“We are obliged to ask: must there not be a non-relativistic kernel in democracy too? For is not democracy ultimately constructed around human rights that are inviolable?.. We prefer today to speak of values rather than of truth, in order to avoid coming into conflict with the idea of tolerance and with democratic relativism. But such a terminological transposition will not allow us to evade the question I have just posed, since values derive their inviolability precisely from the fact that they are true and that they correspond to true requirements of human existence.” Values in a Time of Upheaval, p. 56.
Reflection – The problem of relativism looms large in Ratzinger’s writings. The section quoted above is from a lengthy discussion of the relationship of democracy, tolerance, and truth. In a secular democracy, can we make claims about the truth of good and evil, or absolute truth statements about reality? Does this not open us up to the danger of intolerance, the suppression of the rights of those who disagree with us? How can a secular and pluralistic society manage its affairs unless it excludes any truth claims from its legal and social structure? Many would answer these questions by insisting that a secular society must adhere to a position of strict relativism, confining all claims about truth to the private sphere.
These are indeed big questions at any time, but are especially pressing today, as courts and legislatures redefine the very meaning of marriage, human rights commissions define and re-define the limits of free speech, and the rights of human beings at the far ends of life (i.e. the unborn and the elderly) are alternately denied or debated. What are we free to say? To do? To think? What is the nature of freedom in the world, and what is its safeguard?
In this passage, Ratzinger points out that a democratic free society cannot safely commit itself to a strict moral relativism without endangering its own foundations.
The question is simple: do human beings have rights or don’t we? A strict relativist would have to say, “That depends.” But if we do not have rights which absolutely cannot be violated, then the very core of democracy is gutted.
Without a theory of inalienable rights, we are left with this: in some fashion, some entity in society, some arm of the state, determines what we do or do not have a right to do at any moment. If there are no inherent absolute rights that stand independent of social organization or government fiat, then we are essentially serfs of the state, exercising our freedoms only at the good pleasure and discretion of those controlling the levers of power.
This is a grim, even alarming prospect, yet we have to be clear. It is the strict logical implications of moral relativism at the level of mass society. A truly free society logically must rest on truth. If there is no truth, there is no freedom, since our freedoms can be denied at any moment by our betters. If there is no freedom, there is no democracy. Some kind of binding truth statements is necessary for a healthy democracy to survive.
Of course, this necessity of truth for freedom and democracy carries us into deep waters, difficult determinations. Yet without engaging these deep and difficult questions, we are in deeper waters yet. Indeed, we are profoundly vulnerable to tyrannies of the right or the left, to having any particular right we currently enjoy disposed of as soon as it becomes inconvenient to the achieving of this or that social good.
And this, in fact, is the situation of the modern world, insofar as it insists on a relativistic view of reality and morality.