Saturday, August 28, 2010

Restoring Honor, Rejecting Relativism

Today’s rally in Washington has significance beyond Governor Sarah Palin, Mr. Glenn Beck, patriotism, civil demonstrations, and the usual Leftist character assassination.  For the first time in a very long while, a national figure is appealing to honor.  That concept has lost almost all its serious content in the public vocabulary, apart from some residual meaning applied to the conduct of firefighters, police, and the military.  Outside that limited circle, the population seems to have lost all faith in honor, or indeed in any other relic of a shared moral culture.  But the fact that Mr. Beck felt able to appeal to honor, with a straight face, is an important development.

Mr. Beck’s success in the past several years makes it highly likely that he possesses a superb sense of public opinion.  Evidently, he sensed that a significant portion of the public would respond to a call characterized in moral terms.  “Honor” and “morals” and “duty” are the kinds of words that make many Americans uncomfortable.  Moral relativism has been king for at least a full generation.  For at least 30 years, children have been raised to believe that everyone may legitimately follow his or her own code of conduct, so long as doing so does no direct harm to anyone else.  The public schools follow this plan perfectly, of course, and it fits in comfortably with egalitarian rhetoric.  The unchallenged reign of relativism is what makes Mr. Beck’s appeal to honor so startling.

Relativism has soaked the national psyche so thoroughly that many young people cannot work up either sympathy or outrage when confronted with the most villainous conduct.  Recently, CONSVLTVS happened to meet a young woman trying to finish a bachelor’s degree.  At 27, she was already a single mother.  She struck CONSVLTVS as a perfectly conditioned member of her generation, in tune with the zeitgeist and all that.  Not long ago, there was a news story about a young Afghan couple who were stoned to death in their own village for marrying without permission.  Our single-mother student’s comment on the event was, “Well, what they did must have been really bad in that culture.”

     Such moral lethargy is not the only fruit of relativism.  Nothing is more tyrannical, more Puritanical after its own fashion, than moral relativism, which is actually a cloak for imperialistic political correctness.  Orthodox relativists often become enraged when anyone challenges relativism itself.  Rather than philosophically allowing the other party his own view, they defend their faith with a fervor that most traditionalists are embarrassed to muster.  The two systems are inevitably in conflict.  The relativists are always quick to point out that if society insists on traditional morality, society is imposing one moral code in favor of all the others.  But the truth of it, rarely acknowledged by the Left, is that insisting on relativism amounts to tearing down traditional morality.  Once there is broad consensus against traditional morality—as we observe in too much of our Republic these days—any assertion of traditional values becomes bigotry or discrimination.  (Think of the epithets used to describe Mr. Beck and Governor Palin at their rally today.)  So, by a process that should not surprise any student of human nature, the command that “all moral codes are equal” becomes a savage attack on traditional morality.

Tradition represents the consensus of a people’s experience.  Human beings are not born like blank slates on which anything may be written.  This notion, the so-called “tabula rasa” view of human nature, has now been thoroughly debunked by evidence from the fields of evolutionary psychology.  That anyone might need such evidence is a testament to the slender historical learning of certain academics.  History clearly teaches that people have a well-defined nature.  Given governments of tyranny, liberty, or license, people throughout history have behaved in remarkably similar ways.  The trickiest to maintain has always been representative government, which depends for its success on a national consensus of morality.

Further, that consensus must include clear rules of conduct that restrain some natural human impulses and encourage others.  In particular, the code must endorse self-sufficiency, self-restraint, and self-discipline.  The first duty of a citizen in a free republic is to take care of himself, so as not to be a burden on his fellow citizens.  By necessary implication, therefore, free citizens must cultivate all the traditional virtues.  They must also resist the familiar list of vices toward which human nature naturally inclines.  CONSVLTVS will expand on this point in a later post, but it is enough for now to point out that free societies require an explicit moral code.

Who remembers the 1970s?  “Do your own thing!”  “If it feels good, do it!”  Who remembers the putative distinction between morals and ethics?  Back then, many of us believed that it was an important idea, shiny, new, and insightful.  We liked it because it allowed us to reject traditional morality, especially sexual morality, while at the same time remaining fundamentally good people.  The gist of the distinction was that morals come from society, while ethics come from the heart.  Linguistically, the distinction is unfounded.  “Ethics” comes from Greek, while “morals” comes from Latin.  The two words are basically synonymous, referring to custom, manners, and that behavior which was traditionally endorsed.  But to give the words their 1970s meaning, the experience of 40 years has demonstrated that one cannot maintain a free society with mere “ethics.”  In hindsight, it should have been obvious.  When citizens do less to control their own behavior, the government must do more to control and sustain them.  Given the real nature of the human heart, self-ordered liberty requires more than “do your own thing.”

This point is not new to history, but most Americans younger than 60 will find it startling, challenging, or even absurd.  So, it is no wonder that many people are having a hard time with the word “honor” used by Mr. Beck for today’s rally.  CONSVLTVS welcomes his choice to employ the language of morality.

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