A Moral Philosophy For Progressives
November 29, 2005
By Ernest Partridge, The
before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
gave a homily at mass, in which he warned against Marxism, liberalism,
atheism, agnosticism and relativism. "Having a clear faith,
based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism,"
he said, "whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed
and swept along by every wind of teachings, looks like the only
attitude acceptable to today's standards."
The Pope's condemnation of relativism strikes a responsive note
among the conservative Protestants of the religious right. For example,
Jerry Falwell writes:
Our nation's schools have replaced God with moral relativism
and situational ethics... (Our) children learn that there are
no absolute truths, no moral authorities, no governing principles
to guide their behavior.
Ryan Dobson puts it much more directly. "Moral relativism,"
he writes, is "the notion that there's no right or wrong."
If you enter the words "moral relativism" and "religious
right" in Google, you will get almost 29,000 hits. Having examined
a few dozen articles so listed, I can report that there is one sentiment
that clearly unites all religious right opinions of moral relativism
that I encountered: they are against it. But while the religious
right is quick to apply moral relativism as an epithet to all kinds
of evils of modernism, secularism, and liberalism, the right is
apparently reluctant to define it. Accordingly, the defender of
moral relativism faces an obstacle similar to that of the defender
of liberalism: one must begin by casting off the burden of slander
that has been attached to the concept, and then proceed to define
The moral relativism that I will present affirms and defends ethical
standards and moral conduct. It does not, as the Pope accuses, "[let]
oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching." And
it most emphatically does not assert that "there's no right or wrong."
The relativism that I will defend denies that there are simple,
inviolable, absolute rules of conduct.
The moral relativist is quite prepared to recognize virtuous and
wicked behavior. But the relativist insists that living a moral
life is not a simple matter. Such a life is complicated, not by
an absence of moral rules, but rather by the abundance of such rules
and the resulting conflict amongst them. A virtuous life is distinguished
by choices of good over evil, which display the individual's moral
will. But it is also marked by preferable choices among conflicting
and mutually exclusive goods, or among necessary and unavoidable
evils, and to wisely resolve these conflicts, moral will does not
suffice. In addition, one must have moral intelligence.
Following are three interpretations of moral relativism that are
not only plausible; they are, I submit, unavoidable.
Relativism of Application
Morality (i.e. actual conduct, "practice") is by definition
particular. It is manifested in specific acts and circumstances.
To use a term detested by the fundamentalists, morality is "situational."
As Garrett Hardin puts it, "the morality of an act is a function
of the state of the system at the time it is performed." In
contrast, moral commandments, said by the fundamentalists to be
"absolute," are by nature abstract. Thus, by the fundamentalists'
account, the moral life consists of absolute obedience (with no
exceptions) to divine commandments in the day to day conduct of
one's personal life. The paradigm example of these absolute rules
are the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus, Chapter 20.
How is the devout individual to know if he is in full compliance
with these Divine Commandments?
In some cases, obedience to a commandment is simple and straightforward.
For example, grabbing someone's car keys and driving off with his
vehicle is a clear violation of the eighth commandment. ("Thou
shalt not steal.") But other cases may or may not fall under
this commandment – a consideration to which we will return.
Consider the Fourth Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day,
to keep it holy." This commandment takes up four verses, though
the relevant elaboration is: "...n it thou shalt not do any
work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, they manservant, not
thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within
thy gates." Reading this, how is the believer, with the purest
of motives, to know if he is obedient to this commandment during
each and every Sabbath day? Attempts to answer this question take
up several volumes of the Talmud, and, in the Christian literature,
still more volumes.
Does the commandment forbid driving a car to Sabbath services,
as the Orthodox Jews proclaim? (Exodus is silent about the permitted
use of automobiles.) If an orthodox doctor, while walking to the
synagogue, encounters an accident, is he allowed to come to the
aid of the injured (i.e. "work?") If they hold sufficient
political power, should those who adhere to this commandment enforce
it upon others, through the enactment and enforcement of laws? And
by the way, who decreed that the "holy day" is to be Sunday
(the first day), and not Saturday (the seventh, or "Sabbath?")
