The Dictatorship of Relativism:
A Conversation with Professor Peter Kreeft
By John Mallon
The day before his election as Pope Benedict XVI warned the world about something he called “The Dictatorship of Relativism.” What did he mean? We decided to explore this with the popular American philosophy professor and well-known Catholic apologist, Peter Kreeft, who has written books on the subject. Our contributor, John Mallon, a student of Kreeft’s in the 1980s, conducted the interview.
Professor Kreeft, the day before his election Pope Benedict XVI warned the world about the “Dictatorship of Relativism.” What is he referring to and what are the dangers?
The danger is to think that relativism is an open minded and tolerant philosophy. In fact, it isn’t. Mussolini was a philosopher and he explicitly said that the origins of Fascism were in relativism. He said, from the fact that there are no eternal truths and no prophets qualified to announce these truths: that each person has the right to create his own truth and to enforce it with any energy that he can. He said that there is nothing more relativistic than Fascism.
The ancient Roman Empire was very relativistic and tolerant of all kinds of gods. It didn’t matter what you worshipped, but Jews and Christians were persecuted because they had the temerity to teach that their God was the true God. So the relativists cannot tolerate absolutism.
For some this might seem like a scholarly concept, but it is so fundamental as to be the very cultural air we breathe. How do you demonstrate that this is truly a matter of life and death, and the dictatorship is very real and not metaphorical, as we see in Political Correctness?
It’s hard to see at first. You just put two people into dialogue, a relativist and a religious person and eventually you will probably see the relativist’s true colors come out. It sometimes takes a while, because some people who think they are relativists are just skeptics or agnostics and are genuinely open-minded and are searching. But the real relativist is quite dogmatic and this is his religion and he simply cannot tolerate anything that he sees as intolerance.
When I was your student relativism was a recurrent theme, especially as we examined the work of C.S. Lewis. Was he a kind of prophet in this regard, seeing where this was going way back in the 1940s?
Yes, he was. The Abolition of Man, was, I think, one of the most important books of the twentieth century. It warned that the consequence of moral relativism is the abolition of our humanity, quite literally. Not physically, but spiritually.
If Jesus was not a fool, then a qualification for salvation is repentance. But a relativist can’t really repent, because there’s no absolute moral law to repent of violating. So relativism is not just a foolish doctrine, it is one that imperils salvation.
Well, can a relativist ever admit he’s wrong, and still be a relativist?
Yes. If he’s a skeptical relativist. If he says, “I haven’t found any absolutes yet, but I’m still looking.” That’s quite different from saying, “I’m quite certain that nobody is certain, and it is an absolute that there are no relativities and I dogmatically affirm that you can never be dogmatic.” Or, as Madonna put it, “Papa don’t preach”—very preachily.
How about your students? Are today’s students so embedded in relativism that they have difficulty recognizing it when it is pointed out to them?
I’m afraid so. Alan Bloom wrote a book, The Closing of the American Mind, which was a difficult and scholarly confused kind of book, but it was a best-seller because of its first sentence. It started out something like this: “If you’re a college professor in America today there is one thing you can be certain, or nearly certain of, and that is that every student, or nearly every student, will believe, or think he believes, that truth is relative.
He wrote that about twenty years ago. Has there been any improvement since then?
There has been a protest. Students of mine at Boston College, which I think are smarter now. They are not more informed, but they know they’ve been cheated of something, and they are looking for it. You were one of the few bright non-relativists of your time. For now, for every one like you there are probably ten more. So I think that things are definitely looking up.
That was my next question, do today’s students think right and wrong are simply equally valid “choices” according to one’s “lifestyle?” Or do they recognize the squalor that has been bequeathed to them? That something is not right?
They recognize the squalor until it has anything to do with sex, and that’s the problem area. In fact, the origin of relativism is certainly there, we didn’t start being relativists because we wanted to fight a few more wars or do a few more tortures or a few more insider tradings, or something like that.
Lewis clearly seemed to recognize the problem in his own day, while most of us today look back at his time as the good old days, but it was clearly there.
There were no good old days. Since the Garden of Eden and a certain incident with a snake and an apple.
I recall a story you once told of one of your students who thought you were hard on your opponent in a debate with another faculty member. She was surprised that it seemed like you were trying to win! She thought that in a debate everyone just expressed their viewpoint and then everyone went home.
That was my colleague, Father Ron Tacelli, who brought his students to a pro-life/pro-choice debate, and the pro-lifer thoroughly trounced all the pro-choicer’s arguments, and he asked the class whether their opinions were changed, and he found to his chagrin that many students changed their opinions and were more favorable to the pro-choice cause. He asked them why, and the answer was, “Well, we felt pity for the poor pro-choice person—“compassion!”
Lewis really articulated the concepts, as when I referred to the embeddedness of your students, Lewis referred to this as a fish not complaining of the water as being wet. Isn’t that the main problem we’re dealing with?
