As I wrote in this space last week (see here and here ), many Catholic thinkers tend to dismiss as "relativists" anyone who disagrees radically with them on some moral or political matter. This, I argued, is a mistake, for there very many ways of disagreeing with Catholic moral teaching, each importantly different from the others, and of these very few amount to relativism in any plausible sense of that term. In particular, almost none amount, in Bishop Crepaldi’s words, to a "dogma [that] a priori rejects rational argumentation" on normative questions.
My correspondence has since been voluminous and (except for that from professional philosophers, who have largely agreed with me) usually furious. I want therefore to address some of the more common points my correspondents raise.
Some people have thought that, because I said that the editorial pages of the New York Times are filled with arguments, I believe that these arguments are generally good arguments. Not at all. I agree that these arguments are often uninformed and fallacious. But bad arguments are still arguments, just as the Philadelphia Phillies, though a bad baseball team, are still a baseball team. No one is a relativist in morals just because he’s uninformed about material facts or untrained in logic. Indeed, the very fact that someone is prepared to make arguments¯even bad arguments¯shows that he does not reject rational argumentation but rather embraces it. Whatever the intellectual faults of people guilty of shoddy reasoning, they do not include a wholesale rejection of rational argumentation. Notice, incidentally, how my correspondents who raised this point are falling into the very error I was inveighing against on the blog: By confusing people who reason badly with people who reject reasoning completely, they are mistaking a non-relativist position for a relativist one.
Other correspondents have pointed out that many people will, when pressed about the foundations of their moral beliefs, say things that sound very subjectivist, for example, "This is my opinion about such-and-such moral issue. Everyone is entitled to his opinion on these things, and all opinions are equally valid." Of course, some people do say things like this, but when you press them on other matters they also say things that are entirely objectivist. At least if you have not just called their attention to foundational issues in morals, such people will tell you in the most objectivist terms that, for example, racial discrimination is wrong, women have a right to an abortion, and the war in Iraq is unjustifiable. (For that matter, even saying that one is entitled to one’s own opinion is an objectivist claim.) When such people assert these moral judgments, therefore, they are not asserting them as being merely their own opinion but rather are making objective moral claims. In other words, even if many people say subjectivist things when pressed about the foundations of morals, they nevertheless hold perfectly objectivist beliefs on large ranges of moral issues and generally live their lives in accordance with these objectivist beliefs. To be sure, such people are profoundly confused, since their theoretical beliefs in meta-ethics are inconsistent with their ethical beliefs and their actual practices. When it comes to discussing any particular moral issue, however, they are not relativists, and they surely do not reject rational argumentation wholesale.
Incidentally, it’s not particularly fair to ask people not trained in philosophy about the foundations of their moral beliefs. These are very hard questions, and most people have not had the opportunity to study them; hence, anything such people say is likely to be confused. Ask Catholics untutored in philosophy and theology about the foundations of their moral beliefs, and you’re likely to hear something about what God has commanded, that is, something that sounds like a divine-command theory¯which was the meta-ethics of Luther but not that of the Catholic moral tradition. Of course, the other beliefs and practices of such Catholics would generally conform to the Catholic tradition with its virtue-theoretic, natural-law reasoning, and so it would be unfair to such people to insist that they are divine-command theorists because of what they say when pressed on foundational issues in morals. It’s equally unfair to insist that other people innocent of philosophy are emotivists if, when similarly pressed, they say emotivist things that are analogously inconsistent with their other beliefs and practices.
To see that virtually no one is a relativist in practice, consider what would happen if people in the public square really did make relativist arguments. Imagine, for instance, that the lawyer for a man indicted for securities fraud argues to the court that the charges ought be dismissed because his client believes in a different "truth regime" according to which securities fraud is a good and wholesome thing. One need not be a litigator at a white-shoe law firm to know that this argument will fail¯and maybe get the lawyer making it sanctioned under Rule 11 as well. Or again, imagine that a presidential candidate gives an election speech saying, "There is no truth. All policies, decisions, and candidates are equally good. Please vote for me!" No candidate would do this, because all candidates know that such appeals would be seen by virtually everyone as being the nonsense they are. Or yet again, at a board of directors meeting at a Fortune 500 company, a chief financial officer presents some very disappointing earnings results for the last quarter and then concludes his presentation by saying, "Still, whether we make money or lose money is really all in the eye of the beholder; there is no ultimate truth in accounting." We all know he’d be sacked.
So, in practice, there are no virtually no relativists. What we do find are people who disagree¯even radically disagree¯with Catholic moral doctrine in various different ways because such people are consequentialists, deontologists, social contractarians, Rawlsians, divine-command theorists, or advocates of various other moral systems, all of which differ radically from the virtue-theoretic, natural-law reasoning of the Catholic moral tradition. Few of these people, however, can plausibly be called relativists, and almost none of them reject rational argumentation wholesale.
When Catholic thinkers encounter bad arguments or arguments from premises radically different from their own and then say that the people making such arguments are relativists who reject the use of reason, they therefore make a very serious mistake. It’s quite possible to disagree, even radically disagree, with the Catholic position on the foundations of ethics and continue to believe that some moral judgments are objectively true and others objectively false. The Catholic view is not the only objective one in ethics. Labeling everyone who disagrees radically with the Catholic position a relativist is thus unfair to most such people and makes the Catholic thinker who does it appear uninformed. It also tends to cut off rational argument that could be pursued if the Catholic thinker engaged the real position of his interlocutor. This is a mistake we need to avoid if we want to participate in the discussion in the public square.
Robert T. Miller is an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law.