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Debunking Moral SkepticismDebunking Moral Skepticism

Debunking Moral Skepticism

If truth equals reality, then relativism is the wrong answer, Richard Bastien argues

Richard Bastien
11 minute read

At the core of the culture war being waged in all Western countries between modern liberal skeptics and cultural-social conservatives is the question of whether there exists an objective moral truth or whether morality is merely a matter of opinion. In dealing with this question, it is important to note that the notion of "truth" is understood quite differently by the Judeo-Christian tradition and by modern culture.

With the advent of modernity, truth has generally come to be understood as always relative to some standard of justification generally accepted in a particular social or cultural context. Today, in our technical culture, the only generally acknowledged standard of justification for truth is that of empirical science (i.e. verifiability or falsifiability). This philosophical stance, knownas scientism, implies that any statement that cannot be scientifically tested is no more than a matter of opinion.

According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, asserting that something is true does not consist solely in affirming its compliance with a particular standard of justification. Truth rather is defined as the match between the mind and extramental reality. In other words, to assert that something is true is to posit that it is the way it is not from the perspective of a certain culture or society, but as such. More specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition denies that truth is a mere cultural construct or a culturally determined product, and affirms instead that there is a culture-transcendent truth that can be grasped by means of universal reason and universal laws of reasoning. Certainly the formulation of truth can be heavily influenced by various cultural and environmental factors, but truth itself cannot be reduced to such factors, however important they may be.

Although this understanding of truth is part and parcel of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is not specifically Jewish or Christian. It was first formulated by Aristotle, who lived several centuries before Christ. He defined truth as "that which corresponds to reality." The implication here is that truth cannot be reduced to "what works" (although if something is true, it will "work"), to "what feels good" (although if something is true, it will be good),or to what the majority of people think, as is often suggested by modern culture.

Differences about what truth is have far-reaching consequences, particularly with respect to morality. Our understanding of what is right and what is wrong depends on our beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality. And it is largely on the basis of such an understanding that we determine the way we conduct ourselves not only in our private lives but also in the political and economic spheres. In other words, our metaphysical beliefs shape our actions.

For example, Hans Kelsen, a prominent Austrian jurist who played a major role in the development of 20th century Western jurisprudence and public law, argued that because of the multiplicity of religious and moral beliefs, the only appropriate attitude in building the legal framework of a modern society was the skepticism of Pontius Pilate, expressed by his famous question "What is truth?" That skepticism is echoed every day by secularists, who keep saying that religious people can do and think as they like as long as their "religious" views and activities are confined to their homes and places of worship. It is similarly echoed by modern liberals who uphold the absence of any restrictions with regard to abortion, censorship or euthanasia by arguing that "you can't legislate morality" because doing so would violate freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

This religious and moral skepticism is generally viewed as modern and trendy, and opposition to it as "reactionary" or "pathologically conservative." Yet, one can trace it to antiquity, as far back as Pyrrho (c. 360-c. 270 B.C.), founder of the Greek school of skepticism. It also flourished among pagan authors of the late Roman Empire. In a dialogue titled Octavius, for example, the 3rd century Latin author Minucius Felix has one of his pagan characters arguing that nothing can be firmly ascertained in human existence, that everything is probable rather than true, and that one should therefore stick to the old religious traditions. His religious pluralism, based on the impossibility of arriving at a firm religious truth, is reflected in many other literary works of that period. The Emperor Julian the Apostate upheld this religious relativism and lamented the fact that Christians and Jews did not acknowledge the equal validity of all divinities and religions. In short, religious and moral skepticism is not as modern as some might think.

It is also worth considering what would have happened in past centuries if Christians had complied with the secularist urge to confine their religious beliefs and activities to their private sphere. More specifically, can the view that all religions are equivalent really be taken seriously? If such is the case, how should one explain that, on the occasion of the rebuilding of the main Aztec temple in 1487, more than 20,000 people were bled to death over four days on the altars of Tenochtitlàn, in the upper Mexico valley, as human sacrifices to the sun god? These sacrifices, anthropologists tell us, were not due to some natural "inclination to bloodthirstiness," but rather to a fanatical belief that the gods of nature had to be appeased in order to guarantee the world's sustainability. And, in the same vein, what are we to make of the Hindu-sanctioned practice of sati—the burning of wives on the funeral pyres of their husbands—which was banned under British colonial rule in the 19th century? Should it have been allowed to continue under the guise of some gentle multiculturalism? While these examples may appear extreme, they clearly illustrate the fallacy of the equivalence of all religions, especially when they are contrasted with some of Christianity's achievements such as the abolition of slavery or the fostering of the principle of the equal dignity of all human beings.

