Husserl’s Disciples: Dietrich von Hildebrand’s critique of relativism

In a previous post, I contrasted moral relativism with the value ethics of Dietrich von Hildebrand, a student of Edmund Husserl. In this post, I wish to consider von Hildebrand’s critique of relativism. As before, I encourage all my readers to turn to the phenomena themselves in order to either verify or invalidate von Hildebrand’s descriptions.

Firstly, in answer to the claim by relativists like Jesse Prinz that moral variety indicates moral relativism, von Hildebrand writes, “A difference of opinion in no way proves that the object to which the opinion refers does not exist; or that it is in reality a mere semblance, changing for each individual or at least for different peoples.”1 In other words, a lack of consensus about something does not mean that the object of disagreement is illusory or “merely subjective”. As an example of this, von Hildebrand mentions the Ptolemaic system of astronomy. For, this system was almost universally accepted as correct for centuries, until it was proven to be false by Copernicus. Yet, von Hildebrand argues, this fact is “no justification for denying that the stars exist or even that our present opinion has only a relative validity.”2

Secondly, according to von Hildebrand the way we think about and act toward moral goods stand in stark contrast to our comportment toward the merely subjectively satisfying thing. For, while the value of the latter is instinctively recognized to be relative to the individual, the objectivity of the former is implicitly assumed. As he writes, “In all these diversities [of moral beliefs] the notion of an objective value, of a moral good and evil, is always presupposed, even if there exist contradictory positions concerning the moral goodness of a certain attitude or action.”3 In other words, when an individual says something such as “that is evil,” he is not making a statement about himself or his feelings about the object. He is claiming something about the object itself. Thus, “Whether a conviction is true or false in its content, it nevertheless attempts to aim at something transcendent.”4

In other words, our actions reveal that we do not take moral goods to be merely subjectively satisfying. For, while the pleasant is pleasant because it gives us pleasure, and the nauseating is nauseating because it nauseates us, the morally good is not morally good because it makes us feel morally good. As C.S. Lewis writes, “The man who says This is sublime cannot mean I have sublime feelings… The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feelings but feelings of veneration.”5 And, indeed, as a precise examination of experience reveals, to say “this is sublime” is not even to say “I have feelings of veneration.” Those feelings might be there, but the very essence of veneration is that it is directed toward something which is sublime regardless of my feelings. Certainly, one can be mistaken about the morally good, the beautiful, or the sublime, and yet these adjectives denote qualities which are transcendent and independent of one’s experience.

Finally, von Hildebrand maintains definitively that values cannot merely be emotional attitudes. For, he points out that “feeling” is not a univocal term. Simply because we might say both that “virtuous action feels wonderful” and that “a hot bath feels wonderful” does not mean that we are using “feeling” in the same way in both cases. Further, according to von Hildebrand, a careful and precise description of experience rules out the possibility that moral goodness is either a bodily feeling or an emotional attitude. Bodily feelings are spatio-temporal, and emotions only have existence within our experience. So, it would be incoherent to speak of an object or activity as intrinsically irritating or as pleasant in and of itself. However, this contrasts sharply with moral values, as von Hildebrand writes, “Moral goodness and beauty clearly show themselves as things independent of our experience; we clearly realize that the moral goodness of another’s act of charity in no way depends on its being witnessed by ourselves. On the contrary, we discover it to be good and we know that it would yet be good whether or not we were aware of it.”6

These are the chief attacks that von Hildebrand levels against moral relativism, and they reveal problems with relativism that cannot be ignored. And, indeed, besides those issues that von Hildebrand points out, there are other inconsistencies in the relativistic system. For example, conventionalism presupposes a rather simplistic state of affairs. First, if moral relativism is correct, then it follows that there cannot be any inter-societal moral conflict. For, if moral statements simply refer to cultural emotional traditions, then the statements “I ought to do X” and “I ought not to do X” might not be contradictory if they are said by members of different societies. Yet, ethical societal conflict seems too obvious to merely dismiss in this way. Further, as Fred Feldman writes, “In order to state conventionalism in a coherent way, we have to assume that for each act, there is exactly one society that is, in some sense, ‘the society in which the act is performed.’”7 Yet, this assumption is dubious at best, especially in our technologically advanced world in which immigration and cultural change are constantly occurring. For, what of individuals who seem to belong to multiple societies at once?

Finally, conventionalism also has the rather bizarre corollary that the reformer of a society is always unethical. For, if the highest standard of morality is the society, then any attempts to reform or change one’s society will necessarily go against this standard and so be immoral. Clearly, this is a rather problematic position to hold.

