Is Anything Really Right or Wrong? Speech by Peter Kreeft

Lazy Friday, so here’s a fun video from Peter Kreeft.

In it Kreeft offers half a dozen refutations of moral relativism, and then a similar number of proofs of absolutism. He doesn’t give arguments for this or against that particular moral belief of ethical practice; he merely shows that an ultimate standard of reference exists. What that standard is isn’t discussed.

Most arguments he uses are well known, but Kreeft has a brilliant way of using a minimal number of words to make his case. Yours truly has the opposite “talent.”

Be interested if anybody thinks they have a counter for any, or really for all, Kreeft’s points (for you must answer all if you disagree with him). If you make reference to any, try and point to the minute:second of the video in question, which makes it easy for the rest of us to follow you.

My own favorite is the obvious: relativism is self-refuting. It can’t even be phrased in a way that doesn’t cancel itself out. All arguments for relativism are variants of “It is absolutely certain there are not absolute moral certainties.” No relativist puts it so starkly. They instead cram a few hundred words between the first “absolutely certain” and the last, so many that the first is a distant memory by the time the last is reached.

Kreeft takes on more than just this simple refutaton, and has some fun doing it. Watch for his sly smile as he delivers one or two alliterativisms, if we may adopt this neologism.

Comments

Is Anything Really Right or Wrong? Speech by Peter Kreeft — 20 Comments

  1. My own favorite is the obvious: relativism is self-refuting. It can’t even be phrased in a way that doesn’t cancel itself out

    It’s as if you erased completely everything I taught you on this matter!

  2. Something may be right or wrong, but how are we to know? Who decides? Even if a god dictates, how do we know we heard right? Is something right because God says so, or does he simply point out what is right? Who do we turn to for the right answer? How do people with different answers live together? So many questions…

  3. Christian apologist Greg Koukl says that in practicality, there are no moral relativists. Do one thing to a moral relativist he or she really doesn’t like and all sorts of moral hay gets thrown in the air. It’s an idea that seems real sexy on first blush in our faddish culture, but once you see it undressed, wow, it’s really unattractive and one is incapable of taking it to consummation. It simply doesn’t work.

  4. Pascaj said it is not certain that nothing is certain, but then Heisenberg said it is certain that nothing is certain. I’m in a quandry.

  5. RE: “..he merely shows that an ultimate standard of reference exists. What that standard is isn’t discussed”

    BAH HUMBUG — ya think the intro from The-VERITAS-FORUM with its remark in the first 10 seconds, “discussing…the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life.” might just be a “clue” to the “standard”??

    I’ll go way out on a limb here and conclude that even if P. Kreeft doesn’t reference this, the fact that statement is made in introductory context indicates his benchmark reference is Jesus Christ. At about the 24:30 point (give or take a few seconds) he mentions “original sin” so this is a likely benchmark.

    Noting that P. Kreeft employs the tactic of defining a particular point of contention in a very particular way & then argues against that definition–and this can/does go on continuously–he doesn’t necessarily EVER actually address the aspects of “relativism” that apply. Many “moral relativists” will observe his presentation, agree that the points he’s addressing are wrong and agree with him…but note he never got around to addressing thier value perspective. Such is the problem with talking in broad generalities. Sounds good, but seldom really gets to the heart of anything….

    Lets consider religious moral relativism associated with Christianity….and recognizing that there are so many variants of “Christianity” with mutually-exclusive doctrines, theologies, etc. we know that the concept of “Christian” or “Christianity” is itself both a moral foundation and morally relativistic to each other.

    So lets narrow the review to just the R. Catholic Church. From the Catholic encyclopedia comes the following (ref: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11703a.htm):

    “The Church claims to carry a message or rather a command from God and to be God’s only messenger.”

    “the Church does claim the right to coerce her own subjects. Here again, however, a distinction must be made. The non-Catholic Christians of our day are, strictly speaking, her subjects; but in her legislation she treats them as if they were not her subjects.”

    “There can be no doubt, therefore, that the Church claimed the right to use physical coercion against formal apostates. Not, of course, that she would exercise her authority in the same way today, even if there were a Catholic State in which other Christians were personally and formally apostates. She adapts her discipline to the times and circumstances in order that it may fulfil its salutary purpose.”

