099 Moral Absolutes

When he began teaching philosophy and government at the University of Texas, J. Budziszewski expounded the nihilism he’d absorbed in graduate school: good and evil are purely human constructs, and no one is really responsible for what he does, since we’re not really free in what we choose to do. He knew such views lacked evidence, but he found facile ways to rationalize them and thus justify his behavior. Having changed his mind several years ago, as a result of turning to Christ, he has recently written a fine book entitled The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1999), wherein he seeks “to tell how I became a nihilist, and how I escaped from nihilism” (p. ix).

He now believes that our will, not our reason, most deeply shapes our moral position. In his own case, “My nihilism was false because it was self-referentially incoherent. The motive was bad because I knew this to be the case, rather than give up the nihilism I embraced the incoherency” (p. xii). This involved, naturally, denying the existence of God–not because it was illogical to believe in Him but because it would challenge Budziszewski’s activities. He thinks that “not many of us doubt God’s existence and then start sinning. Most of us sin and then start doubting His existence” (p. xii). His pride kept him from allowing God to be God! “Evil must rationalize, and that is its weakness. But it can, and that is its strength” (p. 35).

However, God’s law is “written on our hearts, our consciences also bearing witness,” as St Paul said. Natural Law thinkers like Budziszewski find this witness etched in “the deep structure of our minds. That means that so long as we have minds, we can’t not know them” (p. xiv). The greatest of the Natural Law philosophers, St Thomas Aquinas, insisted that the basic principles of morality are “the same for all ‘both as to rectitude and as to knowledge’—in other words, that they are not only right for all but known to all” (p. 24). “Right for all and known to all!” We may ignore, or suppress, our consciences, but they continually inform us, telling us the truth, demanding that we do right.

Budziszewski finally faced the truth when he “became aware of the Savior whom I had deserted in my twenties. Astonishingly, though I had abandoned Him, He had never abandoned me” (p. xvi). He was, thus, profoundly converted, and he seeks to write and teach in accord with his Lord’s will. He truly repented! And he believes that “A man must be not only taught and trained, but turned around. He must repent” (p. 70). Still more: he must be “turned in the right direction. He needs the word of God” (p. 70). Indeed: he “must be not only turned around and turned aright, but transformed. He needs God’s grace” (p. 70). Consequently, “What I do now as an ethical and political theorist is poles apart from what I did eighteen years ago. What I write about now is those very moral principles I used to deny–the ones we can’t not know because they are imprinted on our minds, inscribed upon our consciences, written on our hearts” (p. xvi).

Though the book continually stresses the Natural Law, it is made up of several earlier-published essays (in journals such as First Things and The Human Life Review), so it is less a systematic treatise than a collection of position papers, beginning with “The Fallen City,” which introduces the book’s main theme: the reality of original sin and its influence on society. We see today that when a “sin passes through its stages from temptation, to toleration, to approval, its name is first euphemized, then avoided, then forgotten. A colleague of mine tells me that some of his fellow scholars call child molestation ‘intergenerational intimacy’: that’s euphemism. A good-hearted editor tried to talk me out of using the term ‘sodomy’: that’s avoidance. My students don’t know the word ‘fornication’ at all: that’s forgetfulness” (p. 20). Mix together enough of this sinfulness with a general lack of virtue, and the body social becomes terminally ill! In fact, Budziszewski thinks: “Every day the position of Western Christians seems more and more like the position of the early Christians in pagan Rome” (p. 136).

Much of this moral decay masquerades itself under the mask of “tolerance,” everywhere enjoined in our culture. Yet “tolerance” advocates often turn ruthlessly intolerant. They have taken a good word and elevated it beyond its rightful place, making it an absolute end–an imperial summum bonum!–rather than a qualified means to a higher end. In his essay on “The Illusion of Moral Neutrality,” Budziszewski shows how neither “softheadedness” (the facile popular meaning of tolerance) nor “narrowmindedness” (the knee-jerk opposition to it) should be entertained. Only when we think carefully, differentiating ends from means, and value tolerance as a mean between evil extremes, can we put in its rightful place.

In three probing chapters, Budziszewski considers the “problem” with three influential political theories–communitarianism, liberalism, and conservatism. Communitarians too easily place social goods above personal rights and often ignore those “subsidiary” institutions (family; church; civic organizations) which most effectively deal with human needs. Liberalism, too, is “deeply flawed” (p. 89), primarily because it eliminates God from the human equation and takes refuge in utopian schemes thoroughly discredited. Conservatism, while often embraced by evangelical Christians, too readily reduces everything to pragmatic considerations and makes Mammon its god.

