Understanding and Evangelizing the Contemporary Pragmatic Relativist
Relativism: The Postmodern Whipping Boy
“Well that may be true for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s true for me.” And every well-intentioned Christian moral absolutist simultaneously shudders in horror and quivers with delight. That fallacy-ridden enemy of traditionalism; that bane of proper logic and thinking; moral relativism! Described in the witty words of James K. A. Smith as “the monster that will make away with our children while at the same time eroding the very foundations of American society (apparently relativism is going to be very busy!).”1 Smith describes an ecumenical consensus devoted to showing that relativism, the postmodern view that there is no such thing as objective reality (truth, value, reason and so forth), is the very antithesis of the “Absolute Truth” proclaimed in the gospel.2 What a relief it must be that relativism is so easily! Catholic Answers apologist Karlo Broussard does just that in his YouTube video entitled “Is It True that There is No Truth?” 3 He solves the conundrum in under two minutes by simply asking this hypothetical relativist (read: strawman), “Is it absolutely true that there is no absolute truth?” Check and mate. The strawman’s answer will either be self-contradictory or easily proved trivial (IE ‘I believe it, but nobody else has to.’). Broussard proceeds to put the nail in the coffin with an additional two and a half minutes providing examples where extremes of relativism applied to specific situations seem to be ridiculous. He presents a woman who believes she is a cat, a six-foot-tall Anglo man who convinces college students he should be able to identify as a seven-foot-tall Chinese woman, and a college professor who identifies as a paraplegic and rolls around in a wheelchair all day. Consider that strawman stuffed!
1. (Smith 2014) p. 15.
2. Ibid. p. 16. And in its absolute form, it may well be. But as I will develop, the absolute is rarely the form encountered in society.
3 . (Broussard 2017) Interestingly, this video was assigned as the principal argument against relativism in a University Level Ethics class.
Yet it seems that five minutes of dismissive hubris, while entertaining, does not address the intricacies and nuance of morality that makes relativism so appealing. Broussard effectively spars with a caricature, while ignoring the contemporary relativist who looks at morality in pragmatic way. This more realistic relativist may not be the truth rejecting scoundrel that our imagination is inclined to create. Broussard also completely glazes over any positive aspects of the worldview that could be gainfully applied to the Catholic’s understanding of conscience, community, and our role as creatures. By understanding the history of the Contemporary Pragmatic Relativist, we can appreciate and apply aspects of this worldview to isolate a superior path to evangelization.
Defining the Contemporary Pragmatic Relativist
Before any meaningful analysis can take place, we must first acquire the target. As we have seen, the word ‘relativist’ is often associated immediately and solely with an extreme perspective. Rev. Thomas Higgins S.J., in his review of ethical theory, presents a continuum within relativism that ranges from “all-out and skeptical,” to a simple “partial.”4 The common relativist of today, let us call him Randy the Relativist seems to tend towards the middle of this spectrum. He sees that in a rather pragmatic way that which is considered true, tends to be what is upheld by society as useful. Thus the agent should regulate behavior differently in different situations. Randy the Relativist notes that he can slap his best friend in jest but is unable to do the same with his boss. Randy knows his background has shaped who he is, and that his unique life experiences give him a perspective and priorities that are different than other people he may encounter. This results in a hesitation to assign his personal system of values to other people.
4 (Higgins S.J. 1967) p. 99
Importantly, an agent assigns some universal values based on different contextual situations, such as proper respect of employees to their employers, or that one ought to follow the laws established in the country that a person lives in. Even stronger, this flavor of relativist is often willing to ascribe to some universal moral principles. For instance, Randy might say that sexually molesting a child is wrong and ought not to happen. At the same time, he may not have a problem if his friend is illegally torrenting movies. The difference is, Randy the Relativist is more likely to place emphasis on the circumstances that led to the undesired behavior, and to define ‘undesired behavior’ as those that are more apparently harmful (overlooking more confusing issues such as birth control or gay marriage).
Relativist Gilbert Harman explains the intricacies of this dualism by examining the different uses of the moral word ‘ought.’ He says it can be looked at in the normative way, as in, “it ought not to be the case that a member of Murder Incorporated go around killing people.”6 In other words, it is objectively bad that the killing happens. Alternatively, ‘ought’ can also be used in the personally moral sense. As in, “this member of Murder Incorporated is wrong to perform his assigned hit.” This, for Harman is not an acceptable statement for another agent (perhaps our friend Randy) to say; as he is unable to know the circumstances, motives, and life experiences that might have led the employee to such a decision, and so our employee may hold little actual moral culpability.7 For the contemporary relativist, peers are unable to objectively analyze and examine inner judgments in a moral way. Only God and the agent could know for sure.
