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Chapter 4: Some Mistaken Theories of Moral Principles

Question E: Are moral principles the requirements for the functioning of particular societies?

1. This view is cultural relativism. It argues as follows. People in different societies desire somewhat different goods. True, all wish at least to survive, but even the requirements of survival vary greatly under diverse conditions. Societies articulate their own sets of norms as means to their own somewhat different ends. Thus, moral norms vary according to cultures, though each culture’s own norms provide a more or less true way for it to attain its ends.15

2. Several factors lend plausibility to this view. First, children initially think of morality in terms of social norms, and many adults retain a notion of morality which is scarcely more adequate. Second, every society does have some norms, not all have the same norms, and each society’s accepted norms seem to be more or less effective means of achieving its purposes. Third, any society’s norms include some genuine moral requirements, such as fairness in at least certain relationships.

3. Cultural relativism must be rejected. It involves a confusion between social facts—what actually is required in various societies—and real moral norms. The latter concern what individuals and societies ought to require, not what they consider necessary to achieve their purposes. Furthermore, cultural relativism leaves no grounds for moral criticism of socially accepted norms, including those of one’s own society.16

In every society, some norms are proposed and generally accepted as standards of morality. Human fulfillment is defined in terms of a rich enjoyment of the goods understood and appreciated in the society. Accepted social goals provide the criterion by which various patterns of action are considered more or less acceptable, or altogether unacceptable. Norms of behavior reflect commonly accepted limits which are necessary if society is to function. Anything meeting these norms which is acceptable to the individuals involved and not unfair to others seems of little moral significance.

Any society must establish and defend a certain level of fairness; even among thieves there must be mutual honor. Modes of behavior which express selfish impulses, contrary to accepted standards of fairness, are considered immoral. So are modes of behavior based on impulse contrary to the rational requirements of the pursuit of the common good, even if these modes primarily have their adverse effects only on those who engage in them. Thus, laziness, drunkenness, and excessive fearfulness are frowned upon in any society, particularly when they lead to unfairness according to its standard.

Of course, not everyone lives up to the conventional standards of morality. Moreover, some who are reflective and critical always find the conventional standards more or less seriously defective.17 Such persons seek a higher standard; they wish to criticize accepted moral norms and to find true moral norms, grounded in reality rather than in the mere fact of social acceptance. The Greek and Roman quest for natural law beyond the law imposed by social authority is an example of this movement from sociological fact toward principles. Socrates also set out from conventional morality in his quest for wisdom and an examined life, which he considered would be worth living in a way that life lived according to uncriticized conventional norms cannot be.

Moral truth goes beyond any conventional morality in demanding openness to all human goods, not merely to certain commonly accepted objectives, and in aiming at perfect harmony on all levels, not merely at some level of fairness among persons belonging to a particular group. Moral truth extends to the whole of the person, to the whole of life, to the whole of humankind, and to the whole of reality by way of the human relationship to God.

4. Most important, cultural relativism is at odds with Christian awareness of the broken human condition and the Christian prescription for its restoration. Humankind is fallen and redeemed; both facts transcend all diversity of cultures in different times and places. The redemptive community, Christ’s Church extended through space and time, has in some important respects its own culture which is one and universal. Judged by Christian standards, each society’s culture is more or less defective. To the extent that any culture falls short, it is simply the “world” and the “present age” which Christians should not conform to but redeem.

St. Paul points out that without belief in the resurrection, human life in the fallen world would hardly seem worth living. If death is the end, one must obtain what fulfillment one can in the present life (see 1 Cor 15.19, 32; Is 22.13). The wisdom of the world is absurdity with God (see 1 Cor 3.19); worldly liberty is slavery to sin (see Rom 6.16–22; Gal 4.8; 2 Pt 2.19). Conventional morality is part of that world which defines itself by opposition to the Lord Jesus (see Jn 17.14–17). Redemption from the defects of conventional morality and its service to human stuntedness is an important part of the liberating work of Jesus. The world as we know it is passing away, and so the good Christian will no more conform to it than a fashionable person will adopt styles just as they are going out (cf. 1 Cor 7.31).18

Even those who do not explicitly believe in Jesus are able to transcend conventional morality to some extent, for if they do what they can to pursue human goodness, their good will is assisted by the grace of the Spirit (see GS 22). This help explains why in various times and places some higher level of moral truth and goodness has begun to emerge despite the limits of conventional morality. The work of a Socrates or a Buddha is the fruit of cooperation of some group of good men who happen to be able to break through the limits of their own society. However, without the integral gospel of Jesus and the fulfilling and stabilizing order of his Church, such moral breakthroughs suffer from the limitations of human error and extreme fragility.

15. For a discussion and criticism of relativism, see Brandt, op. cit., 92–99, 271–94, and 402–3; Morris Ginsberg, On the Diversity of Morals (London: Mercury Books, 1962), 97–129.

16. Anthony Battaglia, Toward a Reformulation of Natural Law (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), mistakenly thinks that the point of natural law is to explain how the diverse and changing conventions of morality are grounded in the more basic reality of human nature and the human condition. Hence, while he uses the language of natural law and makes some use of St. Thomas Aquinas’ treatise on it, Battaglia’s “reformulation of natural law” actually is a version of cultural relativism. Throughout his work, Battaglia reduces moral oughtness to psychosocial fact. Thus, he thinks that “good is to be done” means that people naturally desire to be good (5), that natural law is de facto conformity of human persons to eternal law and that synderesis is a knowledge of this conformity (51), that the good is what works and has worked (72), that the universalizability requirement means that one can learn about morality by seeing what has worked (108), that notions of happiness as an ultimate end are testable against experience (122), that a moral system must account for basic human needs as a science accounts for data (128), that the morality of producing babies in test tubes might be determined by trying the process out to see whether it works to the satisfaction of the parents, society, and the children themselves (130), and that the “is” and the “ought” are given together in culture (132–34). His account of moral judgment and action (106–8) is so thoroughly psychologically reductive that it is hard to see how anyone could make a morally wrong choice.

17. By treating conventional moral standards as beyond objective criticism, Hegelian and Marxist theories take a position very similar to the cultural relativism described here. By offering a wider, metaphysical framework which relativizes each historical era, such theories repudiate the moral truth of tradition. Recent Catholic moral theology which appeals to historicity and changing human nature has been strongly influenced, sometimes without knowing it, by such thinking. For a useful summary of Hegelian and Marxist thinking: Rodger Charles, S.J., and Drostan Maclaren, O.P., The Social Teaching of Vatican II: Its Origin and Development (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 99–103. Christian teaching presents its own dialectic (see GS 10), but salvation history does not relativize the moral truth of divinely revealed moral norms.

18. Despite the strong thrust of the gospel against cultural relativism, some Catholic theologians verge toward this theory in their efforts to justify revision of received teaching in conformity with dominant contemporary opinions. This tendency is especially obvious in those who defend a practice such as polygamy, despite Trent’s condemnation of it (see DS 1802/972). See, for example, Joseph Fuchs, S.J., “The Absoluteness of Moral Terms,” in Readings in Moral Theology, No. 1: Moral Norms and Catholic Tradition, ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, S.J., (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 112–16, and 135, n. 29. A critical discussion: Gustav Ermecke, “Das Problem der Universalität oder Allgemeingültigkeit sittlicher Normen innerweltlicher Lebensgestaltung,” Münchener theologische Zeitschrift, 24 (1973), 1–24. Also: Theo G. Belmans, O.Praem., Le sens objectif de l’agir humain (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1980), 310–22.