing arguments in a more serious and fair manner, than many of its antagonists.
All this goes to illustrate that a rational and objective approach can be taken to religious claims and conclusions given. That many people refuse to entertain this possibility illustrates that the problem is really elsewhere than in religion’s objectivity or lack thereof:
1. It is in the intellect: People are ignorant or confused as to the nature of religion or as to the value and methodology of reasoned argument.
2. It is in the will: People refuse to rationally evaluate religions for fear of having to exclude any and accept one.
3. It is in the psyche: People have a fear of and aversion to making categorical claims about religious truth lest they be disliked or negatively judged by others.
[Aside: I would hold that many Western ‘pluralists’ maintain at least one exception to their supposedly non-judgmental attitude toward religious beliefs. They are constantly willing to evaluate Christian beliefs, history, and practices — usually from a highly negative standpoint. While they would never dream of denouncing the absurdity of a traditional Haida or Yanonami Indian’s view of creation or the spirit world, they feel quite comfortable denouncing what they see as Christian views of creation (e.g. fundamentalist “creationism”) and the spiritual world (e.g. the devil; Heaven and Hell). While they would consider it impolite to subject the sacred texts and oral traditions of Islam or Hinduism to historico-critical scrutiny, they are constantly using the theories of revisionists — no matter how absurd — to attack the veracity of the Bible or challenge traditional Christian understanding of Christ. While they would rarely say a disparaging word about the Dalai Lama or a shaman they feel free to malign the Pope or the Catholic priesthood. While they know virtually nothing about the historical scandals, aberrations, or conflicts within other religious traditions (and care not to) they are constantly using common perceptions of historical events in Christianity (some very long past) to deride it. Is this a double standard? Presented as such they would probably rationalize its validity.]
Mortimer Adler, The Four Dimensions of Philosophy.
Mortimer Adler, Intellect.
Mortimer Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes.
Mortimer Adler, We Hold These Truths.
Mortimer Adler, Truth in Religion.
Mortimer Adler, The Time of Our Lives.
Mortimer Adler, Desires: Right & Wrong.
Thomas Dubay, Faith and Certitude.
Peter Kreeft, Making Choices.
Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics.
Charles Rice, 50 Questions on the Natural Law.
Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
Paul Chamberlain, Can We Be Good Without God?
B. TOLERANCE: Sympathy for the Devil
I once had a conversation with a man in which the subject of moral norms came up. He said something that seemed to indicate to me a relativism in his thinking. Hoping to show him the inconsistency or unliveability of moral relativism I drew out some of the practical conclusions that follow from it: How one cannot claim slavery (an almost universal institution at one time) or racism or rape (women were customarily part of the booty taken in war) are inherently wrong but only “wrong for me;” how pressuring a country to give up racist policies (as the U.N. did with apartheid in South Africa) or slavery (like Britain did in the Middle East) would then be a form of cultural imperialism. After listening for a couple of minutes he interjected: “I always enjoy listening to different opinions; of hearing how other people view things.” In other words, he was refusing to engage in the debate I had opened. He was not making a counter-argument to my points. Instead he was smugly withdrawing into that common refuge of mental indolence and moral indifference: Non-judgmental open-mindedness.
Let us examine some useful distinctions based on Montague Brown’s book, The One-Minute Philosopher:
Is not the refusal to judge ideas but the refusal to PRE-JUDGE them. It is to give each idea a fair hearing. It refuses to reject ideas without good reason. But it implies a fixed/absolute standard of truth and morality. Otherwise one would have no measure with which to objectively judge an idea. Without a fixed standard one would simply be judging by subjective preference or whim. True open-mindedness implies a choice to engage in the lives & ideas of others. It involves EFFORT and THOUGHTFUL consideration. It prevents my making arbitrary judgments about others that rule out the possibility of learning from them. It is the path to learning.
We LIMIT our duty to be open-minded when we are asked to believe there is no objective truth and morality. To be open to these suggestions is to cease to THINK and to cease to CARE. To be open to the denial of everything without distinction is to be INDIFFERENT.
An open mind, G.K Chesterton once observed, serves the same purpose as an open mouth — so that something substantial can be put into it. In the case of the mouth food to nourish the body. In the case of the mind truth to nourish the intellect. Arguing for open-mindedness for open-mindedness sake is like arguing for open-mouthedness for open-mouthedness sake.
Is the acceptance of all ideas and so the refusal to give each idea a fair hearing. It refuses to evaluate an idea, proposition, or statement as true or false, right or wrong. It implies no fixed standards of truth or justice. It cannot be fair because it cannot adjudicate (make a decision for or against). It does not take other peoples beliefs or ideas serious. It is THOUGHTLESS and CARELESS. It is INDISCRIMINATE (refuses to separate true from false, good from bad) and INDIFFERENT (does not care if there is real truth and goodness). It is bad for others and for me: If I accept your ideas without even listening to them or evaluating them I cannot be said to truly care about them or you. Listening carefully and seriously means listening to your ideas with an open mind, but if I do not accept or agree with some and do not indicate this to you I can being dishonest and uncaring about your well-being. It is also bad for me because it CORRUPTS my search for what is true and good.
Of this type of ‘tolerance’ or ‘open-mindedness’ one can say:
G. K. Chesterton: “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.”
W. Somerset Maugham: “Tolerance is another name for indifference.”
Indiscriminateness is bad in most cases. If we accept as equally true all we read in the newspaper, see on T.V., or hear people say; if we accept all actions as morally equivalent, it confuses and corrupts us. It makes us mentally indolent in the pursuit of truth and goodness, and non-committal cowards before any hostile or corruptive force in society. It is at odds with our responsibility to make reasonable judgements and act on them.
ALLEGATION: Exclusivists/absolutists are ‘narrow-minded:’ They claim their view is right and everyone else is wrong. Of course “exclusivists” generally do not claim things are so black and white. There are degrees of truth and falsity in most views. But let’s accept the criticism on face value and examine it: Both pluralist & exclusivist make an equal claim to truth and falsehood. Both claim their view is true while the opposite is false. Both are claiming their view is the right one and so both are narrow in that sense. To believe one thing is to exclude its opposite. To believe truth is either relative or at least unknowable is to claim those who believe it is absolute or knowable are wrong. If A (truth as relative/unknowable) then not B (truth as absolute/knowable). A therefore not B.
