Bidding Farewell to the Law of Human Nature
The day before his papacy began, Joseph Ratzinger delivered a homily in which he made the oft-quoted observation: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” I disagree. At least, I disagree if we’re speaking of serious contemporary moral thought. With the claim that modern mass society is marked by egoism and intemperance, I’ve no quarrel, but I’d call this moral laziness or the absence of moral consideration, not a dictatorship of relativism.
From what I can tell, moral relativism is very rare if we’re talking about a comprehensive moral philosophy. Sure, morally relativistic arguments abound–Dick Cheney’s “9/11 changed everything” comes to mind–but those making these arguments are not typically people who think anything goes because there are no standards beyond a particular time and place to which one can appeal. Cheney may be a moral monster, but I wouldn’t call him a relativist. Such ethicists exist, no doubt, but they’re not the movers and shakers of contemporary culture. If our culture has dictators, they ain’t they.
What we have been seeing, much to the horror of moral realists, is the willful abandonment of old, time-tested moral theories such as the derivationist variation of natural law ethics. Good luck selling the idea that one can derive moral knowledge from a metaphysical study of human nature. Not only does “Hume’s law” make a mess of things, metaphysical knowledge is in disrepute. It is no longer persuasive to say, for example, that the biological purpose of human sexuality establishes a moral norm by which one can condemn homosexuality or contraception. Few philosophers today tie the biological purpose of human sexuality to any metaphysical/moral truth about human nature. Arguments in support of norms for human sexuality have to come from elsewhere.
So what we have today in the world of moral and ethical thought is not a dictatorship of relativism, but, from a bird’s eye view, moral ambiguity and pluralism.
We’re living in dangerous and difficult times, no doubt. I struggle with remaining hopeful for moral progress when a presidential candidate says how wonderful it is that the U.S. government may be assassinating foreign scientists or when the sitting president shows no serious moral qualms about having a secret panel compose, keep, and act upon a kill or capture list. And these are not even near the most abominable atrocities that received some measure of justification in the past century. I struggle, but at day’s end I find myself with hope. Humanity has made moral progress in important ways. We’ve slowly come to recognize the claims of justice from people who were once oppressed. And we have developed ingenious ethical languages–theories of virtue, of rights, of obligations, and of moral value, to name a few–that have helped us chart the whirling seas of right and wrong.
Pluralism poses difficult challenges, especially for societies striving for homogeneity, but it affords us welcome opportunities as well: global dialogue, open dissent from prevailing orthodoxies, and the chance to put faulty once-dominant moral theories behind us. Some of them, derivationism for example, deserve to be shown the door. Others need to stay. After all, moral progress doesn’t mean we forsake all tradition.
Today, we seem to have everything on the table and a large trash bin nearby. That’s…disconcerting. Rethinking ethics is dangerous business, but it’s also necessary for real moral progress. Sometimes what’s holding us back are attachments to bad theories and fallacious arguments.