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Reviewed by:
  • An Ethics for Today: Finding Common Ground Between Philosophy and Religion
  • Bob Mesle
An Ethics for Today: Finding Common Ground Between Philosophy and Religion. Richard Rorty. NY: Columbia University Press, 2011. xxii + 76 pp. with notes and bibliography. $17.95 cloth. (Reviewed by Bob Mesle, Graceland University)

The most important thing to know about this book is that it is mostly not by Rorty. Twenty pages of this small book were transcribed from an audio recording of a public lecture by Rorty including portions of his discussion with the audience, in Turin, Spain, in 2005. A Spanish translation appeared in 2008, followed by this English version in 2011. Jeffrey W. Robbins wrote a foreword, “Richard Rorty: A Philosophical Guide to Talking About Religion,” (vii–xxii). The introduction at the lecture was by Gianni Vattimo (1–5). Rorty’s section is twenty pages long (7–26). By far the largest portion of the book is the conclusion, by G. Elijah Dann, “Philosophy, Religion, and Religious Belief After Rorty” (27–76, including extensive notes with comments, and a bibliography). However, since the book bears Rorty’s name, I will focus on his remarks.

Rorty identifies his topic as “spirituality and secularism.” Although these oral remarks give us no footnotes, he was responding directly to comments made by Pope Benedict XVI (before and after becoming pope). He begins by reacting to Pope Benedict’s complaint that because of secularism and relativism, “it is becoming very difficult for the church to say what it believes,” especially about homosexuality (7). Rorty agrees and hopes the Pope is correct that the church will gradually lose its voice on this topic.

The larger issue, of course, is the nature of moral justification. Is there a [End Page 285] foundation, a moral reality, to which morality should correspond? Rorty stands squarely with a utilitarian approach to ethics. “The Church, of course, holds that views such as Mill’s reduce human beings to the level of animals. But philosophers like me think that utilitarianism exalts us by offering us a challenging moral ideal. Utilitarianism leads to heroic and self-sacrificing efforts on behalf of social justice” (8).

Being in Spain, Rorty appeals to the Spanish philosopher Santayana. “Santayana said, and I agree, that the only source of moral ideas is the human imagination” (8). When poetry intrudes on human life with moral ideals, Santayana argued, we call it religion. Rorty suggests that “to give oneself over to a moral ideal is like giving oneself over to another human being. When we fall in love with another person, we do not ask about the source or the nature of our obligation to cherish that person’s welfare. It is equally pointless to do so when we have fallen in love with an ideal” (9). Furthermore, it is “silly to ask for a proof that those whom we love are the best possible people for us to have fallen in love with” (9). Likewise, we can fall in and out of love with different ideals over time without the need to ground such changes in appeal to any eternal foundation.

Both as Cardinal and as Pope, Benedict XVI has complained, like other modern Popes, about the influence of relativism. In response, Rorty reconceives the distinction between fundamentalism and relativism. If fundamentalism means an uncritical invocation of scriptural texts, “no one could accuse a sophisticated theologian like Benedict XVI of this” (11). It would be equally absurd to call any serious thinker a relativist if that means the crazy view that all moral convictions are equally good. Instead, fundamentalism might mean the view that “ideals are valid only when grounded in reality.” That is certainly the Pope’s view. In contrast, relativists “are those who believe that we would be better off without such notions as unconditional moral obligations grounded in the structure of human existence” (11). It seems to be in this latter sense that in 1996, while still Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope wrote that “‘Relativism appears to be the philosophical foundation of democracy’” (11). Regarding such relativism, the Pope argued, “‘Democracy is said to be founded on no one’s being able to claim to know the right...


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