All modern popes have warned against it. Professional philosophers know it’s false. Yet 75 percent of Americans think “relativism” is true. “Relativism” teaches that nothing is true, good or beautiful for all people, at all times and in all places. There are no moral absolutes. “What’s good for you is good for you. But how dare you judge me for not conforming to your own standards. Give me a break. I’ve got my own standards of right and wrong.”
Does this sound familiar? “Abortion may be wrong for you but everyone has his own opinion and that’s right for him.” Relativism treats moral commitments like ice cream flavors: one person likes pistachio and someone else prefers jamocha almond fudge. Yet another is easily satisfied with conventional vanilla ethics. That’s “moral relativism.”
Ironically, academic philosophers are now recovering “moral realism,” i.e., objective moral standards. Reality TV, sentimental rock ballads and the U.S. Supreme Court, however, hasten in the opposite direction. For them, freedom means the ability to define the universe, morality and meaning according to one’s own lights. If we just live and let live, cease judging one another and allow all to enjoy his own values and opinions, peace and harmony would abound.
This is a lie of the evil one. Deny the reality of universal moral truths and reap a world of personal despair, social disruption and philosophical nonsense. When crisis and suffering inevitably come upon us and fidelity and courage are required to endure oppression and persecution, relativism turns our moral backbone into a wishbone. Instead of the peaceable kingdom, relativism leads to a world governed by “might makes right.” When a society shares no transcendent, universal moral principle that can challenge the aggressor’s will to power, “good” becomes whatever the mighty decrees. Only those allied to objective right and wrong can resist the torture or the seductions of the powerful.
This is why every modern pope has warned against relativism’s seductions. Leo XIII (1810-1903) first described “relativism.” St. John Paul II saw man “giving himself over to relativism and skepticism … in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself.” In April 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described society “moving towards a dictatorship of relativism.” Pope Francis speaks of a “tyranny of relativism, which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.” Our supreme pastors warn that attempts to bypass moral absolutes should carry the equivalent of a surgeon general’s warning: “Ignoring moral reality is hazardous to one’s life and sanity.”
In spite of these papal and philosophical warnings, the vast majority of Americans deny moral absolutes. For them, absolute morality represents an unlivable sexual or social ethic usually grounded in obsolete religions. When polled, they also soften on cheating, lying, paying debts, fidelity in friendship and other moral standards once regarded as inviolable. They flatter themselves, however, by boasting a more humane, progressive, kinder, gentler ethic.
But if Americans are largely relativists, then why the moral outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion, who was lured out of Zimbabwe’s Hwage National Park and shot with a bow and arrow by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer? Moralistic backlash forced Dr. Palmer to close his dental practice and go into hiding amid threats to his life. Zimbabwe wants him extradited, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating how Cecil was killed. But, if we’re all relativists, we shouldn’t care how the lion was killed. It would be a matter of moral indifference.
Here’s another example of juggling morality in pursuit of an illusory progress. A few European countries, filled with citizens who deny objective, absolute morality, are indignantly outlawing kosher slaughterhouses. For Jews, kosher observance (which minimizes pain to animals) is central to their social and spiritual identity. Minority religions prize religious liberty as the first liberty because it ensures the preservation of their community against majority ignorance and injustice. But the Danish minister of food and agriculture has invented a higher morality. On Danish television, he explained that “animal rights come before religion.”
So here’s the dirty little secret: When people discard, deny or ignore God’s moral law, they don’t cease exercising moral judgments. They simply replace God’s standards with their own, their peers’ or some elite’s. They must do this because they can’t function without morality. God has made us in his image, and it’s our nature to render moral judgments. That’s not a weakness; that’s who we are. The only question is the source of our moral convictions.
Some might opine that everyone has his own truth or code. But they are hypocrites. Relativists hold that it is true for everybody that nothing is true for anybody. They judge you for not treating their moral code as though it is self-evident and binding on everyone. To them, Dr. Palmer didn’t merely choose an ice cream flavor they disliked. He did evil deserving the destruction of his dental practice. Relativists claim they honor a diverse multiculturalism, but dishonor a 4,000-year-old religious community by insisting animal rights morally trump their ancient faith.
On the Last Day, when we are confronted by Jesus, the Logos, the “Logic” of God, none of us will escape his gaze. For our proud inconsistencies and twisted sense of priorities that destroy and trivialize those created in your image, Lord, have mercy.
Al Kresta is president and CEO of Ave Maria Communications in Ann Arbor. His radio program, “Kresta in the Afternoon,” can be heard from 4-6 p.m. daily on 990 AM-WDEO and EWTN.