Thursday, July 31, 2008

Relativism ... concluded

For the background to this discussion see the earlier posts, here and here.

I am a Catholic. However, I choose to make decisions about my life, such as in contraception, which may not be in accordance with the Church's teaching, but I am following my own conscience. Does this make me a relativist because someone might say that I am picking and choosing only the bits of catholicism that I want? Also, although I believe that protection of life is sacred and have and would influence those that I know, I do not think it is right to impose my views about abortion on others. Having strong views about truth is one thing but if you impose them on everyone else surely this is just as bad as totalitarianism. I'm trying to think it through. I think that there really is no black and white, it really is just many shades of grey.

My response

No. I think there is black and white. Some things are right and some things are wrong. Of course, this doesn't apply to everything! Some things are neither right or wrong and some things are only right or wrong depending on the context and intention (i.e. running for a bus is neither right or wrong in itself - but could be right or wrong depending on the reason you are rushing to get on it!). However, that is not the same as 'many shades of grey'.

Some things are certainly wrong - ending the life of the unborn - but the guilt which attaches to this bad act may vary according to the situation of the person who commits it. So, for example, a young woman who is put under great pressure to have an abortion, or who does so in shear desperation, or who simply had no idea that it could be wrong to do so, cannot be said to be to blame in the same way as some one who willfully and maliciously decided to procure an abortion. This is not making excuses for anyone, or even reducing the seriousness of the act - it is just a fairly obvious moral principle: you can't blame someone for doing something wrong if they did not know that it was wrong. This is not relativism - because we distinguish between the wrongness of the act and the culpability of the individual who does the act.

Another point to bear in mind is that the conscience is the moral sense given to us by God, and the Church has always taught that we should act according to our conscience even if it is wrong. Of course we have a duty to educate our conscience, and we must also accept the consequences of acting in accordance with our conscience, but neither of these points takes away from the importance of acting in accordance with our conscience. This does not mean just pleasing ourselves - on the contrary, it means being responsible for our own actions.

Now then, does this means that the Church is totalitarian? I don't think so - because of the importance which we give to conscience. But what about the person who believes it is right to do something which we hold to be wrong?

Now, it seems to me that the honest (by that I mean logically consistent) relativist will say that that is their choice - but in fact they do not really believe that, because most relativists while allowing a choice for abortion will not allow a choice for racism. So what is the difference - well, as I said in an earlier post, in regard to these life issues the key point is the moral status given to the foetus: there's no relativism here, there is (1) an absolute judgment about the value and dignity of human life and (2) a moral judgment that the unborn human is neither human nor alive.

The Church takes a different approach, of course. Some things are wrong, but how we deal with the sin may vary for two very good reasons.

(1) Everything which is wrong cannot be made illegal, and everything illegal is not necessarily wrong. There can hardly be laws against dishonoring one's father and mother or coveting, for example, and not every lie which is told incurs a criminal penalty. Similarly we no longer criminalise adultery, serious matter though it is.

(2) The person committing a particular sin may be in dire circumstances and morally unaware of what they have done. They may need pastoral care and perhaps careful catechesis. Being judgmental and condemnatory may be of very little help. Christ himself befriended prostitutes and other sinners (though he did tell them 'do not sin again'!)

But these points (1) and (2) above don't compromise the idea that a sin is still a sin.

And this is the problem of relativism. We know that life is difficult. We know moral choices often place us in dilemmas. We know that what the Church says teaches about what is right and what is wrong is sometimes difficult to square with our lives, if not impossible in particular circumstances. But the relativist answer - that there no such thing as right and wrong, that each must make their own choices, that what is right for me may not be right for you .... this is just a cop out, and instead of respecting conscience it does away with it entirely. Surely the thing about our conscience is that it often challenges us about what we are going to do, are doing and have already done ... But how can that be if it is all a matter of personal choice?

... comments welcome.


Joe said...

Another two pennies worth ...

I was interested in the wording of the question with regard to conscience:"..I choose to make decisions about my life ...".

If I recall Cardinal Newman's understanding of conscience correctly, it would have two fold manner of action: it might prompt someone to act in one way rather than another as they encounter a particular circumstance in their lives, or it might act as a kind of accounting or judging after the action in the particular circumstance has been undertaken. Which suggests less of an experience of "I choose .." and more an experience "I feel called to ...I feel judged by ....".

Perhaps key to a discussion of relativism is that conscience, understood in this way, is not about coming to know moral truth in the sense of knowledge of what is right and wrong; it is about coming to an action in a particular circumstance - a prompting to an action in accord with moral truth that has been determined in some other way by the person involved(I think Thomas Aquinas would express this as the first principle of natural law - that good is to be done, and evil avoided).

In the context of contraception indicated in the question, I would suggest that the action of conscience (in the sense just discussed) is renewed every time intercourse takes place. The question of how we arrive at the moral truth about contraception ... now that is a different question than that of "conscience" as practiced in this context. If the decision to contracept is based on an intellect/knowledge view that contraception is a morally true and good thing to do, then in itself that decision does not constitute an action of conscience.

Anonymous said...

Have been reading what you wrote on relativism Fr Peter - very clear - thank you.


Fr Peter said...

Again, Joe, thanks for these comments which give some helpful clarification.
I'm aware that the original discussion began from study of world religions, though this development into moral theology is obviously important.
I think your point can be developed by considering the idea of Virtue and how this works in the classical and Catholic understanding. Growth in Virtue is essentially about what CS Lewis would have called good habits which enable the conscience to be formed so that right choices (the good followed and the bad avoided) become habitual.