The title of this article is not simply to shock or to attract readers. Rather, it is a genuine question posed by moral relativists. “Was the Holocaust evil?” to which the moral relativist answers: “It depends on whom you ask: for the Nazis, they sure saw the good. For the victims, for the millions of Jewish families, it was certainly evil”. The question is, of course, not isolated to this event. We can ask the same thing of any morally repulsive activity:
“Can slavery be good?”, “Is human experimentation good or evil?”, “Is rape evil?”, “Can the Killing Fields of Cambodia be viewed as something good?” and so on. All these questions can be posed in various formats but with the same essence: what is the moral position towards such radical actions that inflict tremendous suffering, physical or psychological, onto an individual or group of people, often for generations?
To such these questions – and to many similar ones – the moral relativist responds with: “maybe”, “it depends on who is being asked” or “it depends on culture / history / social context” and so on. In other words, a moral relativist rejects that there are objective (independent of one’s views and opinions), universal (applicable to all people regardless of culture and historical time period) and timeless (that do not depend on changing laws or intellectual currents of the current times) truths of moral quality which, when applied as the standard of “good and evil” provide an answer which is clear: “Was the Holocaust evil?”, the answer through this objective moral perspective is “yes”.
Moral relativism is a by-product of a deeper philosophical (or, more accurately, theological) position: that there is no objective truth which transcends the vicissitudes and differences of human mind and heart, as reflected in laws, cultural norms, economic dynamics, political systems and so on.
As the twentieth century has showed, the notion that there is no objective truth can have extremely destructive consequences. Pope John Paul II wrote in The Splendor of Truth, 1993 that “[…] totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense […] a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”
Moral relativism, which is the result of the denial of objective truth, asserts that something cannot be good or evil in itself, but that such quality depends on the broader context – and this context changes all the time. “What is good in my view may be evil in yours” or “What you think or judged to be evil, other people, depending on cultural, historical or current social forces, may not think or judge so”.
Consequently, we can convince ourselves that what we do, no matter how clear it is that it is not good, it is nevertheless not evil, but pragmatic (e.g. doing what is necessary to survive) or scientific (e.g. experimenting in order to push the boundaries of knowledge) or progressive (e.g. socialist revolutions) or even ritualistic (e.g. human sacrifices for whatever idol). All these labels are used to reposition something that is evil in a positive light.
For the Nazi officers that designed and executed the Holocaust, they regarded the Jews as an existential threat to their view of the world and therefore it was pragmatic to eliminate the threat. Or, for the Japanese scientists in Unit 731 who conducted gruesome human experiments, they justified this as being “scientific curiosity”, or the communists torturers in Romania destroying the identity of political prisoners to re-educated them through sadistic rituals to serve the Party god.
However, we need not go to these extremes buried in history textbooks: in our days, in the name of scientific research, there are numerous painful and horrific experiments conducted on animals in order to develop “medicines”, or groups of people are treat “pragmatically” as a threat which must be contained (the Uyghurs in China), or the very nature of human beings is altered to accommodate subjective views that deny reality (a hundred genders, two plus two does not always equal four and so on). The list can go on for multiple pages as the world we live in, here in the West, is fundamentally subjective, and thus, morally relativistic.
The critical and attentive reader at this point may already be thinking: what if, out of these evil but pragmatic or scientific or ritualistic deeds something positive results? In other words, can evil lead to good?
Through painful animal experimentation a medicine may result that treats illnesses in human beings. Is this not good? After all, the data gathered from the horrors of Unit 731 in Japan were a source of widening scientific knowledge due to deals with the United States government. This perspective rests on the same philosophical shortcut from which moral relativism itself resulted: a perspective which negates absolute values, transcendental and universal, such as the invaluable quality of life.
