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Moral Relativism, R.I.P.

Virtue and authority are back in fashion, as Bruce Wayne and Harry Potter can attest.

By From the September 2012 issue

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ANY CONSERVATIVE who expends energy denouncing relativism is wasting his time fighting the last war. Relativism was quite a force for evil in its day, but the vitality has gone out of it. The villain that once needed an army of culture warriors to fight it back now requires, at most, one armed guard by its hospital bed to keep the decrepit thing from escaping. Someone like David Horowitz or Roger Kimball could do the job single-handedly.

But it will not be easy for the Right to declare victory and move on. Moral relativism has become the culturewar equivalent of racketeering—no indictment is complete without it. Relativism has been blamed for the financial crisis, Obamacare, and Kanye West. When Michele Bachmann admitted earlier this year that she and her husband were dual Swiss–American citizens, a National Review blogger called it a “testament to how thoroughly the moral relativism of the post-national Left has permeated our culture.” Even Rep. Paul Ryan, who is no Rick Santorum, told an interviewer last year, “If you ask me what the biggest problem in America is, I’m not going to tell you debt, deficits, statistics, economics—I’ll tell you it’s moral relativism.”

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Relativism has become such a routine charge that half the people who invoke it feel no need to do more than gesture toward the culture at large by way of explanation.But we’ve come a long way since the days when Marilyn Manson and Andres Serrano (the artist behind Piss Christ) could make careers out of transgression for transgression’s sake. Breaking taboos for shock value is relativism; breaking taboos as a means rather than an end is not, which gives Lady Gaga and Seth MacFarlane an alibi. Pop stars used to think that authenticity was an important part of a musician’s job description—that’s what those Lilith Fair songstresses, self-righteous grungers, and way-too-honest emo kids seemed to think, anyway—and it certainly was a form of relativism to make such a fetish of being true to yourself, objective standards be damned. But overprocessed chart-slayers like Katy Perry and Ke$ha don’t act as if they want to be judged by the brutal honesty of their self-expression, and neither do mannered indie darlings like the Decemberists.As for cinema, anti-heroes are out and heroes are back in. Virtue, authority, and law and order are all in fashion, as the bank accounts of Chris Nolan, J.K. Rowling, and Marvel Comics will attest. There are still plenty of enemies for conservative culture warriors to fight, but relativism is no longer one of them.

Not that the right’s overreliance on relativism as a term of abuse was justified to begin with. There are traces of relativism in pluralism, freedom of speech, cosmopolitanism, foreign-policy realism, and a thousand other principles, including many that conservatives like. With the help of good judgment, these concepts have allowed the West to find a middle ground between nihilism and absolutism. Promiscuous use of the R word only makes that project more difficult. It is also—and this is a personal opinion—mind-numbingly dull. “Some things are good, others are bad,” has sometimes been an extremely important point to make, but never has it been an interesting one.

A cynic might say that accusations of relativism are so popular because they are just as evasive as relativism itself, and they end conversations just as abruptly. If relativism is an easy way to avoid saying why something is bad, calling your opponent a relativist is a way to escape explaining why your own opinion is good. It stacks the deck in the accuser’s favor: He doesn’t need a compelling position to win the argument; just having a position will do. Even when the Right’s opponents really were relativists, this looked like a lazy defense.

Readers who are skeptical that relativism is moribund should realize, first of all, that it seems much more influential than it really is. Those of its adherents who got jobs in our various cultural establishments over the last couple of decades are still there, only now they have seniority or, worse, tenure.But behind that veneer of power, relativism is doing no better than Communism was in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. After the Iron Curtain fell, the Polish and Czech bureaucracies were still staffed by the Same apparatchiks as before, but only because no one, not even Lech Walesa, can conjure an experienced workforce out of thin air. The party itself was mostly defunct, its ideology even more so. The countries of Eastern Europe, like the last redoubts of relativism in the U.S., will find new ways to fail, but they won’t fail in that particular way again.

The decline of relativism is difficult to explain because—again, like Communism—it’s not clear whether conservative opponents, liberal reformers, or flaws inherent in the system itself were ultimately responsible for its downfall. But, with the benefit of hindsight, the basic outline of relativism’s rise and fall has become clear enough. As well as revealing a lesson or two, this story might indicate which mindset has taken relativism’s place as the most serious internal threat to Western culture. I suspect I know where the danger now lies, and if I’ve guessed correctly, then carrying on about relativism will have the perverse effect of strengthening the enemy that the Right should be trying to weaken.

