Dictatorship of Relativism

Last month on the BBC there was an all-star discussion of Cardinal Ratzinger’s phrase “Dictatorship of Relativism.” Discussants included the philosophers Simon Blackburn and Stephen Wang, Archbishop Williams, and members of Parliament. Williams was even keel and noted how fundamentalism and relativism are flip sides of each other – both are absolute and close down discussion. Williams also noted how easily people move from fundamentalism to non-belief.

However, Leslie Green Professor of Philosophy of Law, Balliol College, Cambridge launched into a biting critique seeing that those who throw around the word skepticism are scapegoating ones anxieties. The Nazis blamed the Jews, the Pope blamed the relativists. This is important because many Rabbis use buzz words like relativist, following zeitgeist, or post-modern in the same way to designate whatever they don’t like. Green also denies that people are relativist or that they think anything goes. Finally, he asks how much should we tolerate the demands of religious groups that go against public welfare? He offers a note that religious groups are good at arguing from pseudo-sociological data.

On the blogs that I read this interview has been generating much discussion. I will give some of the conflicting reactions in a later post- along with more of my comments. But in the meantime, if you got a chance to enter the discussion- What would you say after Leslie Green?

In April 2005 Joseph Ratzinger, the most powerful
theologian in the Roman Catholic Church, delivered a homily to the cardinals preparing for the conclave that was to elect him Pope.

RATZINGER (Source: Vatican Radio): Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are
building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

WILLIAMS: To the extent I think that people are a bit threatened and a bit impatient about real engagement and argument, then the odd thing is that fundamentalism is the mirror image of a kind of
inflexible relativism. People want the arguments to be over. Just as the relativist or the junior official in the Foreign Office – we want the arguments to be over, let’s just you know treat everyone equally
– so the fundamentalist says I want the arguments to be over. And what one philosopher who matters quite a lot to me said about thelabour and the patience and the pain of real thinking just disappears.

GREEN: In the 1930s, in Germany, anything that was bad in the eyes of the German state – 32, 39 – was caused by who? The Jews. Why? They didn’t like the Jews. America – 1952, 55. Anything that
was bad in America was caused by well who? The Communists. Well why? Because they didn’t like the Communists. And so now here we are – 2005. Benedict I of course invents this concept of the dictatorship of relativism. There’s a bunch/clutch of bad things
happening and he doesn’t like them. Who’s it caused by? Caused by the relativists, you know.

GREEN: No-one in this country or in America or in Europe thinks that anything goes. So let’s take sexual morality. Sadly, to my way of thinking, since there’s so much that’s rich and important in Catholic moral theology, the Church has transformed itself into a
kind of fertility cult, so that what it really cares about now is making sure that you know men aren’t having sex with men and nobody’s having abortions and there are no condoms in the JCR around the corner here and that there aren’t any divorces. Well even in a fairly liberal, tolerant sexual morality, there’s nobody
that argues that anything goes. The people that Pope Benedict deplores don’t think that rape is okay, and they certainly don’tthink that the sexual abuse of children is okay. Everybody agrees
there is a bottom line minimum to which we all must conform. And the thing is of course that some folks disagree about where theminimums should be drawn. That’s democracy.

GREEN: So that if I can say well I’m a member of a church and the view in my church happens to be that all children have to participate in animal
sacrifice and so we’re not allowing children to be adopted out to families that don’t tolerate the sacrifice of rams on the full moon every month – we would say “No, this is preposterous” even although it’s only a sheep. Now people can disagree about this, and obviously many religious people disagree because they have very firm – dare I say – absolutist, fundamentalist and mostly uninformed views about the nature of human sexuality that are overlain on top of their religious views. They’re entitled to those.
But if you’re providing a service to the public – you’re not talking about your little congregation, you’re
talking about the fates of children, their welfare and their wellbeing – you have an obligation to respect the minimum.

10 responses to “Dictatorship of Relativism

  1. It’s definitely true that the term ‘relativism’ is thrown around by those who have some notion of divine-command morality (or a theological conception of natural law) as shorthand for “what inevitably happens to morality in the absence of faith.” However, if you think about it, if that is the real fear, then the term that they should be using is moral anarchism, not relativism. Relativism is the belief that different groups functioning autonomously from one another can adopt different moral norms, and that neither group is justified (within certain bounds) in critiquing the others’ norms.

