After Morality

St. John Paul II repeatedly spoke of “the dignity of the human person,” expressing much of his moral teaching using this basic concept.  Some philosophers have found the concept of “dignity” too ill-defined.  Isn’t allowing a person to suffer from Alzheimer’s a violation of human dignity?  No, but it seems so to some people.  Do people retain their dignity if they commit grievous sins?  In one sense yes, and in another no.  These are complex issues, and merely saying the words “human dignity” does not resolve them.

And yet, consider for a moment a deeper problem.  In sociologist Christian Smith’s in-depth survey of “emerging adults” (18 to 24-year-olds), 60 percent said that morality is a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision.  Forty-seven percent of America’s emerging adults agreed that “morals are relative, there are no definite rights and wrongs for everybody.”

Most teachers who set out to teach “moral” philosophy or the “ethics” of something-or-other, whether it’s business, law, or medicine, realize quickly that they must first overcome their students’ default moral relativism and convince them to take “moral” judgments seriously as something you can make either well or badly.

Consider how difficult it would be to teach students integral calculus if most believed that whatever answer they got was always the right one – that there were no “better” or “worse” answers, only “your” answer and “my” answer.   Who would go through the trouble of working through all those difficult formulas? Just skip all that, write 2xdx, and you’re as good as Einstein.

So too, why think through any difficult moral dilemma if the guy who says “Sure, drop the atom bomb on the city” is just as “right” as the woman who says, “You can’t do that; it’s an abomination.”

You have to get students to respect a discipline of inquiry and take it seriously before you can introduce them to any of its more complex questions.

The views of my students fit Christian Smith’s data.  They’re nice kids, generally bright, and they wouldn’t dream of hurting anyone.  But their education has left most with the idea that “morals” are relative and there isn’t much that’s useful to be said about it.

Trying to “teach them morals” by laying out “the rules” is like trying to teach them calculus by simply giving them the answers from the back of the book.  Copying down the right answer from the book is not the same as “understanding calculus.”


It’s not clear that it would help either if we tried to teach calculus by saying, “There are two major methods of doing calculus currently, the utilitarian and the deontological, and they often give you completely different results.  I am going to teach you both and let you decide.”

Here is where St. John Paul II comes in.  When I use the language of “morals,” my students are self-proclaimed relativists. When I ask them whether they want to be treated with dignity, they say yes, of course, everyone should be treated with “dignity” and “respect.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.  “What does it entail?”  Eventually, someone gets around to saying, “You want to be treated as a person, not as an object or a number or a potential sale.”  “So treating people as persons brings with it certain obligations? Are there things people need to do if they are to treat other people as persons?”

This seems very clear to them.  You shouldn’t demean people or look down on them.  You shouldn’t be cruel or do them harm, either physically or emotionally.  You should be honest, caring, compassionate, and considerate.

The list can get pretty extensive.  You should respect a person’s body.  You should listen to them and respect their thoughts and opinions.  As we explore the nature and character of “persons” more deeply – body, emotions, mind, and spirit – they are willing to admit a whole list of ways in which people should act toward “persons.”

Much of this has to do with realizing how they would like to be treated. But when I ask them whether they always treat others “as persons,” they all admit that they have not.  They realize that they have not lived up to their own expectations – not mine, not the Church’s, not society’s, but their own.

“What if what we are calling ‘treating people as persons,’ I re-name ‘being moral’?  And treating people in the ways you said we shouldn’t, ‘immoral’?  Would you still want to proclaim yourself a ‘moral relativist’? Would you still be comfortable with a society in which people were ‘moral relativists’ – a society filled with people who don’t care enough about others to try to understand what it means to treat them as persons?”

There is nearly universal agreement that such a society would be a very bad thing indeed.

“So why are so many people moral relativists?” I ask.  “Because they’re stupid,” said one student.  No, that’s not it.  Seriously. That’s not it.  My students are bright and smart and for the most part very nice.  So why do they proclaim themselves “moral relativists?”

What terrible connotations must, for them, be attached to the word “moral”?  Perhaps the problem has something to do with the way people have for years talked about “being moral.”  If so, perhaps we just need to use another word.

This doesn’t mean adopting the language of teens, as though they had better, clearer concepts; as though we could say, “Look, kids, I’m not saying you should ‘be moral’; no, you should just ‘be cool.’” That would actually be much, much worse.  But we need to clarify the language if we find the language we have been using communicates exactly the wrong thing.

God help us if the same confusions and ill connotations surround the concept of “being Christian” as surround the phrase “being moral” because of the unwise and imprudent way people have used that term over the years.  It would, however, explain a lot.


*Image: Odysseus Between Scylla and Charybdis by Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli), 1806 [British Museum, London]. This illustration is among those Fuseli did for Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.