The Relativism at the Basis of European Policy*
by Janne Haaland-Matlary
(University of Oslo)

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Janne Haaland Matlary (n. 1957) è figura di spicco del mondo politico ed accademico norvegese. È docente di politica internazionale all’Università di Oslo ed è stata viceministro degli esteri della Norvegia. Convertitasi al cattolicesimo all’età di 25 anni, subì forti discriminazioni a causa del clima fortemente secolarizzato del suo paese. Oggi, madre di quattro figli, oltre alla notorietà accademica di cui gode in patria, è membro della Pontificia Accademia delle Scienze Sociali. È autrice di numerosi saggi sulle tematiche riguardanti i diritti umani, la democrazia ed il fenomeno del relativismo nei confronti della religione.
Questo breve articolo dal titolo Il relativismo alla base della politica europea, può essere considerato una efficace sintesi del pensiero della autrice su una tematica a lei cara.
L’autrice parte da alcune affermazioni dell’allora prof. J. Ratzinger riguardanti la necessità di ripartire dall’idea classica di ragione, al fine di poter ritrovare una via da tutti accettata per affrontare, in spirito di verità, le questioni etiche dibattute a livello politico-europeo. La ragione non è un fatto puramente funzionale, limitato al livello scientifico-sperimentale, tutt’altro. Un eccessivo razionalismo, con la negazione di tutto ciò che attiene alla sfera del sacro, e con la contemporanea relativizzazione di ogni norma etico-morale, non è solamente una concezione europea (peraltro molto recente), ma è pure portatrice di forme di intolleranza assolutamente incompatibili con le dichiarazioni sui diritti umani internazionali.
Per controbattere le tesi espresse anche dal pensiero classico, la politica europea contemporanea tende a relativizzare il diritto naturale e a espandere il concetto di libertà e di political correctness, per sostituire questi all’etica, considerata superata e contraria alla razionalità umana: le conseguenza, anche a livello normativo sono quelle che l’A. qui descrive.



1. A rationality that embraces ethics?
2. Politics is the sphere of the rational.
3. Reviving Natural Law.
4. Why do we think that human nature cannot be defined?
5. Natural Law today: Where is the Evidence?