    The misuse of the term relativism may reflect their own insecurity in the midt of democratic majoritarian societies that sometimes do and sometimes do not allow individual minority communities to adopt practices that are out of line with mainstream social practices. The beneficiaries of relativism then are really the religious and ethnic groups that deviate from the norms of the majority. But depending on the political context, their security in this dispensation can be precarious.

    Fear of relativism is then the fear that liberals have in allowing minority groups to function in part with non-democratic and non-egalitarian norms.

    So everyone it seems is afraid of ‘relativism’, they just mean different things.

  2. Green is every bit as intolerant as whoever he tries to criticize.

    And his statement that even in the secular West it is not true that anything goes, is a fallacy, as his example of a sexuality taboo in Western society, rape, is not really a sexual taboo. The reason why he is wrong is that rape isn’t about sexual morality, per se, but about forcing another human being into an act she utterly abhors. That is rather a matter of ethics, not morals.

    IOW, Green confirms that relativistic secular society is opposed to any taboos. The measure in which actual societies are not as permissive as Green may like reflects the fact that not all citizens buy into secular relativism.

    And what would be wrong about sacrificing a ram every month? How about suggesting doing it at the new moon, rather than the full moon? In Jerusalem, you know, on the sacred esplanade?

    • Green says that in Western culture it is not the case that everything goes and then proceeds to use the example of rape. You calim that this example is fallacious because rape is only wrong because it forces someone to do something that “she” (are only women raped?) abhors.

      First, you have not identified any fallacy becasue Green’s point is that “not everything goes” and that there are universally recognized ethical norms. Second, the distinction between ethics and morals perhaps relies on a quasi antiquated usage of the terms, but is not used today, so I’m not sure what you are trying to convey. The idea of “sexual morality” is not confined to “moralizing about sexuality”, which appears to be what you mean. Finally, there certainly are “taboos” that are alive and well today. Incest is illegal, even between consenting adult siblings who are not going to procreate, and generally abhorred, as is polygamy, bestiality, and statutory rape among others. Green does not appear opposed to these taboos so I’m not sure how your claim that he, and secular society in general are opposed to taboos is supported by anything he wrote.

      • The difference between ethics and morals is not a religious difference, but a modern one. Religiously, one cannot claim that theft or armed robbery is really bad, but regarding idol worship or adultery live and let live. Judaism doesn’t argue for such a position, Christianity doesn’t, and I believe Islam doesn’t either. However, Green argues:

        Sadly, to my way of thinking, since there’s so much that’s rich and important in Catholic moral theology, the Church has transformed itself into a
        kind of fertility cult, so that what it really cares about now is making sure that you know men aren’t having sex with men and nobody’s having abortions and there are no condoms in the JCR around the corner here and that there aren’t any divorces.

        Green argues against sexual taboos. Then he does a double take and reminds us that even very liberal societies have sexual taboos, but only musters an example where violence is a major factor. That is as much as saying that as long as consenting peers are not hurting anyone without consent, their sexual behavior should be condoned, a typical libertarian position. By inference, Green is really arguing against all sexual taboos. And in the process, he also implies a differentiation between ethics and morals, because he has no use for morals, i.e. for taboos where no one gets physically, financially or emotionally hurt (to the exclusion of spiritual damage, which he does not seem to recognize).

        You are right that the existence of laws against non-reproductive consensual incest shows that societies do maintain taboos, but that only shows that society doesn’t follow Green’s line. Ditto for laws against polygamy. Had Green argued for maintaining those laws, now then you would have had an argument.

        PS: in all fairness, statutory rape and bestiality do not belong in this list. Bestiality is seen by some as being unconscionable because the animal didn’t consent (not my view, but libertarians who argue against bestiality do make this argument), and statutory rape is a legal curiosity, a bug, not a feature, which results from the legislator’s desire to protect minors who are still vulnerable, easily taken advantage of and not always consenting.

