Relativism: On being moral commanders-in-chief

From the editor of First Things, R. R. Reno:

In The Brothers Karamazov, the rationalist and unbelieving Ivan is visited by the devil, who lays out the moral consequences of atheism. After belief in God is extinguished, “man will be exalted with the spirit of divine, titanic pride, and the man-god will appear.” Of course few will have the courage of the “man-god” to live in an entirely secular world. Ivan has the courage to face the fact that God is dead, or so the devil seductively suggests. And thus for him, “everything is permitted.”

I used to think that Dostoevsky was echoing a long tradition of anxious concern about atheism, one that presumes that without religious belief people will descend into a nihilistic state of self-regard and the moral order of society will crumble. This has not come to pass, at least not yet. Secular Sweden remains well-ordered. New York City, where many people don’t believe in God, is run by a neo-Puritan mayor who crusades against cigarettes and soft drinks. Today’s unbelievers have rules, plenty of them. Dostoevsky, it would seem, was wrong.

Or not. When the devil tells Ivan that “everything is permitted,” he was not suggesting that without God there are no rules. Instead, “everything is permitted” means that nothing is always wrong. Everything is, at least at some point and under some circumstances, permitted.

* * *

Ever reliable as a theorist of our secular age, John Rawls (whom O’Brien helpfully cites) defended the total-war doctrine that we tacitly adopted during World War II: The “incalculable moral and political evil for civilized life everywhere” that a Nazi victory portended “justifies invoking the supreme emergency exemption.” The same way of thinking underwrote the West’s Cold War nuclear policy of massive retaliation: mutually assured destruction. In dire situations, we can suspend moral absolutes. The “supreme emergency exemption” is plenary—and thus “everything is permitted.”

This is not a morally frivolous position. Faced with what Rawls describes as “incalculable moral and political evil for civilized life everywhere,” what are we to do? To fail to do what is necessary would seem a dereliction of our duty to humanity. Ought we not to break moral rules in order to save the possibility of morality? If not us, whom?

It’s a vexing question, one for which religious belief plays a significant role. Those who believe in God as the providential Lord, overseeing creation and guiding history, will naturally believe that he responds to the “supreme emergency” in his own way and in his own time. Those who don’t believe in God? They can grit their teeth and insist that a moral absolute is a moral absolute. But that’s hard to do without a belief in God as the providential governor of history who eventually rights all wrongs. Rawls identified an alternative, the one that requires moral relativism. In dire circumstances we can set aside moral absolutes. It’s our call.

The way in which atheism tempts us to take ultimate responsibility is what Dostoevsky evokes with the chilling formulation, “everything is permitted.” In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan suffers from a profound sense of the moral injustice of history. He sees the moral disorder around him—the widespread suffering of the innocent, his brother’s unjust arrest for the murder of his father—and he feels the absence of a supreme sovereign who ultimately puts things right. That’s what makes him so susceptible to the devil’s seductive words. If God is dead, then Ivan himself must take ultimate responsibility for the moral order of the world. He must right the wrongs, and if that means invoking “supreme emergency exemptions” or re-legislating moral laws, well, such are the divine duties forced upon us in a God-abandoned world.

I’ve come to see that this describes the moral atmosphere of our times quite well. We each take on the role of commander-in-chief, often invoking the “supreme emergency exemption” to address what we imagine to be dire circumstances in our lives, or the lives of others.

* * *

. . . without religious belief I doubt that the West can sustain a robust commitment to rigorous moral principles of any sort. Relativism has a moral mission. Its goal is to allow us to adjust to difficult situations, making exceptions to moral principles, or revising them to better fit human realities and mitigate human suffering. In dire circumstances what is normally prohibited is permitted. And as we get accustomed to our roles as moral commanders-in-chief the threshold gets steadily lower.

* * *

The progressive mentality tends to see dire circumstances everywhere, and this mentality, in conjunction with the way in which atheism tempts us to take charge and ensure justice by whatever means necessary, helps explain the contemporary dictatorship of relativism. The sort of reasoning Rawls provided to justify the total-war doctrine against Nazism justifies the violation of every moral principle, including the essential rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And in a world dominated by an atheistic elite, I’m afraid they very likely will be violated, always for the sake of the high moral purpose of preventing an “incalculable moral and political evil for civilized life everywhere.” It will be part of the moral mission of relativism.

Which is one very important reason why religion makes such a fundamental difference in the public square. A belief that God is the providential governor and lord of history is not logically or conceptually necessary for belief in moral absolutes. But it provides moral reassurance, and it encourages us to reject the basic assumption that motivates the moral mission of relativism, the assumption that we need to make things come out right in the end.

We need this reassurance. Moral absolutes invariably limit our ability to mitigate suffering in some cases. I can’t relieve a pregnant teenager of the consequences of sexual intercourse, or a gay friend the trials of an ill-suited celibacy. But faith lets me say that it’s up to God, not me, to ensure that in the final accounting moral truth reliably brings about human flourishing. Without this religious belief I’m like Ivan Karamazov, forced either to suppress my moral sensitivity to human suffering, or to take charge by making moral revisions and exemptions that, however well-meaning in my own mind, are very likely designed to serve myself.

— “Relativism’s Moral Mission” (First Things)


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