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On rejecting relativism… kind of.

Following on from an admission the other day about my critical admiration for Michael Gove, which surprised none of those who actually know me, I’ll start this blog post with another admission that will no doubt disqualify me from polite company: I quite like Toby Young.

Don’t get me wrong, I have my criticisms. His Punch ‘n’ Judy analysis of education, in which everything disreputable is by definition a cause of ‘THE LEFT!!!!!!!!’ too often puts him in the same category as those whom he rightly mocks for blind anti-reform hysteria. Still, he cares about education, and he quite patently cares about making kids cleverer, which to me seems as good a foundation as any for me to admire the guy.

Now I understand that, in writing the article which I am about to fisk, Toby was seeking to praise the Pope, but it seems me that there are daggers in his smiles. Or logical inconsistency. Or simple ignorance, in the non-judgmental sense of the word, of the nature and content of Catholic doctrine. But someone who places such admirably high value on academic rigour and knowledge must accept that they submit themselves to scrutiny of their own thoughts and words. And so it is in that spirit that I offer this fisk of his most recent blog post, superficially praising the Pope for his opposition to moral relativism, for which I praise him, whilst simultaneously (and, I fear, unwittingly) endorsing grounds for precisely the opposite, for which I praise him not. My comments in red, emphasis through italicization or underlining my own.

“There are various profiles of Pope Benedict XVI in this morning’s papers, most of them quite critical. He was no friend of secular liberalism, believing that homosexuality was “an intrinsic moral evil”, [Accuracy klaxon – common mistake this. This was not just *his* belief, it is Catholic teaching, though what he believes is rather more nuanced than the emotion that ripped-out-of-theological-context quote would seek to evoke, not least since the Church and the Pope reject the simplistic identity politics usually referred to by that word ‘homosexuality’, focussing on the act more than the inclination, since the former is believed sinful whilst the latter is not (something Benedict XVI explicitly asserted in his time at CDF). Benedict XVI, being Catholic, subscribes to the teachings of the Catholic Church on the issue of homosexual intercourse and homosexual inclination, which also demands compassion, sensitivity and respect towards those with such an inclination. In other words, the Pope is Catholic etc.*] condemning the use of condoms, [or, alternatively, upholding the teachings of the Church, most notably in Humanae Vitae, a document looking eerily prescient in its predictions, some of them even being picked up and (unwittingly?) affirmed by feminists themselves. Teachings which, by the way, the Pope has no right to gainsay, even if he had reason to do so, which he doesn’t. In other words, again, the Pope is Catholic etc.**] and in one controversial speech, linking “Nazi Tyranny” to “extremist atheism”. This speech, delivered in Scotland in 2010, was condemned as “surreal” by the British Humanist Association. [They who also claim that religious schools should be banned, either completely or, failing that, certainly from letting the teachings of their faith influence who they employ and how or what they teach. Model of liberal thought, huh? Okay, I admit, there is an element of intellectual ad hominem about that, but come on… what else are they going to say? And if anyone is qualified to talk about the milieu that produces such absolutist intolerance, not an altogether irrelevant word here, I suspect it would be a man who lived through it.]

I’m an atheist myself – and I don’t share the Pope’s views about homosexuality or birth control, obviously. [Nothing obvious about it, as the many atheists who oppose that most disturbing of ‘birth control’ methods, abortion, will frequently remind us.] But I think that he was on to something in warning about the dangers of moral relativism [me too], a theme he returned to [the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ theme first offered in his homily here] in 2011 when discussing the riots that took place in England that summer. “When policies do not presume or promote objective values, the resulting moral relativism tends instead to produce frustration, despair, selfishness and a disregard for the life and liberty of others,” he said.

Now, I don’t think that moral relativism inevitably leads to the sort of lawless behaviour we witnessed in England’s cities in 2011 (or Nazi-ism), but I do think there’s a link, something I blogged about at the time. [Though do remember that the Pope’s vision of moral relativism and lawlessness places itself in relation to divine law, not just (nor primarily) civil. It’s important, that. Especially for what comes next.] The problem, as GK Chesterton pointed out, is that once people abandon the idea that morality has some objective foundation – such as the belief that a certain set of moral principles are sanctioned by a divine being – they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything. [According to popular myth what he actually said, indirectly since the quote is a misattribution***, is that when people cease to believe in God they’ll believe in anything; that is God, Him specifically, not some characterless objective foundation (karma, perhaps?). It is not pedantry to point this out, since in using that very term*** Chesterton calls forth the Judaeo-Christian frameworks of morality and natural law which you would be willing to reject.] As one of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov puts it, if there is no God, everything is permitted.

