Exposing Relativism: Three Stories


The three stories here effectively blow the whistle on relativism, exposing the self-deception and inconsistency which accompany that widely held position.

...The Scholastic philosophers had two words for conscience, not just one, reflecting a real difference between two aspects of the mind. Synderesis is the interior witness to universal basic moral law, the deep structure of moral reasoning, and it cannot err. Conscientia is the surface structure of moral reasoning, the working out of applications and conclusions from the universal basic moral law, and it can err. In fact it can err in at least four different ways.....

What does it mean to take conscientia less seriously and synderesis more so?...It means mocking relativism. It means blowing the whistle on self-deception. And it means honoring the experience of honest guilt. To illustrate these three principles I will close with three stories.

Mocking relativism

One day a student approached me after class. He reminded me that I had mentioned moral law during the lecture, then said "Last semester I learned that there isn't any moral law. Every society makes up its own right and wrong, its own good and bad, its own fair and unfair – and each one makes up something different."

I answered, "It's a relief to hear you say that, because I'm lazy and I hate grading papers. At the end of the semester I'll be able to save myself some work by giving you an F without looking at your papers at all. Since you don't believe in moral standards like fairness that are true for everyone, I know you won't object."

He shot me a startled glance – then admitted that there are true moral standards after all.

Blowing the whistle on self deception

"Morals are all relative anyway," said a student to one of my colleagues. "How do we even know that murder is wrong?"

My colleague answered the student's question with another: "Are you in real doubt about the wrong of murder?"

"Many people might say it was alright," the student replied.

"But I'm not asking other people," pressed my colleague. " Are you at this moment in any real doubt about murder being wrong for everyone?"

There was a long silence. "No," said the student; "no, I'm not."

"Good," my colleague answered. "Then we needn't waste time on morals being relative.

Let's talk about something you really are in doubt about." A moment passed while the lesson sank in – and the student agreed.

Honoring honest guilt

I often assign Aristotle's Ethics.

A quiet young man came to my office one day and said, "Professor, I've got to tell you that I'm getting scared."

I asked him, "Why are you scared?"

He replied, "Because you're scaring me. I'm shaking."

I asked him, "'How am I doing that!"

He replied, "It's Aristotle. In this book of his he keeps talking about virtue."

I asked him, "So?"

He replied, "It's making me realize that I don't lead a virtuous life. And I'm shaking."

So we spoke of the grace of God.




Budziszewski, J. "Handling Issues of Conscience." The Newman Rambler 3, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 1999): 2-9. The full article from which this excerpt was taken can be found at Handling Issues of Conscience in the Academy.

Printed with permission of The Newman Rambler and J. Budziszewski. The Newman Rambler is published semi-annually by the Newman Centre of McGill University. Visit the Centre's website at www.rc.net/montreal/newmancentre. E-mail: newmancentre@yahoo.com

This lecture was the both the 1999 Newman Lecture on the Idea of the University, for the Newman Centre, and the 1999 Beatty Memorial Lecture, for the College of Education, at McGill University.

Photo: Kwan Choo, ARPS


J. Budziszewski (Boojee-shefski) earned his doctorate from Yale University in 1981. He teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, in the Departments of Government and Philosophy where he specializes in the relations among ethical theory, political theory, and Christian theology. The focus of his current research is natural law and moral self deception. J. Budziszewski is a former atheist, former political radical, former shipyard welder, and former lots of other things, including former young and former thin. He's been married for more than thirty years to his high school sweetheart, Sandra, and has two daughters. He loves teaching. He says he also loves contemporary music, but it turns out that he means "the contemporaries of Johann Sebastian Bach." He deserted his faith during college but returned to Christ a dozen years later and entered the Catholic Church at Easter 2004. Among a number of other books, he is the author of How to Stay Christian in College, What We Can't Not Know: A Guide, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, and Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law. J. Budziszewski is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1999 The Newman Rambler

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