THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

A Slight Problem with Moral Relativism

Okay, a really big problem with moral relativism, which is the philosophical aspect of both capitalism and socialism.  Moral relativism and socialist-capitalism (or capitalist-socialism, not really too much difference atwixt the two) both shift the understanding of the world from what can be proved by logical argument or observed by empirical evidence and go with a “faith”-based personal opinion that ends up being whatever those in power want it to be.


So how does this relate to the Just Third Way of Economic Personalism?  It’s a little complicated, but here goes.  Just keep in mind that, while we’re citing religious authorities and using a lot of churchy-type language, if you look closely enough, you’ll see it’s not religion or faith we’re talking about, but philosophy and reason.

In § 27 of his encyclical Studiorum Ducem, “On St. Thomas Aquinas,” Pope Pius XI noted that the “modernists” (a.k.a. moral relativists, enthusiasts, fideists, ultrasupernaturalists, socialists, etc., etc., etc., whatever obscures their thought processes, if any) are terrified of Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican friar.  As he said,

Thomas Aquinas


Again, if we are to avoid the errors which are the source and fountain-head of all the miseries of our time, the teaching of Aquinas must be adhered to more religiously than ever. For Thomas refutes the theories propounded by Modernists in every sphere, in philosophy, by protecting, as We have reminded you, the force and power of the human mind and by demonstrating the existence of God by the most cogent arguments; in dogmatic theology, by distinguishing the supernatural from the natural order and explaining the reasons for belief and the dogmas themselves; in theology, by showing that the articles of faith are not based upon mere opinion but upon truth and therefore cannot possibly change; in exegesis, by transmitting the true conception of divine inspiration; in the science of morals, in sociology and law, by laying down sound principles of legal and social, commutative and distributive, justice and explaining the relations between justice and charity; in the theory of asceticism, by his precepts concerning the perfection of the Christian life and his confutation of the enemies of the religious orders in his own day. Lastly, against the much vaunted liberty of the human reason and its independence in regard to God he asserts the rights of primary Truth and the authority over us of the Supreme Master. It is therefore clear why Modernists are so amply justified in fearing no Doctor of the Church so much as Thomas Aquinas.


The question that arises, of course, is why this is of interest to non-Catholics . . . or, these days, to Catholics or anybody else, regardless of faith, philosophy, or lack thereof?  Because one, even for non-believers, “Catholic social teaching” is regarded as authoritative and the most consistent and comprehensive body of “social thought” in the world.  Even if you don’t believe a word of what the Catholic Church teaches in matters of faith, most people agree that the natural law social teachings command some respect.

Two, there are serious doubts these days as to the correct understanding of the natural law for everyone, not just Catholics.  Much of this has resulted from the prevalence of the two things that called forth Catholic social teaching in the first place: socialism and what the Catholic Church calls by the somewhat confusing, even misleading name of “modernism.”

"Think logically and prosper."


A better understanding of what the Catholic Church means by “modernism” — moral relativism — is that it is an effort to impose on the natural law of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice (and thus on the whole of society) a personal interpretation of the “supernatural law” of faith, hope and charity.  In other words, “modernism” consists of shifting from logical argument and empirical evidence to support concepts of justice, to someone’s personal opinion.  Might ends up making right, pure moral relativism.

You can see the problems this brings.  As far as civil society is concerned, matters of faith, hope and charity are matters of private opinion.  Basing your understanding of natural law on faith (lex voluntas) instead of reason (lex ratio) means that anyone who does not believe the way those in power say they must believe are automatically criminals, even non- or sub-human.


Nor are we just saying that.  A few years back, somebody published an ostensibly “Catholic” book claiming to “redeem” economics.  This was John D. Mueller’s Redeeming Economics (2010).  On the second page of text, Dr. Mueller declared that human beings are defined by their vices and virtues, and that sins against charity constitute crimes.  In the same vein, he also announced that he found Augustinian philosophy (Platonism) more useful than that of Aquinas (Aristotelian) in understanding Catholic social teaching.

Now, any first-year philosophy student should be all over Mueller’s first claim like a cheap suit.  (We’ve read that expression in cheap novels and heard it in noir films but are not exactly sure what it refers to; hardboiled fictional detectives talk like that, though, at least in fiction.)

What’s the problem? In Thomist philosophy we are not defined as human by our virtues and vices, but by our “analogously complete” capacity for virtue and vice.  If you say that our virtues or vices define us as human, you just said that some people are either more or less human than others . . . and that means that truth is not always true.  It violates the first principle of reason to say that a human being is not as human (or is more human) than other human beings.  We are all as human, and human in the same way, as all other humans.

G.K. Chesterton


As for Mueller’s second claim, anybody should be able to see what the problem is.  The stated framework for understanding Catholic social teaching is the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of natural law “written in the hearts of all men” (meaning every human being).  That means if you substitute Plato and Augustine for Aristotle and Aquinas, you may be saying something very fine and good and all that — but it has no relevance to the subject at hand!


Because you can’t judge Thomist principles by Augustinian standards, any more than you can judge a dog by cat standards.  A dog, after all, can be a very fine dog, but would be a lousy cat, while a cat (if you like that sort of thing) may be an excellent cat but a really crumby dog.  It was in this context that G.K. Chesterton pointed out what was going on when Siger of Brabant (and friends) were twisting Aquinas’s words and judging Thomism by non-Thomist standards,

At the top of his fury, Thomas Aquinas understands, what so many defenders of orthodoxy will not understand. It is no good to tell an atheist that he is an atheist; or to charge a denier of immortality with the infamy of denying it; or to imagine that one can force an opponent to admit he is wrong, by proving that he is wrong on somebody else’s principles, but not on his own. After the great example of St. Thomas, the principle stands, or ought always to have stood established; that we must either not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds and not ours. We may do other things instead of arguing, according to our views of what actions are morally permissible; but if we argue we must argue “on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.” (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox.” New York: Image Books, 1956, 95-96)

How this all fits into today’s misinterpretation of natural law and the spread of moral relativism we’ll see when we get to the next posting in this series.