By Brian Jones
My wife recently had a discussion with a former high school friend of hers regarding the Gosnell abortion trial in Philadelphia. They were in complete agreement that what this so-called “doctor” had done was intentionally taking the lives of innocent children, discarding these little souls as though they were mere things, capable of being disposed at will. However, it was also clear that my wife's friend, admitting the truth of these horrors, was hesitant, perhaps even unwilling, to carry the premises to their logical conclusion. His final remark was this brief summation of his philosophical worldview:
I agree with you that this case (Gosnell) is quite disturbing on so many levels. I would never want my wife to have an abortion, nor would I ever conceive of counseling a woman that abortion would be a wise choice. However, I must declare my agnosticism on this issue, for I personally do not know when human life begins and I am not certain that the science is definitive on this point either. Furthermore, while I may disagree with the person’s decision, nevertheless, who am I to deny someone the sacred right of choice to determine what is best for them in their lives, and in the complicated circumstances that envelope their situation?
While much can be said, and has been said, about the claims put forth in such a statement, what should stand out most is that this is the philosophical outlook of modern liberal democracy, its penultimate truism on which it is based and feeds. Relativism and toleration are its paradigmatic doctrines, for if one proposed some form of truth and and also proposed that we could simultaneously know this truth that we ourselves did not make, then one would be a threat to civilization. It is only on the conditions of dialogue, equality, and the affirmation of any and all forms of living that we can remain a free and open society, one progressing towards a better world.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger himself diagnosed this dangerous current of philosophical relativism in modern democratic societies. Democracy, Ratzginer noted, is in fact built upon the basis,
that no one can presume to know the true way, and it is enriched by the fact that all roads are mutually recognized as fragments of the effort toward that which is better... A system of freedom ought to be essentially a system of positions that are connected with one another because they are relative as well as being dependent on historical situations open to new developments. Therefore a liberal society would be a relativist society: only with that condition could it continue to be free and open to the future. (“Address to Latin American Bishops”, 1996).
Ratzinger rightly highlights in this same address that there must be a certain amount of relativism in the arena of politics for, as Aristotle tells us, this science is not speculative, but practical. The error of the Marxists and socialists is to reject any notion of speculative truth and reduce everything to the practical sphere. Yet, in so doing this, the practical drive for action becomes “the truth,” entirely and completely determined by the human will with no other standard than itself. Politics is not like science, giving certain and demonstrable evidence of the way things are. Although politics is not an exact science, this does not, for Ratzinger, lead to the conclusion that ethical and religious matters must also become saturated with a philosophical relativism, a lack of certitude that leaves everything up for grabs. He says that this understanding seems to have relativism permeate every area of human life under “the sign of the encounter of cultures,” therefore providing strength for society that allows no room for any form of resistance. This is the supposed internalizing and communal principle of democracy, namely, that through relativism and tolerance no person can oppose these doctrines without the threat of being deemed irrational or, worse yet, a serious threat to its political and social life. This is surely reminiscent of Pope John Paul II’s prophecy of the rising tide of democratic tyranny. “Anyone who resists,” Ratzinger continues,
not only opposes democracy and tolerance--i.e., the basic imperatives of the human community--but also persists obstinately in giving priority to one’s Western culture and thus rejects the encounter of cultures, which is well known to be the imperative of the present moment. Those who want to stay with the faith of the Bible and the Church see themselves pushed from the start to a no man’s land on the cultural level.”
This theme of the “encounter of cultures” was taken up by Benedict XVI in his Regensburg Address, whereby he recalled that the integration of Greek philosophy and Biblical faith was not by mere chance, nor a mere reduction of faith to philosophy or metaphysics, but a providential sign of the intrinsic relationship and necessity of both reason and revelation. It is also important to recall the relationship that Benedict draws between modern multiculturalism (the third stage of what he terms the Dehellenization of Christianity) with reason and revelation, since this multiculturalism is a malaise that draws its life-force from philosophical relativism and toleration.
