The questions surrounding value, such as its nature and its relation to morality, have been asked and answered by philosophers in various ways throughout philosophical history. In particular, the issue of whether value is “objective” or “subjective” has caused much controversy in the last few centuries. Essentially, it comes down to this: is value a real characteristic of things regardless of who knows it, or is value simply something that we project onto things? A popular answer to this question in recent times has been that of relativism, the adherents of which assert that what is right varies from individual to individual or culture to culture. However, many thinkers, including 20th century phenomenological philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, argue that relativism is riddled with fallacies. Von Hildebrand studied under Edmund Husserl at the University of Göttingen, and he was greatly influenced by the father of phenomenology. Thus, in this post, I will explore moral relativism and contrast it to von Hildebrand’s understanding of ethics.
In the last hundred years, there has been an increasing separation in societal thought between goodness and truth. This divide has manifested itself in popular ethics’ increasing focus on preferences and emotions as opposed to truth and reason. A natural consequence of this has been a widespread embrace of relativism among Western nations. Indeed, according to Dietrich von Hildebrand, ethical relativism is the “ruling moral philosophy of our age.”1 There are numerous forms of relativism, but put simply, relativism contends that values are not objective, and so that what is right and wrong varies between individuals or societies. In other words, according to relativism, the worth or goodness of things lies in human choices or emotions, rather than being discovered in the things themselves.
Further, since morality is generally seen as something related primarily to other people, many relativists emphasize the society rather than simply the individual. 20th century philosopher Fred Feldman summarizes this popular form of relativism: “You should act in the way in which your society believes you should act. In other words, the moral conventions of one’s society determine one’s moral obligations.”2 Jesse Prinz, a philosopher who defends relativism, expresses one basic argument for relativism in this way: “Morals vary dramatically across time and place… Such variation cries out for explanation. If morality were objective,
shouldn’t we see greater consensus?”3 This is one basic formulation of moral relativism, and it is often referred to as “conventionalism.”
Conventionalism, if it is true, entails that values cannot be objective in the way that facts, scientific laws, or philosophical principles are objective. For, Newton’s law of gravity, the Pythagorean theorem, or the principle of non-contradiction are true regardless of culture. Thus, Prinz writes, “Moral variation is best explained by assuming that morality, unlike science, is not based on reason or observation.”4 Rather, Prinz asserts that values are “emotional attitudes” and that a person’s morals can be changed by “simply altering their emotional states.”5 Von Hildebrand describes this version of relativism quite succinctly, writing: “Though we attribute beauty, goodness, or depth to an object, these are in reality nothing but mere states of soul which we objectify, erroneously attributing them to an object.”6 Essentially, this means that since one’s likes and dislikes, attitudes, and perspectives are largely formed by one’s society, then if value is at root a feeling, it follows that one’s society determines one’s values and so one’s morals.
Hence, moral relativism, with its subsets and variations, is ultimately derived from the notion that value and reason are inherently separate. As 18th century philosopher David Hume maintained, it is impossible to derive an ought from an is, since ought “expresses some new relation or affirmation” which is “entirely different” from is.7 Or, as Prinz writes, “the problem with reason…is that it never adds up to value.”8 Instead, according to Prinz, values are inculcated by society, and through this process those values become true for those who possess
them. However, while Prinz and any consistent relativist cannot affirm that one society’s values are better than another from a moral perspective, many relativists allow that certain types of values tend to be more enduring than others. As Prinz writes, “Values that are completely self-destructive can’t last.”9
The value philosophy of Dietrich von Hildebrand offers a stark contrast to that of moral relativism. As a phenomenologist following in the footsteps of Husserl, Von Hildebrand’s emphasis is on consciousness and experience. As Alan Vincelette writes, “Phenomenology is a philosophical discipline which consists in focusing one’s attention on and describing the phenomena, or immediate experiences.”10 The purpose of this focus is to understand the essences of things and the structures of consciousness. However, “experience” for the phenomenologist, is not limited to sensory experience, as empiricists such as Hume would maintain. On the contrary, to experience is not only to sense but also to think, reflect, remember, love, etc. Vincelette summarizes von Hildebrand’s epistemology: “In addition to empirical data which…give a posteriori knowledge of real existence, there is also data which derive from reflection on mental experience…which give a priori knowledge of ideal existence.”11 Hence, for von Hildebrand and other phenomenologists, philosophy consists in describing and articulating precisely what is found in the phenomena. I encourage you who are reading this post to turn to the phenomena yourself and see if you can confirm what von Hildebrand describes.