If life is transformed into a commodity, into a definition, robbed of tis mystical quality, rationalised and commercialised, then the answer to the above question – can evil result into good? – can be affirmative. Why? Because if life is invaluable than to do anything to destroy it – in the name of scientific progress, technological advancements, political power, commercial developments and so on – shall root that action in evil; if however, one regards life merely as valuable, then the question follows: how valuable? This much.
A trace of moral relativism has existed in the world since ancient times. As Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains: “Though moral relativism did not become a prominent topic in philosophy or elsewhere until the twentieth century, it has ancient origins. In the classical Greek world, both the historian Herodotus and the sophist Protagoras appeared to endorse some form of relativism […]. It should also be noted that the ancient Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi put forward a nonobjectivist view that is sometimes interpreted as a kind of relativism.”
Needless to say that the fact that the human mind has wrestled with it for so long does not justify the position necessarily. Rather, it is proof of our inability as human beings to see, embrace and act out the objective moral truth.
Although moral relativism with which we are accustomed today is broadly manifesting itself in a flat manner – i.e. all moral position are equal but different, a sign of the internationalist perspective that dominates the intellectual conversations of our age – it hasn’t always been the same. Moral relativism can also mean that some people possess moral views which are inferior to others. By this I do not mean that moral views change through time and a society that is deemed more “civilised” has morals that are superior to those deemed more “barbaric” on the time frame of history.
As Italian thinker Giambattista Vico showed in A New Science, each period and society must be understood as it was – with its values, political structures, economic processes and modes of looking at the world – and not as we want to see it from today’s perspective. Thus, I shall restrain myself from offering an example that goes along the lines of: “Back when they…” and provide an example of vertical moral relativism from our age.
There are still countries where there are practices that coerce girls and women to perform certain actions, such as to marry men forcefully or to be punished if they fall in love with the wrong person. These practices are deemed morally correct by such cultures. Meanwhile, there are places where these actions are immoral. Hence why a hierarchy of morality – a vertical form of moral relativism – takes place.
We can also see this type of moral relativism being constructed in times of war when, through substantial narrative construction and manipulation of emotions that clouds rational thinking, one side of a war is evil incarnate (totally dark, and thus positioned at the bottom of the moral hierarchy as immoral) and one is completely good (totally benevolent, placed at the top, floating above everyone else with godlike morality).
However, like the horizontal form of moral relativism, this vertical moral relativism presents the same shortfalls failing to avoid answering the question “Was the Holocaust evil?” in negative because this hierarchy is simply imaginary: the actors placed in the immoral camp, at the bottom of the hierarchy, still view themselves as doing the right thing and therefore, from their point of view, the hierarchy is reversed. This game of “good and evil” traps man in an illusion of moral judgments.
In the aftermath of the death of God, as observed by Friedrich Nietzsche in “The Parable of the Madman”, published in The Gay Science – “We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. […] God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” – man took place of God to generate a moral order, rooted in the laws of man, based on man’s own philosophical, ethical, political, economic and social considerations, analyses and observations.
Nietzsche wanted this new “religion” of morality to be based on the “will to power”, as he explains in Beyond Good and Evil and The Will to Power. The German thinker believed that this “will to power” can provide some sort of universal (or at least common enough) ground for a new moral order. This however was not the case and man’s moral order collapsed into nihilism, the peak of which, I venture to argue, was the twentieth century – one hundred years that broke human history.
Therefore, it is not a coincidence, I think, that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stresses that the notion of moral relativism became a popular concept in intellectual conversation in the twentieth century. Moral relativism of our age is rooted in nihilism, which can be thought of as radical subjectivism (or, oxymoronically, as absolute relativism): the rejection and denial of objective truth.
The term nihilism, which comes from Latin where it means “nothing”, was first coined by the Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi who was an ardent critic of the French Revolution which he regarded, according to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the “practical counterpart of the speculative nihilism of the philosophers.” A similar thing can be argued about the twentieth century. In fact, Nietzsche in The Will to Power predicted that “the history of the next two centuries […] can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. […] For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving towards a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade.”
