The right wing consistently claims that the problem with this country (how come they’re allowed to say there are problems with this country, but if anyone else suggests that America is anything less than perfect they are suspected of treason?) is moral relativism. Moral relativism, they claim, is tantamount to an "anything goes" philosophy where there is no right and wrong. Thus, people just "do their own thing," common decency and virtue go out the window, and society is destroyed.
There are more things wrong with the right-wing claim above than I can hope to fit into this brief article, but I simply want to expand on a few of the more glaring problems. Most obvious is that this isn’t what moral relativism says. There are essentially two moral relativist positions, the social and the individual. According to social relativism, each society has its own norms and standards, independent of norms of other societies. Of course, even an absolutist can acknowledge this fact — but the social relativist also claims that this is a correct state of affairs, while the absolutist simply says that some societies are wrong. According to individual relativism, on the other hand, each individual has his own moral code, independent of the norms of those around him. The former position, it should be clear, cannot lead to the "do your own thing" philosophy that the right wing so fears. Even individual relativism, though, still affirms the existence of a moral code that each individual is bound to follow. Furthermore, relativism in no way implies that there will be no common elements to the various moral codes. It would in no way be inconsistent, for example, for a relativist to say that, while individual moral codes vary on other topics, all moral codes must contain prohibitions on murder and rape. There would then be a variety of arguments available to the relativist to prove this claim — metaphysical, logical, teleological, argumentation ethics, etc. The point is that relativism doesn’t mean that there are no common moral grounds among people — just that some things are not common. It seems to me, as an aside, that a consistent intuitionist, if honest enough to admit that people may have different intuitions, would end up as an individual relativist. Does this somehow imply that intuitionism leads to the denial of morality? Of course it doesn’t.
Without getting into the merits of relativism and absolutism, let me merely reflect that it is palpably absurd to think that no society has the correct moral code except a nation engaged in aggressive wars, with a negative savings rate, and with the highest percentage of its population in prison. This last point is particularly hard, I’d say, for the conservative to square with his view of America as the supremely moral nation. Either our corrupt government imprisons people unjustly, or, as the conservative is more likely to see things, the country is full of criminals, and has more of them than any other nation. Either way, it doesn’t say much for us.
On the other hand, maybe the conservative is right, and the nation’s morals are under attack from an onslaught of relativism, or, what the conservative more likely means, nihilism. I don’t see it, though. In my experience, people do not do bad things because they think there are no morals — they do bad things because they believe them to be right. What I do see around me, though, is a disquieting form of absolutism.
In America nowadays, perfection is expected at all times. This doesn’t mean refraining at all times from raping and murdering — the conservative himself admits that the wrongness of these actions is relative. Instead, we are expected to be perfect on a whole host of minutia, which until quite recently either didn’t matter at all, or was regarded as silly even by those who enforced the restrictions. Have you been pulled over recently? It used to be, you were speeding, you were pulled over — and you and the cop both knew he was meeting a quota, doing a job — and he knew that you knew. The cop knew that everyone speeds, and some people get caught — it was recognized for the game it was. Not so recently — get pulled over for speeding now, and the cop will sneer at you, sermonize to you about how wrong your actions were, and then write you the ticket. The officer is shocked, just shocked, that you would dare exceed the posted speed limits. After all, those limits were made by our wise and trusted masters.
My grandfather and uncle once got into a fistfight with a police officer. My grandfather was arguing with the police officer as the officer wrote him a parking ticket, the officer made threatening gestures, and my uncle saw and reacted to protect his father. The fight ended with the two of them being arrested, but not before they got a few good punches in. The charges were later dropped. What would the outcome be if this happened today? Just take a look at the typical police officer — at least 50 pounds heavier than his counterpart would have been 30 years ago, more muscular, goateed, head-shaven, more militarized — and more likely to think of his job as a battle between him and the civilian population. If this happened today, I can almost guarantee that my uncle and grandfather would be dead. More frightening, though, is the fact that most conservatives would fail to see the relevance of what I have just said. The expected response would be "so, they hit a police officer, of course they should be killed." This is a sad end to the movement that gave us Barry Goldwater and promised small government and more freedom.
It isn’t just in the world of law enforcement that perfection is now expected, though. Our speech must be perfectly free of any hint of prejudice, or any trace of offense. Our trash must be perfectly sorted — don’t you like the planet? The games we play must never make light of any culture, nor may they reward aggression. Activities we engage in must be perfectly safe — Ralph Nader will take away any toy than can be swallowed or used to hit a child on the head, don’t worry. Playgrounds must be plastic, to avoid splinters, and low to the ground. Risk to reward tradeoff? Never heard of it, risk can never be accepted. Children no longer can simply play sports for fun and enjoyment. Instead, your 5-year-old must play perfect baseball, so that he can land a scholarship in 13 years time. What, learn to swim for fun, exercise, and survival near the water? Never — if you want to swim, you need to get serious, hire a coach who has won Olympic gold at least twice, and get yourself to a dietician.
In a monument to the absurdity of all this perfectionism, I wish to comment on Britney Spears’ VMA performance. I don’t know much about dance, singing, or music, so I have nothing to say about technical critiques of her performance. I will say this, though — I saw a picture of her in her skimpy outfit, and my jaw dropped. I remember Britney as being moderately attractive prior to her recent head-shaving, car-smashing episodes. Certainly I never thought she was ugly, but she also was not the be-all-end-all of female beauty. All that changed when I saw her new look in that picture — if Plato’s theory of the forms is correct, than the new Britney is the embodiment of the form of beauty. I was stunned, therefore, to read the article that the picture was attached to. A culture in which news writers can call Britney Spears fat, likely while eating their third donut of the morning, has gone off the rails. I would comment here that, like in other areas of life, we aren’t looking at the big picture. Instead of simply admiring beauty, we take it apart and demand perfection in each aspect of beauty. So, Britney is criticized for not having a vanishingly small waist and rock-hard abdomen, regardless of being absolutely stunning. The big picture is not the point — instead, we focus on minutia. We tone our abs in order to be beautiful — if we are beautiful already, then our abs need not be any more toned.
Once upon a time, we thought laws should make us more virtuous. Now, we use laws to attack the virtuous, by demanding the impossible standard of perfection. Is safety and caution a virtue? Perhaps, and going no faster than safety allows in your car can then be a part of virtue. But if a man is virtuous, then it serves no purpose to attack him for not obeying the arbitrary standard set.
So, the failing in our society which leads us to embrace as sexy images of starved women, and to reject as ugly the most beautiful woman most of us will ever see, also leads to the injustices of our so-called justice system. Meanwhile, those who have pushed along this process, embracing law-and-order and demanding that the rest of us get in our places, never taking a step out of line — look at the disaster their ideas have created, and blame the carnage on "relativism" — the label they pin on the one individual who remains courageous enough to declare that the insane is insane, to step out of line and point to the truth. This troublemaker, they declare, is the cause of your problems — not the system we created for the purpose of jailing more people and creating chaos in society, making it impossible to know when you are within the law and when you aren’t. No, all problems in society come from the individual who points this out. This is the new conservative creed.
Joshua Katz, NREMT-P [send him mail], is the newest member of the mathematics faculty at the Oxford Academy, Westbrook, Connecticut. He has studied philosophy of mind, logic, and epistemology of economics from an Austrian perspective, and is a former graduate student in philosophy at Texas A&M, as well as holding a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He still holds the title of Chief of EMS for the Town of Hempstead Department of Parks and Recreation, and will return to full-time service there in the summer. He enjoys a glass of port and a wedge of Brie, but has discontinued this practice on a regular basis, due to the sugar content of the port.