5 Gallup Polling: “The percentages of U.S. adults who believe birth control, divorce, sex between unmarried people, gay or lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage, doctor-assisted suicide, pornography and polygamy are morally acceptable practices have tied record highs or set new ones this year. At the same time, record lows say the death penalty and medical testing on animals are morally acceptable.” For more on increasing moral acceptability of questionable practices, see (Jones 2017).
6 (Harman 1982) p. 191
7 Ibid p. 192 Moral culpability would be contrasted with civic consequences resulting from breaking the law, as ignorance is no excuse under most codes.
8 This nuance adequately explains the hesitation in assigning values onto others, but still upholding moral standards and personal judgments as desirable.
Pragmatic Roots of Relativism: Meaning as Use
To understand the Randy of today, we must understand the pragmatist roots of his thinking. To do this, we turn to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who plays a central role in analytic philosophy and is considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.9 In his principal later work, Philosophical Investigations, we see his rejection of the traditional representational account of language and meaning. For Wittgenstein, it is not enough that a word used stands in as a symbol for an object in the real world. Any real sense of meaning is found in function. Professor Van Peursen explains:
To use the same word is not necessarily to give the same meaning. The meaning of a bishop in a game of chess – a favorite example of Wittgenstein’s – cannot be discovered by investigating the material of which the piece is made. Instead one must follow the moves that can be made with the bishop and the rules it is governed by. ‘Bishop’ is not the name of a piece of ivory, but a function with a context of rules. 10
In the same way, Wittgenstein uses the example of a worksite where a foreman is issuing orders, and a laborer responds (Smith refers to them as Albert and Barney respectively).11 Albert shouts ‘slab!’ Barney, a good worker, brings it to him. This seems at first glance to be exactly the
8 Harman never did allude to the existence of a deity in this article, but I extrapolate that if Harman were to imagine such an omnipotent deity, He (God) would be in a position to make objective judgement.
9 (Biletzki 2014)
10 (Van Peursen 1970) p. 84
11 (Smith 2014) p. 42
representationalist picture that Wittgenstein is trying to reject.
12 This would be the case if Barney would respond by walking up to a marble slab and pointing at it- word association at its finest- but Barney’s experiences in this community of craftsmen has formed what actions ought to follow such a command. Thus, he selects the proper chunk that he knows will fit into the space, and promptly brings it back to Albert. Smith continues:
If Barney is going to understand Albert, for example, it’s not enough for him to master a lexicon by ostensive definition; he needs to be trained how the play the stonemason language-game. That involves absorbing an understand of what we’re doing. Barney needs to be inculcated into this community of practice, needs to learn to play this game which will require that he lean all kinds of unspoken aspects of the game that are never taught ostensively, but rather ‘caught’ as we participate in the community of practice. 13
Thus, when words are isolated from their communal context, they lose their real sense of meaning. The pragmatic axiom, ‘meaning is use’ is fundamentally a social account of meaning. For Wittgenstein, there is no ‘I’ that is not wholly dependent and indebted to its contextual community.14
What does this pragmatism have to do with relativism? The answer is twofold. First, if meaning is dependent upon the context of a community, then individuals from different backgrounds could assign separate meanings to the same objects/instances. Thus, if Randy and Beth were to both look at the same tree, their previous experiences might shape what ought to be done to a tree, and thus their impressions of it. Perhaps Randy’s family are all hammock
12 That is, reject as the fundamental building block of language and meaning, not to reject the idea that often words stand in for objects. He proposes that words imply more about what to do with the object within a given situation, than what it is.
13 Ibid. p. 45
14 Ibid. p. 48
enthusiasts, and he sees some great naps waiting to happen. Perhaps Beth hails from a lumberjack commune and can already hear the buzzing of chainsaws. Their perceptions formed by contextual experience form very different behavior expectations.
Secondly, ‘meaning is use’ results in an inability to talk with any certainty about realities outside of our collective word game.15 These realities, for Wittgenstein, can only truly be experienced and participated in, but not wholly communicated.16 Thus, their differing perspectives do not change what the tree really is, but does affect their ability to talk about it. Its essence can only be found in experience. Randy then should realize that if he wants to change Beth’s mind, he would do well to provide some integration into his community and grab the hammocks. Clearly understanding contemporary relativism through the lens of its pragmatic roots allows for greater clarity of argument, and respect as an intellectual position that goes beyond the trite ‘true for you’ euphemisms so frequently heard.
