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A Moral Philosophy for Progressives

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Shortly before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave a homily at mass, in which he warned against Marxism, liberalism, atheism, agnosticism and relativism. “Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism “ he said, “whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teachings, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards.”

The Pope’s condemnation of relativism strikes a responsive note among the conservative Protestants of the religious right. For example, Jerry Falwell writes:

Our nation's schools have replaced God with moral relativism and situational ethics.. [Our] children learn that there are no absolute truths, no moral authorities, no governing principles to guide their behavior.

Ryan Dobson puts it much more directly. “Moral relativism,” he writes, is “the notion that there’s no right or wrong.”

If you enter the words “moral relativism” and “religious right” in Google, you will get almost 29 thousand hits. Having examine a few dozen articles so listed, I can report that there is one sentiment that clearly unites all religious right opinions of “moral relativism” that I encountered: They are against it. But while the religious right is quick to apply “moral relativism” as an epithet to all kinds of evils of modernism, secularism, and liberalism, the right is apparently reluctant to define it. Accordingly, the defender of moral relativism faces an obstacle similar to that of the defender of liberalism: one must begin by casting off the burden of slander that has been attached to the concept, and then proceed to define it correctly.

The moral relativism that I will present affirms and defends ethical standards and moral conduct. It does not, as the Pope accuses, "[let] oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching." And it most emphatically does not assert that "there's no right or wrong." The relativism that I will defend denies that there are simple, inviolable “absolute” rules of conduct. The moral relativist is quite prepared to recognize virtuous and wicked behavior. But the relativist insists that living a moral life is not a simple matter. Such a life is complicated, not by an absence of moral rules, but rather by the abundance of such rules and the resulting conflict amongst them. A virtuous life is distinguished by choices of good over evil, which display the individual’s moral will. But it is also marked by preferable choices among conflicting and mutually exclusive goods, or among necessary and unavoidable evils, and to wisely resolve these conflicts, moral will does not suffice. In addition, one must have moral intelligence. (I will elaborate on these points in the closing section).

The following are three interpretations of “moral relativism” that are not only plausible; they are, I submit, unavoidable.

Relativism of Application.

Morality (i.e. actual conduct, “practice”) is by definition particular. It is manifested in specific acts and circumstances. To use a term detested by the fundamentalists, morality is “situational.” As Garrett Hardin puts it, “the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed.” In contrast, moral commandments, said by the fundamentalists to be “absolute,” are by nature abstract. Thus, by the fundamentalists’ account, the moral life consists of absolute obedience (with no exceptions) to divine commandments in the day to day conduct of one’s personal life. The paradigm example of these absolute rules are The Ten Commandments, found in Exodus, Chapter 20.

How is the devout individual to know if he is in full compliance with these Divine Commandments?

In some cases, obedience to a commandment is simple and straightforward. For example, grabbing someone’s car keys and driving off with his vehicle is a clear violation of the eighth commandment. (“Thou shalt not steal”). But other cases may or may not fall under this commandment – a consideration to which we will return.

Consider the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” This commandment takes up four verses, though the relevant elaboration is: “... in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, they manservant, not thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.” Reading this, how is the believer, with the purest of motives, to know if he is obedient to this commandment during each and every Sabbath day? Attempts to answer this question take up several volumes of the Talmud, and, in the Christian literature, still more volumes.

Does the commandment forbid driving a car to Sabbath services, as the Orthodox Jews proclaim? (Exodus is silent about the permitted use of automobiles). If an orthodox doctor, while walking to the synagogue, encounters an accident, is he allowed to come to the aid of the injured (i.e. “work”). If they hold sufficient political power, should those who adhere to this commandment enforce it upon others, through the enactment and enforcement of laws? And by the way, who decreed that the “holy day” is to be Sunday (the first day), and not Saturday (the seventh, or “Sabbath”). It’s not in the Bible.

Next, the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing...” The Moslems take this very seriously. Visit a mosque and you will never find a statue or an image of a person or object. You will find instead exquisite geometrical patterns. The Catholic church chooses to disregard this commandment. I was personally very gratified that they did on the day I visited St. Peters Basilica in Rome and gazed upon Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”

And so on, with the other Commandments. (I could go on, but it is not my intention to write another Talmud). The variety of particular morally significant circumstances that all believers will encounter in the course of their lives is virtually infinite, while each of these Ten Commandment is brief, singular and abstract. When do these Commandments “command,” and when are they inapplicable? “It depends.” In other words, morality – the particular application of abstract rules -- is “situational,” “contextual,” “a function of the state of the system.” Which is to say, relative.

Relativism of Meaning.

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Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. Partridge has taught philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The (more...)

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