    IF THAT’s NOT AN EXAMPLE OF “the end justifies the means’ NOTHING IS. That’s moral relativism.

    From an institution associated with a variety of persecutions and Christian-on-Christian violence & persectuions…inspiring the Protestant Reformation, where those Protestants figured they’d gotten it correct…and they in turn persecuted Catholics & others that disagreed.

    Same God, same reference material (almost…the Catholics & Protestants do have different Bibles), and same founder–Jesus Christ. But oh so many versions of faith & moral values from this so-called “Prince of Peace” responsible for so much bloodshed in His name. Recall the Pilgrims in America–they left Europe to escape Christian-on-Christian persecutions. That is an example of moral relativism resulting in the US’ Thanksgiving holiday.

    At that same link (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11703a.htm) one finds a litany of examples of Christians being persecuted…but no mentiion of the hypocrisy of Christian-on-Christian persecutions that bloodied Europe for generations. That’s a manifestation of “moral relativism” — specifically the selective application of moral precepts from the founder; in this case the admonition to ‘get the log out of one’s own eye before critizing one’s neighbor for the twig in thier eye.’

    And that’s just a quich scratching of the surface of the fundamental problem–those claiming to have some absolue moral reference point consistently both reference that reference and fail to adhere to it in total–picking & choosing specifics that suit thier interests of the moment.

    That’s particular type of “moral relativism” more traditionally referred to as “hypocrisy.”

    Doing a quick search on-line for examples of Christian-on-Christian violence & persecutions [based on selective choosing of the the founding references and/or redefinition of what those references even are] includes the following:

    http://www.westarinstitute.org/Periodicals/4R_Articles/spong_theses.html

    http://freetruth.50webs.org/A2e.htm

    There are other & better examples readily available…but one should get the point…Christians, the outspoken ones as a general rule, demonstrate themselves as the biggest hypocrites one can find anywhere.

  6. Cannot take either the moral relativity side, nor the moral absolutism side. Even though my current morality is not absolutely perfect (far from it), it is better than the morality of the Middle Age Christians, who murdered people for being a different kind of Christian, or of the Enlightened French revolutionaries, who murdered people for not being Enlightened.

    And the reason it is a better morality is because one can criticise it. So, worse morality can exist next to better morality, with my morality being either better that your, or worse, but then only until I see your morality is better, at which time it becomes my morality too.

    So there are better and worse morals, moralities are certainly not all equal. But there is always a better morality than the best one you currently have. These moralities become apparent at the time there is a completely new situation for the current best morality has no good answer for,

  7. Ken,

    Just remind me: which fallacy is it that condemns an argument because it was brought to you by a perceived enemy? It would also behoove you to listen to the video: your hypocrisy argument answered there.

    Luis,

    No, it’s that I haven’t seen any or your arguments which don’t fit into the schema above. Unless you have a new one?

  8. Joy, Happy, Happy New Year!

    My own favorite is the obvious: relativism is self-refuting. It can’t even be phrased in a way that doesn’t cancel itself out. All arguments for relativism are variants of “It is absolutely certain there are not absolute moral certainties.”
    It’s not self-refuting if the relativism’ claim of framework relative truth is just a belief. A belief doesn’t have to be absolutely true, does it? In a way, moral relativism seems to reject the idea that one should subscribe to a belief only if it’s an absolute truth.

  9. Joy, Happy, Happy New Year!

    My own favorite is the obvious: relativism is self-refuting. It can’t even be phrased in a way that doesn’t cancel itself out. All arguments for relativism are variants of “It is absolutely certain there are not absolute moral certainties.”

    It’s not self-refuting if the relativism’ claim of framework relative truth is just a belief. A belief doesn’t have to be absolutely true, does it? In a way, moral relativism seems to reject the idea that one should subscribe to a belief only if it’s an absolute truth.

  10. @JH:

    It’s not self-refuting if the relativism’ claim of framework relative truth is just a belief. A belief doesn’t have to be absolutely true, does it?