The term itself was then popularised by the Russian author, Ivan Turgenev, in his novel, Fathers and Sons. One of the main characters, named Bazarov, a nihilist who explained that they [the nihilists] were guided by what was useful, stated: “The most useful course of action at present is to reject – and we reject.” As we shall see shortly, this rejection is not a philosophical position as it is a theological one, from where moral relativism stems.
Nihilism can be applied to existence – existential nihilism (the view that life has no intrinsic meaning or value, i.e. that life is not invaluable), to knowledge – epistemological nihilism (the view that we can never know anything and that knowledge is nothing more than the by-product of social forces, such as power dynamics and cultural nuances), to ontology – ontological nihilism (the view that there is nothing at all), to morality – moral nihilism (the view that no morals exist, or stated differently, that everything is permitted) and to social structures – political nihilism (the view that no social institution can fulfil and uphold the values of a people).
The concept of nihilism can be traced back to the hedonistic Greeks called Cyrenaics who viewed pleasure as the supreme entity of life and believed that we cannot know anything; live for the moment, live in the moment, the more pleasure the more happiness, whatever brings pleasure is good, knowledge is whatever sensations tell us and so on. These positions towards life and oneself are rejections of higher ideals, of higher truths, things that transcend the present moment and the individual’s needs and pleasures.
While the above can be viewed as an “optimistic” form of nihilism (nothing matters and therefore surround yourself with hedonistic pleasures), there is also a “pessimistic” nihilism which was perhaps embodied by the Russian terrorist that inspired Dostoevsky’s novel, The Devils, as well as the political theory and campaign of the first Bolshevik leader, Vladimir I. Lenin. The man in question is Sergey Nechayev whose Catechism of a Revolutionary remains one of the most brutal displays of this form of nihilism, manifesting in a violent rejection of everything and an unquenched thirst for destruction.
Both forms however contain the same essence: nothing matters, nothing exists and thus do what you wish. Occultist Aleister Crowley, who viewed morality as relative (“ordinary morality is for ordinary people”), stated the essence of nihilism, although perhaps without being a nihilist himself, quite well when he formulated the central law of his new religion, Thelema, in The Book of the Law: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”. Your needs, wishes and desires are what matter and nothing else for there is nothing more to know, to aim for, to believe in.
Moral Relativism and Nihilism
This is the force – nihilism – that Nietzsche saw spreading across European culture in the aftermath of the death of God. Brought about by centuries of work to assert reason as the guiding light of truth, scepticism towards traditions and religious values, distain for myths and the proposition that scientific knowledge, based on experiments, can usher in a new order of morality, one which was not plagued by superstitions, believes and fear of a supernatural being, the Enlightenment, in managing to dethrone God, also destroyed meaning, true order and morality, leaving man gazing over the abyss of his existence in utter loneliness.
“Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?” shouted the whole humanity which placed itself on the cross of reason. But God was dead – as Nietzsche observed, “we killed Him”, in other words, it was our quest and dissatisfaction that abandoned God, not the other way around.
This quest was the path of material progress – through experiments, mistakes and blind chance, science developed into technologies which created more scientific breakthroughs and so on – which not only expanded the potential for hedonistic lifestyles but also destroyed any sort of meaning that transcends our ephemeral world, transforming human life into a commodity: life was no longer invaluable. The human being became a resource: economic asset, scientific platform, political tool and so on, empty of anything that makes the individual sacrosanct.
Of course, the above statement does not apply to everyone in human society. There remained, as there are today, a great deal of people for whom God is everything – the supreme authority and the source of meaning and knowledge. I am referring to a shift in the hierarchy of authority: the church and God’s representant on Earth (the monarch), slowly but surely lost their positions of authority to scientists, bureaucrats, businessmen and ideologues. Man, the new leaders taught, was no longer the divine creation of God but the by-product of nature (evolution) or social and economic forces (socialism and postmodernism), with his moral codes, as many anthropologists have argued, confusing morality with ethics, changing as nature and society change.