Some attack believers in absolute moral norms or religious truths as ‘arrogant.’ But if it is arrogant to believe one is right and another wrong then the pluralist himself is arrogant in claiming he is right and the Christian is wrong. Also, which is more arrogant: To claim there are universal moral truths that you did not invent and to which even you must adhere or to claim that whatever you believe is true for you or however you choose to behave is right simply because you chose it?
Let’s make the audacity of the pluralist assumption even clearer: The pluralist who says people who believe in absolute truths in religion or in objective moral norms are both wrong and ‘arrogant’ is claiming that the majority of people who have ever lived have been mistaken and he is right. Unless he has somehow demonstrated the veracity of this claim beyond reasonable doubt isn’t he being insufferably arrogant, narrow-minded, intolerant, absolutist, triumphalistic and judgmental?
Many people who claim to be tolerant have no problem criticizing, mocking, even legislating against the Christian religion and its moral views if they oppose their own. How is this tolerant? What they are actually doing is enforcing their own incongruous standards under the veil of relativism, pluralism and tolerance.
This is aptly brought out in William Watkins’ book, The New Absolutes (pp. 36-7):
“From all appearances, relativism has won the battle over absolutism. All that seems left to do is to carry out some mop-up operations to purge any stubborn absolutists from positions of power while marginalizing and converting the few remaining believers in absolute truth.
If this is true, if it is an accurate depiction of contemporary America, then we should see clear, undeniable signs of its presence nationwide. The problem is, we do not. What we see is the opposite of what we would rightly expect to find. The behavior of Americans betrays their real commitments, and relativism is not one of them. We can see this in a variety of areas.
The foundational virtue of relativism is what I call the new tolerance….The new tolerance is a natural corollary of the relativistic perspective. Since all truth and morals are up for grabs, the relativist must be a person committed to living out the new tolerance. This means she must be broad-minded, open to other beliefs, claims to truth, moral convictions, and different lifestyles. The tolerant person must make room for others to do as they wish, even if their behavior contradicts or even mocks her own. The authentic relativist would not become upset when facing opposition to her views, and she would never try to push her personal convictions on other people. Declaring anything right or wrong, true or false for anyone but herself would be unacceptable — dare I say, a moral evil? Everyone must be left to live as they see fit. Live and let live — that is the summary maxim of the new virtue of tolerance.
Is this live-and-let-live attitude characteristic of contemporary America? Not at all. In fact, the very groups that claim to be advocates of the new tolerance are not. The political correctness movement seeks to squelch what various groups view as offensive language, behavior, and perspectives. Multiculturalists seem bent on upholding the beliefs and practices of every other culture except those commended by Western civilization. Secularists are determined to keep religious expression out of the public arena. Pro-abortion and same-sex rights activists march on city halls, run for political office, and lobby to change or enact laws in order to gain legal and social sanction for their personal views.”
Some might try to deny absolute truths by saying “truth changes over time.” But can that claim not be itself one of the truths that changes? Is it not permissible for me, therefore, to dissent from that “truth” and even encourage its change?
Also, while the Christian may claim racism or wife-beating are now known to be wrong based on historical discernment of the application of objective moral norms, the pluralist (who denies absolute norms), to be consistent, must claim they are wrong only in the sense that he personally finds them abhorrent or that the society in which he lives does. This raises two questions:
1. Can you impose your personal likes or dislikes on others?
2. Does everyone have to conform to the majority opinion of the society in which one lives? How then could social criticism of majority views ever be legitimate? Are minority views then to be considered automatically invalid and inappropriate?
In fact to even speak of tolerance is to assume a morally objective order. For we tolerate those with whom we disagree. We do not tolerate those with whom we agree. We do not tolerate those whom we think doing good: We commend them. We do not tolerate their fidelity and honesty: We promote it. We tolerate people with whom we disagree or think doing evil. We do not tolerate the evil they do: We discourage it. However, on occasion we may not act directly against their wrongdoing for fear of causing a greater evil in trying to eradicate the problem. But note the difference: We do not call evil good nor treat it as such. Neither are we neutral toward it. We denounce evil as evil and reasonably seek to discourage it.
A reading teacher will tolerate mistakes made by young children in order to encourage their continued efforts to master reading and avoid the worse evil of causing them to give up. But the reading teacher does not consider mistakes as neutral or good. She corrects them.
Fulton Sheen: “Tolerance is an attitude of reasoned patience towards evil, and a forbearance that restrains us from showing anger or inflicting punishment. But what is more important than the definition is the field of its application. The important point here is this: Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to truth. Intolerance applies only to truth, but never to persons. Tolerance applies to the erring; intolerance to the error.”
“WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE OTHERS?”
When U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle said that T.V. character Murphy Brown giving birth to an illegitimate child was not a good role model for youth he was severely ridiculed as being judgmental and arrogant. How dare he tell others how to live!
Many critics of Christian moral positions quote against believers Christ’s own words: ‘Do not judge or you too will be judged’ (Mt 7:1). They interpret these words to mean Christians who morally evaluate other people’s behaviour are being disobedient to Christ! It never crosses their minds, nor, I suspect, would it unsettle their righteous indignation to know that no early Christian writer, no noteworthy theologian, no major church body has ever given these words that interpretation. They seem to be implying (if they are at all serious in what they say) that they know what Christ meant and most Christians obviously don’t. Yet, their interpretation easily falls apart on examination. For Jesus Himself directs his disciples to make judgments: “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (Jn 7:24). Theologians have long interpreted Christ’s criticism of judgmentalness as applying to those who make rash judgments of others or claim to know their state before God (which only God Himself can truly know). Wrong judgment, then, would be to morally evaluate someone according to subjective standards or claim to know his inner spiritual state. Right judgment is to morally evaluate a person’s actions or expressed attitudes according to an objective standard — the divine and natural moral law. The former approach makes of oneself the moral measure or claims a kind of omniscience into other’s inner heart; the latter makes objective moral laws the standard and seeks to judge only the outer words and deeds. God sees the interior and judges it, we see the exterior and can judge it.
Those who criticize Christian “judgmentalism” act just as arrogantly and judgmentally in making this accusation. If a Christian is denounced for being judgmental he can respond that his accuser is judging him!
There is no automatic contradiction between holding firmly to one’s convictions, of judging actions and ideas according to them, and treating with basic human respect those with whom you disagree.