It's not in the Bible.
Next, the Second Commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee
any graven image, or any likeness of any thing..." The Moslems
take this very seriously. Visit a mosque and you will never find
a statue or an image of a person or object. You will find instead
exquisite geometrical patterns. The Catholic church chooses to disregard
this commandment. I was personally very gratified that they did
on the day I visited St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and gazed upon
And so on, with the other Commandments. The variety of particular
morally significant circumstances that all believers will encounter
in the course of their lives is virtually infinite, while each of
these Ten Commandment is brief, singular and abstract. When do these
Commandments "command," and when are they inapplicable?
It depends. In other words, morality – the particular application
of abstract rules - is "situational," "contextual,"
"a function of the state of the system." Which is to say,
Relativism of Meaning
As promised, we return now to the Eighth Commandment: "Thou
shalt not steal." And again, some cases clearly and unequivocally
fall under this commandment: e.g., carjacking, burglary, embezzlement.
Unfortunately, meaning of the verb "to steal" is not entirely
clear and unambiguous. (I will set aside the huge problem of the
translation of the original ancient Hebrew word. See my "Through
a Glass Darkly.") Consider two interpretations of "stealing"
from opposite poles of political philosophy.
- To the Marxist, capitalism is evil because the capitalist "steals"
the product of the worker's labor – in Marxist jargon, the "surplus
value" – from the creator of that product.
- To the Libertarian, taxation for any purpose other than the
securing of the inalienable rights to life, liberty and property,
is an illegitimate seizing of personal property – in other words,
Which of these applications fall under the prohibition against
stealing? The Marxist's? The Libertarian's? Both? Neither? It depends
– it depends on what one means by "stealing." In other
words, it's relative.
Relativism of meaning is conspicuous in the Roman Catholic faith,
wherein there are many absolute prohibitions which, while easy enough
to articulate, can appear to be morally repugnant when applied to
extreme particular circumstances.
Consider the absolute prohibition against divorce: "What
God hath joined, let no man put asunder." But what if an abusive
and deranged husband is a threat to the life of the wife and children?
Permanent separation is one solution. But this will deprive the
wife of the support and the children of a stable home that may result
from a new marriage. Too bad: no divorce allowed. So why not decide,
instead, that a valid marriage never happened in the first place?
This may require a meticulous review and examination of the circumstances
of the putative "marriage," along with an extension of
the list of conditions that would invalidate the marriage. Voila!
Annulment – the non-divorce divorce. Accomplished through a re-definition
of "valid marriage."
Next: the absolute prohibition against abortion. But what to do
with ectopic pregnancies – the implantation of the fertilized egg
(conceptus) in the woman's fallopian tube? The fetus will not survive,
and the woman's life is seriously threatened. Abortion? Absolutely
not! It's murder! The doctrine of double-effect to the rescue -
it is "licit" to remove the ectopic fetus in order to
save the life of the woman. But this is not abortion, since the
primary intent is to preserve the life of the mother. Terminating
the life of the fetus is not the intention of the operation - it
was a regrettable, albeit inevitable, side-effect. A non-abortion
In short, if an absolute commandment proves, in its applications,
to be intolerable, don't abandon the commandment, just redefine
its component terms so as to exclude the problematic applications.
Thus it turns out that some absolute commandments are more absolute
Finally, moral absolutism rests upon an assumption of perfect
semantic clarity: what Whitehead called "the fallacy of the
perfect dictionary." Natural languages are not like that. Instead,
they are inherently vague and ambiguous. First of all, definitions
contain words, which require definition, which contain more words,
etc. forever. Second, the world contains an infinitude of separately
nameable entities, while languages have finite vocabularies (still
less, individual speakers of the language). Third, words acquire
separate meanings in various contexts, leading some analytic philosophers
to claim that the fundamental unit of language is not the word,
it is the sentence. Fourth, natural languages, and their component
meanings, are constantly changing. (There's more, but let this much
It follows that moral absolutism is impossible, simply because
it is impossible to articulate moral commandments with absolute
clarity. Moral commandments are inexorably tied to the imperfect
languages that express them. Hence, moral relativism.
