Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The End of Moral Relativism

The Atlantic's Jonathan Merritt argues that our culture's fling with moral relativism, a fling that's persisted for at least sixty years, is over. Borrowing from a column by the New York times' David Brooks, Merritt maintains that, at least among Millenials, we're seeing what may be described as a New Absolutism. He may be right, but I think the absolutism he sees having descended upon us like a smog is not really an absolutism at all, but rather an emotivist power play.

I'll explain shortly, but first some excerpts from Merritt's column:
In The New York Times last week, David Brooks argued that while American college campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media.

A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism. One must have some moral criteria [by] which to decide if someone is worth shaming.

“Some sort of moral system is coming into place,” Brooks says. “Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action.”

This system is not a reversion to the values that conservatives may wish for. America’s new moral code is much different than it was prior to the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Instead of being centered on gender roles, family values, respect for institutions and religious piety, it orbits around values like tolerance and inclusion. (This new code has created a paradoxical moment in which all is tolerated except the intolerant and all included except the exclusive.)

Although this new code is moral, it is not always designated as such. As Brooks said, “Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition.” No wonder many God-and-family conservatives dislike this new moral code as much as the relativism it replaced.
To be sure, there's a new wave of moral absolutism sweeping academia which sees things like racism, sexism, support for Israel, and reservations about gay marriage and global warming as absolutely wrong, but to simply point this out and then conclude that relativism is dead is to miss the fatal weakness lurking in the moral passion to which Merritt alludes.

That weakness lies in the fact that the moral fervor with which the above positions are often held on campus and in the media today has no ground in any objective moral referent. These positions are based on nothing more than the ardent feelings of those who hold them. As such they may be regarded as absolutes by those convinced of their rightness, but, if so, they are arbitrarily chosen absolutes, which is to say they're not really absolutes at all.

For any moral principle to be absolute it has to be objectively grounded in something which transcends one's own feelings, indeed which transcends humanity altogether. Otherwise, how do we adjudicate between the passionate feelings of one person and the passionate feelings of another? We can't, of course, unless we have some standard to which we can compare those disparate passions. Lacking such a standard, when we say something is wrong all we're saying is that it offends my personal preferences, to which someone might well ask, "Why should your preferences be the standard of right and wrong for everyone else?"

The new moral absolutism to which Merritt and Brooks advert is not absolutism at all. It's simply a form of narcissistic subjectivism, or egoism, which presumes that anything which transgresses my personal moral preferences is wrong for everyone and anyone to do.

You, let's say, think it's right to help the poor. I, let's say, think we should adopt social Darwinism and let the poor fend for themselves. You insist I'm wrong. I ask why am I wrong? You say because I'm being selfish and greedy. I ask why selfishness and greed are wrong. You say because they hurt people. I ask why it's wrong to hurt people. You reply that I wouldn't want people to hurt me. I respond that that's true but it's not a reason why I should care about hurting others. You give up on me, judging me hopelessly immoral, but what you haven't succeeded in doing is explaining why it's wrong to let the poor suffer. You've simply given expression to your feelings about the matter.

For there to be any objective moral duties there has to be a transcendent moral authority, a God, from which (whom) all moral goodness is derived. Take away God, as our secular society seems eager to do, and all we're left with is emotivism - people insisting that their emotional reactions to events are "right" and contrary reactions are "wrong", but lacking any basis for making such judgments.

This is not to say that if one believes in God one will know what's right. Nor is it to say that even if one knows what's right one will do what's right. What it is to say is that unless there is a God, or something very much like God, there simply is no right or wrong, and certainly no absolute moral duties.

As belief in God disappears morality becomes as insubstantial as the grin of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland - to borrow a reference from this marvelous tale for the second week in a row: