Moral relativism will not make America great again
The election is over, and so is the time for empty complaining. Almost everybody has something to lampoon in this postmodern America. A Trump presidency has left some parts of the country fearful and others vindicated, and most are just glad it is over. For those of us who are not satisfied one way or another, we are eager for change. But how do we find actual change? The most seemingly simple but profound way to actual change is to change ourselves.
Last year in March, the New York Times published an op-ed titled “Why our children don’t think there are moral facts.” Children in elementary school are taught the difference between fact and opinion, and while this distinction is important, it ignores the truth that fact and opinion can and do overlap. Anything that is a value statement is relegated to the realm of opinion. There is a problem with this. One can assert that Nickelback is the greatest band in existence, and that person would be entitled to that as an opinion. Another could argue that it is a moral good to murder each of the members of Nickelback. By putting value judgments in with opinion, this kind of thinking could be justified. Of course, it is not usually as drastic as this, but eliminating moral facts in favor of a highly exalted opinion is the bulwark of totalitarianism. When morality is framed as a relative matter, the only thing that can sustain a particular worldview is force. Nazism and Stalinism were only as successful as they were forceful. They also required a disregard of certain inconvenient moral facts: That Jews were people. That ideological enemies are people. That the state is not God.
But we aren’t destined to repeat the mistakes of twentieth century totalitarians; however, we also have to recognize that we are always closer than we would be comfortable admitting. After all, there are still certain classes of people where we actually have to debate their personhood (i.e., the unborn). We in the West have long assumed that history has a moral arc, one that always bends towards progress and increased respect for human rights. Hence, we have phrases such as “The right side of history,” and “The wrong side of history.” There are a few factors that complicate that view very quickly. The most advanced civilizations in history have also accepted some grave evils. The Aztecs, the most sophisticated civilization to ever exist in indigenous America, were known to sacrifice thousands of people in one day by offering their still-beating hearts to the sun god. Ancient Carthage offered their children to be immolated to Moloch. The Romans glorified sexual license, and citizens crowded into amphitheaters to watch men kill each other. Our own Western Civilization, the civilization that came up with the idea of human rights to begin with, enslaved and dehumanized generations of Africans up until very recently. In the advanced twentieth century, we saw the hand of the state murder millions of dissidents, more than any previous tyrant could have ever have dreamed. And now, when the world has never been collectively healthier or wealthier, we find ourselves justifying the abortion of millions and murder of the disabled through euthanasia, and we are in possession of enough nuclear weapons to commit unprecedented genocide hundreds of times over.
In reality, each generation does not become any more or less moral than their forbears. We just choose to disregard whichever moral truths are most inconvenient. But no one, or at least very few people, would actually commit to the idea of moral relativism if they realized that it contradicts other beliefs they hold. If anybody really believed in moral relativism, no one would care about a Donald Trump presidency. No one would care about the Dakota Access Pipeline. No one would care about racism. Intuitively, we know that moral relativism makes no damn sense.
Take this holiday season to rediscover what T.S. Eliot called, “The permanent things.” By this, he meant the enduring facts of human existence. Build up your virtues. Treat other people like people. Give to charity. Stop cheating, lying, sleeping around, or whatever other evil you love. When Christ is born this Christmas, let him be born into a world that welcomes him.