But let us consider the major objection of skeptics to the Judeo-Christian moral prescriptions, which is that they are based on faith rather than reason and that, as such, they would constitute an unwarranted imposition of beliefs that would violate their conscience.

Obedience to God does not, as skeptics would have us believe, take away our autonomy. It does not involve submission to some outside tyrannical authority. What the Ten Commandments ask of us corresponds to what we would require of ourselves if we were perfectly rational. The obligations imposed on us by the Decalogue—what philosophers call natural law—are valid for all people of all times because they follow from permanent structural elements of human beings (i.e. from human nature).

What that means is that the natural law revealed through Moses, the prophets, and Jesus Christ is no different from that which we accept on the basis of our own human understanding and reasoning when they are in good order. When we accept Biblical moral teaching, we do not have to renounce anything we have learned concerning the moral law through our own right reasoning. If there are differences between what we learn through our reasoning and what is taught by Scripture, it can only be because of some defective reasoning resulting from our ignorance or our passions.

Therefore, what separates the Judeo-Christian and skeptic-secularist approaches to moral issues is not that one is based on some irrational or arational submission to God's dictates and the other on a rational analysis of the good life. Both approaches claim to be founded in reason. The difference between the two lies rather in the fact that the Judeo-Christian approach acknowledges that the human ability to understand and reason is sometimes defective and, therefore, in need of divine assistance, whereas the secularist approach denies the need for human reason to be corrected by the revelation of God's law. One says that reason can easily go awry, the other that it is entirely self-sufficient and in no need of some "divine crutch."

But that is not all. The skeptics' claim that their approach to moral issues is based solely on reason is itself highly questionable. They exalt freedom as an absolute by making it the source of all values. According to their concept of freedom, individual conscience acts as a supreme tribunal of sorts that can define for itself what is good and what is evil. One's moral judgment is deemed true for no other reason than its origination in conscience. Truth claims are thus replaced by a criterion of sincerity or authenticity. Moral judgment becomes entirely subjective and individualistic, to the point where the concept of human nature loses any relevance. Claims about the objectivity of moral standards (i.e. about their independence from any personal preference) are therefore perceived as so many attempts at forcing some people to abide by standards they don't accept. Skeptics thus posit the existence of a conflict between an objective moral law and individual freedom. This conflict was illustrated quite openly during the 1991 hearings of the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court of the United States, chaired by Joseph Biden, then head of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and now Vice-President. According to then Senator Biden, the fact that Thomas had once written that natural law "provides the key to how men ought to live their lives," meant that he (Thomas) believed (wrongly according to Biden) that natural law "dictates morality to us, instead of leaving matters to individual choice."

But then, one may ask, how can skeptics claim to base their moral views on reason? They do so by viewing all human situations as lending themselves to an exercise in moral calculation. For each situation, one may allegedly weigh benefits and costs, with every benefit and every cost being weighed against every other, so that one may determine for oneself the greatest possible net balance of benefits over costs. But this type of computation raises two fundamental problems.

First, if changing circumstances modify the balance of costs and benefits in such a way that what appeared positive yesterday today appears negative, then it becomes rational and right to flip-flop on fundamental choices or principles. In such a context, no moral position can be held unconditionally and no commitment made without qualification. And if that is the case, the principle of unconditional trust loses any value, and that of temporariness becomes indispensable. If human relations are to be based principally or solely on the assessed balance of benefits and costs that are contingent on evolving circumstances, then any disposition to stand by one's central commitments whatever the consequences can only be described as downright irrational. In fact, this approach to moral issues would make any lifetime commitment a form of hypocrisy. Why should anyone want to enter into marriage or take on family obligations on such a basis?