    P. Kreeft also responded to this.

  11. Mr. Rodrigues, thanks! Will watch the video soooooon. If we worked in the same place, I am sure I’d have the answer in minutes. ^_^

  12. We are born with moral instincts. For very good reasons. All the rest is habits, of individuals and habits shared by groups of people (we call that culture). To a large extent, these habits match our instincts (it would be surprising if they did not; people who seem to be lacking a conscience or empathy are often diagnosed with psychological disorders, for example). You can look for “deeper” meaning of universal morality than this if you like, and that is perfectly all right, there may very well be one, but I don’t think that there is a need for it from a logical point of view.

  13. I would have preferred that Briggs had followed his own advice and given us the timestamp for where PK makes the argument paraphrased above as “relativism is self-refuting. It can’t even be phrased in a way that doesn’t cancel itself out. All arguments for relativism are variants of “It is absolutely certain there are not absolute moral certainties.” ”

    I listened to the whole damned thing and didn’t hear that anywhere. The closest was ~35:10 where PK asks “Why do moral relativists teach and write?”. But having a desire to expose the errors of moral absolutism does NOT require any belief either that moral absolutism is absolutely false or that it is absolutely morally wrong (which are distinct concepts by the way!). I will argue against it because it offends *my* sense of morality and because I *think* it is most likely false and I enjoy the search for “truth”.

    (There’s also something near the end ~1:05:30, where a questioner and PK both seemed to be confusing PK’s admitted ad hominem about self-justification with some kind of “self-refutation” but neither the question nor the answer made much sense to me except as more scurrilous efforts to insult the motives of their opponents.)

    In fact, I think that, like most of PK’s anti-MR arguments, this argument defeats a straw man as I agree with JH that moral relativism does not have to be an absolute position – in fact in most cases it amounts not to the claim that no absolute morality is possible but just to the assertion that “I have never seen a convincing argument that any such exists”

    G Rodrigues claims that PK addresses this counter-argument, but all I heard to that effect was PK’s assertion that the moral relativist appears to feel strongly enough about his position to accept a mere academic salary for putting it forward. So, again, timestamp please!

  14. By the way, even if it wasn’t a straw man, “It is absolutely certain there are not absolute moral certainties” would NOT be self-refuting as the non-existence of *moral* absolute certainties does not imply the impossibility of other kinds of factual absolute certainty.

  15. @Alan Cooper:

    G Rodrigues claims that PK addresses this counter-argument, but all I heard to that effect was PK’s assertion that the moral relativist appears to feel strongly enough about his position to accept a mere academic salary for putting it forward.

    A little earlier, you wrote:

    The closest was ~35:10 where PK asks “Why do moral relativists teach and write?”. But having a desire to expose the errors of moral absolutism does NOT require any belief either that moral absolutism is absolutely false or that it is absolutely morally wrong (which are distinct concepts by the way!). I will argue against it because it offends *my* sense of morality and because I *think* it is most likely false and I enjoy the search for “truth”.

    No wonder you cannot hear P. Kreeft; you cannot even hear yourself talking.

    (No, I am not going to do the intellectual work for you).

  16. @Rodrigues,
    In the segment I referred to (at ~35:10), PK suggested first that those who advocate moral relativism do so in order to free themselves from moral obligation and to excuse the immoral sexual behaviour that he seems to be so obsessed with. And then he suggested that they wouldn’t advocate MR if they didn’t consider it absolutely true (which I can testify is definitely false – though I do not believe that my own advocacy of MR arises from any particular desire to evade guilt). The fact that I have never seen a convincing argument for the existence of absolute moral laws, which would apply to all sentient beings regardless of context, leads me to adopt moral relativism as the default position, but I make no claim to have proved the impossibility of absolute moral laws so my moral relativism is not an absolutely held position. I interpreted JH as suggesting that one might advocate a position of moral relativism as something one believes to be probably true with such belief subject to revision in the event of contrary evidence and I did not notice any point where “P. Kreeft also responded to this”

    I thought I heard PK clearly enough, but in case I had missed something I asked you to follow Briggs’ suggestion of providing the courtesy of a timestamp and got a rude retort instead. Thanks for nothing.

    I also have noted that even a claim that there are absolutely no absolute moral laws is not self denying. (It would be self denying to say that it would be absolutely morally wrong to have absolute moral laws, or to assert that it is absolutely false that any absolute truths exist, but there is NO self-contradiction in the assertion that it is absolutely false that absolute *moral* truths exist.)

