Edward T. Oakes, S.J.: On Relativism

At first glance, the expression “the dictatorship of relativism” sounds like a paradox, maybe even an oxymoron. After all, aren’t dictatorships a form of absolutism? And don’t relativists find it difficult, if not impossible, to make judgments about differing moral systems? So how can they “dictate” the behavior and thoughts of others if they can’t make judgments about what people should think and do?

Take the case of the adoption-agency controversy in Great Britain. Last spring, Parliament passed a law requiring Catholic adoption agencies to allow gay couples to adopt children who had been placed under the care of these agencies. Now a true relativist would treat Catholics like exotic Amazonians: Sure, they have this odd view of the family, whereby only a married husband and wife are the legitimate and appropriate couple suited for raising a child, natural or adopted. How weird, but who are we to judge?

Secularists, of course, disagree, and see no problem with “Heather having two mommies.” But what does that have to do with Catholics? After all, anthropologists recognize that different societies are marked by different kinship-relations: They freely, and nonjudgmentally, discuss matriarchal societies in prehistory, polygamy in seventh-century Arabia and nineteenth-century Utah, gay “marriage” in Massachusetts and Holland, and so on, all without judgmentalism or moralism. So why not let Catholics live their odd lifestyle too?

But that’s not happening, and the question is why. Hypocrisy surely has something to do with it. I suspect, though, that the root cause comes from the odd admixture of absolutism and relativism in self-professed relativists….

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Religion News & Commentary, Apologetics, Ethics / Moral Theology, Other Churches, Religion & Culture, Roman Catholic, Theology

24 comments on “Edward T. Oakes, S.J.: On Relativism

  1. Alice Linsley says:

    Relativism is often reinforced by sloppy thinking and shoddy research. Oakes points to an example when he writes about how “anthropologists recognize that different societies are marked by different kinship-relations: They freely, and nonjudgmentally, discuss matriarchal societies in prehistory, polygamy in seventh-century Arabia…”

    Anthropologists use terms like “matriarchal” and “polygamy” in a fairly strict technical sense. People who are not trained in antropology usually miss the subtle distinctions that mitigate against full blown relativism. For example, while antropologists do discuss matriarchal traits in socieites, they also recognize that no true matriarchies have ever been identified. And when speaking of Afro-Asiatic groups, they use the term “polygyny” rather than “polygamy” since the custom is to have multiple wives, not multiple spouses.

  2. Harvey says:

    And what is a child to think with all these crazy happenings occurring?

  3. deaconjohn25 says:

    The article mentions how some men hate religion. It is interesting how in the media and academia the horrendous, bloody deeds of 20th Century atheists have become almost non-existent as far as mention when considering some of the recent spate of atheism promoting best-sellers. Whether it was Envher Hoxha in Albania using every murderous technique in the book to make Albania into the first totally atheist state or the atheist Communists in China determined to destroy all vestiges of religion there, or the Soviet Union filling its gulags with millions of Christians who died there–the hate streak in atheists seems deep and dangerous–and when reading some of these modern very zealous atheist tracts –generously sprinkled with hate-filled digs–it is easy to see how atheism can so easily and quickly degenerate into a gulag mentality.
    It is truly amazing how with this recent spate of books promoting atheism there seems to be a determination to ignore the atheist record of the 20th Century.

  4. Alice Linsley says:

    That is true, Deacon John. And pertinent to concerns about the neo-socialism of many in TEC. It is hard in understand how liberals can embrace socialism given its violation of basic human rights in the 20th century and the millions of lives exterminated for the cause of this “ism.”

  5. Larry Morse says:

    Akkk this is giving relativism a bad rep which it doesn’t deserve. We are all relativists at some time or other and we need to be. WE say, “When in Rome, do as they Romans do,” but if we have any common sense, we also say, “When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans do if you think you shouldn’t do it.” This is moral and ethical relativism and it cannot be avoided. This is how we negotiate the world, for relativism is another name for “fuzzy logic,” that imprecise technique we have for approximating the right course that leaves us a chance for mid course correction.

    But of course, all this vagueness works only when we start with some sense of absolute right and wrong, and there’s the rub. If we say that we should not covet our neighbor’s wife, regardless of how hot she is and however willing, we provide ourselves with the means for making relative judgments about ourselves and others. Without this yardstick for all measurement, we are not relativists, we are meaninglessists, wandering without a course but prey to every wind. LM

  6. Br_er Rabbit says:

    Relativism deserves a bad rep. Otherwise, we will be wandering without a course and prey to every wind.