The main problem we’re dealing with is not just relativism but the ignorance of it. If you are aware that you’re a relativist and see the enemy as the dogmatist, then you become a Nietzsche or a Sartre and then the cat is out of the bag and people can identify you. That’s called truth in labeling. Those two philosophers have been great instruments in the hands of God. If anybody with a sound mind reads them they run screaming into the arms of the nearest priest.
But the nice mushy comfy relativism that disguises itself as compassion and love and openness and tolerance, that doesn’t recognize itself.
So does this basically come down to honesty, intellectual or otherwise?
Yes it does. Everything comes down to honesty. Maybe deliberate dishonesty is the unforgivable sin, because without light nothing else follows.
I recall Lewis saying anyone who attempts to invent a new moral code is sawing off the branch on which they are sitting.
They can only invent fake moral codes—like inventing a new color. Someone once asked Sartre why he writes books trying to persuade people of his nihilistic philosophy. If he believes, as he says he does, that nothing is intrinsically valuable and there’s really no meaning to life, and there’s no reason for doing anything, but we have to act anyway. And he said, “You’re trying to trick me. The meaning of life is the act itself, it has no end. It’s as if we’re a bubble, and the meaning of life is simply to blow up the bubble and to increase it.”
One thing I wonder about is how these people go on. Is life just blowing up a bubble forever?
Yes. They have silly slogans like “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.” Which, as Lewis pointed out, is nonsense, because if you believe that, you never travel hopefully because there is no hope of arriving. For these people arriving is threatening.
It’s not just modern, there’s a verse in one of St. Paul’s letters, where I think he’s talking about skeptical Greek philosophers, as “ever learning and never coming any nearer to the truth.”
In Mere Christianity, Lewis spends an awful lot of time driving home the meaning of objective versus subjective truth. How does that play into relativism?
Let’s say there are three kinds of relativism. There’s relativism about religion, there’s relativism about morality and there’s relativism about all truth. Relativism about all truth is like the new age movement, you create your own reality, your god, the universe is whatever you think it is. If seriously believed, that is insanity—the inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.
Relativism about religion is less radical than that; it’s a belief that nobody can find objective truth in religion so religion is just a mechanism of comfort—what works for you: I like rice, you like yogurt, I like steak, you like chicken—let’s just be tolerant. That’s not a total relativism, that’s just a relativism about God because a person who holds that view is skeptical about anybody’s ability to know God.
And then there is relativism about morality which is much more serious, I think, than relativism about religion, because God left everybody, no matter what their religious views, with quite a bit of moral knowledge. Conscience is pretty much the same thing whether you are religious or not, and if you are religious no matter what religion you are. There is not a great deal of difference between Christian morality, Jewish morality, Hindu morality, Muslim morality, Buddhist morality; although there’s a great difference in the religions. So to deny the verdict of conscience, that some things are really, truly, objectively good, and that other things are truly objectively evil is to deny a very deep part of yourself.
Budziszewski said, memorably, in the title of one of his books, “There are certain things you can’t not know.”
What about people who reduce the mind, the soul, conscience, whatever, are just a construct or the result of certain chemicals in your brain according to the evolutionary process?
Well, I hope people don’t act on that knowledge, because if they do, they’re not going to take their conscience very seriously at all. So there’s no reason why they shouldn’t do whatever they please. Why bow down to an evolutionary genetic accident?
They wouldn’t bow down to it, they would just say that’s all it is.
Yet, in their living, almost everybody does admit to claims of conscience.
Everybody bows down to something?
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who believed it was morally good to be a deliberate hypocrite, and not obey your own conscience. Everybody has something about conscience that they respect, even if their theory is that it’s nothing.
Even in the midst of denying them?
So, just to bring this around to the Holy Father’s warning, let’s take an example. In our own country, the United States, in the run up to the presidential campaign, these questions seem to be coming to bear a lot in the rhetoric of politicians, and even worse, the behavior of some politicians…
Well, our Supreme Court, has, in effect, has declared relativism to be the official philosophy of the United States of America. I think it was the Casey decision* ratifying Roe v. Wade, where Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the famous mystery passage—which has to be the silliest thing any Supreme Court judge ever wrote in history: At the heart of liberty is the right to decide for oneself the meaning of life and the meaning of existence. In other words, God move over, you are in my seat.
So if that has been adopted as a policy, what then is the future of society?
As Lewis points out, especially in his essay, The Poison of Subjectivism, and also in The Abolition of Man, No society in the history of the world has ever survived believing moral relativism. They all have some version of what he calls the Tao, the natural moral law. So there are only three possibilities. Either our society will refute one of the most firmly established principles in all of history, or we will persist in our relativism and perish, or we will repent of our relativism and survive.
See also: John Mallon; The Suicide of Civilization
Another Kreeft/Mallon Collaboration: Conscience and the Dictatorship of Relativism
An article by Mallon with comments and a sidebar by Peter Kreeft
This interview appeared in an abbreviated version in the Italian publication, Messenger of Saint Anthony, of Padua, Italy, December 2007. It is reprinted here with their kind permission.
© 2007, 2020 by John Mallon