July 29, 2010
Another look at authority and relativism
Over the past several weeks, a number of us have provided a variety of thoughts regarding the intersection of authority and relativism. In this regard, I just read with great interest the posting of Professor Maureen O’Connell of Fordham University [HERE] of her initial experience at the second biennial gathering of a group who self-identify as Catholic ethicists. The first gathering was convened in Padua two years ago, and the most recent one about which Professor O’Connell addresses was convened in Trent. The theme of this recent international colloquium which ran from July 24-27, 2010 was: “In the Currents of History: from Trent to the Future.”
While asserting that the conference underscored “the importance of tradition in moral theology,” she made a reference to the “public scandal caused by the abuse of authority.” I would differ from her take on this: the cause of scandal in the Church today on all fronts is sinfulness and the attempts to rationalize or protect sin. Scandal, which follows the subscription to sin and sinfulness, is not caused by “the abuse of authority”; rather, it is caused by the succumbing to temptation that leads to sin and to the committing of sin. Moreover, it is often subjective rather than objective determination that promotes the sinful tendency that leads to sin which opens the door to scandal.
Professor O’Connell offers several statements which made me pause because she makes an appeal to subjectivity rather than objectivity. One of these statements deals with her appeal to the “democratization” of morality. Well, if we democratize morality, what easily follows is this: what might be sinful if done by one person may well turn out to be virtuous when performed by another because of subjective rather than objective evaluation that follows the “democratization” of morality. For example: it may be murder to you, but it is honor killing to me.
As I see it, the difficulty with the intensifying moral decision making in a subjective rather than an objective manner is to relativize the decision-making process of determining what is right and wrong not just for some but for all persons who may encounter the same issue. Moral truths evaporate in the face of subjectivity and, with that, harm the ability to distinguish between the right and the wrong. In essence, the subjective nature of moral reasoning and decision-making falls solely within the ambit of personal or group autonomy rather than universal standards formulated by objective reasoning. I also wonder if Professor O’Connell subscribes to the school of thought often encountered in some academic realms that questions whether there are universal moral norms but finds a convenient substitute for them in reliance on moral decision-making that synthesizes subjectivism, context, individual experiences, and the primacy of conscience (even if erroneously formed)?
Since she has suggested more postings on the Trent colloquium that just ended, I look forward to reading her further thoughts on these important matters.
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