The second problem raised by the computation of costs and benefits as a means of solving moral issues is that it presupposes that the costs and benefits in question are measurable or comparable by a common standard, which often they are not. Very often, what is presented as a rational calculation may serve to hide a set of subjective judgments reflecting one's personal preferences or prejudices. How can anyone involved in a relationship that has turned sour claim to be perfectly honest in his or her assessment of costs and benefits involved? What we claim to be rational is often arbitrary.

Beyond these considerations, one should note that by claiming to base their moral deliberations solely on reason, skeptics are in effect equating reason with a particular kind of rationality—that of mathematics and empirical sciences. In doing so, they deny that reason can be used to attain truths other than those of mathematics and empirical sciences. Yet, that very denial is itself self-contradictory since it is based neither on mathematics nor on some empirical science.

The claim of the skeptics that they have some kind of monopoly over reason in moral matters is thus entirely arbitrary. While they may give the impression of being rational by resorting to a set of concepts appropriate to empirical investigation—costs and benefits—the intellectual structure in which skeptics have taken refuge is no more than a sand castle, one that would be swept away in a jiffy if it were not for the spinelessness of modern culture.

Many religious people, whether Jewish or Christian, tend to be intimidated by the skeptics' monopolistic claim over reason. Yet there is no more conflict between faith and reason than there is between personal freedom and the objectivity of moral norms. The Judeo-Christian tradition stands alone in making life sensible and tolerable. In response to a question put to him by an Italian student about the skeptics' claim that faith is not rational, Pope Benedict XVI noted that we must all choose as follows:

"Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of creative Reason that is at the beginning of all things and is the principle of all things—the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom—or one holds the priority of the irrational, inasmuch as everything that functions on our earth and in our lives would be only accidental, marginal, an irrational result—reason would be a product of irrationality."

Benedict XVI is not the only great mind to believe that rationality and faith are perfectly compatible. Kurt Gödel, perhaps the foremost logician and mathematician of the 20th century, showed that, contrary to the tenets of scientism, the human mind cannot be understood on the basis of a machine-like model, and computer algorithms will never replace intuition. The implication, he argued, was that no credible account of reality can ignore God and that God "can act as a person." Religion and morality, on the one hand, and reason and science on the other, are not opposed but complementary.

What modern skeptics seek ultimately is the replacement of the Judeo-Christian tradition by some brand of radical liberal secularism that would provide a franchise from the proscriptions of the "old religions." They view themselves as sons of the Enlightenment and they seek to propagate their liberation message with the same missionary zeal as that displayed by Christians of an earlier period. But the skeptics really don't have much to show for themselves. The 20th century was, by and large, an experiment in secular ideologies—nationalism, Communism, Naziism, fascism, socialism and, more recently, Islamism—and was found wanting, not only in economics but also in demographics, the arts and civic aesthetics.

Societies where the national culture has been heavily influenced by modern ideologies—Russia, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, U.K., Japan—invariably have below-replacement birth rates and appear to have chosen the path of slow death as their future. In the Western world, only the U.S. has a birth rate that allows it to maintain itself demographically without a constant inflow of immigrants. It also happens to be the only country in the West where religion and morality still play an important role in fashioning culture, albeit less so now than in a recent past. Outside the Western world, the only developed country with a birth rate above replacement level is Israel, where religion is also an important factor. This is an issue that modern skeptics always make a point of ignoring, although it is fundamental.

The point here is not that religion should be used as a means of statecraft to foster a higher birth rate. It is rather that the vitality of a national culture appears to be strongly correlated with the presence of a strong religious and moral sense within civil society. Societies can perhaps do without such a sense, but only for a while. When skepticism impregnates a culture, it begets a loss of purpose or ideal that eventually translates into wimpishness: people lack strength of will or character and become more susceptible to being controlled by a small group. In such a culture, as Charles Murray wrote of Europe, "ideas of greatness become an irritant." What that suggests is that a society can only survive as long as it has something to strive for, some ideal that inspires it. We are made in such a way that we simply cannot live for mere comfort or pleasure. If we allow ourselves to do so, an activist group will eventually arise to propose some kind of millennialism—a "Thousand Year Reich," the "classless society." And so belief in a transcendent divinity ends up being abandoned in favour of belief in an immanent one, more oppressive than anything previously experienced.

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