As vagueness is vogue in a mind seeking to be pluralistic, so clarity is sought in a mind seeking to be objective. So let’s clarify the difference between judgment and prejudice (with which “being judgmental” is confused).
JUDGMENT is discrimination between ideas and actions. It distinguishes good ideas and actions from bad ones. It recognizes that some things can be true and others false, some things can be good and others evil. All people judge in areas of personal concern. The important thing is to evaluate things by a criteria that goes beyond one’s personal self-interest. One needs to judge with reason and objectivity.
PREJUDICE is discrimination between people. It arbitrarily discriminates among people, ignoring the task of careful judgment. It uses irrelevant criteria to judge, such as gender, race, wealth, social status, culture, religion, etc. It is based on a subjective like or dislike of the person or group. Ideas or actions associated with the person or group are judged guilty by association. This is clearly unfair to those judged and also to the one judging since he acts unwisely and unfairly.
When understood in this light ask yourself a question: Are the secular critics who call Christians “judgmental” or “narrow-minded bigots” basing their assessment (i.e. judgment) on rational and objective criteria or basing it on personal dislike and other irrelevant (i.e. prejudicial) criteria?
Socrates: “Four things belong to a judge: To hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly, and to decide impartially.” Fulton Sheen: “In England the judges wear wigs in court, to show that it is the law which is passing judgment, and not their own personal views. This is done in recognition of the truth all men suspect — that there is something impudent in allowing even the wisest among us to engage in pigeonholing our friends or cataloging our enemies.”
“CHRISTIANS ARE INTOLERANT OF OTHER VIEWPOINTS.”
Christians are constantly being accused of intolerance. It seems to be, along with hypocrisy and judgmentalness, one of our defining attributes! Christians do not have the corner on any of these.
Christians have no monopoly on intolerance. Secularism has proven itself very capable of intolerance even in genocidal forms. Europe’s first modern secular government, the revolutionary French Republic of the late 18th century, killed hundred’s of thousands of innocent people in the most expeditious manner during its brief “Reign of Terror.” The criteria and judicial process used to convict “enemies of the Republic” made the Spanish Inquisition look prudish by comparison. The executions were based on a person’s class, political views, religious beliefs, or simply being out of favour with the powers-that-be. Clergy, nuns and monks, intellectuals, and aristocrats were favourite targets. In the 20th century the atheistic (read secular) Soviet & Chinese governments imprisoned or killed dissidents and innocent people by the tens of millions. Clergy and religious were, once again, favourite targets. Cambodia’s atheistic Khmer Rouge followed suite, eliminating one third of the nation’s entire population in less than a decade. Communist Cuba has the most political prisoners and is least tolerant of religious freedom of any nation in the entire Western Hemisphere. North America’s secular entertainment industry frequently mocks Protestant evangelicals and the Catholic Church. It denigrates the character, motives, and intelligence of their believing members and leadership. Christian religious symbols or beliefs are blasphemed with impunity in movies, music and other forms of ‘art.’
The relativists or pluralists who quickly label those who disagree with them as “intolerant” often have unclear or distorted notions of what tolerance really is. One must ask a person what he means by “tolerance” and “intolerance.” Relativists and pluralists are often unaware it implies a close relationship to truth. Contrary to popular definitions, true tolerance historically means ‘putting up with people who hold erroneous views’ not ‘being accepting of all views’ (which nobody really is).
Joshua Liebman: “Tolerance is the positive and cordial effort to understand another’s beliefs, practices, and habits without necessarily sharing or accepting them.”
We do not and should not tolerate error. We call it error and try to correct it. We do tolerate people who hold an error. In fact Christians are called to even love them. While falsehood and immorality have no rights, people do. A person who holds a false notion in good conscience is to be tolerated. But that does not mean he has an inherent right to propagate or act upon a falsehood if it can cause personal or public harm.
It is not a matter of the equality of all ideas but of the equality of all people. We respect persons and when applicable seek dialogue with them over their ideas and beliefs.
O. A. Battista: “Tolerance is the ability to love people when they don’t deserve it.”
Alexis Carrel: ”Tolerance of evil is a dangerous error for no one is free to behave just as he pleases.”
If by tolerance a person means “accepting all views as true” a Catholic can legitimately ask such a person: “Do you accept my views as true. If not are you being intolerant?”
Pluralists claim morals are relative. This being so no absolute claims about morality can be made. This makes tolerance to other people’s “lifestyles” based on different moral values the logical posture. Faced with the proposition “all morals are relative (to person or culture)” ask the moralist to clarify a seeming inconsistency:
“You can’t judge” is to say “judging is wrong.”
“You can’t be intolerant” is to say “intolerance is wrong.”
“You can’t hurt others” is to say “hurting is wrong.”
These sound like pretty categorical statements coming out of the mouth of a supposed relativist. Ask him if he is not sneaking through the back door of his relativistic house some absolutist moral claims?
If tolerance means one cannot make judgments of personal or cultural moral norms based on any claimed objective moral norms then:
– there is no basis for saying genocide, racism, terrorism, torture are wrong.
– one cannot legitimately seek to end practices one disagrees with, like rape, theft, female servitude, or child prostitution because that would be imposing your own values on others.
– one could not morally judge cultural beliefs you personally find abhorrent, like cannibalism, human sacrifice, slavery, female infanticide, etc. In fact if you traveled to a country with such cultural practices and fell victim to them all you could legitimately say is, ”Well, when in Rome….”
Usually complainants against “Western” or “Christian” values seek to simply replace them with another set of values — their own. This is an arbitrary and underhanded move if there is no objective morality.
‘Who are you to impose your values?’ can be answered, ”Should no values be imposed?” If not then why are relativists imposing their relativist values? Should courts be imposing their values on rapists, muggers, tax evaders, and child molesters? Should teachers be imposing their academic values on student’s work? Should medical boards be allowed to impose their professional standards on doctors?
Tolerance has its limits.
The limit of tolerance is reached when allowing an action to occur or view to be promulgated would deprive someone of an inalienable right, risk real and unnecessary moral, spiritual or physical harm, or detrimentally effect the common good of society. If we know of an evil is being done and can possibly stop it — without our effort causing a greater evil — but don’t, then we become accessories to it.
John Kekes, Against Liberalism.
Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus.
Martin Gross, The End of Sanity: Social and Cultural Madness in America.
Warren Farrell, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men are the Disposable Sex.
