Reflections on My Years of Dialogue with a Relativist

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2014 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

My relativist friend for years has argued that a moral absolute implies that a certain course of action is required or demanded regardless of the circumstances. And, since no human action takes place outside of concrete circumstances, asserting moral absolutes is meaningless. He has even provided a categorical syllogism to demonstrate his point:

All human action is conditioned by circumstances.
All human action involves morality.
Ergo, all that involves morality is conditioned by circumstances (moral relativism).

Of course, the problem with the syllogism is that it is invalid: the minor term ('all that involves morality') is distributed in the conclusion, but it is undistributed in the minor premise. Any term distributed in the conclusion must be distributed in the premises. The argument is identical in form to: All dogs are carnivores; all dogs have teeth. Therefore, all who have teeth are carnivores. Some animals that have teeth are herbivores.

The non-relativist position has never maintained that circumstances are irrelevant. Rather, there are three elements of a human action. Just as 'things' come in 'kinds' (species), so too do human acts. Murder is a different kind of action than self-defence, lying is a different kind of action than telling the truth, etc.

The first element of the human action is the moral object, which answers the question: "What is being done?" The second element is the motive, which answers the question: "Why is this being done?" The third element is the circumstances, which answers the question: "In what situation and under what conditions is this being done?" One cannot perform an act outside of circumstances.

When my friend speaks of the injustice of banning same-sex marriage for example, or the injustice of imposing religiously based laws on a country, etc., he is speaking in the abstract, that is, on a general level. That has never prevented him from asserting that banning same sex marriage is unjust, or persecuting scientists because they teach something contrary to conventional thinking is unjust. No, on the contrary, he goes ahead and asserts the claim, knowing well that when same-sex marriage is banned, or when a scientist is persecuted, it will occur within a context, within a set of circumstances.

Now, he does say: "There are circumstances in which banning same-sex marriage or persecuting a scientist might be required", but these are so extenuating as to be highly improbable. But theoretically, it is possible. He has to maintain that position to be consistent. If not, he'd concede that there are absolutes, and the argument would be over.

But what he refuses to understand about natural law is that according to it, there are circumstances that can change the 'nature' of the act so that it becomes a different kind of action. He seems to think that the non-relativist does not think that, as if circumstances are always irrelevant. But this is simply not true.

The secondary precepts of natural law are absolute, but circumstances can and often do change the nature of the act so that doing the act does not violate the precept. For example, the secondary precept that one ought not to treat others with a preference, unless the preference is required by basic intelligible human goods, is absolute (i.e., the golden rule). That precept gives rise to the more specific precept that "one ought to keep one's promises". I promised to visit my friend in the hospital this weekend, but I came down with a terrible cold. I have to break my promise. Now, the precept that one ought to keep one's promise is relative. The principle upon which it is based, however, is absolute (i.e., the duty to treat others fairly). Breaking my promise does not involve me in violating that principle of fairness. In fact, if I kept the promise, I would be "doing to another that which I would not want another to do to me." I'd be spreading my sickness.

The non-relativist position differs from the relativist position in this: the non-relativist says that there are certain actions that no circumstances can justify. This means that there are certain actions that no circumstances will alter so that they become different kinds of acts. They remain what they are through the circumstances. In other words, the circumstances do not change the moral object of these acts. Now clearly, circumstances changed the nature or moral object of my action of breaking my promise. Breaking my promise was not a violation of the precept of fairness. But there are certain actions, like abortion, adultery, fornication, active euthanasia, which no circumstances change. Thus, there are relative precepts and absolute precepts.

For example, going to an abortionist and having him go in and suck out the baby is a certain kind of action. The fact that the girl is 15, or that she was raped, or that she is poor, etc., does not change the fact that the action itself involves the violation of a basic moral principle; it involves willing that an actual developing baby cease to be. That's why the abortionist is going inside with a suction tube, to eliminate the baby (not for its own sake, but as a means to a good end, let's assume). The circumstances do not change that. Now, an ectopic pregnancy is a circumstance that calls for a different response. You would not go to an abortionist to treat that. The doctor removes part of the fallopian tube, and that medical action results in the death of the baby. But the doctor is not willing that this developing baby cease to be (he's not performing an abortion). What he's doing is something essentially different, and it is not murderous, even though it results in the death of the child.

So my friend, after all these years, has not begun to understand the complexities of ethics. He seems to think that his objections are insightful and profound, as if no one has ever thought of them, which is why he does not bother checking to see if the objection had ever been raised and dealt with. He has a very good mind, but it is disposed to think mathematically. Statistical problems are easy for him to grasp and penetrate rather quickly, whereas someone else not so mathematically inclined would grasp these problems more slowly, because he or she is not disposed to think from that angle, on that level, and is unfamiliar with the structural patterns of statistical problems.

It is always interesting to explore other areas of knowledge and ways of knowing, that is, to discover someone who has spent his life within a certain area of thought and attempt to become familiar with it. It takes a long time; one quick read of his works is rarely enough. You have to go back and read and re-examine the world in light of what he was saying, and then re-read it again and perhaps a third time, and after a long while it begins to penetrate. That takes time and labor, and most people are too lazy minded or busy to commit to that.

My friend refuses to commit to that with regard to ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, etc., because it takes work, and a certain degree of humility is required, which many people simply do not have, including my friend. It's like a person who grew up in New York City; he's spent his life there, he knows it well, but then you visit and you find it overwhelming, for you are not familiar with it, and you easily get lost. You need to spend about a year or two there to really know it, and even then, you will not know it as well as the one who has spent his life there. If a person is not willing to acknowledge his limitations, if he is too proud to learn something new, or to recognize that there is a world so much larger than what he is capable of taking in and that he will need others to expand his mind, then he will not make much progress and will arrogantly dismiss those who talk a language with which he's unfamiliar. He will not ask for clarification, and if he does, he will dismiss it as rubbish, because he has to work to understand it, and in his mind, he's brilliant, fast, and has a comprehensive grasp of all things. The fact is he does not.

Richard Dawkins is an excellent example of this. He knows his area (Ethology and Evolutionary Biology), but he insists on pronouncing on matters that are outside his field of expertise, and he's quickly lost, but he does not realize it. Those who have a background in logic, epistemology, metaphysics, etc., quickly recognize the errors he makes in philosophical reasoning (drawing philosophical conclusions from scientific premises), but he does not seem to understand that, because after all, he's a reputable scientist. And that is true, but he's not making scientific errors, but basic philosophical errors - and make no mistake about it: everyone is a philosopher, absolutely everyone.

There are great moral thinkers out there, such as Fulvio DiBlasi, Russell Hittinger, Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, Elizabeth Anscombe, Jacques Maritain, etc., but some people are just not interested in learning what they have to say about the nature of ethics and human action. They are well satisfied with who they are and what they believe, and no one is going to upset their apple cart.