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"Moral Relativism" and Modern Life
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It is somewhat tempting in today’s technology and social media-driven world to believe that we are presently living in the midst of a “morally relativistic” society in which decisions of a moral nature are judged to be true or false only in relation to particular points of view held by different people on various social media platforms. As such, the argument goes, moral standards of the past may or may not apply to us today. A corollary of this stance is that in a morally relativistic world as such no particular standpoint or set of moral principles is necessarily greater than that of any other set. Moreover, we appear to be encouraged both implicitly and explicitly these days to stay within our own social media bubbles, and to associate only with those who agree with us and our pre-conceived “standards.” We also tend to seek out “news” and information from like-minded outlets, which ostensibly express only those shared “values” we ourselves identify as being morally superior to others.
Moral relativism therefore would have us believe that in 2022 we live in a world in which there is no proper or universal set of guiding moral precepts and principles that apply to all of us. Rather, the answer to what is “right” or what is “moral” depends. And by depends I mean that moral values in this worldview come to function as a subset of own own preconceived notions and tacit agreements within our local social and political groups rather than with larger, more universal themes and conclusions — some of which have been with us for the entirety of recorded human history.
What follows from this general approach is that even if you are Catholic there is no need to pay attention to what Pope Francis or your local bishop or parish priest has to say. It’s more about what you think or feel, in context of your own political or social leanings and proclivities. After all, according to moral relativism your personal moral principles and choices are based upon your own personal beliefs as they apply to you in whatever environmental settings you live in right now; not on what the Church has to say, either locally or within the magisterium. In other words, what happens in Rome stays in Rome!
Closer examination of our present reality in context of world history does not support this conclusion, however. In fact, we humans have been grappling with moral relativism for as long as we’ve been around to record our intentions and behavior, going back at least to fifth century, BC Greece (Moser and Carson). It is not the aim of this reflection to survey or summarize in an exhaustive fashion the shape and/or history of moral relativism through the centuries. Rather, our purpose here is to examine some overarching themes concerning moral relativism as a position in relation to Catholic theology and natural and eternal law.
Regarding theological approaches to moral relativism let us begin by addressing nominalism, an intellectual movement in both philosophy and theology that places its focus on the activities and preeminence of the will over the intellect. As a theological movement, nominalism posited that internally consistent, logical and meaningful activities and laws were arbitrary, not universal. The high scholastic William of Ockham – the “Occam’s Razor” guy – for example, argued that universal laws were important in name only, and that every mind-independent thing is particular. In this view, “universality is a feature of our cognitive acts and does not refer to anything outside the mind” (Van Nieuwenhove 258). Nominalistic theology in this vein emphasized God’s power to do anything except that which involves a logical contradiction; and therefore God is never bound by universal laws:
If the world consists solely of individual items, and universals have no real ontological status, the Christian Neoplatonic world loses its rational foundation. There are no longer any divine ideas (for they were, of course, universals), or rather: divine ideas operate no longer as exemplars of created beings but are nothing but the immediate knowledge God has of creatures themselves (Van Nieuwenhove 259).
The theologian and like William of Ockham high scholastic John Duns Scotus also used this type of reasoning in an attempt to demonstrate the limitations of the universality of moral decisions. The consequence of this position is that essentially what God does is a matter of His own will rather than His wisdom. We seem to be left in this nominalistic approach with a sense of moral relativism or arbitrariness, because in this position salvific history itself becomes a matter of anything God decided to do; including coming down as an animal or plant to save humanity rather than in the divine human person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the fittingness of God’s actions becomes subordinate to God’s will, His decision making irrespective of the form in which salvation most appropriately should be visited upon humanity by God becoming man. In essence, God’s actions are what God wills, and human actions are what we will to do based upon our willingness to believe.
The opposite of nominalism was Plato’s realism, his theory of forms and perfect universals. In other words, concepts such as being human go beyond the senses and experiences themselves to a universal form. We on earth experience imperfect exemplars of these universal forms. We are, in essence, imperfect copies of universal forms of humanity and everything that goes along with the construct. Aristotle, and later the greatest of the high scholastics, Saint Thomas Aquinas, adopted an in-between moderate realism, preserving (against nominalism) the existence of universal concepts which actually do reflect essences of particular realities. In this approach “we do form abstract concepts of the common essences of things, such as people as ‘rational animals’ or triangles as ‘closed plane figures with three straight sides and three angles.’ Though the essences, such as humanity or triangularity, do not exist in and of themselves in some other realm, they can be accurately applied to identify essential attributes, and to differentiate particular, individual things” (Vost Kindle Locations 2838-2562).
Aquinas, Peter Lombard, and others argued that human free will proceeded from reason and will, and not the other way around as Ockham contended. Moral realism, in contrast to moral relativism and nominalism, advocated that in fact a moral order in the universal sense does exist as objective reality, and is quite independent of both personal beliefs or personal perceptions. In other words, particular actions can be understood and deemed to be morally right or wrong independent of whether or not a person understands or perceives this to be the case. Why? Because natural law as well as God’s own revelation as we read about in Scripture actually discloses such universal truths.
As such, this theme of moral relativism can be viewed most validly as abhorrent to God’s eternal law, as noted specifically by Pope Saint John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor:
Since the human person cannot be reduced to a freedom which is self-designing, but entails a particular spiritual and bodily structure, the primordial moral requirement of loving and respecting the person as an end and never as a mere means also implies, by its very nature, respect for certain fundamental goods, without which one would fall into relativism and arbitrariness (32).
Moral realism in this largely relativistic and postmodern world adheres to the essential need to remain faithful to the unchangeable and perfect decrees set forth by God through His revelation in human history and through the passion of the cross. And the reach of God’s eternal law applies to all our actions and events of spiritual, moral, and physical reality in the face of changing local standards that can have no accountability whatsoever and adhere to no universal moral, spiritual or intellectual standards. As John Paul II specifically notes in this regard: “This relativism becomes, in the field of theology, a lack of trust in the wisdom of God, who guides man with the moral law. Concrete situations are unfavorably contrasted with the precepts of the moral law, nor is it any longer maintained that, when all is said and done, the law of God is always the one true good of man” (Veritatis Splendor 54).
The dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life, in this morally realistic stance should not be – and cannot be – subjugated to relativistic arguments about the value of life in context of local political and sociological happenings. Eternal law, divine law, natural law, and human law should in this domain always be pointing and acting in the attainment of the same ends; ultimately as articulated in the theology of Aquinas that God acts out of His wisdom in order to do what is right and fitting for us.
Think of it this way: what God does is out of His infinite love, throughout human history and in all circumstances. The dignity of the human person and the relatedness of all human beings is not subject to local whims or changing social standards. It is rather an eternal and essential element of God’s plan of salvation for all humanity; in all places, and at all times.
John Paul II, Pope. Veritatis Splendor: Encyclical Letter. Boston, MA: St. Paul Books & Media, 1993.
Moser, Paul K., and Carson, Thomas L.(eds.). Moral Relativism: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Van Nieuwenhove, Rik. “Late Mediaeval Atonement Theologies.” The Oxford Handbook of Christology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Vost, Kevin. How to Think Like Aquinas: The Sure Way to Perfect Your Mental Powers. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2018. Kindle Edition.