What is the relationship between cultural relativism and moral relativism? In trying to answer this question, we find some remarkable issues converging. If we ignore these convergences, we will miss opportunities to improve upon the moral tenor of our personal lives and the moral character of our society at the same time.
Allan Bloom opens The Closing of the American Mind (1987) with the observation that “one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of [is that] almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” This assertion by Bloom is not made off the top of the professor’s head. It is born of practical experience, that is, decades spent in the classroom engaging students about the meaning and nature of truth. Acknowledging that students differ widely among themselves with respect to religion, political affiliation, and a whole host of other characteristics, Bloom finds them “unified only in their relativism.” He concedes further that “they have all been equipped with this framework [i.e., relativism] early on.”
Bloom states that relativism “destroys one’s own good and the common good.” Let’s start with destroying one’s own good. This is quite a statement for Bloom to make considering that relativity is a routine feature of life. Relativity permits us to talk about how one thing is in relation to another thing. Relativity, then, relates to relationships, and what’s wrong with that? Well, to say that one place is near or far from another is not just practical but necessary if we are going to read a map properly. Reading a map, though, is different from abiding in love, honor, and respect. We call these things—love, honor, and respect—human goods because we strive to attain them, and once we attain them, we endeavor to hold on to them. It is by attaining human goods and holding on to them that we ourselves become good.
What happens, though, when we choose against love, against honor, and against respect? It is not only that we have chosen wrongly or badly, it is also that we are personally less lovable, less honorable, and less respectable in ourselves. Our stature is diminished through the choices we make. That Bloom can say we are “destroyed” is owing to the realization that we have chosen a lesser good over a higher good, a relative good as opposed to an absolute good. Our choosing has thus failed to take into account the truth of things, the objective truth of things.
As Bloom indicates above, relativism is a framework; it is an interpretive key for experience. And what matters here—and matters a lot—is that the experience of making judgments is shared broadly irrespective of the characteristics which usually distinguish person from person and group from group. For not only do I make judgments on my own, I make judgments in concert with others. That is, my judgments accord with the judgments rendered by family members, co-workers, neighbors, and other moral actors in society. All those who make up the social fabric, or most of them anyway, are choosing the same way in the same situations. When most of us are choosing lesser goods over higher goods—that is, relative goods as opposed to absolute goods—it is then that we can say that the common good has been “destroyed.” Just as we are reduced and diminished personally through our choices, the society to which we belong is reduced and diminished, too. It is then that we have a cultural relativism.
Not to be forgotten is what Bloom notes above about the start of cultural relativism. It begins, he says, “early on.” Since Bloom uses the example of college students entering the university as relativists, we will continue with the “schooling” reference. Freshmen arrive on campus deeply “schooled” in relativism. Their “schooling” comes through the experiences they have in their families, their schools, and their houses of worship, as well as through their exposure to art, entertainment, and most especially the media, not to mention through civic associations of various kinds—all of them cultural transmitters. As carriers of the dominant ethos, mediating institutions such as the ones just mentioned blanket the cultural canvas—or, to use Peter Berger’s (1929-2017) apt terminology here, there is a sacred canopy erected. It keeps under one roof the approved messages and keeps out the unacceptable ones.
So much for cultural relativism. What about moral relativism?
Pope Saint John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor is the most wide-ranging and most in-depth exposition of Catholic moral teaching in our time. As we would expect from such a document, it lays out the principles of Catholic moral theology and how they cohere together to produce the splendor of truth. It also does not sidestep the matter of erroneous conceptions of Catholic moral theology which have arisen. These distortions of Catholic moral theology go by the names of consequentalism and proportionalism. These ethical theories maintain that it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behavior which applies in every circumstance and in every culture (# 75). Consequentalism and proportionalism reject the traditional Catholic notion that the primary and decisive element for moral judgment is the object of the human act (# 79).
In the encyclical, the pontiff identifies the source of the problem with the erroneous conceptions of moral theology as a failure to understand properly the relationship between freedom and truth (# 84). Invoking Pilate’s question—what is truth? (John 18:38)—the pope contends that we witness not infrequently a fearful plunging of the person into situations of gradual self-destruction. Why? The answer is that we have detached freedom from the truth in our moral evaluations. That separation has brought in its wake an abolition of the self. Here is the first convergence between cultural relativism and moral relativism. Both relativisms diminish and reduce the person.
There is also the issue of the common good which is destroyed in the same way the self is abolished. As we have seen already, cultural relativism results when untold numbers of people act the same way in the same situations. In moral relativism, the common good is destroyed by flouting the Ten Commandments. What we have in the Ten Commandments are prohibitions which are binding on us; that is, in every place and at every time, men and women are called to keep them. And what is written on the tablets is also written on the human heart. Similarly, what is revealed to us is also at work in the natural law.
Who can say that as a society we are better off for destroying human life in the womb through abortion? In the case of abortion, the destruction is inescapably literal. Yet, while the reduction and diminishment is physical in abortion, the moral reduction and diminishment are no less real. All those tiny persons destroyed through abortion exact a heavy toll on the moral sensibility of society. What we are now permitted to do to end life right up through birth in some places does not make us any more sensitive to the fragility of life after birth in these same places. The only difference is the cover of the civil law, a law which symbolizes cultural relativism and moral relativism simultaneously.
The second convergence of cultural and moral relativism is in the corruption of freedom. We misuse our freedom through a denial of personhood. Again, it is not just a matter of crushing others out of existence, as it is in abortion, but crushing ourselves when we act as if freedom is all that matters. But what kind of freedom are we really talking about? A freedom to destroy others and ourselves is not freedom at all. It is a corruption, and as Pope Saint John Paul II advises in Veritatis Splendor, that freedom needs to be set free (# 86). The One who sets freedom free, of course, is Christ (cf. Gal. 5:1), and he does that for us by dying on the Cross.
Conversion is always hard and there are no quick fixes. However, acknowledging the convergences of cultural and moral relativism is a start. For the moment we begin to address one of them in a serious fashion, we will begin to see improvements in the other.