Wednesday, April 13, 2005


Drifting Into The Void...

Joe Carter at The Evangelical Outpost has opened a symposium on “Judeo-Christian Values in an Ethically Pluralistic Society" with the current entries listed here. The idea has intrigued me sufficiently to prompt the writing of the following essay. For purposes of this post, I equate an ethically pluralistic society with the assumption that all moral values are equally true, or what is considered moral relativism.

Do you ever wonder what happened to common sense? How has this old fashioned concept (not so long ago taken for granted) found its way on the road to extinction? It all comes back to the theory of moral relativism. Once we forgo the existence of absolute morality or natural law and replace it with relative morality, by definition we lose all commonality of principle and logic.

Relativism starts out seductively, with a seemingly innocuous premise that each person should judge what is right or wrong according to his/her own personal sense of morality. Particularly in our current postmodern world, there is a sense that truth is subjective. Many have espoused a view along the lines of “my own values are not necessarily right for everyone.” It sounds humble and unassuming enough, but G.K. Chesterton succinctly pointed out the danger with this line of reasoning:
What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place… A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason.

It is often suggested that “we can’t legislate morality”. But the laws of the land are designed to do precisely that. They codify the agreed upon standards of public morality. (To clarify, I often agree with the sentiment against “legislating morality”. We really can only alter the root cause of these problems by changing hearts not by enacting more laws. However such laws are crucial in establishing order and providing safety for the public.)

So what if we have no more absolute standards of morality? As that deteriorates into a relativism driven by individual attitudes and feelings, it is not surprising that the general populace will become more and more hostile towards attempts to revert back to absolute law. Example: “Who are you to tell me how to act? It feels right to me, even if you don’t agree…”

To effectively address such questions, we need to be able to articulate the negative ramifications of plunging headlong into the depths of the abyss that is moral relativism. Practically speaking, what is so wrong with a relativist code of conduct (assuming that such a thing is even possible)? This is where it becomes crucial to point out that by eschewing minimum standards of behavior, we run the very real risk of digressing into a state of anarchy. This can be done by following the relativist model to its logical ends.

Some would say “I believe abortion is wrong, but I don’t feel like I have the right to tell anyone else what to do.” The question then becomes, “How do you then feel about a woman who kills her baby after she gives birth? Would you be okay with saying that is wrong? At what point does it become your right to tell her and why? Based on what?”

If everything is arbitrary - in the absence of any objective standards of right and wrong – it is merely an imposition of your own feelings upon another. No matter how heinous the crime, there can be no basis for outrage in such a world.

Once the effects of the relativist philosophy are brought to a personal level, few people would adhere to its viability. For instance, you may believe it’s wrong to drink and drive, but what if I have no problem doing it? What right do you have to tell me I can’t do that?

Any tendency toward a wishy-washy, feel-good type of morality dissipates immediately when it’s your spouse killed in a drunk driving accident or your daughter who is buying drugs from the junkie down the street or your son who is killed by a terrorist. When outrage and reality hit home, any previous notion of “relativism” is gone. Suddenly, there is right and wrong, good and evil – no questions asked.

Once the obvious contradictions have been addressed, an alternative must be suggested and justified. Why is moral absolutism necessary and, how can it be justified intellectually as resting solidly on logical principles rather than merely personal preference. As Francis Schaeffer has pointed out, we need to first argue for the possibility of rational discourse on matters of faith. This is something that the modern and post-modern world has largely rejected.

Drawing from sources ranging from the Ten Commandments to the Book of Proverbs, Judeo-Christian values provide the basis for a moral code that can and should be used as a guide in legislating. I want to be clear that I am not advocating theocracy of any type, but rather the realization that values and reason are not mutually exclusive.

And, in fact, values are the foundation of reason. Without them, we are left to drift aimlessly through this life with nothing but randomness and anarchy surrounding us. Also, it is instructive to note that the world’s other major religions offer similar creeds to those found in Judeo-Christian texts. If we believe values and morals to be “absolute” and inherent in mankind, it only stands to reason that all religions would espouse similar core values. As such, it would behoove us to focus on such broad-based similarities in order to strenghthen attempts to reach a common ground legislatively.

So what’s the consequence of not dealing with this issue? C.S. Lewis theorizes in the Abolition of Man what happens to mankind once we stray from an absolute form of morality or what he refers to as the Tao:

Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void…. You cannot go “explaining away” for ever; you will find you have explained explanation itself away. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see. (Emphasis mine)

In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton provides examples of how a moral relativist becomes a walking contradiction:
As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is a waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. …In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics, he attacks morality for trampling on men. …By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.

Arbitrariness and randomness in the absence of a concrete moral code can lead to endless contradictions and complete upheaval of anything remotely resembling what has traditionally been considered common sense. In order to have hope of changing the situation for the better, we need to be aware of the grim reality that we are currently embarking on a dangerous course that is leading us into a great expanse of nothingness…

All the energy spent on relativism seems like much ado about nothing. Further, I think a strong case can be made that, inasmuch as there is relativism in our culture, it is a local relativism contained to a few isolated areas (notably religion).

More often than not, however, people aren't relativistic; murder is wrong, lying is wrong, etc. Given that, the concern over relativism seems a bit odd to me. Perhaps it's so popular a target because it's easy.
"Many have espoused a view along the lines of “my own values are not necessarily right for everyone.”"

That's not relativism, however; that's skepticism or, perhaps, humility. It's easy enough to go after relativism, but I think you glossed over the hard work, which is arguing how it is skepticism is internally related to relativism.
I don't doubt that relativism is very often rooted in skepticism. But I do believe that the underlying skepticism manifests itself in a completely different worldview from those who believe in absolute morality. I would submit that it is a core difference between liberals (relativist) and conservatives (absolutist). (I realize I'm using broad generalizations that are not always true.)

It is a big reason why so many people despise Bush. He speaks in black and white sort of terms very often, such as "good" and "evil". A relativist might very well hear these words and cringe. That person might very well consider such language simplistic or unsophisticated, not simply due to the way it is articulated but because of the absolutist sort of ideology behind such terminology.
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