Christina Hoff Sommers, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming our Young Men.
Montague Brown, The One-Minute Philosopher.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society.
Paul Copan, “True for You But Not for Me.”
Thomas Sowell, Is Reality Optional? and other essays.
C. EQUALITY: Same Difference
Belief in the equality of all human beings is one of the foundational principles of Western democracy. This is manifest in equality before the law and in the rights and protections one can claim before the law. Translation of this transcendent equality (inherent in being human and not dependent on superficial differences between persons) into civic equality took time. Thus the suffragette movement of the 1920s and the black civil rights movement of the 1950-60s.
Equality- belief that all human beings, as human beings, are equal. e.g. Blacks are human beings therefore they have the same human rights as other humans. Skin colour is a superficial difference and does not impact on their humanity.
Egalitarianism – belief that all differences among human beings are equal. It fails to distinguish between our common humanity, which we all hold equally, and individual disparities that cannot be held equally. These disparities can be physical (e.g. strength), intellectual (e.g. academic ability), psychological (e.g. emotional stability), and moral (e.g. trustworthiness).
‘Equality’ is being implicitly defined as ‘sameness of value’ and being applied to differences that make a difference.
In defining Equality and Inequality Mortimer Adler notes: “The usual understanding of these words is that, in relation to two things being compared, equality exists when one is neither more nor less in some specified respect. They are unequal if, in a given respect, one is more and the other less.
“The most important point to remember is that things cannot be compared in general, but only in a precisely defined respect. Thus, for example, when we say that all human beings are equal, we must specify the only respect in which that is true; namely, in their humanity.
“Two things can be compared in another way. One may have a characteristic or attribute that the other totally lacks. If, for example, one is a human being possessing an intellectual power that the other, a brute animal, totally lacks, they can be said to be unequal. But when we say that human beings are equal because they all have some intellectual power, their inequality in the degree of intellectual power possessed does not negate their equality in kind.
“The two distinct modes of equality and inequality are, first, equality and inequality in degree with respect to a certain attribute or trait; and second, equality and inequality in kind.” (Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary, 1995, pp. 90-91).
Eugene Edwards: “If by saying that all men are born free and equal, you mean that they are equally born, it is true, but true in no other sense; birth, talent, labour, virtue, and providence are forever making differences.”
All things are not equal in the sense that all persons do not possess all attributes to the same degree: Physically, intellectually or morally. The task is to recognize the difference and apply it to areas where the difference makes a difference and not elsewhere. e.g. Strength can have great import in types of construction and professional sports. Intelligence may be less important. Intelligence can have great import in computer engineering or medicine. Strength may be less important. The lack of strength or intelligence cannot be ignored in these areas. They are an important element in the nature of the endeavour. Differences here make a difference. Moral behaviour has import in areas involving moral conduct. All areas of human endeavor involve moral conduct (even construction, hockey, computer engineering & medicine). Honesty, fidelity, diligence, civility, etc., or the lack thereof, has an impact on any human endeavor. One cannot, therefore, treat behaviour as morally neutral. It has a significant impact on one’s own character, on other people’s lives, and on the stability of social institutions (like family, marriage, government, businesses, church, and schools).
Human choices are not neutral or equal in their moral nature: Telling the truth and telling lies are not morally the same. Fidelity and infidelity are not morally the same. Honesty and thievery are not the same. Industriousness & indolence are not the same. It is wrong not to treat morally significant differences as morally significant. It is to be indiscriminate.
In morality an action may be sufficient or deficient in a constitutive element necessary to call it good. A human action is morally good in kind when the action is objectively good or at least neutral in itself and is ordered to (intended for) a really good end. A human action is morally deficient or evil in kind when the action is not objectively good or neutral in itself or is not ordered to a really good end. The circumstances surrounding a human action may effect the degree to which it is good or evil but does not change the kind of act it is. Evil in this understanding is a deficiency in the good that should be there (either in the act itself or in the intention) to make it the type of act intrinsically worthy of a human being.
Evil can be defined as a deficiency in being. This can be a deficiency in one’s physical being or in one’s moral being:
e.g. something can be called a physical evil if a physical attribute that a being should have by its nature is lacking. A dog lacking sight suffers a physical evil since dogs by their nature should see. A worm lacking sight does not suffer a physical evil since worms by their nature do not see. A dog that sees but not as well as other dogs still possesses the goodness of sight but to a lesser degree than it should. It suffers a physical inequality compared to other dogs in relation to sight. Note: Saying a blind dog suffers from a physical evil is not saying it is a “bad dog.” It simply means the dog is deficient in a physical attribute it normally should possess. This confusion arises from our immediate association of the word “evil” with “badness.” Here we are using “evil” in a philosophical sense to mean “deficiency of being.”
Something is a moral evil if an act done by a moral agent lacks the good that should be there by reason of the kind of act it is. Words by their very nature are meant to convey ideas or truths. A man using words to promulgate a falsehood is in error. If he is unawares of his error and has taken adequate precautions to try to avoid the error but nonetheless makes it he is still wrong but not necessarily morally culpable for the error. If he is intentionally using words to promulgate a falsehood then he is lying and it is morally imputable. A lie lacks the quality of truthfulness that objectively should be conveyed by words. It is therefore a moral evil. If the reason one is lying is to protect the innocent or prevent unnecessary harm such does not turn a lie into a truth and therefore cannot turn an objectively deficient act into a good act, but it does change the degree of moral culpability. It does make the agent more or less guilty of an evil act in relation to the real good intended and the circumstances under which the act was done. Words used to intentionally convey true knowledge and words used to intentionally convey false knowledge are not morally equal.
There is a significant difference between something being ordered and being disordered — whether physical, emotional, or behavioral. When disordered it diminishes the kind of good that should be there. Sight is physically superior to the physical disorder of blindness. Mental health is psychologically superior to the disorder of paranoid schizophrenia. Heterosexuality is sexually superior to the disorder of homosexuality. If the disorder involves no related wrongful behaviour then it is not necessarily morally significant in itself. It may be medically, emotionally, psychologically significant but not morally. But, of course, psychological and emotional disorders can easily lead to disordered conduct. While the emotional or psychological aspect may diminish culpability they do not change an objectively wrong act into a good one.