  7. Unsubscribe says:

    #5: it’s easier to consider basic relativism if we consider something concrete, like height. If I measure Jack and Jill, and pronounce that on the basis of my measurement, Jack is taller than Jill, that doesn’t make me a relativist, even though I am saying that two entities have relative positions on a scale. I become a relativist when I say “either Jack or Jill is taller, depending on what measure you use.” I hope this helps.

  8. Alice Linsley says:

    That is helpful “relative” to measurement. Moral relativism has a long history and doesn’t pertain to measurement. Plato was a moral absolutist: there is one and only one Good for all, while Aristotle was a moral relativist: what is good depends on what brings the individual personal pleasure. The debate continues, but in liberal America Aristotle is winning and very few people even understand the Platonic position.

  9. Unsubscribe says:

    Alice Linsley: this can’t be the Aristotle I know. Maybe it’s the Irish Aristotle (O’Nassis, I think his name was)? For the well-known Aristotle, there’s a good summary of his ethics on Wikipedia – as you will see, very different from your man.

  10. Alice Linsley says:

    I always double check Wikipedia summaries, but generally find good stuff there. I haven’t checked this reference, but will do so.

    In his metaphysical writings Aristotle is as speculative as most Greek philosophers, but in his ethical writings he is surprisingly empirical. He doesn’t try to discover or re-cognize what is the Good (Ideal), but bases his relativist approach on his observation of ordinary people. He noticed that some were regarded as living “good lives” while others were regarded as living “bad lives.” His was a common sense approach to the question of what is the good life. His answer was: “It is a life of happiness.” In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides this famous explanation: “Happiness,” he says, “is an activity of the soul in accord with perfect virtue.” He is opposing Plato here. The good life in not apprehension of the Good (Ideal), but a way of living that brings one happiness and he proposes his doctrine of the Golden Mean as a description of the way of happiness.

  11. Larry Morse says:

    Yes, #7, that’s what I just said. The yardstick becomes the absolute by which relative judgments can be made. Is Jill taller than Fred? The question is,”Relative to what?” If it is relative to a yardstick, then relative judgments can indeed be made, which was my argument, of course. And this is equally true of moral and ethical judgments. LM

  12. Unsubscribe says:

    Alice Linsley: in your one-paragraph summary of one of the most influential ethical thinkers of all time, I don’t think you have really done justice to the man Aquinas called “The Philosopher”.

    There are not many moral thinkers who would disagree with the proposition that being moral brings happiness. That doesn’t make any of them relativists. Nor does it mean that they are hedonists, either; and Aristotle explicitly rejected hedonism. Looking to see how the terms “good” and “bad” are used, or trying to accord with common sense, aren’t grounds of any sort for accusing someone of relativism. Search Aristotle for purely subjective moral standards, or any doctrine that one man’s vice is another man’s virtue. You will search in vain. Rather, Aristotle associated goodness with the optimal performance of the soul’s faculties, specifically including reason.

    I’m also quite baffled by the phrase “surprisingly empirical”. It would be surprising, I suppose, to someone who was totally new to Aristotle, but that’s like calling Picasso “surprisingly cubist”, or Bach “surprisingly baroque”.

  13. Unsubscribe says:

    #11: I was afraid that that was what you just said.

    The incoherence of what you’re saying is evident when you say:
    [blockquote]The yardstick becomes the absolute by which relative judgments can be made.[/blockquote]
    If there is any sort of absolute, then we’re no longer talking about relativism. Do you see?

    According to you, if there’s a yardstick by which things can be compared, then that’s relativism. But that is not so. You seem to be committing yourself to absolutism as a kind of binary system in which things are (say) either black or white. Although this [i]might[/i] be an absolutist system, it is possible to envisage a situation in which someone comes along and says “according to one binary system, the sun is white; according to another, the sun is black”. Binary, but still relativistic. And on the other hand, surely I can say that this shirt is whiter than that shirt, without being forced to deny that there is such a thing as an absolutely white shirt? (Unless you believe the advertisers’ claim that there is some such thing as “whiter than white?”)

