Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Criticism of a critique

Robert T. Miller over on the First Things blog Observations & Contentions in his post Right Reason in the Public Square, offers a critique of an essay by Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. What is strange about his critique is that he sees Bishop Crepaldi's addressing the issue of relativism in matters of morals as anachronistic. He goes so far as to tag it with the Don Quixote cliche, "tilting at windmills". As quoted by Miller the good bishop's definition of relativism is: "Public reason is 'not possible in a culture that is dominated by the 'dictatorship of relativism' [a phrase from Benedict XVI], for a very simple reason: Relativism is a dogma and therefore it a priori rejects rational argumentation, even toward itself. . . . Relativism [denies] a capability of reason to argue truth . . . [and so] prevents the use of public reason" (emboldened emphasis mine). Using dogma in this manner brings up some questions and concerns, as it plays to the contemporary misunderstanding of what dogma is and the role dogmas play in the exposition of the Catholic faith. Nonetheless, the subject of the essay is relativism regarding religion, what is also known as religious indifferentism. However, Bishop Crepaldi does further define relativism and its effects in the essay. The bishop uses relativism in the most general sense; a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them. "Relativism regards all religions as equivalent," writes the bishop. "It does so," he continues, "because it is incapable of engaging in a public critique of religions because for relativism common good cannot be rationally identified." While far from comprehensive, it is a considerably better definition than Miller indicates.

What Miller's argument ultimately amounts to is an indirect attack on Pope Benedict's critique of the "the dictatorship of relativism", that was the main feature of then-Cardinal Ratzinger's homily at the Votive Mass for the Election of a New Pope. Bishop Crepaldi's essay amounts to nothing more than an abbreviated version of this already abbreviated argument, which has been fully developed by the Holy Father over most of the previous twenty years. Furthermore, Miller makes the odd claim that relativism in morals is no longer a concern due to the sheer amount of rational discourse on matters of morals be the issue "abortion or gay rights, tax policy or the trade deficit, global warming or third-world debt, everyone seems ready to adduce arguments in support of some position or other." He makes the simple error of confusing the quantity of discourse with quality, and content, while ignoring the philosophical assumptions of our public discourse. He rightly sees the verificationism required for the success of logical positivist claims as being long since refuted, but he also claims that emotivism is fifty years dead.

That last claim simply cannot be sustained. After all, was not MacIntyre's After Virtue published in the 1980s? How can one write about emotivism without mentioning McIntyre? It seems Miller is the one behind the times. Has the emotivism identified in McIntyre's seminal work really been refuted, rejected, surpassed?

Also, the project, which he picks up from R.R. Reno, of seeking to make analytic philosophy the philosophia prima, thus supplanting phenomenology, is no small project. It is certainly worth discussing and considering. If Miller is going to pursue this critique, rather than expend his energy on this particular essay, he needs to contend with McIntyre and the best of Ratzinger, like the recently translated The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, his dialogue with philosopher Jurgen Habermas.


  1. I appreciate what you say here. You are much more familiar with the philosophical context than I am!

    I definitely noticed the similarity between the language criticized and Fr. Carron's words in the CLU Spiritual Exercises (see pg 10 in the booklet in the latest Traces).

    It seems to me the real issues in Miller's posts are the definition of reason and dialogue. Here's Fr. Giussani on dialogue.


  2. Fred:

    Thank you for the link. I haven't yet cracked the booklet from the last issue of Traces, but will do so!