Dictatorship of Relativism, The: Pope Benedict XVIs Response

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A “Dictatorship of Relativism”?: Symposium in Response to Cardinal Ratzinger’s Last Homily

But would this apply to the Nazis and their program for the extermination of Jews? Be that as it may, contemporary anthropology now undermines cultural relativism.

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In every culture in every time and place, it seems, certain basic human goods have been recognized and cherished. These are goods like knowledge, friendship, play, religion, health and life. Obviously, different cultures have expressed their recognition of these goods in different ways.

But the human goods have been recognized just the same. Confronted with that fact, the case for cultural relativism evaporates, although the confused thinking it encourages lingers on. Relativism has a large part in culture war disputes over things like abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. Where individual relativism is concerned, this mode of moral reasoning also is dominant today in the popular culture of America and other secularized Western countries.

Based on in-depth interviews, sociologist Alan Wolfe concluded that in this relativistic worldview, the Ten Commandments were subordinated to an all-encompassing 11th commandment: That, too, is a moral judgment of course.

But who said relativists were consistent? A lot of people unquestionably have adopted relativistic thinking today. But relativism itself is hardly new.


Mass «Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice»: Homily of Card. Joseph Ratzinger

Relativism makes it impossible to criticize any practice on moral grounds, since no way of acting is intrinsically wrong. And in case you are slow on the uptake, the Aesop behind the ad includes a helpful moral: The question, of course, is meant to be rhetorical, what Latinists call a nonne question, i. Thus we might see a cordon of power-generating windmills.

But it is also a wearisome bit of propaganda. The whole rhetorical machinery of the ads communicates the presumption that we are dealing with the spirit of bold openness and a healthy tolerance for diversity. The incidental beneficiary of that happy thought is HSBC. It is often said that an anthropologist is someone who respects the distinctive values of every culture but his own.

We in the West are all anthropologists now.

The Dictatorship of Relativism: Pope Benedict XVI's Response

It is curious, though, that proponents of relativism and multiculturalism should use ethnocentrism as a stick with which to beat the West. After all, both the idea and the critique of ethnocentrism are quintessentially Western. There has never in history been a society more open to other cultures than our own; nor has any tradition been more committed to self-criticism than the Western tradition: It was, to be sure, invented and developed in the West, but it is as true for the inhabitants of the Nile Valley as it is for the denizens of New York.

That is why, outside the precincts of the humanities departments of Western universities, there is a mad dash to acquire Western science and technology. But what makes the ad campaign a significant emblem of the zeitgeist is the way it insinuates a consistent prejudice into its brief against prejudice. The smartly attired young chap and the slob in jeans are not so much equals as competitors. The moral burden of the campaign as distinct from its aim of benefiting its client is not to encourage us to think more carefully about what it means to be a leader or follower, to be good or bad, to be trendy or traditional, but rather to blur the distinction between those contraries altogether.

The aim is to short-circuit, not refine, our powers of discrimination. And the goal of that disruption is always at the expense of one side of the equation. The ostensible tenet of this catechism is that all cultures are equally valuable and, therefore, that preferring one culture, intellectual heritage, or moral and social order to another is to be guilty of ethnocentrism.

Additional Information

Preferring Western culture or intellectual heritage is culpable in a way that preferring other traditions is not. It is often said that relativism is the conviction that, when it comes to morals, there are no such things as absolute values and, when it comes to knowledge, there is no such thing as absolute truth.

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  • What a relativist really believes or believes he believes is that 1 there is no such thing as value and 2 there is no such thing as truth. Relativism is a Cole Porter view of the world: The first upsurge of relativism can seem like fun. The hangover is not long in coming, however.

    Introduction: The dictatorship of relativism

    You must obtain permission directly from the owner of the image. Occasionally, Duke University Press controls the rights to maps or other drawings. Please direct permission requests for these images to permissions dukeupress. For book covers to accompany reviews, please contact the publicity department. Instructions for requesting an electronic text on behalf of a student with disabilities are available here. One proposes that the Christian god is a relativist who prefers limitation and ambiguity; another, initially in agreement with Ratzinger about the danger relativism poses to faith and morals, then argues that this danger is what makes relativism valuable.

    Davidson, John Forrester, Kenneth J. Gergen, Simon Goldhill, Jeffrey F. Sign up for Subject Matters email updates to receive discounts, new book announcements, and more. Create a reading list or add to an existing list. Sign-in or register now to continue.