Those living immoral lives cannot claim their actions as a right and publicly behave as they choose with impunity. It is not simply a matter of “alternative lifestyles.” Living on a farm or in a city may be alternative lifestyles and morally neutral. Living with a spouse in marriage or living “common-law” are not morally neutral “lifestyles.” One is ordered to the real good of the person and the common good of society and so is morally good. The other is not ordered to the real good of the person or the common-good of society and so is morally evil.
There is a difference between rights that are inherent in being human (e.g. right to life), rights inherent to a particular station in life (e.g. right to sexual relations in marriage), and privileges granted according to conventional norms (e.g. permission to operate an automobile granted with a driver’s license). A thief has no inherent right to take someone else’s property. The law has an obligation to forbid and even punish such behaviour. Civil or criminal law cannot be expected to respect a disordered use of one’s freedom. State laws have a moral obligation to uphold public order and decency. Disordered actions are not to be sanctioned by law or custom. e.g. A true marriage, by its nature and definition, cannot be possible, under any circumstances, between two people of the same sex. It violates the nature of what marriage is (the bonded conjugal union of a man and woman), undermines the primary social purpose of marriage (the procreation and education of children) as well as contradicting and contravening — therefore confusing and destabilizing — the sexual order. Thus it can grievously affect the stability of marriage and the family. Premarital sex and divorce do this too in different but also destructive ways.
Let’s examine how moral egalitarianism is used to validate immoral behaviour using the example of homosexuality:
Some claim homosexuality is simply a difference like skin colour. Blacks have a different skin colour, it is unchosen and genetically based. Homosexuals have a different sexual preference, it is unchosen and maybe even genetically based. As such to discriminate against homosexuality is akin to unjustly discriminating against blacks. Response: But blacks were discriminated against because of their race not their behaviour. Blackness is not an action or behaviour. Homosexual orientation may not be one’s choice but homosexual behaviour certainly is. Actions have moral repercussions. It is the BEHAVIOUR, not the person, which is being rejected. Sexual attractions, like emotions, do not necessarily involve a human action (i.e. deliberation and free choice) but conducting oneself according to an attraction does have moral significance because it involves a human act. And if the behaviour is disordered — not ordered according to what the act is meant to be — then it can be treated as morally disordered. Let’s use a more obvious example to emphasize the point that sexual inclination of itself does not validate behaviour: Pedophiles have a sexual attraction toward young children. Pedophiles can be homosexual or heterosexual. The attraction appears unchosen and virtually unchangeable. A person with this sexual attraction may not be responsible for the attraction itself but is responsible for what he does with it. It is a disordered attraction. Being disordered one has a moral obligation to avoid acting on the inclination. One is not holding the person responsible for the attraction but is holding him responsible for what he does with it (i.e. his behaviour).
Are gays an ‘oppressed’ minority fighting for liberation? That some have suffered physical or psychological abuse from others because of their inclination is true. But the answer is to address the abuse not trying to normalize deviant behaviour.
There are signposts of real oppression. Let’s evaluate the way homosexuals are treated by them to discover if they are truly an oppressed minority:
1. Are they subject to direct legal discrimination? No and Yes. No, in that as human beings they have the same human rights as others (under the same conditions). Yes, in that homosexual acts may receive no legal support (e.g. same-sex unions not being legally recognized) and on occasion be censured. While the law may not discriminate against persons as persons it must discriminate between the acceptable and unacceptable actions of persons (e.g. between acquisition by legitimate purchase and acquisition by thievery). This can include sexual behaviour (e.g. exhibitionism, pedophilia, incest, fornication and homosexual relations).
2. Are they denied the right to vote? No.
3. Are they denied the opportunity for an education? No, often homosexuals are highly educated.
4. Are they economically impoverished because of their difference? No, they are often well off economically.
5. Are they subject to human rights violations without recourse? No, if assaulted they can lay charges like anyone else.
Some argue that one’s sexual behaviour is entirely a private matter and no one else’s business. But:
1. If homosexuality is entirely a private matter then why is it so political and so publicized?
2. A person’s character is formed both by his public actions and his private. What we make of ourselves has repercussions on those around us.
3. What people do even privately and consensually can still be wrong (e.g. adultery). Practically and legally it may not be easily prevented nor the courts the best venue for discouraging it. However, that does not legitimize such behaviour.
4. ‘Privacy’ is a misnomer. What courts have been decriminalizing under the ‘right to privacy’ (in the U.S. with contraception in 1965 and abortion in 1973) is not privacy but the right to absolute personal autonomy.
“Choices” in sexual “lifestyles” (homosexual, common law, promiscuous, adulterous, divorce) have profound effects on family life and society. They are not socially and morally neutral. They effect the common good. They psychologically and morally injure innocent parties (such as children) as well as the guilty parties. People often carry these injuries for life and it can effect their behaviour and attitude. Social norms that uphold and strengthen the common good need to be encouraged. Behaviours that undermine it need to be discouraged. How to uphold what is right and discourage what is wrong can involve many venues: Legal, educational, religious, and communal.
To conclude we quote Adler again on human equality and its limitation:
“Is there then any respect in which all human beings, without a single exception, can be declared equal? Yes, there is only one. It is that they are all human, all members of one species, called ‘Homo sapiens,’ and all having the same natural and thereby the same specific attributes that differentiate them from the members of all other species. In all other respects, any two human beings may be found unequal, one having more of a certain human attribute than another, either as the result of native endowment or of individual attainment.
When this is understood, it will be seen that there is no conflict or contradiction between saying (1) that all human beings are equal in respect of their common humanity, and (2) that all human beings are also unequal, one with another, in a wide variety of respects in which they differ as individual members of the human species.
Their equality lies in the fact that humans all belong to the same species, possessing the traits common to members of that species. Their inequality lies in their individual differences as members of that species. All being human, they are all persons, not things; and as persons they all equally have the dignity that inheres in their being persons. But each is not only a person, each is also a uniquely individual person.”
Mortimer Adler, Six Great Ideas.
Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice.
Thomas Sowell, Preferential Policies: An International Perspective.
Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.
Thomas Sowell, Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?
Dinesh D’Souza, The End of Racism.
John Kekes, Against Liberalism.
Robert P. George, In Defense of Natural Law
Robert P. George, The Clash of Orthodoxies
Brian Lee Crowley, The Road to Equity: Gender, Ethnicity, and Language.
John Harvey, The Truth about Homosexuality.
William Dannemeyer, Shadow in the Land: Homosexuality in America.
Note: Many essays by Adler & Sowell can be found on the internet.
