relativism – end of the world as we know it?
Relativism is certainly supposed to be eating away at Western Civilization like a cancer. Here are a few examples of this worry. The American academic Allan Bloom writes:
[t]here is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.
William Bennett concurs. He says,
the answers I started to get from students in the ’60s were, “I think each person should do his own thing. I mean if they want to do something, who am I to say something’s right, who am I to say something’s wrong?”
Richard Hoggart commented on a similar rise in relativism and non-judgementalism among the working-class inhabitants of his own British hometown:
[i]n Hunslet, a working-class district of Leeds, within which I was brought up, old people will still enunciate, as guides to living, the moral rules they learned at Sunday School and Chapel. Then they almost always add, these days: “But it’s only my opinion, of course.” A late-twentieth-century insurance clause, a recognition that times have changed towards the always shiftingly relativist. In that same council estate, any idea of parental guidance has in many homes been lost. Most of the children there live in a violent, jungle world.
Gertrude Himmelfarb supplies another illustration:
Robert Simon, a professor of philosophy, reports that while none of his students denies the reality of the Holocaust, an increasing number do worse: they acknowledge the fact, even deplore it, but cannot bring themselves to condemn it morally. “Of course I dislike the Nazis,” one student comments, “but who is to say they are morally wrong.” They make similar observations about apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. To pass judgement, they fear, is to be moral “absolutist”, and having been taught that there are no absolutes, they now see any judgement as arbitrary, intolerant, and authoritarian.”
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Carey, in his House of Lords address, also warned of the danger
of moral relativism and privatised morality. There is a widespread tendency to view what is good and right as a matter of private taste and individual opinion only. Under this tendency, God is banished to the realm of the private hobby and religion becomes a particular activity for those who happen to have a taste for it.
It’s this rampant relativism that, more than anything, now gets the blame for the “moral malaise”. If morality is nothing more than a matter of personal choice or preference, then teenage thugs can steal, vandalize and assault with impunity, confident that no one has the right to gainsay them. Richard Lamm, former governor of Colorado, sums up the devastation he believes relativism has wrought:
In attempting to be tolerant, we have wiped out all the rules. . . . It is hard these days to find a standard to which we can hold people. Everything is relative. Our moral compass gyrates wildly. There is no true north. But history shows us this is not a sustainable trait.
So popular is this diagnosis that whenever an example of immorality crops up, the knee-jerk reaction of many is immediately to blame moral relativism. Take the recent outrage at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqis were tortured by U.S. personnel. What caused this moral breakdown? TRichard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, suspects moral relativism:
This is not a breakdown in the system. This reflects a breakdown in society. These people’s moral compass didn’t work for some reason. My guess is because they’ve been infected with [moral] relativism.
Even the new Pontiff has made it clear that fighting the battle against the “dictatorship of relativism” is one of his highest priorities:
We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.
Governments have introduced educational and social policies to target relativism. When Nick Tate, head of the UK’s QCAA introduced compulsory classes in citizenship for all pupils attending state-funded schools, he was explicit that one of his chief concerns was to “slay the dragon of relativism”.
But is relativism really such a problem? And if it is, what’s its root cause?