  17. @Alan Cooper:

    I thought I heard PK clearly enough, but in case I had missed something I asked you to follow Briggs’ suggestion of providing the courtesy of a timestamp and got a rude retort instead. Thanks for nothing.

    You are welcome.

    Just out of curiosity, what exactly was I supposed to respond to? You said and I quote:

    The closest was ~35:10 where PK asks “Why do moral relativists teach and write?”. But having a desire to expose the errors of moral absolutism does NOT require any belief either that moral absolutism is absolutely false or that it is absolutely morally wrong (which are distinct concepts by the way!). I will argue against it because it offends *my* sense of morality and because I *think* it is most likely false and I enjoy the search for “truth”.

    You use “my”, you put * around think — really, just the utterance of a subjective opinion, opinion not knowledge — and quotes around truth. You do not offer an argument; you state a preference, much like saying that you prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla. You are not seriously suggesting that I should be arguing with mere preferences and feelings, are you? Moral absolutism offends *your* sense of morality? Pray tell, why should I give a damn about *your* desires and preferences?

    But let us suppose that instead of being miffed at my rudeness, you had the intellectual decency to present an actual argument. An argument is supposed to persuade your audience by rational means of the cogency of your position. P. Kreeft’s “teach and write” presupposes that it is really good to teach the truth, to learn the truth and follow it. It is predicated on the assumption that Truth (just like that, with a capital T) is a real, objective good and that we *should* follow where the evidence and the argument leads to, that we *ought* to adhere to truth and bear the burden of its consequences. But oughts and shoulds are moral claims. So what is a relativist going to appeal to? In other words, suppose that you did found an argument for the falsehood of moral absolutism. So what? Since you are a moral relativist, you cannot take that to mean that we *ought* to be moral relativists. So even if you did the impossible, it would be a pyrrhic victory for *nothing* would follow from it. From a moral relativist point, there can be nothing wrong with being a moral absolutist and nothing right with being a moral relativist.

    So while you may make the move of accepting truth in its common sense meaning (although, if you were intellectually consistent, you should then remove the quotes from the word truth), *if* you intend to seriously argue for relativism you must presuppose moral claims similar to the ones above, for otherwise your argumentation can only be construed as the playing of a futile game and a waste of time.

  18. Many of the suggestions above (and I’m oversimplifying terribly) that those who support a position of moral absolutism are just providing an excuse for legitimizing social and political regimes that are in themselves rigid and oppressive are, I believe, missing the key point.

    Before one can base a system on absolutes or – in contrast (as indicated in Kreeft’s Mussolini quote) – a conveniently expedient value system, one must decide whether truth is absolute or not, even if you don’t know in complete detail what that complete truth might be.

    If absolute truth is an impossibility or an illusion, then we have no option but to base social structures on moral relativism. But if an absolute moral system is the more rational conclusion, it’s our obligation to use that realization as a basis for governing and ordering society – despite the fact that we know (from the entire history of mankind) that we haven’t been able to fully-delineate the particulars of that absolute truth.

    A society based on moral relativism needs little or no intellectual defense beyond the point of a gun – communism and fascism were bankrupt as rational systems well before they fell apart. If my governing code is as good as your moral code as a basis for governance, and I’ve got more power, you’re just s. o. l. If things aren’t working, peaceful change from within isn’t a function of fundamental principles, it’s a function of what those who have the keys to the gulag will allow.

    But a society based on moral absolutes does have to justify itself intellectually – if it’s not true to its ideals, or if results show those ideals to be bogus, that in itself is a basis for change strong enough in the best of societies to inspire others to modulate the system short of violence and bloodshed.

    It’s the human condition that moral absolutes that almost everyone can accept (“Thou shalt not commit murder”) are still regularly contravened, and those which are delineated less readily (“what rights do preborn human beings enjoy?”) are settled only with difficulty.

    But if one begins with the assumption that there is a right and a wrong answer to the hard questions of life, there’s at least a chance that over time humans can learn from their errors, more readily understand what is required for the right-ordering of their societal structures, and if only asymptotically, continually develop arrangements that are more just and more conducive to personal freedom.