I grew up in a Catholic family and attended Catholic school through high school. One of the many teachings involved in this upbringing was the aphorism my Mom frequently cited – “Never judge another until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” I took this to mean that we should not sit in judgment of others, and generally should have a generosity of spirit towards others and their life paths.
For so many reasons, transitioning to undergraduate work at the University of California at Berkeley was a culture shock. Going from a small all-girls’ Catholic high school to a very large, very diverse and co-ed university was at once great fun and very challenging. I was also introduced to a wide array of new concepts and ideas. One, in particular, stands out.
An anthropology professor had us read a book on the ‘One Child Policy’ of the Chinese government. It involved some graphic, laudatory passages about coerced abortions and infanticide. We were encouraged to withhold judgment and to practice the role of an impartial observer. It felt as though were being dissuaded from experiencing the thankfully innate repugnance to stories of infanticide. This was my introduction to moral relativism.
As you likely know, moral relativism is the concept that right and wrong are not absolute values, but entirely subjective concepts. As we are not the arbiters of ‘good and bad’ or ‘right and wrong,’ it holds that we have no right – much less authority – to judge the practices, policies or actions of other societies or, for that matter, individuals.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has the following to say on moral relativism:
“The term ‘moral relativism’ is understood in a variety of ways. Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to the moral standard of some person or group of persons.”
Reading about what I could only believe to be atrocious practices while attempting to withhold any moral judgment proved to be a mightily uncomfortable task. Unfortunately, moral relativism has not remained a philosophical or intellectual exercise – it has become pervasive in our society. The inclination to withhold judgment unless warranted is a noble one. However, relativism has become an antithesis to any and all religious and moral strictures of society. In this role, it is a concept and practice that eats away at the very structure and core of our society as well as our progress as religious individuals. It reflects a number of fundamental flaws.
Right and Wrong?
If nothing is wrong then what is right? Isn’t it entirely subjective to have such concepts and if so, then how can we argue or believe that one action is even ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another? Moral relativism has at its very core the concept that there is no right and wrong.
God gave us the ten commandments, and our fundamental challenge and purpose in life is to figure out how to live according to those commandments to the best of our ability. They are the objective rules defining right and wrong. It is wrong to murder. It is wrong to lie, cheat and steal. While I may fail on any given day at meeting the challenge of the commandments, I must keep trying. Every day. Relativism at its core argues that it is all fine and good for us to chose to follow those rules, but that they have no empirical value.
Relativism also amounts to an ethical ‘get out of jail free’ card. The lines between non-judgment and approval, acceptance and ultimately encouragement is first blurred and confused. Once blurred, it becomes an easy leap to argue and to believe that because there is no moral absolute, there should be no moral judgment whatsoever. Human nature being imperfect, we can then use our non-judgment of others to excuse our own behavior. If infanticide isn’t objectively wrong, then how can one judge me for a far less egregious action?
To the extent that someone commits a perverse or wrong act because they were in an inescapable position or because they felt compelled to do so for whatever reason does not make the act itself acceptable, much less worthy. It is a wonderful and worthy thing to give people the ‘benefit of the doubt,’ but exceptions do not nullify the rule.
And Yet, Judge Not….
We are not God, and we are not to spend our time judging others. This is fundamental to our Catholic faith.
“Stop judging,* that you may not be judged.
For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?
How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye?
You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.
Judging other individuals involves an adoption of the God role that both relativism and Catholic doctrine would agree is not ours to assume. It is our duty as Catholics, however, to make a distinction between judging another and judging an act, practice or belief as being both morally incorrect and objectively wrong – and most importantly, one to be avoided. The continued blurring of lines leads unfortunately in only one direction, and it is not one that benefits our society, individuals in society or our own moral health.