BUT FIRST THINGS FIRST. The war against relativism, like many of us, had its finest days back in college. The rhetoric was grandiose, and the players behaved theatrically: Allan Bloom and his allies indulged their histrionic sides almost as much as the teenagers did. Everyone in America who had ever attended college felt qualified to join in the fight, which turned an academic dispute into a nationwide brawl. It was serious business, but it was also a lot of fun.

The Closing of the American Mind had its 25th anniversary this year, and a number of people marked the event by publishing tributes to the book’s continuing relevance. I am reluctant to consign any good crotchet to the dustbin, especially one of such erudition and grumpiness, but the war Allan Bloom launched is all over bar the shouting. Relativists are an endangered species on America’s campuses, and in 30 years they will probably be extinct—or, if not, then sequestered in made-up departments that are denigrated by the rest of the faculty and eyed predatorily by budget directors on the lookout for programs to cut.

The Yale English department is a good example. In the directory for tenured and tenure-track faculty, “Marxist literary theory” is listed by five professors among their fields of interest, “gender and sexuality” by nine, and “colonial and postcolonial” by 11, or a quarter of the 44 professors. In the graduate student directory, however, the numbers for those subjects are one, three, and a fat goose egg. That’s quite a statistical drop-off, considering that grad students outnumber professors nearly two to one. The topics favored instead by these future scholars are Romanticism (six), Victorian literature (five), Milton (seven), and, oddly enough, religious literature (also seven). Honorable mentions include “Biblical exegesis,” “conversion narratives,” and “Middle English devotional, visionary, and anchoritic writing”— they’re not just reading the Bible, they’re reading monks.

The next generation of college professors seems to have returned to the proper business of contemplating the best that has been thought and said in the world (admittedly with some progressive politics thrown in). Why this reversal? One possibility is that academics saw some merit in the blasts against postmodern celebrities. Another possibility is that everyone simply got bored. It can be mentally stimulating to come up with arguments for dumb positions like “Madame Bovary is in no way superior to I, Rigoberta Menchu” or “Everyone in Hamlet is secretly homosexual,” but these arguments are like noodly jazz: fun to play, dreadful to listen to.

I also suspect that professors who embraced relativism when it seemed rebellious and exciting got spooked when they met the first batch of students who had grown up on the postmodern cant they’d been spouting—kids who wanted to study literature not because they loved books, but because they saw in relativism an excellent playground for their own vanity.The same thing happens when libertarians have children. They sober up fast once they realize that, in an immature creature with no self-restraint to fall back on, antinomianism is a terrifying thing.

On the subject of antinomianism and kids too young to handle it, one of relativism’s most pernicious bequests was the self-esteem fad in K–12 public schools, which declared “being yourself” the summum bonum of education. This manifestation of relativism will probably still be clinging to life when all the others have vanished, thanks to public education’s sclerotic bureaucracy and behemoth teachers’ unions. However, that stranglehold is being threatened by charter schools—and it’s very revealing to note which kind of charter is threatening it most. Highly regimented inner-city schools like Chicago’s Noble Charter Network or the KIPP system have captured the imagination of large chunks of the Left (including some of the same people who, five years ago, condemned charter schools as privatization by stealth). These schools have longer hours, make students wear coat-and-tie uniforms, and above all, preach discipline. Noble fines pupils $5 for failing to make eye contact with a teacher or for missing buttons on their school uniforms. It also has a strong record of success, with more than 80 percent of graduates entering college, most of them the first in their families to do so. The entrenched relativists may end up winning the political battle and robbing charters of their government subsidies, but that’s a political question. The cultural question has already been settled, and the relativists haven’t just lost, they’ve driven the public to embrace the opposite extreme.

Almost everywhere outside the galleries of Chelsea and the hole-in-the-wall theatres of off-Broadway, relativism is a spent force. That’s what makes it so frustrating to watch young conservatives waste time inveighing against an enemy that the previous generation has already knocked out, or at least sent to the canvas—especially when there are more threatening trends that need refuting. My own nominee for the top spot in the dangerous-amoralism stakes is utilitarianism, which America’s secularized elite has taken to new extremes. Relativism claimed that we could sidestep moral controversies by letting everyone decide ethical questions for themselves; the new utilitarianism claims that there are no moral controversies, just empirical ones. Technocratic optimism has always been part of the Left’s political philosophy. What’s new is its influence on culture.

