Moral relativism is becoming increasingly prominent in Western society. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he was elected pope, warned, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” It is important to recognize, especially in the Enlightenment thought, the sources of this dangerous relativism to fight it.

English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in a classic precursor to Enlightenment thought, writes in Leviathan that man was originally in a state of war owing to his desire for personal gain. Hobbes famously said that life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In the state of war, “the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice.” In Hobbes’ invented history of mankind, man’s awareness of right and wrong is derived from a societal construct to ensure self-preservation, which is manifested in “that law of the gospel: Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them,” one of the two laws of nature. The God-given law that epitomizes virtue thus serves the self and the state, not a higher truth.

Because man is entitled to everything in Hobbes’ state of nature, neighbourly love in the artificial society means denying one’s natural right in favour of somebody else’s natural right to the same thing. “A Hobbesian society is one in which each person considers himself first and foremost as an individual brimming with rights/desires while simultaneously minimizing conflict with other rights/desires-bearing individuals,” writes Benjamin Wiker in his book, 10 Books that Screwed Up the World. “The result is that morality becomes merely a private thing, a thing of personal taste…This complete moral relativism is behind the great Hobbesian protest of our time: ‘No one has a right to tell me what to do’.”

Another drastic example of moral relativism was given by Scottish philosopher David Hume, who believed that humans only gain knowledge through perception. “Since nothing is ever present to the mind but perceptions, and since all ideas are deriv’d from something antecedently present to the mind, it follows, that ‘tis impossible for us so much as to conceive or form an idea of any thing specifically different from ideas and impressions,” he writes in A Treatise on Human Nature. Although Hume acknowledges the presence of a universal human “sentiment” that impacts morality, man develops a sense of virtue or personal merit based on the judgment of others. In effect, morality is only a biological instinct that man modifies to please himself and his peers.

On the other hand, the works of the philosophe Montesquieu mainly espouse cultural relativism. In his Esprit des Lois, Montesquieu ignores the search for truth by evaluating each religion in terms of how useful it is in producing a good citizenry, effective society, and humane government. He establishes that a religion must be moral, encourage work, generate good citizens, etc. Montesquieu said, “It is not so much the Truth or Falsity of a Doctrine which renders it useful or pernicious to Men in civil Government, as the Use or Abuse of it.” This implies that false doctrines are not to be necessarily avoided, as they may be useful to society. “Good” doctrines are in fact adapted to the climates of the devotees. For example, because “there is more need of labour” in Protestant countries, “the suppression of festivals is therefore more suitable to Protestant than to Catholic countries.” Similarly, because Indians “can breed but very few cattle,” it is useful for there to be a religious law that suppresses eating beef. It is therefore inconvenient to change the religion of a country because it is already adapted to its climate.

Montesquieu’s Persian Letters depicts the worldview of Persian travellers to Europe. Yet, he demonstrates a strange acceptance of moral relativity when, in one of the body of fictional letters that make up the work, the Muslim letter-writer tells “The History of Apheridon and Astarte.” The joyful conclusion of the story is an incestuous relationship between a Guebre brother and sister in defiance of the Muslim regime. This relationship is implied as morally acceptable due to Guebre cultural norms.

Rousseau’s state of nature is as relativistic as Hobbes’ in tracing the origin of morality. In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau, contra Hobbes, assumes that human beings will avoid violence in pursuit of necessity and happiness, leading to peaceful, idyllic solitude. To Rousseau, man was originally like an animal, only able to feel compassion. In the state of nature, Wiker writes, “Neither love nor the family was natural … Rousseau goes so far in his imaginative destruction … that he even denies the love of mother and child.” In Rousseau’s own words, love “is an artificial sentiment born of the usage of society.” There are no virtues and each man lives to ensure his own preservation. When man forms relationships, he begins to lose his personal freedom to the chains of society.

Rousseau, however, contrasts this relativistic approach with his optimistic belief in the infallibility of the human conscience (that is uncorrupted by society) in his Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar. “All that I feel to be right, is right. All that I feel to be wrong, is wrong.” Using his conscience and reason, Rousseau deduces a doctrine and “natural religion.” This, he concludes, is the only true religion, and he rejects all that are dependent on tradition and revelation. “Had they listened only to what the Deity hath said to their hearts, there would have been but one religion on Earth.” Therefore, contrary to his idea of man’s origins, Rousseau surprisingly does believe in one core truth.

The problem is that conscience can err, even in Rousseau’s perfect conditions, and his idea may be used to justify the creation of a medley of personal religions, which, applying Rousseau’s philosophy, are better than revelation-based religions that are rooted on a specific truth because that “all I feel to be right, is right.” Any sort of principle someone derives, even if clearly immoral, cannot be deemed as such because it is right to that person in particular. Clearly, Rousseau’s assumptions do lead to a dangerous sort of relativism as potent as that of the other Enlightenment philosophers.

Pauline Kosalka is studying history at the University of Toronto.