  14. Alice Linsley says:

    CPKS, I am indeed simplifying. Alas, it comes from too many years of teaching Philosophy at introductory levels. In no way do I intend to demean Aristotle. I suspect that yo are reading him through Aquinas and I am reading him through Plato.

    Aristotle did indeed reject hedonism. Even Epicurus rejected the kind of hedonism that seeks self-gratification of the moment.

    All that aside, do we agree that Plato and Aristotle represent different philosophical trajectories in ethics?

  15. Unsubscribe says:

    Alice Linsley: we certainly agree that A and P follow different trajectories, yes, with quite different metaphysics. I wouldn’t want to say that I read Aristotle through Aquinas (the first time round, I didn’t!), but I could not honestly deny that I, a mere plodder, would value Aristotle so much if I hadn’t seen how Aquinas developed him.

    Plato, of course, is not entirely wrong; but for him, goodness is a bit like the perfect dodecahedron – a sort of contentless geometric perfection. How do we ever begin to judge that this or that decision in a complicated, tangled world approaches more or less closely to Plato’s ineffable ideal?

    By contrast, when we look at Aristotle’s teleological account of “good” – i.e. that is good which fulfils its natural potential – we can see how an account of [i]what it is to be human[/i] stands as an objective norm. That is good which leads to human flourishing – this is of course the good old Natural Law. But if we are fortunate enough to see that the normative image of what it is to be human has been revealed by God in the person of Christ – well, then I think the Aristotelian approach starts to gather a certain momentum! (I am sorry to be so very brief and elliptical, but does that make some kind of sense?)

  16. Alice Linsley says:

    Yes, you are making sense to me.

    Have you had the opportunity to read David Bradshaw’s book Aristotle East and West (Cambridge University Press)? I think it is quite good.

    Plato’s geometric metaphysics certainly has shortcomings, but his idea that there is a pattern that can be recognized by mind and soul is significant and, to my thinking, true.

  17. Unsubscribe says:

    Alice Linsley: it is not flesh and blood that made this clear to you.

    I will certainly look out for the Bradshaw book: but I must acknowledge that Aristotle is not my field of expertise, only that long ago I had truly excellent teachers, and if my poor life is to have any value at all I must try to pass on the priceless treasures they gave to me.

    You are quite right in what you say about Plato and that when we find the truth, we recognize that it is just what he taught. With Aristotle we climb the mountain, and there we find Plato waiting for us at the top. But perhaps neither could Aristotle see the top of the mountain, nor Plato teach us to climb. Oh dear. I think I am dissolving into poetry, or something worse. Time for bed…!

  18. Larry Morse says:

    #13. Is A taller than B? If I use a common yardstick, then my answer is relative to that yardstick. This is properly called relativism because the yardsick is arbitrary. It is what we call a standard, after all, a standard-by-consensus. Obviously there are other yardsticks using different measurements, but we are speaking of THIS yardstick so that the statement above is correct so measured and is a relativistic statement. In short, we can answer the question, “Relative to what? by referring to an arbitrary agreement we use so that we may make sense of the world.

    The scripture is different. Shall I covet my neighbor’s wife? No, absolutely not. This is not a relative statement because we are dealing with a true absolute, not an arbitrary one. The relationship is not capable of variance – well, not if you are a Christian. It is the standard that is capable of variance that makes relativism possible.

    With Shori and her ilk, of course, such true absolutes are annulled, so all propositions are capable of being relative. The problem with her is that she confuses arbitrary standards with absolute ones, and so her statements are made to sound as if they are rooted in true absolutes – the Holy Sipirit is doing something new here – when they are actually relative to a yardstick of her own devising.
    She is a relativistic absolutist. Is Shori more fatuous than Spong? Relative to what?

    I apologize for carrying on so about something the older world understood. For us , the matter is obscure because our standard is “Whatever” which gives relativism a big stage from which to moon the vaporous and infantile American. LM

  19. Ed the Roman says:

    This is how we negotiate the world, for relativism is another name for “fuzzy logic,” that imprecise technique we have for approximating the right course that leaves us a chance for mid course correction.

    I’m sorry, but that is BS. Fuzzy logic is a decision making tool used when truth is unknown or uncertain.

    Relativism says that there are contradictory truths: that there isn’t an objective truth for fuzzy logic to approximate to. Has nobody noticed that the idea that Jack and Jill’s relative heights can differ based on the yardstick used to measure them is insane?

