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Dear Conservative Catholics: Stop Worrying About Moral Relativism (Quick Rant)

College freshmen go through a "Nietzsche stage" where they play the grown-ups version of "that's just your opinion," going around saying, "everything's relative." Almost as annoying are my conservative Catholic friends who see this as evidence of a world wide epidemic of moral relativism.

Thing my conservative Catholic friends need to stop worrying about: moral relativism. It doesn’t exist. Outside of idiot college freshmen after reading their first Nietzsche book, no one really believes that morality is a matter of opinion. Everyone believes their beliefs are right and other beliefs are wrong. The problem is not that liberals think morality is relative (they don’t—they believe, for example, that discrimination against gays is objectively wrong), the problem (if you want to call it that) is that liberals believe the moral law compels different things. Stop trying to convince liberals that they need to believe in objective morality (they already do); try to convince them to believe that your take on the moral law is the correct one. Also, I use way too many parentheticals.

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About keithstache

I'm Keith Hernandez's mustache. And you're not. I like bad baseball teams and good beer.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Dear Conservative Catholics: Stop Worrying About Moral Relativism (Quick Rant)

  1. I want to comment on your claim that moral relativism “doesn’t exist. Outside of idiot college freshmen after reading their first Nietzsche book, no one really believes that morality is a matter of opinion. Everyone believes their beliefs are right and other beliefs are wrong.”

    I agree with that last sentence but I’d phrase it in a much vaguer way than you did. Indeed, people believe their own beliefs are correct and they may believe others are wrong. That’s part of what it means to have a belief: a belief is a belief about something, and that “something” is a sort of claim that is more correct than competing sorts of claims.

    But there’s a lot of room for gray area. Some of my beliefs are about factual matters where there is a clear-cut correct answer that can be easily demonstrated. Is it raining? No, I was just outside and it was dry. Some of my beliefs are about factual matters where the answer cannot be obtained. Is there life on Mars? I doubt it, but I can’t prove it one way or the other. And some of my beliefs are based more on personal narrative or opinion. Is college valuable? Yes, based on my experience and what I’ve heard of other people’s experiences, I feel comfortable saying that continued education is valuable for most people, but this value is an intangible thing that doesn’t reduce to a simple scientific fact.

    Furthermore, some of my beliefs are held more strongly than others, and some of my beliefs are threatened by different beliefs held by other people (let’s call those “competing beliefs”) while other beliefs may not require other people to be wrong for me to be right.

    Lastly, I wouldn’t define moral relativism as the belief that “morality is a matter of opinion.” Of course you may define your terms however you like, but I think it is rather more complex than that, in which case, yes, there are moral relativists. I invite you to check out Moral Relativism Magazine online!

    Posted by T. Lieberman | March 10, 2012, 8:16 pm
    • Hello T. Lieberman, thanks for the reply.

      I don’t doubt that moral relativists exist. Obviously they can be found in many college faculty lounges. I only doubt that it is a widespread phenomenon, something that many conservative Catholics believe and fear.

      I think that, often, when people on the left appeal to moral relativism, they do so because their opponents on the right use the language of moral absolutism. When a right-winger opposes gay rights by shouting, “God says so,” those on the left will shout back, “your belief is a social construction,” or, “that’s your personal belief don’t impose it on me.”

      Of course, we also sometimes see the language of moral relativism used by the right, as well. The right tries to get creationism into the science classroom alongside evolution on the argument that both are beliefs, and “who’s to say which belief is right or wrong? Let the kids see both sides and decide for themselves.” You could argue that Catholics opposed to the recent HHS birth control mandate are doing the same thing when they say, “we don’t believe in birth control, so don’t force us to pay for it. If you want it, buy it yourself, or find someone else to give it to you.”

      If you want to argue that there are no universally agreed upon terms or ideas that people can go to to settle moral disputes, I’m with you. But the fact that moral truths are often hard to discover and, if discovered, hard to prove to other people, does not mean that objective moral truths do not exist. Think about sports. People love to argue and debate about which basketball team is the best or which baseball player is the greatest. Part of these debates include disagreements about what the terms mean. Does “best” mean most successful? Or the team with the most pure talent? Or the team that wins the championship? Or, maybe it doesn’t mean the team that happens to win the title, because anything can happen in a short playoff series (like the NBA) or in a one game elimination tourney (like the NCAA). You see, these debates can go on forever. But it does not mean that there really is no best team, or that there are no conclusions to draw. Of course, for an obvious example, Lebron James is a better basketball player than a high school benchwarmer. And if anyone disagreed, they’d be objectively wrong. But is Lebron better than Kevin Durant? Or Kobe Bryant? That’s debatable. But “debatable” doesn’t mean there is no answer. It just means we haven’t figured out how to conclusively answer it. The same holds true with our moral debates over controversial issues like abortion and just war.

      Finally, I’ll share with you an earlier blog post I wrote about Postmodernism. Warning: It’s a bit long.

      Posted by keithstache | March 11, 2012, 9:28 am

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