On the Dictatorship of Relativism
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
The day before he was elected pope and took the name Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presented a homily denouncing what he termed the "dictatorship of relativism... that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure." Such a viewpoint was also held by Pope John Paul II, as expressed in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
Some people are worried that this denunciation of relativism will entrench a rigid traditional moral code on Catholics and seek to instill such morality on other societies and even governments, stifling a dialog on morality. Others say this is only a call to ground values and governmental law on eternal principles and objective truth rather than on fashionable subjective views that change in time and place.
The problem here is to determine whether there are eternal moral truths, and if so, to discover what they are. Church doctrine itself has changed over time. Centuries ago, the Catholic Church was engaged in a violent crusade against Muslims and Jews. Church authorities inflicted a cruel inquisition against non-Catholics. The Church once opposed charging interest on loans and did not oppose slavery. The principles of an eternally true morality cannot come merely from the doctrines of any particular religious belief, since these can and do change.
I have written on this theme previously. There is indeed a universal ethic that formulates natural moral law and applies to all acts and persons regardless of culture, time, and place. The universal ethic has two basic rules for good and evil. Acts are morally good if they are welcomed benefits, and acts are morally evil only if they coercively harm others.
The rules of the universal ethic for good and evil acts are eternal and absolute. The u.e. is therefore not a relativist ethic. However, the rule making it only evil to coercively harm others implies that human beings may do anything that is peaceful and honest, and indeed it is morally wrong to prevent people from doing non-harmful acts. This implies that individuals are morally free to pursue any peaceful religion, to express any viewpoint that does not involve fraud, and to live lifestyles even if they are offensive to others. Thus, the u.e. provides a large scope for relativism in religion, preferences, and expressions. No peaceful and honest act is held to be inherently evil; people are free to have their own subjective views as to what is agreeable or disagreeable to them, without imposing such views on other peaceful persons.
If a society bases its laws on the universal ethic, there can be no dictatorship of relativism, because no person is forced to live under the subjective values of others. But no country today has perfect liberty. Therefore, all countries today to some degree base their laws on the personal and cultural views of the ruling class, the persons who have power and legal authority.
The rule of man rather than natural moral law is indeed a dictatorship of relativism. When, for example, government prohibits the peaceful growing and use of marijuana, it imposes a relativistic ethic, the cultural and personal belief that marijuana is objectively morally bad. Marijuana, like tobacco, may in some cases and uses be objectively bad for health, but by the universal ethic, what one does to one's own body is morally neutral, not evil, and therefore a law prohibiting marijuana use violates a person's natural rights. It is an evil prohibition.
Likewise, by the universal ethic, a human being owns his own labor. Forcibly taking away his wage is an act of coercive harm by government. Yet governments world-wide commit this evil. The taxation of labor is an evil act by the dictatorship of relativism.
But sadly, it seems that the good Pope Benedict XVI is not thinking of the taxation of wages or the prohibition of peaceful drug possession in condemning relativism. He is more likely thinking of challenges to traditional Catholic beliefs, such as an opposition to contraception. Sadly, not just the Pope but many Christians, Muslims, people of many other religions, along with doctrines such as Marxism as well as conservatives and liberals of all stripes believe that their particular faith is natural moral law. Most who condemn relativism unknowingly advocate and even impose it themselves.
Few people truly seek to learn and understand a universal morality. Many look in the wrong places. As the philosopher John Locke wrote, the law of nature has to be discovered using reason. Locke also writes that this law "teaches all mankind, who will but consult it." Any open-minded human being can discover the law of nature, the universal ethic, using reason, but he has to have the right premises and to use valid logic. Much of this work has been done by ethical philosophers, whom you may consult easily and with little cost. Read, and think for yourself.
The pope is therefore half-right. He is right to denounce the dictatorship of relativism, and he would be wholly right if he would recognize the universal ethic as transcending all culture and particular religions, as being truly the ethic that can provide peace and harmony among all the diverse cultures and religions of the world.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2005 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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