Nihilism, relativism, and Engelhardt

Michael J. Wreen
Marquette University
This paper is a critical analysis of Tristram Engelhardt''s attempts to avoid unrestricted nihilism and relativism. The focus of attention is his recent book, The Foundations of Bioethics (Oxford University Press, 1996). No substantive or content-full bioethics (e.g., that of Roman Catholicism or the Samurai) has an intersubjectively verifiable and universally binding foundation, Engelhardt thinks, for unaided secular reason cannot show that any particular substantive morality (or moral code) is correct. He thus seems to be committed to either nihilism or relativism. The first is the view that there is not even one true or valid moral code, and the second is the view that there is a plurality of true or valid moral codes. However, Engelhardt rejects both nihilism and relativism, at least in unrestricted form. Strictly speaking, he himself is a universalist, someone who believes that there is a single true moral code. Two argumentative strategies are employed by him to fend off unconstrained nihilism and relativism. The first argues that although all attempts to establish a content-full morality on the basis of secular reason fail, secular reason can still establish a content-less, purely procedural morality. Although not content-full and incapable of providing positive direction in life, much less a meaning of life, such a morality does limit the range of relativism and nihilism. The second argues that there is a single true, content-full morality. Grace and revelation, however, are needed to make it available to us; secular reason alone is not up to the task. This second line of argument is not pursued in The Foundations at any length, but it does crop up at times, and if it is sound, nihilism and relativism can be much more thoroughly routed than the first line of argument has it.Engelhardt''s position and argumentative strategies are exposed at length and accorded a detailed critical examination. In the end, it is concluded that neither strategy will do, and that Engelhardt is probably committed to some form of relativism.
Keywords canonical morality  content-full morality  content-less morality  Engelhardt  grace  Kant  nihilism  relativism  revelation  secular reason  universalism
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Reprint years 2004
DOI 10.1023/A:1009970129297
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