Relativism of Conflict
Once one accepts a plurality of ethical principles, moral absolutism
is done for. Exodus Chapter 20 lists Ten Commandments. And there
are numerous additional commandments throughout the Bible, as well
as the body of criminal and civil law. With a plurality of ethical
rules, it is certain that some will come in conflict with others,
and then one must choose one in favor of another. Which one? It
depends upon the particular situation, and the moral judgment of
the individual. And that, dear friends, means moral relativism.
It won't do to live according to one single principle, disregarding
all the rest. Such an individual is not a moralist; that person
is a fanatic. Moliere's play The Misanthrope portrays an
individual who obeys absolutely just one commandment: never to tell
a lie. The consequences, as one might imagine, are disastrous.
The relativism of conflict was vividly displayed during one of
Phil Donahue's TV shows, several years ago. A lawyer associated
with a fundamentalist "right to life" group, emphatically
proclaimed that God absolutely forbids lying.
"You mean," Donahue asked," that there is no conceivable
instance in which lying is permitted?"
He replied, "I can't think of one, can you?"
"Of course! It's 1944 and I am in Amsterdam, standing in
front of the house that is hiding Anne Frank and her family. A Gestapo
officer asks me if there are any Jews hiding in that house. Surely
I should lie to him."
The lawyer pondered for a moment, then said, "I'd refuse
Of course, that evasion can be easily blocked by stipulating that
silence would result in a Gestapo raid.
The example I use in class is that of an aggressive District Attorney
ducking behind a dumpster, followed soon thereafter by a Mafia hit
man, gun in hand. You are asked, "Did you see someone go in
that alley, or did he run ahead up the street?" Tell the truth,
and you will be guilty of the crime of Accessory to Murder. Of course
you lie - it is a moral imperative. Hence "do not lie"
is not an absolute commandment.
Last month I was visited by two Mormon missionaries, who read
to me the Twelfth Article of Faith of their religion: "We believe
in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates,
in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."
I asked, "what do you do if the President that you are subject
to violates the law, or still worse orders you to violate the law?
Which do you obey, the President or the Law?"
He replied: "I'd pray on it, and ask the Lord for guidance."
Touching, but not very helpful.
And so on, with the other commandments. You can readily imagine
conflicts in which violation of one or another rule is unavoidable.
Here's another challenge: state an ethical rule for which it is
impossible to imagine some particular emergency that would morally
require you violate it. If you can't, then you are a moral relativist.
Are There No Moral Absolutes?
As a steadfast skeptic and relativist, I am inclined to never
say never! So let's look for some exceptionless moral commandments.
The Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," won't
do, since the Bible itself specifies exceptions such as self-defense,
just war, and just punishment. In fact, the Bible prescribes capital
punishment for such offenses as working on the Sabbath, a child's
disobedience, and premarital sex (by women only, of course). For
those who do not accept the Bible as a moral authority, self-defense
and just war remain as reasonable exceptions. The death penalty,
however, is a highly controversial issue.
Then how about "Thou shalt not murder," which, I am
told, is the correct translation of the original Hebrew word, "ratsach?"
To be sure, there is no conceivable exception to this commandment.
But that is because it is not, logically speaking, an authentic
commandment. It is a tautology – a "truth by definition."
This is why: we are asked to take the "Thou Shalt Nots"
of the Ten Commandments to be statements of (allegedly) God's commandments
as to what conduct is, or is not, morally justifiable in The Lord's
eyes. Thus "Thou Shalt Not..." means "it is forbidden"
or "it is not justifiable."
