End Notes

The last refuge of the relativist is: You may do anything you wish so long as you don’t interfere with the rights of others to do whatever they wish. This statement is empty since it doesn’t tell us to do anything in particular. That is why it is sometimes thought to be equivalent to the golden rule.

That we shouldn’t do to others what we wouldn’t want them to do to us doesn’t specify any action either. While the Golden Rule does not exhaust the moral guidance Christ gives us, the relativist I have in mind would eschew giving any substantive moral advice. As to what he will freely do, the agent is simply on his own.

It is easy to see the difference between Christian morality and such theories as relativism. Jean-Paul Sartre pointed to the fundamental difference. If a certain course of action is said to be good for humans to pursue, the recommendation must be grounded in what human beings are. When we speak of a good seven iron, our recommendation is tied to what a seven iron is. It’s good if it enables us to hit a ball 150-160 yards. To say that it is good for chasing creditors from your door is accidental. A baseball bat or anything heavy and handy might do for that.

Courses of action are good or bad for human agents because of the nature of the human agent. But just as golf clubs are what they are because of the human maker, so natural things are what they are because of their maker. So, Sartre points out, take away the maker and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are emptied of meaning. The only advice left is: Do whatever you wish so long as you don’t prevent others from doing whatever they wish.

The Holy Father’s insistence on the incomparable worth of the human person is the keystone to The Gospel of Life. “Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation revealed the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase.”

This passage derives its conviction of the inestimable value of natural life from the loftiness of our supernatural vocation. To speak of the dignity of the human person in terms of his being made in the image and likeness of God also seems to be an overt appeal to religious belief. True, one can establish the equivalent of the last claim on philosophical grounds, but this is no easy matter, and the route to it is cluttered with seemingly endless controversies.

For all practical purposes, our unwavering conviction in the dignity of every single human person seems to be lodged in our religious faith. And then the things that follow from it—notably prohibitions of abortion, suicide, euthanasia, and so on—must seem to be, as the secular critic insists, items of faith. Those who do not accept the faith reject these prohibitions leaving us at an impasse.

Now this shouldn’t be. It is a feature of Church teaching on such matters as I have mentioned that they are contrary to natural morality and not simply in conflict with supernatural truths. That means that, in principle at least, the incomparable worth of the human person should be a point of agreement between believer and non-believer. If it were, the prohibition of abortion and euthanasia should be common positions. Is it hopelessly naive to speak of such an agreement?

It is a rule of discussion that one should always seek beneath the differences that divide common points of agreement. Total and complete disagreement between human beings is impossible. The task, therefore, is not one of getting the other to accept my views, but to establish that he already shares them. These views are not mine or his but ours.

The libertarian principle with which I began can be made to show such an agreement about the incomparable dignity of the human person. If I should say to Sartre, when he invokes this restraint on my freedom, that I choose to enslave others and prevent them from acting freely, he will try to rule this out. He will urge me to respect the freedom of others. But he wants to do that without conceding that human agents have natures. And that won’t do. If there is nothing about others—something given and thus not conferred freely by me—which prevents my treating them as mere things, the restraint is arbitrary, perhaps merely another vestige of our Christian past. That Sartre, despite his assumption, insists on the inviolability of the freedom of others is the proper tribute of a silly theory.

Sartre thought that human freedom could be total and untrammeled, yet he would constrain it. That single constraint makes clear that there are others as well. I am not free to make any course of action good for me, anymore than I am free to preserve my health by sipping hydrochloric acid. You may make a bow tie for an opponent out of your seven iron but that is not the good of the seven iron, nor of your opponent.

Defending the obvious against naysayers is not exhilarating work, but someone has to do it lest those who have not should fear that it is only faith that grounds the recognition of the incomparable worth of the human person. This is an inescapable, natural recognition and one that rules out courses of action that many seek to justify. Pointing out that they cannot do so coherently will not as such stop them. But it does prevent portraying nonsense as something other than nonsense.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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