Friday, April 27, 2012

Relativism Revisited

I am reading Paul Johnson's book, Intellectuals, for a second time (Johnson is viewed as the most important historian and social commentator of our day). The point of his book is that the modern West has been shaped by men and women with enormous egos who suffered no compulsions about telling the rest of us how we ought to live our lives. What he also documents in this book are the levels to which they utterly failed to live up to their own standards.

In describing Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian novelist, Johnson writes, "He wanted to lead, for which he had no capacity at all, other than will, to prophesy, to found a religion, and to transform the world, tasks for which he was morally and intellectually disqualified." (Intellectuals, p. 114) In other words, he wanted to be like God.

This is what is ultimately wrong with relativism; it is frail human beings assuming the godlike capacity of determining right from wrong, and of defining the good from the bad. It is exactly the same sin of our forefathers in the Garden of Eden, "You shall be like gods, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:4) The temptation presented to Eve was to assume moral knowledge (of good and evil) in order to possess moral authority (the responsiblity to define good and evil and thus judge behavior and circumstance). The problem is, we are not God, we aren't even gods. We are frail, temporal, and self-focused creatures who have little capacity to know the end from the beginning. We thus define good and evil, not for the larger good, but for the much smaller "good" of our own comfort and convenience.

As a result, the last several decades have been a time of serious moral decline. Relativism has allowed us to call evil "good" and good "evil." We have turned the traditional code of moral values on its head, but sadly, changing the labels doesn't change the reality. The statistics tell the tale, out-of-wedlock births have sky- rocketed across all the demographic categories; it stands at 40% among caucasian women, 50% among Latinos, and over 70% among African-Americans. This category matters because at the core of conventional moral values has always been a society's view of marriage and the family. The problem is not just the vastly increased levels of sexual activity among young people, it is the rejection of marriage as the end goal of dating and relationship along with the establishment of a stable home-life centered in the nuclear family.

Charles Murray has just written an important book that essentially deposits the increasing separation between rich and poor as a consequence of the loss of moral convictions regarding marriage and family among working class young people. In other words, the gap between the 1% and the 99% is not primarily a tax problem or a political problem, it is a moral and spiritual issue. We have faced a serious decline in our sense of personal moral responsibility which has profoundly affected our sense of social and economic responsiblity.

Max Weber, a German sociologist, philosopher and economist, was correct in his connection between Protestant moral values and the economic growth and prosperity of Northern Europe and it's direct descendant, the United States. The shared prosperity that has defined the American experiment is a direct consequence of  our values. The abandonment of those values has led to a weakening of our economic prospects and will eventually produce a very different America. Bottom line is that relativism is a fools errand, born of the arrogance of the founders of the enlightenment, and now wreaking havoc on the generations who followed its teachings.


Steve Landis said...

"...In other words, the gap between the 1% and the 99% is not primarily a tax problem or a political problem, it is a moral and spiritual issue..."

I don't think you meant this...but you seem to be saying that the less wealthy are of lower moral character than those who are more wealthy. I find this notion to fly in the face of the facts. Not to mention Jesus' own statements about the wealthy and powerful. Maybe you could clarify that part of your statement for me? :-)

Tom said...

Thanks for the question Steve. You are right I am not saying that the accumulation of wealth is a moral issue. The rich are not more moral than the poor, just look at Hollywood. But, poverty in the modern world is a consequence of irresponsible choices. This is Charles Murray's point, abandoning marriage and family is one of the determining factors for why people live in poverty.

When Max Weber coined the term, "Proststant work ethic." He saw it as an expression of the deep sense of the sanctity of work as unto the Lord, of responsibility to care for one's family, and to care for others with the fruit of one's labor. As Wesley told his weekly class meetings, "Earn as much as you can, save as much as you can, and give as much as you can." America has become the wealthiest nation iin history (in relative terms) because of this commitment to work as a high calling.