Secular humanists always dismiss this point, believing that something vaguely recognisable as Judaeo-Christian moral values, prohibiting murder and so forth, can be rooted in Western traditions and institutions [though original Enlightenment thinkers very much saw rights as guaranteed by He who gave them]. (See John Rawls’s Theory of Justice for the most robust statement of this position.) But the problem with this approach is that if those principles are based on nothing more solid that a shared culture – an “overlapping consensus”, in Rawls’s words – they become endangered by widespread immigration from countries with very different moral values to our own, such as Pakistan. It also makes it difficult to condemn people who don’t share our Judaeo-Christian heritage for engaging in practices we find abhorrent, such as female genital mutilation. Secular liberals tend to be quite complacent about this, assuming their moral values are likely to prevail in the absence of any counter-vailing religious belief systems, but, as Pope Benedict pointed out, such naive optimism flies in the face of 20th Century history. [In other words, the transformation of objective accounts of natural law for the embracing of an imperialist, because entirely self-asserted, claim to moral judgment.]

So, just to be clear, I don’t share the Pope’s morality – and his attempt to base his conservative version of Catholicism [conservative version? Or would the word ‘orthodox’ be more accurate? Being the Pope, one might expect him to follow Catholic teaching. This does not make him a conservative Catholic; it makes him a Catholic. And any attempt to (mis-)apply such binaries are just efforts to undermine adherence the teachings one does not personally like. To head toward the intellectual lowlands of the relativist, one might say.] on what he called the “natural moral order” doesn’t bear much scrutiny. [Doesn’t bear much scrutiny? This is a basis for and expression of the very moral objectivity you were just praising. And funnily enough, the brightest minds this world has ever produced have given much scrutiny to the idea of an objective moral order embedded within creation itself, and they have come to a rather different conclusion – indeed, they seem to think it does bear scrutiny. Much of it. An account of an objective moral order not peculiar to Christians, either. Further, this is not just an intellectual eccentricity of the Pope, a sign of of his personal and not-so-very-trendy conservatism. It is the dogma, the reality, of the faith. An expression and recognition of that very moral objectivity you have been endorsing.  Only, it appears some would like to have their objective morality cake and eat it.] But I think he was bang on about the moral vacuum at the heart of atheism. [Even whilst rejecting the underpinning of that ‘bang on’ analysis’?]

Secular humanists like Dawkins imagine that their moral values go hand-in-hand with their antipathy to religion – that they’re sanctioned by reason and science – but there’s no logical connection between atheism and liberalism. [Nor between reason and science, if you reject God. See John Lennox. And countless other theologians, scientists, philosophers and historians, if you please.] On the contrary, atheism is as likely to lead to Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China as it is to a socialist Shangri-La. The problem for atheists that has never been satisfactorily addressed is that it’s very, very hard to find  a solid foundation for any moral values in the absence of a belief in God. [Especially when one of the chief expressions of that response doesn’t bear scrutiny.] Reason and science alone simply won’t cut it. [Quite so. Though they do help]

*the Catholic Catechism actually speaks of such inclinations being ‘intrinsically disordered’ as it does for most of the other offences against chastity, since the context of the analysis is that of a sexual telos based within the marital union ordered toward conjugality and procreation. The comment of the Pope on an ‘intrinsic moral evil’ comes from a single letter, written in 1986, immediately after re-affirming that the inclination is not a sin. To be properly understood the terms used, ‘evil’ and ‘disorder’, must be grasped in their theological context, not accessed simply through colloquial understandings of those terms – as anybody who has ever tried to teach the privatio boni argument to children will understand. I’m sure Toby knows all this. Following a quick scan, it is interesting to note that nearly all media outlets have used the text from the letter, whose audience was Bishops and so presumed advanced technical theological understanding, and not the Catechism, which Benedict as Ratzinger was also heavily involved in, and which is and was intended for general readership.
** Most people jump on this with regards to the AIDS issue in Africa, as if those who ignore church teaching on fornication and promiscuity will follow Papal teaching to the letter on contraception. But even on these terms, the argument falls down – for interest, see Harvard’s Dr Edward Green, or these useful mapping out of statistics by Greagoir O Dalaigh.
***Explained thoroughly here: “This quotation actually comes from page 211 of Émile Cammaerts‘ book The Laughing Prophet : The Seven Virtues and G. K. Chesterton (1937) in which he quotes Chesterton as having Father Brown say, in “The Oracle of the Dog” (1923): “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense.” Cammaerts then interposes his own analysis between further quotes from Father Brown: “‘It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.’ The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything: ‘And a dog is an omen and a cat is a mystery.'” Note that the remark about believing in anything is outside the quotation marks — it is Cammaerts.”


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