But Christians, seeking to follow their Lord, must acknowledge sin’s pervasiveness and approach life humbly, realistically, aware than nothing we do can establish perfection on earth. We must never embrace secular philosophies simply because they flatter our egos or appeal to some short-term, selfish concerns. Always we must remember that we serve the King of Kings, not some democratic demagogue or secular ideology. Consequently, we understand that for Christians political philosophy and activity must be limited to “a work of preserving grace, not saving grace, and like salt, it preserves by stinging” (p. 14). To bear witness–staunchly opposing abortion and sodomy, as Budziszewski does, for example–is one of the ways we salt our society. And by caring for the needy, those so easily discarded by the regnant powers, we serve as agents of grace.

Well-written, effectively addressing the contemporary world, The Revenge of Conscience is a fine work, a fitting sequel to his Written on the Heart!

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In The New Tolerance (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1998), Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler urge us to consider “how a cultural movement threatens to destroy you, your faith, and your children.” In the authors’ judgment, “the society around you is undergoing what may be the fastest, most ominous cultural change in human history” (p. 9). This change, they say, is summed up as the “new tolerance” which espouses an almost unlimited relativism. Theistic ethics have been repudiated as “legalistic” and “intolerant.” Everyone has an opinion, and no one’s opinion is “right” or “wrong.” Write your own rules. Follow your own star. Live and let live.

For example, some in the art world insist there is nothing about the Leonardo’s Mona Lisa which makes it superior to one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs. According to William A. Henry III, a contemporary writer, the very idea of any artistic work being a “masterpiece” is “offensive” because “it implies that one idea, culture, or human being can actually be better than another'” (p. 155). Students in literature are urged, by postmodern instructors, to “deconstruct” texts and impose their own constructs upon what the read. What Shakespeare, or Milton, or Mark Twain intended to say, what the words actually say, can easily be disregarded. Only what one feels about the text, only what one feels prompted to say about it, really matters!

The new tolerance not only allows others to have their beliefs, but insists we approve of them simply because they are sincerely held. Certain special interest groups have effectively asserted their “right” to never be offended, especially by language which bothers them! Thus “Stanford University’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance promotes a Shorts Day each spring, during which people are exhorted to wear shorts to signal their support for the homosexual agenda” (p. 26). Any criticism of Andres Serrano’s “art work”– a crucifix suspended in a jar of urine–is branded “hateful” and “homophobic.” Some college students in Virginia said that “if you’re accused of intolerance, you have to take a class in cultural sensitivity in order to graduate” (p. 125). The rioters in South-Central L.A. in 1993 were not sharply condemned by the media–rather we were urged to “empathize with their rage, to “understand” their reasons! Since “tolerance is the cardinal virtue, the sole absolute, then three can be only one evil: intolerance” (p. 43). The “thought crimes” George Orwell identified in 1984 have become central to the proscribed words and positions identified by “politically correct” professors (and, increasingly, even some judges) in our nation.

In the midst of such rhetoric, we must remember G.K. Chesterton’s sage observation: “Tolerance is a virtue of a man without convictions.” Respecting everyone’s beliefs probably means you have none of your own! What we are “witnessing today,” writes Ryszard Legutko, is “the decline of strong philosophy, inhumanely objective and hierarchical, and the triumph of essentially weak rhetoric'” (p. 64). The soft-edged “I feel” (labeled love) has replaced the hard-lined “God says” (labeled law). Consequently, countercultural Christians today must remember that “Jesus taught love but never at the expense of truth . . . because real love will not ignore the truth. His Word teaches that we should ‘love in the truth’ (2 John 1:1) and [speak] the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15)” (p. 98).

Easy to read, filled with anecdotes and illustrations, The New Tolerance alerts us to one of the most important developments of the past two decades. How to deal with it may be debated, but it clearly poses a grave threat to the Christian faith. And this, unfortunately, is evident in data the authors show concerning the wide-spread relativism in the Christian community. Just to get alleged “believers” to believe in something is a great challenge for us in the Church!

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Peter Kreeft is one of today’s most prolific Christian philosophers. In A Refutation of Moral Relativism: Interviews with an Absolutist (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1999), he tries to accomplish his ends through a series of engaging conversations with imaginary characters. He has effectively used this technique in earlier works, and this effort duplicates the earlier pattern. The “absolutist” in the conversations is Professor ‘Isa Ben Adam, a Palestinian Arab who teaches in Beirut. He is interviewed by Liberty (“Libby”) Rawls, a “classy, sassy Black feminist” journalist, a geyser of glib but superficial chatter.