Mary Ann Glendon has notably called attention to the fact that modernity is dominated by “rights talk.” The tremendous influence of Hobbes and Rousseau has led to an unhealthy conception of democracy, one which has manifested itself in our “positivist” understanding of law. A fundamental error that characterizes much of modern “rights” theory is that “rights” are rooted not in a human nature, but in the human will. Much jurisprudential theory relies heavily on the self-sufficient human will. Laws are often considered right merely because they have become a part of the legal order of society, where in which the majority “will” of any society takes precedence, for law has become erroneously equivocated with “right.” Fr. Schall sums this dilemma up rather poignantly:
The will then has no limit…if whatever is willed is right because it is willed, and only because it is willed then there arises a certain parallel between law and right. In a sense, there can be no conflict between law and right, for whatever is willed is right because it is willed. The strongest will, the public will, trumps. (See “Acting Reasonable: Democracy, Authority, and Natural Rights in the Thought of Jacques Maritain”).
I recently re-read Yves Simon’s classic work on political philosophy, Philosophy of Democratic Government. In the book, Simon sought to provide an Aristotelian-Thomistic analysis and defense of modern liberal democracy, while also prudentially being aware of the tremendous dangers and threats of democracy as currently conceived, thereby showing his relation to the classical and medieval tradition that understands democracy (in its pure form) as a defective regime. There was a line in the book that struck me and one that I did not pay particular attention to at first glance, but is certainly relevant for these reflections.
Simon thinks that modern democracy is the best regime today, not intrinsically, but as a result of historical circumstances that seem to have definitively shown the tyrannical threats lurking behind monarchies and rule by an elite few. Nevertheless, he does think that in order for democracy to flourish, and not simply to survive, it needs principles opposed to its own ideals. A pure regime simply is utterly unstable, for it has nothing to check its weaknesses and abuses of power. Furthermore, a mixed regime also incorporates elements of the common good from the other various regimes, since no regime fully and entirely encapsulates the common good and virtue of its citizens. This is the context for Simon’s brilliant insight, where in which he explains why the principles of democracy must be more profound, vital, and heartfelt than anywhere elsewhere:
This is the case since preserving principles is more difficult in democracy than in any other regime as a result of liberalism, which implies that the principles of society and what its end is are not above deliberation and must be thrown into the universal competition of opinions. This is the jeopardizing of the principles without which social life no longer has an end or form” (Philosophy of Democratic Government, 124).
The classical and medieval understanding was that political society, like the family, existed “by nature,” not by human convention. It existed for the purpose of fostering genuine communal life, virtue, and friendship, the three characteristics that are almost entirely absent from all modern and post-modern treatments on political society. And here Simon has provided an insight that requires serious reflection, for the health of society necessitates that we can accurately describe the sort of regime that we actually live in. Modern liberalism sees that there is no purpose of society other than the general will, a will that is ordered and guided by nothing other than itself. Goodness, virtue, morality are simply, as MacIntyre tells us, emotivist attitudes that have no objective content outside of what one so determines. Outside of legal protection of property and one’s goods, the purpose of society is left up to the collective will of the people.
In Centissimus Annus (cf. #5, #51, and #59), Pope John Paul II stated, “there can be no genuine solution of the social question apart from the Gospel.” Yet, a democratic society rooted in principles closed off to anything outside its own self-determining reason not only rejects revelation, but also destroys reason itself. Jacques Maritain often wrote that there is such thing as an “inhuman humanism,” a humanism that cuts itself off from its transcendent origins and destiny. This is not the humanism of the Incarnation, but a cult of “sheer man.” Aristotle concludes Book 5, Chapter 9 of his Politics with a critique of those societies that are “particularly democratic,” since what has become established in these societies is the opposite of what is good or advantageous. These people define freedom badly, for justice
is held to be something equal; equality requires that whatever the multitude resolves is authoritative, and freedom and equality involve doing whatever one wants. So in democracies of this sort everyone lives as he wants and toward whatever end he craves, as Euripides says...To live with a view to the regime should not be supposed to be slavery, but preservation.”
For Aristotle, this way of life is truly “a poor thing.” Indeed it is. My wife’s interlocutor claims that the philosophical relativism of modern democracy, its sacred principles of “rights,” freedom, and equality, are the surest guarantee to the lasting character of any political society. Yet, the ancients have reminded us that choosing to live according to one’s own truth, living according to one’s own self-made conception of reality, human nature, and happiness, is a catastrophic recipe for degradation, and eventually, tyranny. If we are open to the truth, we will see that this is precisely what is happening.
About the Author
Brian Jones currently an MA philosophy student at the University of St. Thomas in Houston; he received an MA in theology from Franciscan University.