D. FREEDOM: I Did It My Way
Philosopher Alastair MacIntyre noted in After Virtue: “We have — very largely, if not entirely — lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.” Morality has been replaced by what he calls ’emotivism’: “The doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” He speaks of what this emotivism entails: This is the imperial self, who stands in judgment of all — and is frequently not amused. This is the autonomous self who will not allow anyone else’s “values” to be “imposed” upon oneself. This is the egalitarian self who has a voracious appetite for “rights” that knows virtually no limits. Consequently, as Allan Bloom concluded in his book, The Closing of the American Mind, “in modern political regimes where rights precede duties, freedom definitely has primacy over community, family and even nature.”
True liberty, as G.K. Chesterton so profoundly observed, “is the power of a thing to be itself.” True human freedom should help us realize the fullness of our humanity (our rationality, our ability to love, our moral character, our spiritual good). False freedom undermines our true humanity.
Autonomy claims Independence for the Individual when in fact we are manifestly Interdependent. We depend on other people for basic survival and our psychological well-being. Few of us could survive long left to fend for ourselves against the harsh realities of nature. We do not have the ingenuity of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The irony of today is that our modern society is probably the most complex and interdependent civilization that has ever existed yet it gives us a feeling of being more independent than ever before. It literally takes millions of people to maintain the vast network of services that provides for our wants and needs. Yet by its shear size and sophistication our society gives us a strong sense of personal autonomy. We are no longer as dependent on our immediate neighbour and local community for survival. We have a certain independence from them. But we are greatly dependent on many for survival. However, they tend to be the anonymous providers of a myriad of goods and services. Material independence from our immediate community has led to a sense of moral independence. In the past conformity to community standards was demanded as a necessary prerequisite of community acceptance and support. Such conformity was needed for the peace and security of fragile communities. Today the need for local community support has faded and with it the pressure to conform to its moral standards. Personal conduct can now defy former family & community standards with impunity. Money can supply us with the material goods and services they once provided. Government social services have (unintentionally?) assisted this autonomy by providing a safety net for selfish or irresponsible behaviour.
But there is also a psychological need in human beings for human relations. Even Robinson Crusoe needed human companionship. In the past those relations (family, spouse, and friendship) were supplied by those in close physical proximity to our homes. This too helped maintain a sense of interdependence, obligation and conformity to community standards. Today technology, prosperity, mobility and urbanization have changed all that. And with that change has come the privatization of morality. Yet, our moral behaviour still has profound effects on others. Spouses, children, siblings, parents, friends, colleagues all benefit or suffer from of how we behave. Society benefits or suffers from its cumulative effect. This has negatively affected Canadian social standards in the realms of civility, sexuality, and religious practice. The autonomous individual fails to properly consider the common good. He can act selfishly and scandalously (i.e. cause others to fall by his encouragement or example) but excuse himself by wrapping his behaviour in ethical relativism and the flag of personal “freedom.”
Let us now look at true and false freedom. I am once again beholding to Montague Brown’s The One-Minute Philosopher:
True Freedom: Liberty
Freedom is to take responsibility for our own life. Insofar as it is compatible with the common good, people should be allowed liberty to choose how they want to live.
It is good for a person to choose their job rather than be forced into one. It benefits him and the community. He must of course be qualified for the job, and the job must be good (i.e. not loan-sharking, drug dealing, pimping).
Freedom in writing a history paper may aid the learning process. A degree of freedom in a sport to make decisions may lead to creative action. In voting freedom gives people a stake in their future.
In these examples self-discipline and responsibility toward the common good are required if freedom is to be fruitful. This includes a sense of respect for the nature of the particular enterprise and the obligation to participate in it according to its legitimate rules (e.g. standards of historical research, rules of a sport, business ethics)
But freedom and license must not be confused. Freedom embraces responsibility and is guided by reason and virtue; license is choice without restraint.
“None can love freedom heartily but good men; the rest love not freedom but license.” John Milton
False Freedom: License
License is what many confuse with freedom in their conversations and moral deliberations as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
License it the throwing off of all responsibility. It is carte blanche to do as we feel or wish. As such, it is incompatible with virtue and destroys community.
It is the misidentification of freedom with the absence of legal restriction or moral restraint. Hence community standards, legal restrictions, censorship, and obedience to institutional authority (from parents to the Church) are all shrieked down as destructive to individual rights and liberties. Here there is a confusion of freedom within the law from freedom from the law. “The law” understood here can be the civil law (philosophically called human positive law), the moral law (human natural law), or divine law (God’s commandments). We are free to operate within these laws but not free to act against them (the one exception being a civil law that itself violates the higher laws of human nature and God).
John Diefenbaker: “Freedom is the right to be wrong, not the right to do wrong.”
License, as the throwing off of restraint or responsibility leads to absurd and dangerous action. On the personal level, license leads to moral chaos. If my actions are based merely on whim or the impulse of the moment, they are completely unpredictable to others and even to myself. On the social level, license leads to anarchy — the lack of dedication to the common good.
License can do damage where liberty enriches. For example, if license rules in choosing topic and method in a history course then the paper submitted might not even be remotely accurate or related to history. Athletes cannot succeed in a sport by acting on whim, for sports demands rules, discipline and cooperation. If members of a society ignore the restrictions of law, that society will be in jeopardy. License abandons personal responsibility and loses the creative energy and fruitfulness of liberty.
True freedom seeks what is truly good and beneficial for oneself and others (the common good).
FREEDOM DEMANDS A BELIEF IN AND PURSUIT OF TRUTH. As John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor, noted: “Truth is a condition of freedom, for if a man can preserve his freedom in relation to the objects which thrust themselves on him in the course of his activity as good and desirable, it is only because he is capable of viewing these goods in the light of truth and so adopting an independent attitude to them. Without this faculty man would inevitably be determined by them: These goods would take possession of him and determine totally the character of his actions and the whole direction of his activity. His ability to discover the truth gives man the possibility of self-determination, of deciding for himself the character and direction of his own actions, and that is what freedom means.”
Free Will is a Gift, Liberty is a Conquest:
Free will – gift endowed by the Creator, the inalienable gift of choice to be master of one’s judgments and acts. Free choice is the essence of what makes or breaks character. Even God will not destroy the gift. Liberty/freedom is a Conquest – It is not freedom for the sake of freedom. Freedom is meant to be used in pursuit of what is truly good. This freedom demands two essential values:
1. Self-mastery: liberty from internal compulsion (to have control of one’s passions and desires).
2. The complete & total gift of self to another; to them personally or to something good for them (e.g. justice). It demands one live above the level of raw self-will and passions.