Now "murder" is surely defined as "unjustified
killing" – i.e., not in self-defense, or in a just war, or
by God's command.
Hence "Thou Shalt Not Murder" parses out as: "Unjustified
Killing is Unjustified." Begin to spell out the meaning of
"justification," and you are returning to the realm of
If there are universal ("absolute") ethical precepts,
they are more likely to be found, not in commandments of the form
"thou shalt" and "thou shalt not" but rather
in the psychological and logical foundations of ethics – what moral
philosophers call "meta-ethics."
Fundamental to the moral life is a disposition to think and act
morally. This disposition issues from what David Hume and Adam Smith
called "the moral sentiments" of empathy and benevolence.
By empathy is meant the ability to recognize in others the felt
experience of pleasures and pains of which one is familiar in one's
own life. By benevolence is meant a personal desire for the well-being
of others, and a motivation to mitigate the misfortune of others.
Empathy and benevolence give rise to an acknowledgment that others
have rights and duties equal to one's own, and thus are entitled
to equal respect. This acknowledgment provides the basis of "the
Golden Rule" – a moral precept found in all the great world
religions. When we see ourselves as equals in a community of equals,
with basic rights no greater or less than those of the others, we
are able to assume the perspective of a benevolent but unbiased
observer of that community – what philosophers call "the moral
point of view." From this perspective, moral quandaries may
be readily resolved – the same quandaries that are insoluble from
the egocentric point of view preferred by regressives and celebrated
by Ayn Rand and her disciples. (For an extended argument in support
of these dogmatic assertions, see Chapters 5 and 6 of "Conscience
of a Progressive.")
I hasten to add that moral intelligence is not confined to moral
philosophers. One need not "know what and why" in order
to "know how." Profound moral wisdom and exceptional virtue
can be found within individuals who have never heard of, much less
read, Aristotle, Kant or Mill. Just as someone can acquire a correct
"grammatical sense" by using one's native language without
being able to cite a single grammatical rule, one can have a finely-tuned
"moral sense" without being able to produce the kind of
elaborately structured argument that delights philosophy teachers.
This "naive wisdom," as I call it, is acquired by individuals
who are endowed with the requisite moral sentiments of empathy,
benevolence and respect, who adopt a moral point of view, and who
encounter, in a varied and abundant life, a myriad of moral puzzles
and conflicts. As they face and deal with these issues, their moral
intelligence increases in scope, coherence, subtlety and sophistication.
They improve their "cognitive adequacy," to borrow a term
from the late moral psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg. And as they
do so, they learn that morality is systemic and that the virtues
are inter-related – impoverished in isolation and when separated
from the context of practical application. In other words, morality
and virtue are relative.
And so, the answer to Socrates' enduring question, "can virtue
be taught," is a qualified "yes" – assuming that
fortunate individual is provided with a culture, a family upbringing,
and an immediate community that is conducive to a moral life. Thus
moral education must be approached at both an individual and a community
level. It takes a village to raise a child.
To sum up: the Good Lord has not given us clear, simple, unambiguous
and absolute rules to live by. Instead, we are called upon to develop
both the moral stamina to choose good over evil, and the moral intelligence
to choose wisely when confronted with competing goods, or with competing
unavoidable evils. This is an enterprise that requires virtues that
are more ennobling than simple, blind obedience - virtues such as
courage, wisdom, and benevolence. Following the teaching and example
of Jesus of Nazareth, and in our time, of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin
Luther King, this concept of morality supplants the ancient legalisms
of the Old Testament with an ethic of love, available and appealing
to men and women of good will everywhere, of whatever religious
tradition - or of no religious tradition.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in
the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes
the website, The
Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, The
Crisis Papers. He is at work on a book, Conscience of a
Progressive, which can be seen in-progress here.
A longer version of this essay, with references, is found in Chapter
18. Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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