The Catholic Thing
Pluralism – or Relativism? Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Tuesday, 23 February 2010

This past year, secularists have been celebrating the centennial of the birth of one of their ideological heroes, Oxford don Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997).

Born in Riga, Professor Berlin and his family escaped Bolshevik persecution and settled in Britain in 1921. He was educated at Oxford and spent his career teaching there, was knighted in 1957, and wrote over twenty books on philosophical, political, and cultural subjects.

Although Berlin is more talked about than read, he is still viewed by the secularists as one of the leading liberal intellectuals of the twentieth century. He is remembered, foremost, as an erudite wit, one of the illuminati who turn clever phrases at exclusive soirees. Berlin is also honored as a practical philosopher because he embraced what he called a “pluralism of values” and frowned upon those who subscribed to absolute and transcendent standards.

In his famous 1958 essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin dismissed truth and certainty in these words: “Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past.” In other words anyone who argues for universal truths is a childish Neanderthal.

Despite this position, Berlin still insisted he was not a relativist, “I do not say ‘I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps.’” But he never made clear the basis of this claim. For all his sophistication, like we lesser lights, Berlin can’t have his cake and also eat it. To deny there is an absolute (i.e., a natural law) that supersedes all statutes, that abrogates perverted legal orders, is to make death camps legally permissible, and historically led to them.

A leading intellectual proponent of legal positivism, Hans Kelsen, put it this way: “The legal order of totalitarian states authorizes their Governments to confine in concentration camps persons whose opinions, religion, or race they do not like; to force them to perform any kind of labor, even to kill them. Such measures may be morally or violently condemned; but they cannot be considered as taking place outside the legal order of those states. . . .We may regret it but we cannot deny that it was law.”

In Nazi Germany, for instance, Hitler was legally able to obtain the power to fashion the Final Solution because the regime rejected eternal, immutable values. Hitler legally became a law unto himself with quite predictable results. His authority was confirmed equally by appointed judges and elected legislators, and he was able to boast, “We stand absolutely as hard as granite on the ground of legality.”

Pope Benedict, who lived under the Nazi regime, has said that, at least in this, Hitler was quite right. Law in Nazi Germany, Benedict has written, “was constantly castigated and placed in opposition to so-called popular feeling. The Führer was successively declared the only source of law and, as a result, absolute power replaced law. The denigration of law never serves the causes of liberty, but is always an instrument of dictatorship.”

To convict the Nazis at the Nuremberg trial of crimes against humanity, the prosecution had to reject the moral and legal relativism promoted by Isaiah Berlin and to invoke the natural law. Peter Kreeft has written that the Nuremberg trial “assumed that such universal moral law really existed.”

Robert H. Jackson, an associate justice of the Supreme Court who served as America’s chief counsel at Nuremberg, flatly stated: “We do not accept the paradox that legal responsibility should be least where the power is the greatest.” Justice Jackson liked to recall English jurist Edward Coke’s rebuke of James I’s assertion of royal authority: “A King,” Coke reminded the monarch, “is still under God and law.”

In his closing argument, Jackson made this plea, “I cannot subscribe to the perverted reasoning that society may advance and strengthen the rule of law by the expenditure of morally innocent lives but that progress in law may never be made at the price of morally guilty lives.”

It is interesting that the standard used by the world to condemn the Nazis at Nuremberg was the same one Jefferson asked the “candid world” to use in vindicating America’s Revolution. Had these judgments been based solely upon legal positivism or relativism, such vicious men as Hitler, Eichmann, and Himmler might have been considered law-abiding, and such virtuous men as Washington, Adams, and Jefferson might have been labeled outlaws.

By rejecting the natural law and subscribing to a “pluralism of values,” Isaiah Berlin and his secularist admirers are intellectual prisoners of what Pope Benedict has called the “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s ego and desires.”

As history has shown, this is not only a private question as we are often told but leads, often quite quickly, to the most serious public consequences. 

George J. Marlin is an editor of
The Quotable Fulton Sheen (Doubleday Image).

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Joseph, February 24, 2010
So when the U.S. kills 29 innocent civilians in Afghanistan, it's just a matter of saying we're "sorry." But when the Nazis killed innocents, they went to the gallows.

When the U.S. A-bombs obliterated 500,000 innocent lives (including thousands later irradiated), it was morally justified and incomparable to the extermination of those under Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot?

It's confusing, isn't it, when to apply man's law and God's, or is it just a matter of whether you won or lost the war?
The Tyranny of a Few
written by Willie, February 24, 2010
Pluralism, multiculturalism and diversity all seem to be politically correct concepts these days. They are euphemisms for anything goes and no absolutes. Are the First Principles and Natural Law of our founders relevant only to the past. Was the blood spilled over the world in defense of these principles all in vain. It seems that judging by the new freedoms of abortion on demand, euthanasia and genetic engineering, we have adopted the relativist philosophies of tyrannical regimes. Man is law!
Plus de relativism
written by Christian, February 24, 2010
Speaking of killing innocents, we may as throw in 70,000 French killed due to Allied bombing 1940-5, and another 20,000 killed during the battle for Normandy. As soon as they were liberated, the French should have had their own Nuremburg and sent the guilty parties to the gallows.
Equivalency? Still?
written by Brad Miner, February 24, 2010
I'm astonished that people still make arguments - if that's what they are - about the moral equivalence of the U.S. and communists and Nazis. Will the American Left never overcome its adolescent illusions? Joseph, when some civilians are killed by our forces in Afghanistan it's a mistake; when the Nazis and communists did it it was policy. In war there are always collateral casualties. But the policies of those other regimes systematically exterminated millions. Shame on you and Christian.
Thanks, Brad!
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., February 24, 2010
Thank you Brad for having the courage to use the word I was hesitant to use: adolescent. The desire to see evil in one's nation and/or church may well be simply a transference of anti-parental hostility. In any case, it invovles delusions. As to when the American Left will abandon such delusions, the answer is never, because that faction is a spawn of the same totalitarian force that invented moral equivalency as part of Political Correctness, aka Party Discipline.
written by Christian, February 25, 2010
I was making a joke....imagine the French convicting the Allies of murder in the case of those unintended deaths. Sorry if it wasn't obvious.
To Christian
written by Brad Miner, February 25, 2010
Sorry, my friend. I guess the irony was too subtly expressed for me to grasp.
A Distinction
written by James Cathelineau, February 25, 2010
The killing of French civilians by allied forces in WWII was not murder, though, with the careless manner in which Caen and Lisieux were bombed, perhaps it was manslaughter. I don't know. The deliberate killing of civilians in Dresden, Munich, in other German cities, and in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, was deliberate murder: under the natural law, Harry S. Truman and Bomber Harris were war criminals. Those who would defend Truman belong with Isaiah Berlin. Mr. Marlin might address this.
Brad misreads me
written by Joseph, February 25, 2010
I am probably to the right of you, Brad. To ascribe my views as "adolescent allusions," is to engage in the type of ad hominem attacks that are largely absent from these forums. Killing is killing, and you may wish to attribute motives to "mistakes" or "policy" but the result is the same. Shame on me for not wrapping myself in the flag of my country and looking back on Vietnam -- a million innocents dead -- as a "noble cause." Let's just chalk it up all to "collateral damage" and move on.

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