We were made to ask the big questions: For what purpose do I exist? What happens to me when I die? Is there an all-powerful God who loves me? If we accept the lie that life has no meaning, that this is all there is, we’re led into what Pope St. John Paul II described as “a sad loneliness in which [we] are deprived of reasons for hope and are incapable of real love.”
Relativism seems to let us off the hook when we fail to do what we know to be right and true, but this is deceptive. We’re still on the hook, because our actions still really do have consequences, even if we pretend that what is immoral is moral. Drug use, abortion, cheating on your taxes—some think we do not need to feel guilty for engaging in these objectively bad behaviors because they are not wrong “for me.” But like any deal with the devil, that dispensation comes at a profound cost: the loss of meaning and purpose to your life, perhaps even the loss of your soul.
Indeed, moral relativism undermines the very right to life, and not just life in utero. As Pope St. John Paul II recognized, the right to life itself becomes a matter of popular will—a mere vote—as “the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the ‘right’ ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person.” When the right to life is a matter of personal opinion, it is possible for a society to take innocent life before it is born. Or when it becomes old or infirm. Or when it is disabled. Or if it is the wrong sex, race, or economic class. Or when a life is simply inconvenient.
Finally, moral relativism eliminates God from our lives altogether. If we believe that God is objectively all powerful, all knowing, all good, and all loving, we cannot believe that His nature depends on what we think about Him, or even what most people think about Him. And how can we believe that God made us “to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven”—as we should—if God is simply a product of group belief rather than Someone who actually is?
In sum, moral relativism is a dead-end philosophy that is not worthy of our lives and is not worth following. But if not moral relativism, then what moral system should we believe?
The best alternative to moral relativism is the classical moral worldview. Philosophers and religious scholars have contemplated the truth of this worldview for more than two thousand years, starting with Plato and Aristotle, then reaching new heights with St. Thomas Aquinas, the beloved Dominican friar who wrote Summa Theologica. In essence, the classical moral worldview considers the world to be ordered, good, and intelligible. It teaches that there are objective moral truths that humans can discern and understand in any age, time, or place. And the classical moral worldview instructs that we can only achieve true happiness by following these truths, which draw us closer to God and allow us to become the best possible versions of ourselves.
To understand objective moral truth and put it into action, we must start with the idea of telos (pronounced “teh-loss”), a Greek word that means the “purpose” or “end” of something. Our lives have a purpose that God engraved on the heart of every one of us: we were made to be in relationship—with God and each other. But we are not disembodied spirits; we are embodied souls. So God made our bodies for a reason. They have a purpose too—and it is explained by the Theology of the Body, Pope St. John Paul II’s great teaching about the Christian vocation to love.