I recently argued in this space that Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and director of the Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory, was wrong when he argued that "relativism"by which Crepaldi means an a priori rejection of rational argumentation on matters of morals and politics of the kind that philosophers know as emotivismis a serious threat to public reason. My first point was sociological: In a society that is constantly arguing in innumerable forums about moral and political questions, there simply aren't many people who reject rational argumentation on normative questions; "relativism" in Crepaldi's sense is not a threat to public reason, because there just aren't very many relativists in the world. My second point was historical: Crepaldi is attributing to persons in contemporary society generally views that were in fact held by the logical positivists, a group of philosophers who dominated Anglo-American philosophy from the 1920s to about 1950; after 1950, their views were thoroughly demolished, mostly by Quine and Wittgenstein, and are nowadays held by virtually no professional philosophers. I also promised an explanation as to how an intelligent man like Crepaldi could make this mistake, and I want now to fulfill that promise.
The problem arises because Crepaldi, like many Catholic thinkers, tends to lump together under the rubric of "relativism" several quite different moral doctrines, all of which differ from Catholic teaching and have become prominent in the twentieth century, but none of which (other than perhaps the emotivism of the logical positivists) involves a wholesale rejection of rational argumentation on normative issues.
For example, consequentialism is the view that the moral quality of an action is a function of its factual consequences: The "right" action in any circumstances is the one that produces the best consequences. It follows that, for consequentialists, no action is wrong "absolutely" or "inherently," in the sense that any action whatsoever could, under the right circumstances, be morally right. Thus, although many people think condemning an innocent man to death is always wrong, consequentialists argue that it is the right thing to do in certain very rare circumstancesfor instance, if it is the only way to prevent an angry mob, which intends to hang the man anyway, from rioting and causing additional deaths to boot. In denying that some actions are always and everywhere wrong, consequentialism differs from both Catholic moral theology and the moral philosophies of, say, Aristotle and Kant.
But when some people hear consequentialists say that no action is inherently immoral, they think that consequentialists are relativists. This is true in the limited sense that, in consequentialism, the rightness or wrongness of an action always depends on (or is relative to) the circumstances in which it's performed; but this view, though mistaken, contains nothing that threatens the rational discussion of normative questions. Catholic moral doctrine itself holds that, apart from those few actions like murder and adultery that are always and everywhere wrong, an action is morally right or morally wrong depending in part on the circumstances in which it's performed. Waging war, for example, is just in certain circumstances, unjust in others. There's nothing in this view that undermines the use of reason to investigate normative questions. Indeed, consequentialists stand ready to discuss rationally what the consequences of particular actions are likely to be, whether those consequences are good or bad, and even whether consequentialism is the best theory of morality. (For more on consequentialism, see the famous article by G.E.M. Anscombe on "Modern Moral Philosophy" anthologized in her Ethics, Religion and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers, Vol. III).
Another doctrine that Catholic thinkers run together, sometimes with emotivism and sometimes with consequentialism, is subjectivism. Although subjectivism comes in many forms, its defining thesis is that no moral sentence is determinately true or false independent of someone's accepting it as true or false. On this view, we choose, in an extra-rational act, our fundamental moral premises and then reason from these premises to determine what they entail about particular cases. Like emotivism and consequentialism, subjectivism is incompatible with Catholic doctrine, and in one sense it does indeed reject rational argument about norms: When two people disagree on fundamental premises, rational argument ends. But this is not, pace Crepaldi, a wholesale rejection of rational argument. After the adoption of fundamental premises, subjectivists are entirely committed to exploring rationally what such premises entail.
Or again, in some moral systems, one key moral concept is regarded as being, as Crepaldi might say, relative, but other concepts are not. Thus, in John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, the concept of the good, of the final end for human beings, is treated as an essentially private matter unrelated to the foundations of justice. Compatible with such a theory, one could take the view that questions of what is good for human beings are subjective (in the sense indicated above), but that questions of justice are objective, that is, have determinate truth values, knowable by reason and independent of what anyone thinks or wants them to be. Systems like this will hold that some questions about norms (for example, norms about the good) are beyond rational argument, but they in no wise hold that all questions about norms are such, and, moreover, such systems also generally hold that the issue of which norms are beyond rational argument is itself an issue subject to rational determination. Incidentally, when one person says to another, "You can't impose your morality on me," what he generally means, at least implicitly, is that although some normative concepts are objective and so fit to form the basis of enforceable norms, others are not, and in trying to regulate this conduct, his interlocutor is appealing not to objective and enforceable norms but to subjective and non-enforceable ones.
Given the multitude of moral systems current in philosophy and the world generally, I could go on producing examples of moral systems that might be mistaken for being relativist that in fact are not, but I want to return to Crepaldi. Faced with a bewildering assortment of moral systems all different from the Catholic one, Catholic thinkers cannot throw up their hands and condemn all the competitors as forms of relativism. For one thing, knowledgeable people will realize that the charge is clearly false and will thus conclude that the Catholic thinker doesn't really know what he's talking about. For another, the people the Catholic thinker is accusing of relativism are in fact producing argumentsoften very sophisticated ones. Religious believers who are committed to participating in the public square need to understand these arguments and be prepared to answer them. They cannot escape this hard work by invoking the bogeyman of ethical relativism.
Robert T. Miller is an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law.