The ancient Greek historian Herodotus tells a famous story of the Persian king Darius who one day decided to summon a group of Greeks to his court to ask them a very strange question; for what price would they eat the bodies of their dead parents? The Greeks respond with horror, and say there is no price on earth that would lead them to do such a thing. Darius then summons members of a tribe known as the Callatiae who DID eat the bodies of their kin and asks them for what price they would cremate their dead – the practice of the Greeks. They respond with equal horror. Herodotus concludes:
So firmly rooted are these beliefs; and it is, I think, rightly said in Pindar’s poem that custom [Gr. nomon] is lord of all.–Herodotus. The Histories III.37
This early Greek recognition that what is obviously evil and repugnant to one culture may be regarded noble and pious in another stimulated a crucial advance in thinking about the central problems of political justice. As long as the ancestral customs of one’s own people – whatever they happen to be – are accepted unreflectively, one cannot inquire as to whether they have sound and rational foundations. At the same time if Pindar is correct that morality is simply a matter of custom we have the problem ofrelativism- the idea that no moral absolutes exist and so things can only be judged wrong relative to a certain time, place, or even individual.
Some moral and legal rules certainly are conventional. No one I should think argues that running a red light is inherently wrong. It is not hard to imagine a culture in which “red” signifies “go” instead of “stop” and in such a context driving through red lights would be the norm.
But let us take for example the practice of human sacrifice which has been long regarded with horror in the West, yet was seen as a noble and pious act in certain cultures (e.g. the Aztecs of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica). Is the moral revulsion to human sacrifice essentially the same in character as traffic light rules? Does it have any foundations beyond the basically arbitrary conventions of given societies?
This problem of relativism disquieted the Greek mind, and in the classical age the philosophers began to search for deeper and more rational foundations of ethics. In particular Plato and Aristotle opposed to the idea of relativism the idea of natural justice. This is the idea that principles of justice are grounded in nature (physis) and not merely in convention (nomos). What belongs to nature unlike what belongs to custom is true for all. Aristotle explains the distinction with his usual perspicacity:
Political justice is of two kinds, one natural, [physikon] the other conventional [nomikon]. A rule of justice is natural that has the same validity everywhere, and does not depend on our accepting it or not. A rule is conventional that in the first instance may be accepted in one way or the other indifferently…-Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics III.7
So in our example if human sacrifice is wrong only according to conventional justice, it is not wrong for any culture which believes it is not wrong. There is no absolute, independent criterion by which one culture’s convention can be judged better or worse than any another.
But if human sacrifice is wrong according to natural justice than it is wrong in an absolute sense independent of whatever a given culture (or individual) may believe. In short if natural justice exists than there is an objective moral truth against which the moral beliefs of persons and cultures (including our own) can be evaluated as right or wrong.
This idea was carried forward by the Greek and Roman stoics in the form of natural law theory. Later in the medieval period the idea of natural law was developed and incorporated by the scholastic philosophers of the Roman Catholic Church from whence it passed into the modern epoch. Under the twin influences of religion and philosophy, the problem of relativism lost its force and seemed more or less banished from Western culture for centuries.
In our time however relativism has returned – with a vengeance. The idea that “truth is subjective” is one that is much in our modern zeitgeist. As Alan Bloom claimed in the 1980’s
There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of; every student believes, or says he believes that truth is relative. –Alan Bloom.The Closing of the American Mind, 25
From Nietzsche to the post-modernists and positivists of our own time relativism has acquired broad currency in modern intellectual life. But one needn’t turn to ivory tower elites – relativism has entered popular culture. In one Star Wars film the good character Obi Wan says “Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” Since the Sith are represented in the film as the epitome of evil, this is as clear an illustration as could be imagined of Pope Benedict’s notion of a “dictatorship of relativism.” Sometimes it seems the onlyviewpoint which is condemned as absolutely wrong is the view that good and evil are absolute.
Precisely why relativism has returned is a complex question. Some have pointed to the question of tolerance which for very historically intelligible reasons has been elevated by modern liberalism to a high value. If one believes in moral truth than one can judge some beliefs false and some actions evil. Is this not likely to make one intolerant of what one regards as false or evil? If on the other hand one treats claims to moral truth with skepticism then it is argued than it is argued one will be more tolerant. Relativism thus emerges as the sine qua non of the tolerant civil society.
But is it? None would say tolerance was a signature value of Fascism, Nazism, or Communism. Yet historians have noted that totalitarian regimes enthusiastically adopted the modern idea of the “subjectivity of truth” arguing that truth was nothing else that whatever the party decreed it was.
The avowed philosophy of totalitarian regimes (like much of modern thought) was basically subjective. Whether an idea was held to be true depended on whose idea it was. Ideas of truth, or beauty or right were not supposed to correspond to any outer or objective reality…the totalitarian regimes did not simply declare, as a dry finding of social science that peoples’ ideas were shaped by environment. They set about shaping them actively…the very idea of truth evaporated.-R.R. Palmer and Joel Colton. A History of the Modern World.
If there is no absolute moral reference frame than what are the grounds for condemning Hitler or Stalin’s ethics as more good or evil than any other? Perhaps this is related to what Leo Strauss wrote:
Liberal relativism has its roots in the natural right tradition of tolerance…but in itself it is the seminary of intolerance.-Leo Strauss. Natural Right and History
But Americans need not go abroad for examples. Consider the once common practices of racial segregation. If indeed “custom is the lord of all” then this means there is no external standard of right and wrong by which the Jim Crow South’s “customs” of racial segregation could be judged. It is for this reason in supporting his right to contest the racist laws of his community, Martin Luther King turned to St. Thomas Aquinas and the natural law tradition:
How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man -made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. –Martin Luther King, Jr, Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
This post first appeared on GovStud, a blog hosted by the Center for Governmental Studies.