Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

To what is relativism relative? On the inescapable tyranny of desire

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 01, 2016

The question raised by Phil Lawler resonates. On Monday, in “The irony behind the Oscar for Spotlight”, Phil drew attention to the credibility gap between AMPAS giving child-abuser Roman Polanski an Oscar with a standing ovation in 2002 while giving Spotlight the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015. What’s wrong with this picture, indeed!

This question resonates nicely with my essay of last Friday on relativism (Contrary to popular belief: Relativism cannot enlighten; it can only darken the mind.), in which I explained the significance of the academic myth of the Andalusian Paradise: “Reality does not matter. As a general rule, what determines the credibility of academic work, at least in the humanities, is whether its conclusions fit our current mythology. If not, publication is exceedingly rare and a negative career impact is all but guaranteed.”

The same standard is at work not just in academia but all across the cultural mainstream, and particularly in the media. Thus Hollywood glitterati could applaud Polanski even as he fled to avoid further imprisonment for the sexual abuse of a thirteen-year-old girl because Polanski was one of them, whose directorial talents won immense aclaim. And the same glitterati could applaud Spotlight because the film exposes the duplicity and hypocrisy of those most responsible for maintaining the Christian moral order, which the glitterati generally oppose.

Such seeming contradictions are actually perfectly consistent in any system based on moral relativism, because in practice moral relativism always means that one’s own particular desires determine morality. That is, morality is not absolute in itself by the nature of things; it is always relative to some desired end.

Thus morality under Communist regimes has always been determined by whether the interests of the Party are furthered. Any action that strengthens the Party is good; any that diminishes the party is bad. The same is at least sometimes true under Islam. For example, the moral standards for dealing with “infidels” vary with the strength of the Islamic regime. Treaties with “infidels” are to be made or broken depending on which posture is most likely to advance the fortunes of Islam. (This is another point made by Darío Fernández-Morera in The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, which I did not mention in my essay cited above.)

In exactly the same way, we find morally similar behavior defended, ignored or condemned by the Western chattering classes according to whether the person or institution in question is a proponent or an opponent of the “liberating” desires of the chatterers. In this case “relativism” means morality will be relative to “me”—or rather to those people who are influential enough to define and control what every self-respecting “me” is required to desire.

Christian Morality

Some would argue that Christianity is no different, that morality for the Christian is determined by whatever it is that Christians have been told to desire. But in reality, moral analysis is very different in Christianity. The secularist starts with what he desires and uses that to differentiate between good and evil, ultimately determining what he will be. But the Christian starts with what he is and uses that to differentiate between good and evil, ultimately determining what he will desire.

There is a vast gulf between these two approaches to morality, a gulf as unbridgeable as that between the parched rich man and Lazarus resting in the bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:19-31).

This essential difference explains why Christian morality has two sources which confirm and reinforce each other, Revelation and natural law. As J. Budziszewski and other natural law theorists have pointed out, the Ten Commandments are essentially an amazingly succinct guide to what we will learn through a careful and even arduous study of the natural law. That study is arduous precisely because it begins by determining the very natures of the things it considers, seeking to learn the ends that are proper to each nature, and therefore the kinds of actions that are conducive to its fullness of being, and the kinds of actions which undermine or destroy that fullness.

Through Judaism and Christianity, God has lovingly revealed both a practical guide to moral action and the nature of the human person, from which the goodness of this moral code derives. But the difference between good and evil—based on being—remains accessible to philosophy even without Revelation, through a careful study of nature, which comes from the same God. Some errors in human reasoning are inevitable, but in fact the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, among others, went a long way toward properly articulating this moral law simply because they found it built in to nature itself.

In contrast, moral relativism—when it is argued rather than simply imposed by force—is always justified by an appeal to desires and emotions, or to natural aberrations which, but for desire, would be recognized as pathologies rather than as healthy norms. Under the rule of being, for example, psychologists and psychiatrists identified homoerotic attractions as disordered—as aberrant desires to be remediated or held in check. But under the rule of desire, homoerotic attractions must be proclaimed as normal, healthy and good.

The same is true of various forms of murder (abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide), of divorce and the promotion of families without true parents, of all forms of cheating (growing now on a massive scale), of many immigration policies, of a great deal of warfare, of the constant abuse of the principle of subsidiarity, and of much else—with the list in our relativistic society getting longer by the moment. When the morality of actions and policies is determined by the desires of the actors, the results will be immoral and damaging wherever those desires happen to differ from what a careful analysis of nature reveals to be good.

The Reality Principle

The first rule of morality is that it must be understood through a proper apprehension of being. It is not to be imposed on reality but derived from it. Moral analysis does not consist in justifying desires by reference to moral claims but in justifying moral claims by reference to the nature of things.

By contrast, we live in a culture in which moral claims are validated by the desires of our cultural elites, and then enforced through a legislative and judicial positivism which derives its edicts from the selfsame source. We have lost all conception of the essential truth that laws contrary to the nature of things, as revealed by God either through verbal disclosures or through nature itself, must inescapably be null and void. The result of this loss is always a tyranny of moral chaos. One of its distinctive marks is chattering classes which can and do say anything—however contradictory—to maintain their privileged status while the whole system breaks down.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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