“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.’ G.B. Shaw
External freedom is the absence of external restraint and force. External freedom is lost through a police state or a totalitarian regime or institutional slavery (e.g. in Communist China, Nazi Germany, ‘fundamentalist’ Iran and the Sudan). It is a “freedom from” external compulsion.
On “following one’s conscience”: “A human being must always obey the certain judgments of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself” (italics added). So teaches the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1790). But that does not mean everyone else must defer to whatever action someone claims his conscience dictates. The conscience is not infallible. The person may be wrong, and seriously wrong, even if he truly does not believe himself in error. The judgements of conscience become certain only when they conform to objective moral reality as discovered by reason and revelation. Society cannot be held hostage to the vagarious claims each person makes “in conscience.” It must set basic norms of behaviour and expect a certain degree of public compliance. One’s conscience does not override the common good of society nor alter objective moral norms. But neither can one be compelled to obey an unjust law. Society’s laws must conform to the higher, objective natural law inscribed in our human nature.
“Conscience” today is used in a vague fashion (surprise!) and so is prone to misuse. Conscience is not a feeling (although feelings can be associated with it). This is evident when our feelings are encouraging us in one direction but our conscience is mandating another. It is an intellectual power. It is essentially the power of knowing. The conscience rationally discerns whether a particular act is morally obligatory or morally forbidden. It has the quality of being able to intuit or become immediately aware of good or evil. But it is not pure intuition. At the heart of conscience is the judging intellect. Its judgment should be based on knowledge of what is truly right and truly wrong. Subjective knowledge and objective truth should coalesce. Feelings, wants and desires per se do not qualify as guides to conscience.
One’s conscience can be wrong. It is not infallible because human judgments are not infallible. It needs to be properly informed (i.e. morally educated). Ignorance of the law is no excuse if ignorance can be avoided or overcome. We must take the time to find out what is really true and good. We must recognize and seek to root out any moral blindness in us caused by habitual wrongdoing. We should seek the wisdom and guidance of proper authorities in discerning what is true and good.
If one’s moral judgment (i.e. conscience) is subjectively guiding one to choose something that is objectively wrong then others should resist it. For example, if a man thinks revenging himself upon another’s family is the right thing to do the state is not obligated to let him to do it. Nor is the other family. Likewise if someone thinks suicide is the right course of action that does not mean all must stand by and watch. Reasoned and proportionate steps can be taken to prevent it. In fact there is a moral obligation on the state and others (based on objective moral norms rather than simply the person’s subjective wants and understanding) to discourage such actions.
The same holds true for the opposite situation. If one’s conscience is certain that a rightful authority has overstepped their proper bounds and transgressed the moral law one is not obliged to obey. If parents think a sex-education program in a school is immoral, if a citizen thinks a war his country is engaged in unjust, or a person thinks the abortion laws wrong, one has no moral obligation to obey. In fact one has a moral obligation not to obey the law or authority if one’s conscience is true, certain and dictates otherwise. However, practically speaking, it does not mean one will not suffer legal consequences for following one’s conscience.
There is a difference between the judgment the intellect makes on the rightness of a particular action or inaction (i.e. the conscience) and what one likes or dislikes doing (i.e. one’s whims and desires). Many people claim to be following the former when in fact they are following the latter.
Internal freedom is the absence of subjective restraints or compulsions that might inhibit one from acting according to what one knows to be good. Internal freedom is necessary for the perfection of character. It is a “freedom to” do what one knows is right.
Internal freedom is diminished by the inability or unwillingness to restrain one’s passions, impulses, or emotions. We then act like passive riders on a coach pulled by the wild horses of lust, anger, sorrow, fear, greed, gluttony, etc. These can have undo influence in dictating the direction we go. Internal freedom is lost by the denial of responsibility. ‘Addiction’ is a polite word for the loss of internal freedom. To be able to choose what is good one must have a degree of custody over oneself. A person driven by impulses or passions is not internally free. He does what he knows is unnecessarily harmful but has little internal restraint to stop himself and little clarity of intellect to evaluate the magnitude of the wrong. He is a prisoner of his own whims and desires. Sin blinds and habitual sin binds. Self-discipline is needed to be a disciple of the true, the good, the beautiful.
Ernest Benn made this ironically clear when he said “Liberty is being free from the things we don’t like in order to be slaves of the things we do like.”
True Individualism: The Uniqueness and Importance of each Person
True individualism insists on the irreducible importance of each person. It recognizes each person’s intrinsic value or worth. It recognizes that the value of any human being is not relative (to money, convenience, other people’s desire, or society’s opinion) but absolute (is founded on their dignity as being human).
In other words, it is recognition that every person is an end and not a means to an end and should be treated as such. We use “things” as a means of getting something else. But people are not “things” to be used. They are ends. That is, they have a value in their own right and not for what we get from them. No person, therefore, is to be treated as an object to be used (for another’s pleasure or gain) but as a person to be respected & loved.
If we treat people as means and things as ends instead of the other way around — if we love things and use people, instead of loving people and using things — then we reverse reality’s order. We violate reality and the dignity of the other person and are wrong in doing it.
Communism, Capitalism, and Hedonism all violate this norm. They treat people as means to an end. They fail to respect the intrinsic moral dignity of the individual and relativize the value of other human beings — by their usefulness to society or to oneself (for profit or pleasure).
False Individualism: Exaltation of the Ego
Egoism insists on the absolute priority of one’s own person. All relationships are entered into out of self-interest. It is antithetical to true community. It treats others as merely means to personal ends. Egoism puts concern for self first. It involves no sense of responsibility. What is in the common good or best interests of others is not the primary concern. My own self-interest is always the bottom line.
Individualism encourages self-motivated initiative for the good of self & community. Egoism encourages self-interest for its own sake. The true individualist takes personal responsibility for his actions and seeks what is really good and true for its own sake and not for public acclamation. The egoist desires to be noticed or stand out from the crowd. To achieve this purpose he or she may act irresponsibly or appear immodestly. Many today seem to equate individuality with idiosyncrasy. They are not the same.