Looting Egyptian (relative) Gold
Not only does greater understanding of the dualistic nature of moral judgement, the importance of a contextual community, and the limitations of words (meaning is use) provide clarity into the relativist worldview, but it can also be usefully and truthfully (but carefully) applied to a traditional Catholic worldview. To begin, we can apply Harman’s differentiation of what ought objectively to be, versus what the individual ought to do in specific cases (that is, normative versus moral ‘ought’), to the Catholic understanding of the human conscience. John Henry Cardinal Newman, utilizing the Thomistic body of work, bridges this divide between the
15 Including God, the fullness of truth, beauty, and goodness.
16 Wittgenstein closes his commentary on this thought (s89) with a quote from Augustine’s Confessions: “What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know.” (11.14.17 Tr. Henry Chadwick, Oxford University Press, 1991)
objective ethical realities and the subjective nature of humanity by bringing to light the theonomic nature of the conscience.
17 Newman states:
The natural law, says St. Thomas, “is an impression of the Divine Light in us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature,” … This law, as apprehended in the minds of individual (human beings) is called ‘conscience’; and though it may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each, it is not therefore so affected as to lose its character of being Divine Law, but still has, as such the prerogative of commanding obedience.18
Thomas Aquinas leans on the terms synderesis (inborn first principals) and con-scientia (knowing together) to explain this individual application of inborn divine knowledge. It is not simply a human faculty, but is fixed to eternal law, the Divine Wisdom, which is communicated to the human intellect.19 Servias Pinckarrs helpfully observes how Aquinas takes St. Jerome’s comparison of synderesis with the spark of conscience, and “made the distinction between the spark, the purest part of the fire which shoots out above the flame, and the fire itself which is mixed with alien matter that alters its purity. The spark in synderesis, the pure light of truth; the first is conscience, which can err accidentally by attaching itself to an object that is inferior to reason.”20 Thus, the phenomenon observed by relativist Harman seems to be grounded in a traditional understanding of conscience. These universal moral laws are objectively present (via innate spark of God) but individually applied to different moral situations by an agent’s conscience.
17 (Hutter 2014) p. 707
18 (Newman 1969) p. 247
19 (Hutter 2014) p. 716
20 (Pinckaers O.P. 1996) p. 88
Acknowledging the theomatic pull involved in all our decisions is essential to understanding out identity as creatures, reliant on a creator. Reinhard Hütter, in his excellent article on conscience and its look-alikes, acknowledges that this fundamental connection to the divine is often ignored in the chasing of sovereign self-determination, but its effects are hard to shake.
“Humans are induced to think they know – scientifically- they are but primates, determined by their instincts and desires, while in their everyday life they must nevertheless continue to pretend to be persons. … The result is a profound estrangement from our own immediate and irreducibly moral experience of ourselves and others as acting persons.”21
This is a vital loss of identity that ironically can be supplemented by our friend Wittgenstein’s concept of a language game. Our very ability to communicate is based upon that contingent nature of vocabulary, rooted in community. St. Augustine of Hippo understood the limits of language in his substantial writings concerning the Genesis creation narrative. Augustine interprets the passing of days and nights as illustrative of a transition from God’s eternity, his simultaneity that existed outside of time, into our physical space and the beginning of human history.22 In the Confessions Augustine uses the idea of language and words to help describe this relationship between the constant ideas in the mind, and the methodical way they must be laid out in text or speech. He likens it to, “a person singing or listening to a song he knows well and suffers a distention or stretching in feelings and in sense perception from the expectation of
21 (Hutter 2014) p. 713
22 (MacCormack 2008) p. 37
future sounds and the memory of past sound. With you (God) it is otherwise. You are unchangeable eternal, the truly eternal creator of our minds.”
The contemporary pragmatist shows us that community is essential to our understanding of what is. As Smith says, “Show me an account that promises to deliver ‘the way things are,’ and I’ll show you an account that has forgotten and papered over the communal, social matrix from which that account was born.” Pragmatism does not isolate the individual away from the world, it just denies the idea of the knower as a lone representor whose mind independently mirrors reality. This is not to say that anything goes, as in, “It is my conscience, if I say it is right, it must be right!” It is necessary to keep this fire within us as pure and well-formed as possible. This is done partially by ensuring that our contextual community is one that forms us in truth.
The pragmatic idea that community provides for the application of principals into specific cases is congruent with Catholic understanding of the of relationship between a person and the Church. Meaning for today’s Catholic is found in relationship, in the contextual kingdom (community) of God and his people. In the beginning Adam and Eve lived in community with God.24 The Divine and eternal entered the world of the finite and temporal, giving context to realities outside of perceptions. After The Fall, and the severing of this divinely intimate community, He established through the Israelite people a covenantal relationship. He would be their God, they would be his people.25 This covenant finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ, the literal entering of God into the context of man, sanctifying it, restoring intimate
23 (Augustine 1997) XI, xxi, 41
24 Genesis. 3:8
25Exodus. 6:7, Jeremiah. 32:38, Zechariah 8:8, Ezekiel 37:23, ect.
relationship to the Divine, and erecting a Church to carry on the sanctifying work.