In conclusion, then, it seems difficult to deny the superiority of von Hildebrand’s ethics to that of relativism. Moral relativism reduces moral value to the merely subjective and good and evil to emotions and cultural prejudice. However, von Hildebrand convincingly argues that we cannot account for a vast part of authentic human experience without positing objective value. Our language, our responses, our thoughts, and even our emotions reveal the sharp distinction between the objectively good and the merely subjectively satisfying thing. Moreover, moral relativism is seemingly bound up with numerous inconsistencies and ambiguities. Thus, while moral relativism appeals to many people because it seems to be the most tolerant and enlightened moral system, it appears to be ultimately untenable. And indeed, according to relativism itself, tolerance is only a virtue if it is part of one’s culture; an intolerant culture is not inherently worse than a tolerant one, if the relativists are to be believed. Therefore, as von Hildebrand writes, “In our age of psychoanalysis it is high time that we had a psychoanalysis of relativism. If anything calls for a psychoanalytic investigation, it is the artificial and desperate effort to deny the most obvious data and to make of them innumerably different things—anything in fact except what they distinctly reveal themselves to be.”8

1 Dietrich von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, (New York, 1953), 97.

2 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 97.

3 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 98.

4 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 102.

5 C.S. Lewis, as quoted in von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 115.

6 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 110.

7 Fred Feldman, Introductory Ethics, (Eaglewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978), 164.

8 Von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, 95.

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3 responses to “Husserl’s Disciples: Dietrich von Hildebrand’s critique of relativism”

  1. Phil Grad Student Avatar
    Phil Grad Student

    I wonder what von Hildebrand might say to error theory– the prospects don’t look too good to me. Sure, people do perhaps take themselves to be making objective claims (I mean technically, according to Sarkissian et al.’s Folk Moral Relativism studies, that’s actual straight-forwardly false) yet what does this say about the actual status of these claims In fact it seems there’s some reason to suspect they are uniformly wrong or not trustworthy, debunking arguments, et cetera.

    If it’s supposed that we have a priori access to moral truth, why do people disagree so sharply? That’s an odd data point. Further, what is the access like, where in the brain does the a-causal realm of the form of the Good (or whatever) interact? And how?

    I’m sure one might oppose my ‘scientism’ but in lieu of a plausible alternative that doesn’t contradict our best theories… Perhaps here Hildebrand might lean into the spiritual or Catholic, but that somewhat puts him out of the running for me in terms of an independent defense of ethics.

    I’m interested to hear what the phenomenologist’s answer might be; continental stuff is not my wheelhouse so apologies if I’ve misunderstood!

    1. Michael Teoli Avatar

      Thank you for your comment; you raise some very important issues. I always welcome constructive criticism: philosophy is the great dialogue, after all.

      Certainly, my posts on von Hildebrand were not intended to be a comprehensive refutation of moral relativism: that would require a much more extensive investigation. Rather, my posts were intended to point out a variety of problems with one popular version of relativism (i.e., conventionalism), and also to describe von Hildebrand’s phenomenological descriptions of value. Obviously, in the passages I quoted, von Hildebrand does not offer an absolutely airtight defense of objective morality, but I do think that von Hildebrand makes some compelling points about our experience of moral value.

      As to people disagreeing about morality, I do think that this is often overemphasized. Certainly, as far as particular cases of applied ethics are concerned, cultures vary widely, but anthropology shows a surprising amount of uniformity across cultures when it comes to the general principles of morality. For example, all agree that no innocent person should be killed: the disagreements arise regarding who qualifies as innocent or as a person. If moral relativism was indeed true, then I would expect there to be as much variety between cultures in beliefs about moral principles as there is about etiquette, clothing, food, etc.

      Ultimately, the consistent moral relativist would have to claim that the statement “X is wrong” simply means “my culture dislikes X,” but is that truly what we intend when we make such a claim? Of course, this does not prove that there is such a thing as objective value, but I am very hesitant to accept a theory of morals which appears to seriously misinterpret a fundamental part of human experience.

      1. Phil Grad Student Avatar
        Phil Grad Student

        Thanks for the response! I don’t have a WordPress account so I can’t ‘like’ your comment except by saying thanks. Anyway, onward:

        “All agree that no innocent person should be killed: the disagreements arise regarding who qualifies as innocent or as a person” rather stretches the meaning of agreement to “everyone wants the Good (ex definitio) but disagree on the particulars” which is just moral difference repeated to sound like agreement.

        Also, the truth of moral relativism doesn’t entail moral diversity: all sorts of factors not relevant to moral truth (power, neurology) might cause us to have vaguely similar, yet incommensurable and ungrounded moral beliefs.

        I have more to say but better to keep it short since I think I was not as clear as I would’ve like above: Sarkissian et al. indicates empirically that Hildebrand’s insight (and yours) into the experience of moral objectivity is actually not so universal. From another view, error theorists give reason to doubt these naive standpoints altogether. So there’s a problem in appealing to these kinds of experiences “of” objective good; the “most obvious data” as you quote Hildebrand, is not really so obvious in lieu of some other support. Thus I’m not certain it can settle the question at stake in any given direction, which I mean to be something like a methodological issue.

        That’s all I have to say, all the best!

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