Individuality (born of character and conviction) takes moral effort and self-denial. Idiosyncratism (expressed with tattoos, body piercings, clothing styles, “bad” attitudes, etc.) takes little moral effort and is self-indulgent. The real individualist is willing to sacrifice friendship and personal gain for what he believes true and good. The world cannot buy him. The ideosyncatist is willing to sacrifice what is true and good for friendship and personal gain (whether financial, sexual, or notoriety). The world already owns him. His rebellion is superficial; being largely a reaction to certain conventions rather than going to the heart of his and the world’s problem. The individualist’s rebellion is radical, in keeping with the original meaning of the word. He seeks to address the root problem in himself and the world. G. K. Chesterton, a radical individualist if there ever was, summed up the difference in his one-word response to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” His answer: “Me”.
“Freedom of Choice”
Randy Alcorn, Protestant anti-abortion advocate, says he often begins presentations on school campuses in this manner:
“I’ve been introduced as being pro-life, but I want to make clear that I’m really pro-choice. I believe that a person has the right to do whatever she wants with her own body. It’s none of our business what choice she makes, and we have no right to impose our morals on others. Whether I like someone’s choices or not is irrelevant. She should have the freedom to make her choices.” Mr. Alcorn notes he is greeted by surprised looks & audible affirmations (nods, applause, smiles).
Then he says: “Yes, I’m pro-choice. That’s why I believe every man has the right to rape a woman if that is his choice. After all, it’s his body, and neither you nor I have the right to tell him what to do with it. He’s free to choose, and it’s none of our business what choices he makes. We have no right to impose our morals on him. Whether I like the choice or not, he should have the freedom to make his own choices.”
Mr. Alcorn had been using all the right popular buzz words or magic slogans (“freedom,” “choice,” “rights”) but demonstrates their absurdity as absolutes in themselves. He shows how the “rights” debate in abortion is emphasizing the woman’s right to autonomy over the innocent unborn’s right to life. -in Randy Alcorn, Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments
Having “freedom of choice” is not for the sake of freedom but for the sake of the thing chosen. If something is truly good for human beings (like an education, physical health, some material comfort, etc.) then one has a natural right to pursue it. This demands a certain freedom in choosing how one is to go about it.
Generally “freedom of choice” language is used too vaguely to be either affirmed or denied. In fact the expression is virtually a tautology and so explains nothing. “Freedom” means “being able to choose.” It is often nothing more than a slogan used to rationalize rebellion against moral standards that interfere with what we want.
Ironically “pro-choice” advocates are often anti-choice on smaller issues — like smoking in public places or seat belt use. The principle of freedom is selectively applied.
Mortimer Adler, Six Great Ideas.
Randy Alcorn, ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments.
Peter Kreeft, The Unaborted Socrates.
Montague Brown, The One-Minute Philosopher.
Joyce Little, The Church and the Culture War.
Beyond all the intellectual confusion and indolence that makes the Cardinal Virtues of Secularism so attractive and hard to dethrone today there is a major moral reason for their popularity. These “virtues” give permission for the individual to live his life on his own terms, according to his own whims and desires. It is a warping of social standards in order to indulge oneself. No credence is given to an objective moral standard by which one’s actions can be measured, judged and regulated. Therefore no one can judge you and you in return judge no one. Recognizing other’s “values” to be just as personal and subjective as one’s own you look tolerantly on their behaviour and expect them to reciprocate. You will keep an open mind to their values and recognize their freedom to live accordingly. All you ask in return is that they extend the same courtesy. It’s a “live and let live” — or more accurately a “sin and let sin” — attitude. It came into vogue with the economic boon and sexual revolution of the sixties. It is all very convenient and self-serving.
Such an attitude is about feeling good without necessarily being good. It is about avoiding condemnation by refusing to condemn in return — unless, of course, the other person is a “judgmental hypocrite” (usually of the Christian variety). It is about alleviating the guilt of one’s conscience without the conversion of one’s character. It is the easy road to self-righteousness. It elevates one’s self-esteem by marginalizing the importance of virtues one lacks while exaggerating the significance of virtues, or pseudo-virtues, one has. This is facilitated by a selective understanding and application of moral principles according to one’s own self-interests. Privileged amongst these are the Four Cardinal Virtues of Secularism.
In a recent book, Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation (Henry Holt, 2002), caustic essayist Joe Queenan seems to have come to a partial realization of the underlying self-conceit that promotes these virtues. He describes how venal and self-centred much of modern (“baby-boomer”) culture is. Even in himself he discovered that underneath the “lovingly crafted façade of charm, wit, sophistication, and class that masqueraded as a personality, I was a basically worthless person.” Being “a prototypical product of the Me Decade, I only knew how to respond to the world insofar as the world responded to Moi.” While he believes his generation began with some promise they quickly decided to replace their social conscience with a general, and ill-founded, feeling of superiority. Queenan seems quite surprised and appalled to discover how self-absorbed he and his peers have been and the effect it has had on our culture. I might add on our children. Queenan’s insights are very limited. Yet he does touch on a truth that T. S. Eliot more profoundly observed and eloquently enunciated by in his play, The Cocktail Party:
Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them, or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.
The ideas we have investigated did not originate with the self-absorbed baby boomers. The baby boomer generation did, however, become their ardent supporters and promoters. Believing in nothing beyond themselves they ended up acting like they believed in everything (ala relativism and pluralism). Essentially theirs is a hollow culture: bustling and enticing but, to paraphrase Shakespeare, much sound and fury signifying nothing. The baby boomer culture is rapidly being replaced by that of their progeny — one even more degraded, coarse and shallow than their own.
Yet even the most ardent relativist cannot escape the Absolute. Illusion and denial are always possible in this life but this life must end. There is no escaping death.
Though you forget the way to the Temple, There is one who remembers the way your door; Life you may evade, but Death you shall not, You shall not deny the Stranger. (T. S. Eliot)
Once upon a time the baby boomers thought themselves immortal as they still think themselves immune to the moral law. But both have had their effect. Their bodies grow decrepit just as their character and culture have grown decadent. They absolutized the self and freedom at the cost of relativizing truth and goodness. To this end they co-operated with forces that sought to undermine the authority of the family and church, while increasing the power of the state and corporations. The end of the twentieth century has given birth to a new morality that is facilitating the formation of a new society. The twenty-first century will bring it to maturity and shall, with the help of the new technologies, give birth to a new humanity.