In Norway the Parliament adopted a law on “gender-neutral” marriage on June 11th, 2008. There is a large majority behind this law, both in terms of public opinion and in parliament itself. There is a clear perception that everyone has a right to marry and a right to have children. The law includes the right to adopt children born to homosexual couples through the tecniques of insemination. Egg donation and surrogate motherhood are still prohibited in Norway, but semen donation is legal. When the law is passed, children “procured” by same-sex couples can be adopted by the non-biological “parent” in the relationship.
It seems clear that no notion about human nature, including its biological aspects, is regarded as a constant and given.
In this situation where the Zeitgeist is that all can be deconstructed and reconstructed, it is time to consider the deeper problems of current Western, especially European, politics. The degree of relativism is now so great that there are no common Grundwerte on the anthropological side. It seems impossible to discuss what a human being is in European politics today.
Why is this so? What does it mean for European democracy? Can it be remedied, if so, how?
I have recently published a book about this problem in several languages, including Italian [1 ]. My intervention here is based on this book.
In her analysis, Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon writes that «discourse about rights has become the principal language that we use in public settings to discuss weighty questions of right and wrong, but time and again it proves inadequate, or leads to a standoff of one right against another. The problem is not , however, as some contend, with the very notion of rights, or with our strong rights tradition. It is with a new version of rights discourse that has achieved dominance over the last thirty years» [2].This new rights discourse is characterized, says Glendon, by the proclamation of ever new rights that are the properties of ‘the lone-rights bearer’ as she aptly calls him, one who has no duties and who pursues his own interests in the form of ‘new rights’: «As various new rights are proclaimed and proposed, the catalog of individual liberties expands without much consideration of the ends to which they are oriented, their relationship to one another, to corresponding responsibilities, or to the general welfare» [3]. Human rights were codified as a response to the political and legal relativism of Hitler’s Germany and World War II; which put in a nutshell the relativist problem of obeying orders from the legal ruler of the realm – in this case Hitler – when these orders were contrary to morality. The Nuremburg trials laid down that it is wrong to obey such orders; that there is in fact a ‘higher law’ – a natural law if you will – that not only forbids compliance, but which also makes it a crime to follow such orders. In the wake of this revolutionary conclusion in international affairs – it was the first time in history where a court had adjudicated in such a way – there was a growing movement to specify what this ‘natural law’ for the human being entailed. This resulted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights only three years late, a supra-national set of inherent and inalienable rights for every human being. It is very clear that the statement of human rights was to be a ‘common standard for all mankind’, as states in the preamble, and not something that could be changed at will by political actors. Yet this is exactly what happens in Europe today.
The rights defined in this document are parts of a whole, making up a fullness of rights which reflect a very specific anthropology. The rights are clear and concise, and the underlying anthropology is equally clear. The intention of the authors of the declaration was to put into a solemn document the insight about human dignity that could be gleaned from an honest examination, through reason and experience, of what the human being is. Therefore they wrote explicitly that ‘these rights are inviolable and inherent’. In other words, these rights could not be changed by politicians or others, because they were inborn, belonging to every human being as a birth-right, by virtue of being a human being. The declaration is a natural law document which was put into paragraphs by representatives from all the world, from all regions and religions. Human rights are pre-political in the sense that they are not given or granted by any politicians to their citizens, but are ‘discovered’ through human reasoning as being constitutive of the human being itself. They are also therefore apolitical because they are not political constructs, but anthropological – consequences of our human nature. As one of the key drafters of the declaration, Charles Malik, said; «When we disagree about what human rights mean, we disagree about what human nature is» [4] . The very concept of human rights is therefore only meaningful if we agree that there is one common human nature which can be known through the discovery of reason.
This last statement is however at great odds with contemporary mentality, which is relativist and subjectivist, scorning the idea that human nature as such exists and even more so that it can be known through reason. But if this is denied, and we regard human rights as something that mere political processes can change, how can we uphold human rights as a standard for others, if not for ourselves?
But in Europe today there is no clear basis of human rights, but an intense struggle over the interpretation of these rights, and often a major discrepancy between what a state proclaims in solemn international conferences and domestic policy. The E. U. constitutional treaty has left out the key terms ‘inherent’ and ‘inalienable’ in the bill of rights, and has failed to retain the language on heterosexual marriage and family.
In more general terms, while ‘the right to life’ is the first and primary human right according to the Universal Declaration; most European states have had abortion on the law books for many decades. While the right to marry is defined as a right for ‘every man and woman’ in the same declaration, same-sex ‘marriage’ is increasingly introduced in European states. While children have a right to know and be raised by their biological parents or in a similar situation according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), this seems to be ignored when children are ‘produced’ from anonymous donors. While the family is firmly defined as the basic and natural cell of society in the declaration, it is redefined by many nation states and often the state does not have policies that support the family. While the right to special societal protection for mother and child is defined in the declaration, motherhood is often regarded as a drawback for women in the European labour market, and mothers are discriminated against. While the family has a right to a sustainable income: just wage, in the declaration, labour rights are more and more neglected in European states and individual taxation makes a mockery of the ‘family income’ concept. While religious freedom includes the right to public and private worship, Muslims are met with suspicion and opposition when they want to erect a mosque, and other religions, including the predominant one in Europe, Christianity; is sought pushed back into the private sphere.
As stated, there is a curious situation; a paradox, in the many discrepancies between the human rights professed, especially abroad, and the political reality at home in Europe.
But the paradox is even more glaring when we consider the trend towards not defining the values underlying European democracy. By this I mean the trend towards complete subjectivism, even nihilism: you have your opinion; I have mine; and those that say that there are objective definitions of norms – Grundbegriffe – are fundamentalist and undemocratic. This trend is extremely dangerous; as this kind of subjectivism undermines democracy and paves the way for totalitarianism: might then eventually becomes right when there is no standard by which to determine right. The old ideological differences are mostly gone after the Cold War, and have not been replaced. Instead, individual preferences predominate politics.

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