An Absolute Look at Moral Relativism

One of the most pervasive “isms” of our time is moral relativism, the idea that there is no standard of right and wrong independent of either our personal beliefs or our societal conventions. But in his book, A Refutation of Moral Relativism. Interviews With an Absolutist  (Ignatius Press), philosopher Peter Kreeft exposes not only the incoherence of this thinking, but where it comes from, and why it remains so seductive.

The book is written in dialogue form, which makes it very readable for the non-philosopher. It begins by examining the nature of moral relativism. At its most basic level, relativism holds that morality is “subjective.” That is, morality is a matter of convention, like the laws of society. Just as laws differ from place to place, so standards of right and wrong vary from society to society, and even from one time period to another. For example, slavery was once widely regarded as acceptable, whereas today it is not. Ergo, morality changes, and we are responsible for changing it.

Now, this thinking is unfortunately quite popular, but not for its logic. In fact, as we will see, it is self-defeating. Yet one reason for its popularity is that it makes its adherents feel “open-minded” and “tolerant,” and it is difficult to dislodge an idea, no matter how logically problematic it is, when it provides its believers with a sense of moral superiority. Another reason for its popularity is that it offers a (false) sense of empowerment. After all, determining our own moral principles can feel empowering, as if we are little gods. But the truth is that real power lies in conforming ourselves to principles we discover rather than rules we make up. If there is any doubt about this, simply compare someone who obeys the principles of piano and performs Beethoven to someone who disregards those principles and haphazardly pounds whichever keys she feels like. Between the two, who displays real power over the piano? Likewise with morality. The virtuous person, the person who demonstrates self-mastery, is the one who follows objective moral principles -- not the one who does whatever he wants.

However, if we want to know what grounds these principles, we must grasp a philosophical understanding that has its roots in Plato and Aristotle. For centuries, philosophers believed that to understand something required knowing four distinct explanations (or “causes”). First is the “formal cause,” which reveals the essence or nature of a thing. It answers the question, “What is it?” For example, identifying this pen as a “pen.” Second is the “efficient cause,” which is what causes something to exist. In the case of the pen, the machines that assembled it constitute the efficient cause. Third is the “material cause,” which explains what a thing is made of, i.e. the plastic, the ink, and the other relevant materials that make up the pen. Fourth is the “final cause,” which explains the end or purpose of a thing, which, in the case of a pen, is to write. This doctrine is known as “the four causes.” Now, what does it have to do with morality?

As Kreeft shows, because natures and purposes (formal and final causes) were traditionally understood to be built into the fabric of reality, philosophers believed that by investigating the nature of something, it was possible to discover purposes within it, and that fulfilling these purposes enabled the thing in question to flourish as a member of its kind. For example, by observing dogs we come to understand that properties like barking, tail wagging, walking on four legs, panting, and seeking affection exhibit the nature of dogs, or “dogness” (the formal cause). We can also see that this nature “points to” or “aims at” certain ends (final causes), and that fulfilling these ends is what makes a dog flourish as a member of its kind. For instance, dogs seek affection, so showing them love and attentiveness is good insofar as it fulfills their nature and helps them thrive as members of their species; conversely, neglecting to give them care and attention is bad insofar as it frustrates the ends built into their nature.

This conception of natures (formal causes) and purposes (final causes) was believed to permeate all of reality, including the human person. This meant that, as with dogs or anything else, we could investigate human nature and its ends to discover what is required for human flourishing, so that acting in accord with those ends constitutes what is good for us, while acting contrary to those ends constitutes what is bad for us. In other words, moral principles are discernible based on our nature. In philosophy this is known as “natural law.”

Unfortunately, this understanding changed following the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, when the notions of “formal cause” (the nature of a thing) and “final cause” (the end or purpose of a thing) were either abandoned or reduced to “efficient cause” (what causes a thing to exist) and “material cause” (what a thing is made of). No longer were natures or purposes treated as legitimate features of reality, which meant that the notion of objective morality lost its intellectual basis. If there is no such thing as human nature -- that is, if we do not know what makes a person a human being rather than, say, a lion or a stone -- then we cannot know what fulfills the ends that are built into our nature and act according to them, meaning that we cannot derive moral principles from nature itself. Morality thus becomes “relative.”

That, unfortunately, is the prevalent attitude today, despite the fact that it is self-refuting. To see why, simply ask: Is it relative that “morality is relative”? Either answer dooms the thesis. If “yes,” then it is not true. If “no,” then it turns out that there is in fact an objective moral principle after all (that “morality is relative”), meaning that relativism is false. Of course, there are other problems with relativism too, and Kreeft does a nice job surveying them in the book.

He also refutes common objections to objective morality. One such challenge alleges that there is not in fact an absolute basis of morality because morality is simply the product of evolution -- a mere instrument for biological survival. According to this view, our ancestors who cooperated with one another and practiced altruism were naturally selected for survival, and we have simply inherited these instincts. Ergo, morality is nothing but instinct. But this objection, Kreeft shows, does not wash. While there is no reason to doubt that we have inherited instincts from our ancestors, including the survival instinct, it nevertheless remains the case that we choose which instincts to follow and which not to follow. After all, our instincts often conflict with one another, so we must decide among them. Kreeft uses a brilliant analogy here. Our instincts, he says, are like the keys on a piano, and morality is like the sheet music. The sheet music tells us which keys to play. Likewise, moral principles tell us which instincts to engage and which to ignore, meaning that morality itself must be more than mere instinct.

But this is just a small sampling of the many insights in the book. For that, and for the fact that we stand at such a morally confused moment in history, A Refutation of Moral Relativism packs a message that we can simply no longer afford to ignore.

Image: Ignatius Press

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