Pluralism – or Relativism?

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, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.