  3. Kevin Rothman

    i agree with AS that the question of relativism extends both to the right and to the left. ultimately one, and more importantly to the discussion, society, must take a stance if only for pragmatic purposes. The standard of measure being public welfare. The problem, as I see it, is that the church is in the business not of fighting moral relativism, but of fighting a very specific sort of moral relativism. That is, the ritual aspects of its morality (eg. opposition to homosexuality) that have no bearing on public welfare. This type of concern is the church’s overwhelming concern. There was recently an article in the NY Times on the Pope describing his career: though he was in a position to take an active and positive role in the pedophilia scandals when they first began emerging, he, instead, whiled away his time and energy opposing liberation theology in south america… a theology aimed at protecting the rights of the poor and disempowered… i.e. a theology that concerns itself with resolving much larger moral and ethical problems. This is also moral relativism, just of a sort that favors the narrow concerns of the church.

    I think the real challenge for religious people today is in the retaking of human rights as a properly religious interest… instead of remaining indifferent to them by regarding religion in purely ritual/ritualistic terms. Is this not the constant message of the neviim? I am not saying ritual or ritualistic morality is worthless, but I am saying that focusing on this to the exclusion of those concerns that secular society has taken up is, in my opinion, a grave mistake, and, quite a blatant and problematic form of relativism.

  4. Kevin Rothman

    Mr. (Rabbi?) Folger –

    I think you are correct that Judaism does not necessarily distinguish between morality and ethics in the sense of a difference between ritual crime and interpersonal crime (though, in refraining from making such a decision, I suppose interpersonal crime would take on a ritual status) would not this very lack of differentiation constitute a call for as much vigilance with respect to matters of human rights as with respect to matters of sexual morals? If the Church or Judaism or Islam were then to devote near exclusive attention to the latter would this not denote a certain moral bankruptcy (not only in having ignored the former but, in having done so, within the latter itself)? I think it is less a matter of condoning the breakdown of sexual, or any other, taboo and more a matter of a legitimate critique: how worthy are the exhortations to sexual purity uttered with eyes closed to suffering?

    • I agree. The lack of differentiation between ethics and morals in Judaism indeed elevates the interpersonal to be ritual, as well, and sometimes more. But I don’t see Green criticizing the church for failing to take human rights seriously. He rather lambasted it for taking issue with the moral relativism of the modern West, hence my comment. I don’t think Green was asking “how worthy are the exhortations to sexual purity uttered with eyes closed to suffering.” I rather think he was asking, very much like a Reform rabbi may do to an Orthodox Jew, “why do you guys find our moral instinct lacking, after all, we have morals, too.”

  5. Kevin Rothman

    I just don’t see it that way. You quoted:

    “Sadly, to my way of thinking, since there’s so much that’s rich and important in Catholic moral theology, the Church has transformed itself into a
    kind of fertility cult, so that what it really cares about now is making sure that you know men aren’t having sex with men and nobody’s having abortions and there are no condoms in the JCR around the corner here and that there aren’t any divorce”

    I see this as less of a “why do you guys find our moral instinct lacking”, i.e. something fundamentally defensive in nature and more of an indictment of the church itself, an offensive… its degeneration into the very sort of moral bankruptcy you agree an exclusive focus on ritual concerns over human (ritual) ones entails.

    It may be that as an individual Green, despite the larger implications of his argument, believes simply as you interpret him (though i think he intended more). This, however, would then be a rather petty complaint and dealing with it on this level only shares therein. I think it wiser to take him up as having offered a meaningful critique of (a) contemporary religious institution(s) that warrants self-accounting… this way the debate remains productive

  6. Was the Catholic Church’s preference of Naziism over Communism an absolute moral choice, or a relative moral choice?

    Ratzinger uses the language of absolutism to convince his shills followers that he represents some absolute, God-given truth… when in fact, the Church has shifted in the moral winds as much as any other institution.

    What is it with these traditionalists and their desire for man-on-man action, anyway? Why catholic priests and orthodox rabbis so convinced that God hates ordaining women but tolerates molesting little boys? And what does it say about us that we tolerate them, and allow them to sully our discourse with their perverted and depraved desires?

  7. And what does it say about us that we tolerate them,

    The circular answer may be that we crave absolutes, truths, God given-ness, and solutions.

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