Through this process, von Hildebrand identifies what he refers to as the “datum of importance.”12 This is simply the articulation of the distinction between merely neutral or indifferent objects of consciousness and those which are important in some way, i.e., those which are able to “motivate the will or any affective response.”13 Further, von Hildebrand discovers within this datum of importance several different categories or levels. To illustrate these, he contrasts the example of a man receiving an underserved but nonetheless pleasant compliment with one who witnesses a generous action of forgiveness. According to von Hildebrand, the compliment is “merely subjectively important.” It only rises out of the “anonymity of the neutral and indifferent” because it is pleasant, and so “its importance is solely drawn from its relation to our pleasure.” In contrast, von Hildebrand argues that the sincere act of forgiveness reveals itself to us as “something intrinsically important.” Its importance is independent of our
consciousness of it.14
Examples of the merely pleasant include drinking a glass of wine, smoking a cigarette, or playing a game. On the other hand, examples of the intrinsically important include the majesty of nature, the beauty of art, and the sublimity of virtuous action. Thus, according to von Hildebrand, a merely pleasant thing is always agreeable or satisfying for someone or to someone. In and of themselves, these things are only potentially non-neutral. However, von Hildebrand
argues that it is the exact opposite case for the intrinsically important. He writes, “The delight and emotion which we experience in witnessing a noble moral action or in gazing at the beauty of a star-studded sky essentially presupposes the consciousness that the importance of the object is in no way dependent on the delight it may bestow on us.”15 In other words, while the experience of the subjectively satisfying thing on the one hand and the intrinsically important
thing on the other both produce joy, the former experience derives its importance from the pleasure, while the latter’s pleasure flows from its importance. Von Hildebrand continues, “This bliss [of the objectively important] arises from our confrontation with…an object standing majestically before us, autonomous in its sublimity and nobility.”16 Thus, according to von
Hildebrand, the essential difference in nature between these two types of delight reveals the difference in the kinds of value. In the one case, the value is the principium (i.e., that which determines) and our happiness is the principiatum (i.e. that which is determined), while in the case of the merely pleasant, the roles are reversed.
As a phenomenologist, Von Hildebrand is not proposing these distinctions and
characteristics as one might propose a theory. On the contrary, he maintains that these distinctions and essences are simply discovered in experience itself. For example, von Hildebrand argues that the ways in which we are attracted to these objects of importance reveals their difference in kind. In other words, the merely subjectively satisfying thing does not demand that we respond to it in any particular way. It attracts us, but its attraction does not involve duty or responsibility. By contrast, von Hildebrand writes, “Every good possessing a
value [i.e., an intrinsic value] imposes on us, as it were, an obligation to give to it an adequate response.”17 Hence, according to von Hildebrand, the very nature of our experience of moral value reveals that this value transcends our experience. It points beyond itself.
Undeniably, then, von Hildebrand’s account of value differs starkly from that of moral relativism. In a future post, I will outline von Hildebrand’s arguments against relativism. Until then, feel free to comment below with thoughts or criticisms.
1 Dietrich von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, (New York, 1953), 95.
2 Fred Feldman, Introductory Ethics, (Eaglewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978), 163.
3 Jesse Prinz, “Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response,” Philosophy Now, (Issue 82: January/February 2011).
4 Prinz, “Morality.”
5 Prinz, “Morality.”
6 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 107.
7 David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, (1739), 3.1.1.
8 Prinz, “Morality.”
9 Prinz, “Morality.”
10 Alan Vincelette, Recent Catholic Philosophy: The Twentieth Century, (St. Louis, MO: En Route Books and Media, 2020), 18.
11 Vincelette, Recent Catholic Philosophy, 29.
12 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 133.
13 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 21.
14 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 29-30.
15 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 31.
16 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 31.
17 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 33.
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