26 This church becomes the contextual community of our time in salvation history through which we understand transcendental realities; that which is good, true, and beautiful. Pope John Paul II frequently wrote on the important role of safeguarding the truth and sound teaching that the Episcopate is issued in 2 Timothy 4:3, and 2 Corinthians 4:2.27 The church forms this evolving community that benefits from divine inspiration, explaining how through its context, our collective understanding of transcendentals evolves though the millennia but remains consistent and whole.
Conclusion: Evangelical Shift
All these pragmatic applications; creaturehood, conscience, and the importance of the community of God, do not negate the dangers inherently present in any true form of relativism. (that is, the complete rejection of universal truth). They do, however, enhance our understanding and perspective towards those things that we hold as indeed true. They also provide a more tangible starting point in the process of safeguarding and witnessing to these veracities. If we can approach our friend Randy with a thoughtful consideration of his perspective (while never compromising on what is), chances are good the interaction would bear more fruit. Rather than the dismissal of a viewpoint (that our subject may not even hold) with a logical syllogism, we should alternatively extend the invitation to greater integration to the contextual community of Christ’s Church on earth. This perspective will pivot the debate away from a seemingly arbitrary judgmental standard (from Randy’s perspective) and move to why Christian moral principles strike a chord within the human heart. This is done without the undertoned, “Quit being a skeptical idiot.” The more Randy is assimilated into the contextual community, the more
26 Hebrews 9:15 (Jesus as mediator of New Covenant), Romans 10:4 (salvific work of Christ), Matthew 16:18 (Church is built on rock of Peter)
27 (John Paul II, Fedes Et Ratio 1998) Sec 6, (John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 1993) Sec. 5
meaning will be clarified. We prudently save for later any knee-jerk attempts to persuade via logical arguments where differences in definitions will only lead to frustration
28. By critically examining actual beliefs held, and bearing them in charitable patience, the goals of our apologetic conversations necessarily shift and our contextual community founded on Divine Truth is strengthened.
28 I wish to re-emphasize that in love for ‘Randy’ it may prove right and good to witness blatantly to the fullness of truth, if we are doing it from a genuine motivation of charity, and not simply a desire to prove ourselves right.
Augustine. 1997. The Confessions. Translated by M. Boulding. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press.
Biletzki, Anat. 2014. “Ludwig Wittgenstein.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. March 3. Accessed April 26, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wittgenstein/.
Broussard, Karlo. 2017. “Is It True That There Is No Truth?” YouTube.com. Catholic Answers, February 21.
Harman, Gilbert. 1982. “Moral Relativism Defended.” In Relativism Cognitive and Moral, 189-204. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Higgins S.J., Rev. Thomas J. 1967. Ethical Theoris in Conflict. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company.
Hutter, Reinhard. 2014. “Conscience “Truly So Called” and Its Counterfeit: John Henry Newman and Thomas Aquinas on What Conscience Is and Why It Matters.” Nova et Vera (English Ed.) Vol. 12, No. 3 701-767.
John Paul II. 1998. “Fedes Et Ratio.” Vatican.va. September 14. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html.
—. 1993. “Veritatis Splendor.” Vatican.va. August 6. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html.
Jones, Jeffrey. 2017. Gallup: Americans Hold Record Liberal Views on Most Moral Issues. May 11. Accessed April 27, 2018. http://news.gallup.com/poll/210542/americans-hold-record-liberal-views-moral-issues.aspx?g_source=link_NEWSV9&g_medium=TOPIC&g_campaign=item_&g_content=Americans%2520Hold%2520Record%2520Liberal%2520Views%2520on%2520Most%2520Moral%2520Issues.
MacCormack, Sabine. 2008. “Agustine Reads Genesis.” Agustianian Studies 39 (1): 5-47.
Newman, John Henry Cardinal. 1969. Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Vol.2. Westminster: MD: Christian Classics.
Pinckaers O.P. , Servais . 1996. “Conscience, Truth, and Prudence.” In Crisis of Conscience: Philosophers and Theologians Analyze our Growing Inability to Discern Right From Wrong, edited by John M. Hass, 79-92. New York: Crossroad.
Smith, James K. A. 2014. Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group.
Van Peursen, C.A. 1970. Ludwig Wittgenstein An Intruduction to His Philosophy. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2009. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.