    I ask the left to leave On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies and it’s derived works out of this, as I majored in physics and already have heard of them. They don’t apply to right and wrong.

  20. Unsubscribe says:

    #18: I see what you are trying to say. But if you persist in using “relativism” to describe systems which are not binary (which allow for shades of grey, or more or less of anything) then don’t be surprised if you are misunderstood. This is not what the rest of the world means by “relativism”.

  21. Larry Morse says:

    #19. See my quote inset. Mine was an ill-thought-out remark. I know what I meant but the sentence itself is ridiculous. I meant that fuzzy logic and relativism are both devices which we use in a world where certainties are almost non-existent, but a world we must negotiate nonetheless. I do hope this is clearer and more correct.

    See your sentence startiing “Has nobody noticed….” I cannot make sense of this. The reason is that you have place your equative verb and its complement at the end of the sentence with a massive modier after the subject. This always leads to confusion in pattern three sentences. Please explain. I think I know wht you mean but I am unsure.

    DEg pardon, #20, but I think this is more or less exactly and approximately pretty much precisely what the world DOES mean by relativism. Relativism is always the answer to the question, “Relative to what?” Why should it be binary? The truth is that relativism has become a bumpersticker word like tolerance, a shorthand method that takes the place of thinking. See the new blog entry on those damn Mormons (or Morwives). We ask, “Why shouldn’t we tolerate them. They’re not hurting anybody?” We can give a relativistic answer, citing some arbitrary standard and then referring the answer to that, though there may be dozens of standards, or we may answer absolutely on scriptural grounds, an answer not relative to anything. Out of step in Maine (relatively speaking)

  22. Ed the Roman says:

    #21, 1st para: yes, thank you.

    2d para, perhaps “Has nobody noticed the insanity of the idea that Jack and Jill’s relative heights can differ based on the yardstick used to measure them?” is clearer. By any chance are you really saying that my para 3 is obscure, because filled with terms of art? It was intended to cut off references to Special and General Relativity (special relativity was first laid out in the paper I referred to). I suspect this because I don’t know what equative verb, the equative verb’s complement, or massive modifier mean, and hence suspect you of irony. 🙂

  23. Larry Morse says:

    #22. Sorry about equative sentences and the like. Occupational obsessiveness. I was an English teacher for years and years, and have gotten to think that everyone knows a lot about thjis particular foreign language. No irony there. The sentence is in fact unclear to me. Do you mean that the difference between A and B’s height is an absolute regardless of the means by which it measured? If so, I must hesitate. If you means that A is three inches taller than B by the English ruler, the I buy the standard but it is not absolute. The “sense” of taller is relative to the ruler. Well, but does the distinction remain constant, regardless of measuring device? Sure, but the trouble is, as it always is, that the one measuring alters the measurement so this absolute difference is real but unapprochable. Mathmaticians can always make precise measurements, but they are never complete since the number of places after the decimal point is infinite. Therefore, we rely on the relative sense which gives us a “sense” of the difference, which is what we really want. If I use a palm’s width as my ruler, and I am 7′ 2″ tall, the measurement between A and B reads rather differently and the sense of tallness also reads differently. After all, two measurements of the same thing in the real world never come out the same. Hell, I can measure A and B and then give the ruler to you and you will say, “No, A is 3/8″ taller than you said.” Because all things move at all times,whether physical or moral, relative judgments as as good as we wil get because they are always approximations.

    But God does not have to approximate.If it’s wrong to covet my neighbor’s wife, it is, period. This is not “relative to what.” He did not say,” If you are a Canaanite the the neighbor’s wife is probably off limits, given Canaaneitish cultural practices, whereas in New Jersey….” Sorry to be a nit picker, but the relativism thing has gotten a bad rep and unfairly so. You and I need it all the time to make judgments that are what used to be called “good enouogh electronics.” Larry

  24. Ed the Roman says:

    If you are measured as 7’2″ tall and I am measured as 6’2″ tall with an English ruler, I am twelve inches shorter.

    If we are measured with a metric ruler, I will NOT turn out to be 30.48cm, or any other number of centimeters, TALLER. That is the short of [i]jacqueasserie[/i] to which I was referring. Neither distances nor directions are changed by the units of measurement or even the system of coordinates used: the vectors are what they, we just use different numbers to talk about them. A real relativist is saying in effect that each of us is taller than the other.