Speaker addresses why -- and how -- to fight moral relativism Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Emily Seyfert, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Sep. 17, 2009 -- 12:00 AM
Madrid has been engaged in that fight since 1987. He is the publisher of Envoy Magazine, a journal of contemporary Catholic thought, and the director of the Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College. He is an author and editor and hosts four EWTN television series. He and his wife are the parents of 11 children.

Madrid’s talk was sponsored by the Knights of Divine Mercy, in cooperation with the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis. Eucharistic Adoration and singing by the Knights of Divine Mercy Schola Choir preceded the talk.

Deconstructing moral relativism

“Moral relativism,” Madrid explained, “is the theory that there is no objective standard of truth.” As a consequence, “moral relativism holds the view that no one has the right to force his or her morality on anyone else.” For a moral relativist, there is no good or bad, no right or wrong. “There is only your opinion and my opinion.”

“This gets us at the more fundamental question of truth,” Madrid said. If, in a world dominated by moral relativism, there is no right or wrong, we have to ask ourselves, “What is truth?”

“The answer, from a Catholic perspective, of course, is Jesus Christ . . . ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’”

When evaluating a statement to see if it is true, Madrid recommended asking oneself three basic questions, as outlined by Peter Kreeft, a famous Catholic philosopher. Kreeft said to ask of any statement, “What does it mean? (Are there any ambiguous terms?), Is it true? (Are there any false premises?), and What is the evidence or proof? (Are there any logical fallacies?).” If there are ambiguous terms, false premises, or logical fallacies in the statement, it likely isn’t true.

Objective and subjective truth

There is, of course, a difference between objective truth and subjective truth, Madrid clarified. It might be subjectively true for one to say, “The Beatles’ music is the best music ever.” It might be equally true for someone else to say, “The Beatles’ music is the worst music ever.”

Contrary to what moral relativists insist, however, not all truth is subjective. Morality is in the realm of objective truth. Genuine moral norms are public and universal — they aren’t just true for one person; they are true for everyone.

“Something is true objectively speaking whether or not you like it to be,” Madrid explained. “Two plus two will always equal four. That’s objectively true. You may not like that it’s true. You may say, ‘Who are you to force your math on me?’” But the IRS, for example, will disagree with you.

In a like manner, “St. Paul in Romans says that every single person at some level deep down understands that certain things are wrong. That is why our guilty consciences bother us,” Madrid continued.

“Objective truth . . . is something given to us by God, not to ruin our lives, . . . but to make us truly free,” Madrid emphasized.

Like the law of gravity, objective truth is still a law whether or not we agree with it. “You may choose to live your life outside the law of gravity,” Madrid said. “But, if you walk out of a third story window, you will come quickly face to face with the ground. . . . In spite of their sincerity, (moral relativists) can be sincerely wrong.

“Everyone seeks true and lasting happiness,” Madrid said, quoting from Kreeft, “and only the saints find it . . . Every time we sin, we suffer. Yet we keep sinning. Every time we overcome sin, we have joy. Yet we keep refusing joy. God has offered us joy in his right hand and misery in his left hand, and we keep saying, ‘I think I’ll try the left hand.’ . . . We desperately hope there is some other way to happiness than God’s way, even though no one has ever found it.”

Responding to the arguments

Forcing ourselves and the people around us to think critically and draw logical conclusions is the key to combating moral relativism, Madrid said.

“There is nothing complicated about moral relativism,” Madrid reassured the audience. When speaking with people who haven’t thought about their moral relativism, one merely needs to lead them to the point where they can see the absurdity of their position.

First, ask questions to get them to admit that they believe there is no such thing as objective moral truth. It is important to get this assumption of theirs, which they may not even be aware they hold, out into the open. Then, demonstrate that that assumption is incorrect.

For example, if someone says, “That’s your morality, not my morality,” you might say, “So you’re saying there is no objective moral standard. How can apartheid be wrong if there is no objective moral standard?”

Or, if someone says, “Abortion is legal; get over it,” you might say to that person, “Shall we tell the slave before the civil war, ‘Slavery is legal; get over it’ or to the woman before suffrage, ‘You are not legally allowed to vote; get over it.’”

Or, someone might say, “You shouldn’t force your morality on me.” You might respond with, “Do you mean that I don’t have a right to my own opinion?” “Of course you do,” they might say, “but you don’t have the right to force that opinion on me.”

“Is that your opinion?” “Yes.” “Are you saying that only your opinion is the right one? Isn’t that what you were saying was wrong to begin with?”

Treating people with charity

We must do this with respect and charity, Madrid emphasized. Typically the people who have bought into moral relativism are good people. But they have bought into this lie.

So when you are talking to them, you need to force their arguments all the way to the logical conclusion. And then say, “I’m not being judgmental, I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to show you that you are following a path that is wrong and leading you in a direction away from the true and the good. I’m going to pray for you and ask you to bring this conversation to prayer.” A gentle response in the face of moral relativism can make a positive difference.

We can’t be pushy or mean spirited; we can’t do anything that we shouldn’t as respectful, charitable Catholics, Madrid cautioned, but “we can’t refrain from speaking the truth.” Even if we’re going to be laughed at, rejected, and turned away from, “we have to be willing to bear the cost. Otherwise we are not living up to our calling as apostles of Christ.”