The Dictatorship of Relativism

Early in his papacy, Benedict XVI put a new rhetorical spin on a familiar conservative trope, claiming that we are living under a “dictatorship of relativism.” The fear of moral relativism, however, disguises our real problem, which is that the guiding moral imperative of our era is all too clear: either make money or serve someone who can.

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9 Responses to “The Dictatorship of Relativism”

  1. Amod Lele Says:

    Aren’t those problems linked? Ethical relativism precludes the meaningful criticism of existing desires, motivations or ends, including the pursuit of money. If no ideal is better than any other, one can have no grounds on which to critique the financial imperative.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m not sure I follow you. It sounds like you’re saying that ethical relativism allowed a really firm and near-universal moral imperative to arise.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    To me, the more likely explanation is that the rise of the money imperative undermined a previous system of values, and to advocates of that system (i.e., the pope), any departure from it seems to be “ethical relativism” (since they have the one “absolute ethic”). That is, the conservatives can see no further than their own loss of authority.

  4. Amod Lele Says:

    I don’t think the imperative is “really firm and near-universal,” as there are plenty of people who reject it on a theoretical level. Sure, one must follow it on a practical level, but that’s always been the case; the only difference is that other economies have allowed more for self-sufficiency and barter. People always need some amount of wealth, for they always must eat. If that makes the imperative near-universal in our society it makes it near-universal in every society.

    I’m also not saying that relativism allowed the money imperative to arise. Rather, it prevents that imperative from declining. A relativist has no adequate resources to challenge any existing imperative, whatever it be; relativism is inherently conservative. If you want to follow the Pope’s authority, well, that’s true-for-you; if you want to make more money, that’s true-for-you as well. Who am I to judge you and say you’re doing anything wrong? So imperatives that are already widespread, like the money imperative, remain thus.

  5. skholiast Says:

    “…the more likely explanation is that the rise of the money imperative undermined a previous system of values, and to advocates of that system (i.e., the pope), any departure from it seems to be “ethical relativism””

    I’m with you on the first part of this argument but you lose me on the second step. Why not argue instead that the de facto universality & supremacy of economic motivation issues in relativism itself? Relativism, on this account, would simply be the articulation of the theory implicit in the practice of capitalism. Put another way: Relativism is simply the defense that the economic motivation secretes for its own bad conscience.

    Which of course is not to say that every attack on “relativism” is motivated by the same thing. Certainly one can be an apologist for the capitalist status quo and mouth indignant about relativism. But I don’t see that it must always be that way, or than anyone (e.g. the Pope) who makes such an attack must be such an apologist.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m not saying there’s only one motivation for decrying relativism — I’m saying that conservatives such as the pope have one particular motivation. Where do I say, “And therefore everyone who talks about relativism has the exact same motivation?”

  7. Hill Says:

    I tried to type something this morning and abandoned it. skholiast hit everything I wanted to say.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    We’re missing some steps somewhere along the line. I’m fine with the claim that “ethical relativism” is itself a product of capitalism. I also don’t think that the pope is an apologist for the capitalist order as such, though he does the typical papal thing of trying to figure out some way to work with the powers that be. I’m saying that the papal diagnosis of the source of ethical relativism seems to be a mysterious fall away from religious authority, leaving the world without any firm guidance and consigning everyone to nihilism. So what he doesn’t seem to see is that an actual alternative principle — i.e., money — fought against religious authority and won, producing “ethical relativism” in its wake. He mistakes a symptom for the problem itself, and his fear of godless communism prevents him from confronting the real problem head-on even to the limited degree that JPII was able to.

  9. Brian Hamilton Says:

    I liked your first claim better, that we’re not actually dealing with “ethical relativism” at all but with the reign of capital. Since 21st-century capitalism is rather more utilitarian than, say, Puritan New England or Benedict’s Old Europe, there seems to be moral latitude in the day-to-day; but there’s not actually been a loss of common ethical authority at the level of practice. If anything, especially compared to Old Europe, the demands of capital are probably more determinative for the average, lay American citizen than church teaching was for the late medieval worker. Which must also be kind of threatening.

    Though I think I can understand how, with a certain semantic shift, capital’s moral authority can be construed as kindling a kind of relativism.


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