June 24, 2022

It is a sign of our times that movements have emerged to teach pedophilia in schools and to subject children to drag queen performances. Perversions like this are borne of an insidious attitude known as moral relativism.

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As the term suggests, moral relativism is the belief that morality is subjective rather than objective. That is, what is right and wrong varies from person to person instead of emerging from a fixed universal standard, meaning that there are no ultimate moral truths. Before examining why such a view is incoherent, it is worth considering why ordinary people have been seduced into believing it. There are two major reasons. The first is that, because there is widespread disagreement about matters of right and wrong, morality is assumed to be subjective. The second stems from a pervasive attitude that it is “intolerant” to uphold a fixed standard of morality. Both reasons are flimsy.

Take the first. There is no doubt that across cultures and throughout history, individuals and even societies have differed over what constitutes right and wrong. But that hardly proves that morality is “subjective.” Consider that nearly every one of us recognizes that slavery is wrong, even though it was widely practiced in the past. But do we regard it as wrong merely because society today tells us that it is, or do we know that it is wrong intrinsically? Put another way, if slavery were reinstituted by popular vote tomorrow, would we accept such an outcome without reservation, or would we recognize it as an abomination? The simple fact is that we cannot help but know core moral truths, no matter how confused we may believe we are about them, which is why throughout history, while there have been divergences in practice, there has been deep agreement about morality in principle.

Consider murder. Virtually every society has regarded murder as wrong. Where they have differed, however, is in defining what counts as murder. For instance, various societies of the past believed that killing people outside their clan was perfectly acceptable, but that killing members of their own was not. Of course, today we recognize that killing any innocent person is unacceptable. Thus, the difference between these earlier societies and our own is not in understanding that murder is wrong, but in discerning what constitutes murder. Alternatively, consider the abortion debate today. While there is wide agreement that killing an innocent person is wrong, disagreement concerns whether a baby in the womb is in fact a person. Hence defenders of abortion tend to avoid using words like “baby,” which evokes personhood, and instead opt to use words like “fetal tissue,” which do not. The issue, once again, is not about whether taking the life of an innocent person is wrong, but about whether that is in fact what abortion entails. In short, while moral principles have remained remarkably stable throughout human history, it is in applying those principles where differences have emerged.

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The second reason is no less confused. It maintains that treating morality as objective means judging others by a standard that is arbitrarily devised, and that doing so constitutes a form of “intolerance.” Accordingly, to avoid this we must regard morality as subjective. Now there is much that could be said in response to this thinking, but the most fundamental problem with it is that it is self-refuting. If intolerance is wrong but tolerance is right, then “tolerance” itself must be a moral absolute, meaning that those who proclaim to be relativists are really absolutists after all. Furthermore, and as we will see presently, absolutism in this case extends beyond mere tolerance. That is because the word “tolerance” carries within it the implicit assumption that there are additional objective moral ends. For example, we are frequently reminded that “tolerance” is good because it promotes compassion and peace for society. But this means that in addition to tolerance itself, “compassion” and “peace” must be objective principles too.

Now the point here is not that it is difficult to be a consistent relativist. Rather, the point is that it is impossible to be one, because relativism is incoherent. If the reader doubts this, simply consider the following question: Is the view that “morality is relative” itself relative? If so, then it is not objectively true, which means that it is self-defeating. On the other hand, if it is objectively true that “morality is relative,” then there is in fact objective truth (the truth that “morality is relative”), which means that relativism is false. Yet despite these blatant contradictions, relativists persist in believing that relativism is true without recognizing that this belief is self-defeating. What this means is that they never actually eradicate objective principles from their view, even if they deceive themselves and others into believing that they do.

And this brings us to the heart of the problem we face today. Because relativism has been pumped into us for decades, whether explicitly or implicitly, in movies, TV shows, schools, books and news programs, many have been seduced into believing it, often without their explicit awareness, much less with the awareness that it is fundamentally incoherent. Unfortunately, the effect has been to dull our critical thinking and thereby enable noxious ideologies like those that seek to normalize pedophilia and drag queen performances in our education system.

The good news, however, is that these movements can be defeated. We simply need to make the case. It starts by exposing relativism as the flimflam that it is. Not only is it intellectually untenable, but it anesthetizes us from effectively combating the decadent ideas that its advocates inconspicuously tend to import into society. And that is one thing no decent person should tolerate.

Image: John Shepherd