When teaching about virtues and the moral life, I often think of a discussion I had with a college friend.
He was taking an ethics class with a professor who promoted moral relativism—the notion that there is no objective moral truth, no right or wrong. According to a relativist, all truth claims are subjective, merely reflecting one’s own feelings, opinions, or desires. A relativist might say, “You can have ‘your truth’ and I can have ‘my truth,’ but there is no ‘the truth’ to which we are all accountable.”
In a relativistic culture like our own, it is quite difficult to talk about morality, especially if one believes in a moral standard that applies to all people. For example, if you try to defend Catholic teaching on moral issues such as abortion, premarital sex, or homosexuality with your coworker Joe during a lunch break, you are likely to be dismissed as rigid, fundamentalist, judgmental, and intolerant: “That might be your opinion, but don’t impose your morality on me!”
So there I was, sitting on campus, while my friend told me he believed relativism was the best approach to ethical dilemmas of our day. “Truth is subjective,” he said. “What is true for you may not be true for other people, so each person should be free to make up his own morality.” I had not yet studied much philosophy or theology, but I did push back, saying, “So you believe in relativism? You really believe that there is no objective truth, no truth that applies to everyone?”
“Is that true?” I asked.
“Is relativism true? Is it absolutely true that there are no absolute truths? Is it objectively true, true for everyone, that there are no objective truths?”
“Well,” I went in for the kill, “Your relativism seems pretty logically inconsistent!”
My friend had no counterattack for my amateur apologetic moves. He admitted that his position was not consistent, and that, in espousing relativism, he was asserting at least one truth: that there is no truth. But he didn’t change his mind. And he was not too worried how intellectually sound his position was. He was quite content to continue in his relativistic outlook on life despite my arguments—and many people in our culture are likely to do the same.
Relativism is not something that can easily be dispelled with a quick, three-step apologetic argument. It is a worldview deeply ingrained in the souls of modern men and women. Like my friend from college, many today are relativists not because they have clearly thought out a philosophy of life. Their relativistic tendencies are based on various assumptions they have never examined. Relativism, for most people, is simply an unquestioned presupposition.
Yet most people are not absolute relativists. The average American probably would say that some things are morally wrong—murder, theft, rape. But many would say that when it comes to a person’s private affairs, everyone should be free to do whatever they want with their lives, as long as they’re not harming others. There, in personal life choices, it is assumed that relativism should reign supreme.
Two Aspects of Morality
C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, described humanity as a fleet of ships sailing in formation. The success of the ships’ journey is contingent on two things. First, that the ships do not bump into each other and get in each other’s way, and second, that each individual vessel is running properly with its internal engines in good order. He used this analogy to describe two key aspects of morality.
Like the fleet of ships, we should avoid colliding into each other. This is the first aspect of morality, which focuses on social relations and safeguards fairness and harmony between individuals, communities, and nations. When most people think about morality, they think about this aspect. We should not murder, steal, and enslave. We should be kind, honest, and helpful to others. We should avoid doing things that hurt other people.
The second aspect of morality is what Lewis calls “the morality inside each individual.”[i] It is represented in his analogy by the seaworthiness of the individual ships. Just as each ship in the fleet must have its engine in good running order to ensure it does not crash into the other ships, so each person must have his soul running properly with virtuous behavior to ensure that he does not harm others.
People today are generally at ease with the first part of morality, the fair play in our social relationships. But many are not at all comfortable discussing the second aspect of morality, which focuses on the individual’s life choices and moral character. Many think they should be free to do whatever they want with their lives, as long as they do not hurt other people. “What I do in my private life is my own business. If a certain action does not cause someone else harm, how can I possibly be doing anything morally wrong?”
Lewis responds to this objection by returning to his fleet analogy. “What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all?” Lewis asks. “What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behavior, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them?”[ii]
The modern tendency to focus on social morality (“Don’t hurt other people.”) while neglecting personal morality is like commanding teenagers to obey the traffic laws without training them in the practical skills they need to drive a car. They might know that they are supposed to drive on the right side of the road, stop at red lights, and stay at least three seconds behind the car in front of them, but unless they have the personal skills to use the accelerator, the break, and the steering wheel, they are going to get into a lot of collisions.
Similarly, unless individuals are trained in generosity in their so-called “private lives,” they are going to do selfish things that will hurt other people. Unless individuals are trained in chastity, sobriety, and other forms of self-control, they will do out-of-control things that use and damage other people. Social harmony is built on the inner harmony of individuals. A great society is built on men and women of great moral character. Or, as Lewis put it, “You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.”[iii]
“And What I Have Failed to Do”
When engaging in the myth that one’s personal life choices don’t affect others, it is also important to point out that there are two ways to fail in life. We can fail morally by doing things that directly hurt others. But we also can fail by lacking in virtue, by not being the best we could be.
A prayer at Mass reflects these two aspects of human failure. When we confess our sins at the start of the liturgy, we express sorrow not just “for what I have done” (the sins that we have committed), but also “for what I have failed to do” (the good, which we did not do).
The way we live life will have an impact on others—for better or for worse. It is not enough to avoid doing “bad things.” A father who spends too much time at work and not enough time with his children might not be “hurting anyone” in the sense of stealing from them or physically harming them. But his failure to invest personally in his children will deeply affect them, leaving a scar they will carry for the rest of their lives. Thus our “personal lives” are not simply private matters. They affect other people. When we fail to be the best we can be, we have a negative impact on the people God has placed in our lives. Our spouses, children, friends, employers, and parishes will suffer for our lack of virtue.
Morality is not up for grabs. And in striving for excellence we must always seek to embody the truth, which above all reflects Jesus Christ—who is the same today, yesterday, and forever.
[i] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pg. 72.
[ii] Ibid., pg. 72.
[iii] Ibid., pg. 72.
Reprinted with permission from the January/February 2011 issue of Lay Witness magazine. © 2011 Catholics United for the Faith / www.cuf.org/Laywitness/index.asp
Check out Dr. Sri’s bible study, Mary: A Biblical Walk with the Blessed Mother, available from Ascension Press.