In the last culture war, relativism’s influence was evident in the stock arguments that kept appearing in magazines and op-ed pages: Breaking taboos is valuable for its own sake; people have a right to make their own choices and not be judged for it; what you call a social evil is really just a cultural difference; et cetera.But those articles are no longer seen so often. Now, the most annoyingly ubiquitous genre in journalism is the social-scientific analysis, as if a person can’t speak with authority without citing economics or sociology.This is bad enough in political conversation, but it has begun to affect people’s ethical thinking. Under the new cultural rules, moral condemnation is a legitimate thing to express, but only if you can demonstrate that the sin you want to condemn makes someone twice as likely to take antidepressants or 40 percent less likely to be promoted at work. Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys have more moral authority than the archbishop of New York. Great artists are producing movies, TV shows, and songs about tough moral dilemmas, but although liberals buy the tickets and the albums, they don’t take the art they consume very seriously. When moral questions arise, they forget The Wire and The Hold Steady and ask what the studies show.

An excellently ludicrous example of this mindset was offered by an article on weight loss I read earlier this summer. It opened by citing a handful of studies showing obesity to be correlated not just with heart disease but also with slower career advancement and a greater likelihood of developing mental-health problems. Let’s leave aside the fact that the author didn’t feel he could take the undesirability of being fat as a given. The bigger problem is that this sort of argument tries to have it both ways—to have all the benefits of authority without the burden of being answerable to people who disagree. On one hand, the author isn’t saying obesity is bad, science is, which makes it a fact and not an opinion. Your personal experience or common sense might tell you that a few extra pounds aren’t always such a disaster; but that just means you’re in the statistical minority for whom these bad outcomes do not eventuate. In other words: My moral claim is objectively correct, but that doesn’t mean it has to be true in your case. The same evasive maneuver can be seen in the argument that there’s nothing wrong with pornography because its prevalence isn’t correlated with higher crime rates, or that there’s nothing wrong with gay marriage as long as children of same-sex couples aren’t more likely to receive reduced-price lunches at school. The idea that something might be spiritually harmful (or beneficial) in a way that can’t be demonstrated statistically has been written out of the conversation.

The columnist Theodore Dalrymple believes that this new form of moral abdication, like the last one, was born on college campuses:

The vast expansion of tertiary education has increased by orders of magnitude the numbers of people who think in sociological abstractions rather than in concrete moral terms. Statistical generalizations are more real to them, and certainly more important, than the trifling moral dilemmas of their own lives.

Now that Shakespeare is out of the dead-white-guy doghouse, perhaps colleges could reverse some of the damage they’ve done by teaching All’s Well That Ends Well, which opens with Parolles trying to convince Helena to change her attitude toward sexual continence:

Loss of virginity is rational increase, and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost.That you were made of is metal to make virgins.Virginity by being once lost may be ten times found; by being ever kept, it is ever lost.

The idea that promiscuity would yield a net increase in virginity makes perfect sense quantitatively but no sense morally. It’s just the sort of thing an economist could prove.It is also self-evidently ridiculous, even to a person accustomed to treating moral questions technocratically.

The great attraction of this new utilitarian mindset is its certainty—the fact that answers to such questions are not just a matter of opinion (and therefore, not relative)—which is why continuing to demonize the old enemy only makes the new one more appealing. Conservatives should be pleased, maybe even a little proud, that Americans are in the market for moral claims they can make with authority, but now it’s time to worry about which authorities they choose to trust. Economics can tell a country how to satisfy its desires efficiently, but not which desires are noble. Sociologists can put out a survey asking whether people are happy or fulfilled, but can’t give them the moral vocabulary they need to make sense of the difference between happiness and mere contentment, or between fulfillment and shallow self-regard. Some social-scientific studies make claims that turn out to be false, and others make claims that are correct on their own terms but not in the messy world of the human soul. The culture war goes on, and probably always will, but constant condemnation of relativism has become a distraction. As long as technocratic amorality keeps trying to turn every cultural question into a matter of optimization, the Right can’t afford any distractions.

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About the Author

Helen Rittelmeyer is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. She blogs at First Things.