At the center of their conversations is the issue of moral relativism. This “may be the single most crucial issue of our time, the most practical issue,” Kreeft insists, “since it makes the greatest difference to our lives” (p. 13). It’s fearsomely important, for it has guided the likes of Benito Mussolini, who espoused it thusly in Diuturna: “‘Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition. . . . If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective, immortal truth . . . then there is nothing more relativistic than fascistic attitudes and activity. . . . From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable'” (p. 18).

Early on, the professor finds it necessary to provide the journalist with some historical perspectives, and we are treated to an engaging history of eminent relativists. The story begins with the Sophists in ancient Greece, who both represented and resolutely defended it, making moral relativism one of the most ancient philosophical positions. Moving ahead nearly two millennia, we find William of Ockham, whose “nominalism” effectively injected much of the West with its relativistic virus. Then, once Kant shifted philosophers’ focus to the human mind, a host of recent relativists, led by Nietzsche and today’s Post-Modernists such as Foucault and Derrida, have imposed it upon much of the populace.

To refute Mussolini’s position, ‘Isa joins with Socrates and his successors (men such as Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas) and insists that moral absolutes are unchangeable, universal, and objective. These three criteria are absolutely essential! Neither time, nor place, nor individual opinion can alter absolutes. A philosophical realism, recognizing what Medieval thinkers called “the principle of intelligibility,” enables one to safely assert that some things are, for sure, right and others things are, indeed, wrong. One’s mind, one’s reason, must rule his passions. What we desire to do, what “feels good,” is often evil! So we must accept obligations, responsibilities, which we recognize as “good,” and “do the right thing.”

Kreeft writes so that undergraduates can somewhat “painlessly” absorb basic philosophical notions. This is a well-crafted, insightful work. One comes away with a clear understand of what constitutes moral relativism and why it should be rejected.

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John Finnis, a Professor of Law and Legal Philosophy at Oxford University, has long championed the Natural Law, and his short work, Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision, and Truth (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, c. 1991), makes his thought accessible to the general public. He insists, for starters, that there simply are some “exceptionless moral norms.” The world’s finest folks, the saints and martyrs, have willingly died for principles that they considered true–both per se and in se. These norms may be only a handful, but the matter enormously. The Decalogue, for example, sets forth some amply defensible absolutes! In the Early Church, Christians eagerly embraced it, making it central to the Old Covenant sustained and elevated by the New.

“Christian reflection,” Finnis says, “taking its cue from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 30:19, Sirach 15:11-20), identified the ground of the morally significant reflexivity of actions: free choice” (p. 22). Indeed, “outside the cultures formed by the Old and New Testaments, few have acknowledged with clarity or firmness the reality of free choice” (p. 58). God has revealed Himself. He has made known His will. Man’s responsibility is to hear and freely obey God! We act rightly when we choose the right means to the right End, which is God and His Goodness. With his usual clarity, St Thomas Aquinas said: “Since man is said to be made in the image of God because ‘image’ here refers to intelligent and free choice. . . , let us consider man, that image, precisely insofar as he is himself the origin of his own deeds, through having free choice and power over those deeds” (ST, 1-2 prol. and q.1 a.1c). Finnis thus insists that “every choice, once made, lasts in one’s character.” Unless one repents, and thus unravels some of the tangled skein of sin, his wrong choices harden into the cement of character. For “one retains the character which one specified and created for oneself by intelligently shaping and freely adopting the object of that choice, the proposal one synthesized with one’s will by choice” (p. 73).

So down through the ages the basic moral norms have been prized by all cultures. “On abortion, infanticide, suicide, adultery, contraception, homosexual sex, theft, and lying, moral norms were addressed to the consciences of the men and women of those days in circumstances no less complex and varied than today’s” (p. 27). Aristotle, for instance, in his Nichomachean Ethics, boldly asserted that some things were always wrong–envy, adultery, theft, murder. Whereas in some areas one must find the “mean” between extremes, granting a bit of “gray” between black and white, some moral norms, for Aristotle, were self-evidently absolute–as hard and unyielding as smoothly-cut diamonds. No questions allowed! For Finnis, this means that the Golden Rule, not the Golden Mean, must rule!

Unlike Aristotle, many in our day embrace an emotivist ethic. “Where one does go wrong” Finnis says “is by choosing options whose shaping has been dominated by feelings, not feelings which support or are in line with reasons (as every reasonable action must be somehow emotionally supported), but feelings which /44/ are calling the tune, not the extent of swamping free choice and determining one’s action but rather by impairing the rational guidance of action, fettering one’s reason, limiting its directiveness, and harnessing it as feeling’s ingenious servant” (pp. 43-44).

While addressing an academic audience, Finnis makes his case with wit, style, and insight. A worthwhile book by a major thinker.