The liberal or progressive agenda has dramatically affected Western society as seen by the fact that even the conservatives of today support without question the changes produced by the progressive influences of the early twentieth century. Much of that agenda is positive and important, and could not nor should not be abandonded. For example, only the most ultra-conservative/libertarian would argue for the abolition of social security. And no one would support the return of racial segregation. In many ways, we are all liberals now.
It is important, however, to realize that there has been another side to their agenda that has not been positive. We are facing today a whole host of very difficult social and personal problems that were created or exacerbated by progressive policies. This sad reality is made worse by the fact that liberalism's only solution to these problems is to continue doing more of the same things that caused the problem in the first place. For example, the progressive answer to our failing educational system is to spend more money on the programs, policies, and personnel that have already proven they can't compete. We spend more per-capita on education than any nation on earth and we stand far down the list on student performance. How can spending more money be the answer, when we spend so much for so little benefit now?
Harry Jaffa points to a fundamental error of progressive thought, "I was aware that I was a member of that comparatively small class, the univeristy professorate, that today is the decisive source of the ruling opinions in our country...[C]hanges generated by this class have been in the direction of denying the existence of any objective standard whatever." In other words, liberalism has given us moral relativism.
Relativism is born of two influences. The first is rationalism, which attempted to discover truth by the power of unaided human reason. According to Immanuel Kant, human reason is limited and incapable of finding the answers to life's greatest mysteries. Thus rationalism led the intellectuals of the West to the conclusion that truth, and particularly moral truth were unknowable. The second, and probably more influential factor was the desire for social and sexual liberation. No one stated the principle more clearly than Sigmund Freud. Freud spoke of our need to be free of inhibition and of the malady of repressed desires. So these two forces, moral agnosticism and sexual liberation stand behind the emphasis on moral relativism.
The loss of moral boundaries produced by relativism has been the opening of Pandora's Box for Western culture. Relativism has created moral and personal chaos of unimaginable proportions. The fact that 40% of live births in our society are to unwed mothers or that only 1/2 of the students in many of our high schools graduate is related to the fact that relativism is the predominate view of progressive intellectuals in our society today.
Does reason lead inevitably to relativism? Only if we take a very narrow empirical and naturalistic view of the world. If we are open to a larger, metaphysical view, we find that reason
must account for human conscience and evidence for natural law confirmed by thousands of years of human experience. Using reason this way leads one to conclude that moral values are very real and objectively true. Sadly, the chaos unleashed by realtivism becomes one more piece of evidence for the belief in a universal set of objective moral principles.
Relativism is just one of the tragic errors of modern progressivism. In future posts, we will examine other aspects of the liberal agenda and their impact on our society.