Moral Relativity in an Ironic Place
“’Good’ and ‘bad,’ applied to them, are words without content: For it is from them that the content of these words is henceforward to be derived.” –C.S. Lewis, Abolition of Man
In Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis explains the nonsense of a subjective postmodern philosophy, wherein truth has no meaning. When one accepts that truth is a social construct rather than an objective correspondence to reality, the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ no longer hold meaning, instead merely representing empty terms open to endless speculative definition at the impulsive will of any given person. Today, this idea of ‘subjective truth’ is widely accepted. “You have your truth; and I have mine,” one person might say to another. In this article, I reflect on this topic of subjectivity to show how prevalent the idea is in our world.
This moral subjectivity I found in the ironic place of my ethics class in school. I am currently in school to begin a career in criminal justice and to hopefully become a police officer. One of the classes I am taking is an Ethics & the Law class and like most classes, this class has a book. The authors of this book make some peculiar statements in the first chapter as they introduce the future police officer to what they think are appropriate ethics. Two of the most foundational statements are: “In accordance with reason, each person is their own moral authority” and “our ability to reason makes us human.”
First, let us consider, “In accordance with reason, each person is their own moral authority.” On its face, this is such a silly thing for a progressive college course textbook to say: let police do whatever they want. Only a few chapters later, the authors recount instances of policing gone array. One example they proclaim is when the NYPD in July 2000 failed to stop a gang of men from committing public sexual assault during a local festival. But on what basis are we to charge such an officer? If they’ve been taught to be their “own moral authority,” no one else can ultimately be responsible for their less-than-ideal actions.
This line of reasoning leads me to wonder: Are the “moralistic” authors of this textbook ready to bear responsibility for the future unlawful acts of officers? Do they really believe this ethical subjectivity? Why should I read this ethics book anyway? Why can’t I just drop this class and receive the credit anyway? After all, I am my own moral authority. Of course, that wouldn’t fly, and rightfully so. It is a patently ridiculous idea.
Additionally, it is even more ridiculous to be teaching this kind of subjective morality to future police officers. Moral subjectivity incentivizes a terribly unjust justice system by eroding the foundation of moral treatment toward (let alone care of) another person. If morality is relative, why worry about how we treat anyone? Why even bother to try someone of murder since an accused person may be acting in a right manner according to their own moral authority? Why bother running background checks on law enforcement recruits? When pressed, these subjective moralists would certainly say “Oh we don’t think that!” And why would they? Because postmodernists are inconsistent. Again, as C.S. Lewis says, the postomodernist cheats by not really living by the standard they claim. For these postmodernist authors, the truth boils down to “everyone else must do this or do that; but me? I can do whatever I want because morality is whatever I say it is.”
Let us now turn to the second statement: “Our ability to reason makes us human.” This is disturbingly dangerous. Is one’s humanity contingent upon whether they have the ability to reason or not? What of the mentally handicapped? The unborn? Someone who’s drunk? (What of certain presidential candidates?) Do these people cease to be human because they don’t reason or aren’t reasonable?
Certainly, some humans reason; but do we all? And why should something that not everyone who appears human does be the basis for our humanity? Does one’s status as a human really derive from their ability to reason? To continue my above thought, should we contend then that Republicans and Democrats are not human? Of course not, they are obviously human, even when they frequently neither act humanely nor reasonably. What I mean to say is, contrary to the claim of my textbook’s authors, there must be something greater than our own self or reason that determines one’s humanity. Subjective basis for truth and human identification doesn’t work—we need only consult the annals of history to make this painfully clear. In contrast to this subjectivity, Western Civilization has long contended, like a police officer who has authority because of the rule of law, truth and the basis of humanity derive from someplace greater than ourselves: from our Creator, God.
This is the underlying fact that causes my textbook to be so problematic: the author’s underlying assumptions devalue human life by eliminating God. But by eliminating this central foundation for morality, the textbook undermines its own pedagogical purpose with erroneous assumptions. In turn, these faulty assumptions may very well lead future officers to mistreat other human beings, ironically the very people these officers are sworn to protect. Far too often, as Josef Pieper reminds us in Only the Lover Sings, “Even when man pursues evil, he intends a perceived good.” These authors may have good intentions; but that is no excuse to teach the dangerous assumptions of moral relativism.
Persons who say there is no objective truth cheat. One cannot say, “you go choose what’s moral for you and you’ll be right” without degrading everyone else’s quality of life. It simply doesn’t follow. In fact, it’s written on every person’s heart, whether admitted or not. To repeat Pieper’s statement from above, “Even when man pursues evil, he intends a perceived good.” This isn’t to say that evil is good; rather, this simply means the barometer for ethics is always “the good.” Even Hitler pursued what he thought to be good; Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ted Bundy—they all pursued what they believed to be good and true. But was it? By no means! It was and is evil.
But this shouldn’t surprise us. Stalin and Hitler both had to market their ideologies to the masses, and who would buy into an idea what was labeled “evil”? “This is true and good” is far more convincing as a political slogan than “follow this is evil.” Genesis 3:5 says it well, “for like God, they both knew good from evil.” The reality of truth and goodness is etched into every heart, whether someone admits it or not.
To try to be moral and good according only to standards set by ourselves is a ridiculous inconsistency. Unless postmodernists acknowledge something objectively greater than themselves, they cannot subjectively impose their will on others. The authors of my textbook already live as if they believe in objectivity, they just haven’t admitted it because that would mean there is One greater who defines goodness: God. Like a chief in the hierarchy in a police department, there is always the higher power to ultimately answer. Who will you answer to?
Joseph August Prahlow Jr. is a Christian in Kalamazoo, MI majoring in law enforcement. He’s passionate about truth, theology, the Lord of the Rings, the Chicago Cubs, and Save the Storks. Follow him on Instagram at @jajrproudlion27
Image courtesy of Diana Robinson.