All nihilists must reject the idea of God and God’s existence, before they classify their thoughts in any of the above categories of nihilism. In other words, one must first reject God in order to become a nihilist. If God’s existence is accepted, all else flows from that: the meaning of life, the notion of justice, moral order, societal organisation and so on. Leo Tolstoy observed this dynamic at the age of fifty when he reached an impasse and was about to commit suicide.
In his small book, A Confession, the Russian writer, explained to the reader how neither science nor art, how neither financial success nor worldly pleasures could provide the basis for the meaning of a man’s life and how this meaning began to appear once faith in God was embraced because from God everything else followed: purpose, order, morality (the awareness of good and evil) and hope.
Tolstoy wrote A Confession at the end of the nineteenth century, a period which was approaching the peak of nihilism in Europe.Once God was rejected, removed as the source of morality and meaning, the modern man embarked on a journey of desperation, development (or progress) and relativism (which collapsed into a radical form with the advent of postmodernism), attempting to place himself on the throne of God and generate order.
However, with the rejection of God, a process that began in Europe with the Renaissance, continued through the Enlightenment period and ended with the current period of scientification and commodification of reality, nihilism, in which moral relativism of our age is rooted, took hold of the Western souls: science and economics are the new God and pragmatism, pleasure, and comfort are the new sacraments.
Most things that do not result in scientific, technological and economic progress (pragmatism), in enjoyment and happiness (pleasure), or in safety and complacent (comfort) – are ignored, put aside, actively (censored) or passively (ignored). What is not ignored, it is ridiculed or regarded as the views of mad or uncivilised men.
However, this moral relativism is not moral nihilism: the former is a position that there are moral values, but they are subjective, dependent on social forces, cultural nuances or individual ethical preferences, while the latter claims that there is no such thing as moral values whatsoever and therefore notions of good and evil can be ignored. Nevertheless, these positions are connected: once God is rejected and one becomes a nihilist, thus the objectivity of the moral order is annihilated, the source of alternatives to universal moral values sits within man who, as one goes through the world, changes in terms of visions and judgments, therefore placing his own moral values in ever changing experiences and thoughts, creating a subjective ground for morality.
Consequently, being trapped by pragmatism, comfort or pleasure, the answer to the question posed by the title of this essay – “Was the Holocaust evil?” – is no longer answered with a firm “yes”, but with a sceptical “let’s study the situation and see what we get”. Man did not go “beyond good and evil”, he went under, stuck in the world of his own creation, fooled by the illusory certainty of reason, deceived by his own ability to generate universal laws and betrayed by his own volatile nature, his heart being, as Dostoyevsky stated in Brothers Karamazov, the battleground for God and the Devil.
Reason, science, art, philosophy – all of these are treasures of nature and of the human existence, but they are not sources towards objective truths in which morality is rooted. They are paths towards a superficial understanding of the world and of ourselves. True knowledge, true order, absolute truth, concepts that are linked to morality, are to be found in faith which is the way towards the transcendental world which never changes.
The dangers of this return to God, of course, are that faith may be confused with madness, that faith may be highjacked by desires for material gains and by psychopathic motives to wage wars in the name of the Devine, and that faith may be altered to accommodate the fashionable political and ideological views of the time. These risks however are not confined to faith: science for example, since the advent of the twentieth century, has been used as a weapon of destruction and torture on scale and of an intensity unseen before in human history. Therefore, the rejection of faith on the basis of these risks is not warranted.
In the age we live in, one of godlessness, those held accountable for their crimes answer, if at all, to man made laws that change with political and commercial interests, not to Devine laws (morality) that apply to all men irrespective of other consideration: the killing of a person, for any reason, is wrong today, as it was wrong thousands of years ago.
Until we restore God as the source of order – moral and societal – the question “Was the Holocaust evil?” shall continue to be answered with a tacit “maybe”, developed in longer explanations in line with the moral relativism of our time.