Guest post: The sleight of hand in relativism

Abracadabra_magicianBy Ralph Hancock

Part 2 of 3 of “Mormonism in the public square”

In the first article in this series, I summarized a common contemporary view of the relationship between morality and politics as follows:

“But now society has fundamentally changed. It is no longer based on a moral consensus, but on the acceptance of diversity. ‘Pluralism’ has replaced moral-religious homogeneity as the basic character of modern societies like ours. So, even though we may not approve, personally, of many lifestyle choices among our fellow citizens, it is not only politically necessary but in fact a moral duty to respect the diversity of lifestyles that flourish in a pluralistic society.”

Pay close attention to the italicized assertion. For this points up a significant sleight of hand that plays an essential role in what I will call the New Liberalism. For the claim is not only that our political circumstances are such that we must accommodate and work with people with different moral views than our own. That is obvious, and our LDS leaders have provided excellent counsel and encouragement in our efforts to do just that. But the tendency is to go much further and to transform this practical accommodation into a new kind of moral imperative, the imperative of a respect for “diverse lifestyles,” which shades into the assertion that it is somehow wrong to affirm the superiority of one way of life over another.

With this sleight of hand that passes silently from necessary accommodation to the denial of real moral distinction, many are led, often in the name of “rationalism” or “public reason,” to deny the reasoned connection between religion, morality and political freedom that I set forth in the last article. Thus many fall, sometimes without knowing quite what is happening, under the influence of a new morality that presents itself at first as the simple recognition of new political realities.

Liberalism Then and Now

To clarify this change that has come about in liberalism in recent decades and to see the dangerous implications of this change, I propose a simple but helpful distinction between Classical Liberalism and the New Liberalism.

Classical liberalism is practical and relatively modest in its aims; it is compatible with a traditional and religious view of morality and the family; in fact, it presupposes such a view. The New Liberalism is theoretical in the sense that it affirms its own theory, not only of political arrangements, but of human existence and its purposes. The New Liberalism thus aims to replace traditional, religiously grounded morality with its own view of human meaning.

Classical liberalism limits itself to political questions in the narrower sense: it affirms certain definite individual rights, limited government, constitutionalism, the separation of powers, and is designed to encourage and to work in the social context “pluralism” of interests, opinions. But the pluralism of practical liberalism is not absolute, since it assumes a common, traditional framework of private morality, supported by a somewhat diverse but morally consistent religious belief.

There can be no more “mainstream” or consensual statement of the Founding generation’s positive view of the role of religion and religious morality in society than that of the Father of our Country, George Washington:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports … [and] great pillars of human happiness, [the] firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” (Farewell Address)

Hardly anyone, or anyone of influence in 1787 or for a long time thereafter, would have considered Washington’s warm endorsement of religion and religious morality in any way controversial.

No Authority Above Human Beings

The New Liberalism has roots that go deep into modern philosophy; the theory behind what I call theoretical liberalism derives its radical premise from this distinctively modern proposition: there is no authority above human beings. In America this premise remained largely buried under the actual practice of liberalism, as moderated by morality and religion, but it lay there like a ticking time-bomb that would eventually explode.

We can say that the explosion of theoretical liberalism into the actual practice of American democracy was ignited in the cultural and political upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s, which eventually brought into the mainstream (especially the academic and media mainstream) the countercultural ideal of “liberation” from all traditional “hang-ups.” The injunction to “do your own thing” sounds like a quaint relic from the time when now-aging baby boomers (like me) were young, but that’s just because the idea itself of liberation from traditional morality is now so common, so conventional, even so politically correct.  

This explosion of the New Liberalism in recent decades may account for Elder Robert D. Hales’ observation in the most recent General Conference that the gap between the Church and the world has gone from “this big” to “THIS BIG”. (Remember Elder Hales gesturing wide with his arms.) Classical liberalism left some cultural and political space in which religious morality could prosper. (Of course this meant there was also a space in which alternative religious and moral visions might conflict – it suffices to consider the predicament of Mormons under a largely Protestant moral consensus about 120 years ago.) The New Liberalism increasingly tends to impose its own comprehensive moral vision.

To explore in more detail the thinking behind the liberation theory of the ’60s and the New Liberalism it has spawned, we could cite the fundamental philosophical texts of the movement, such as German émigré Herbert Marcuse’s potent if inconsistent blend of Marx and Nietzsche. But the United States Supreme Court has spared us the trouble of chasing down philosophical sources by reading right into the Bill of Rights the radical doctrine of the liberation of the individual from any authoritative moral framework or higher power. A remarkable and authoritative statement of this new, theoretical liberalism is this amazing pronouncement by Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Here the U.S. Supreme Court, or rather 5 members of it, constitute themselves High Priests of the New Liberalism by presuming to answer for the American people the ultimate question of what is to be held sacred, what is the character of the ultimate moral authority: their authoritative answer is that the meaning of existence is the individual’s own power to define the meaning of existence, unlimited by Nature or by God.

Now, I realize that this radical formulation is hardly shocking to a contemporary audience, even an LDS audience, precisely because this New Liberal rhetoric has become quite conventional, almost routine, practically a matter of common sense, at least among cultural elites. But let me note that there is a huge and momentous step from the celebration of human freedom or moral agency to the emancipation of the human will from any authoritative structure of meaning.

President Boyd K. Packer pointed up this distinction very aptly in his most recent General Conference address:

“We are free to choose what we will and to pick and choose our acts, but we are not free to choose the consequences. They come as they will come. Agency is defined in the scriptures as ‘moral agency,’ which means that we can choose between good and evil.”

To confuse moral agency, or the capacity and the duty to choose between good and evil, with the right to define good and evil, strikes me as a very big confusion.

Promoting Its Own New Morality

The New Liberalism insists on separating religion and religious morality from politics – but in fact it makes this less possible than ever, since it in fact promotes (sometimes under force of law) its own new morality.

At the heart of the new, radical liberal vision is the assertion that there are no authoritative moral truths. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said,

“I believe the diminished value being attached to religious freedom stems from the ascendency of moral relativism. … More and more of our citizens support the idea that all authority and all rules of behavior are man-made and can be accepted or rejected as one chooses. Each person is free to decide for himself or herself what is right and wrong. Our children face the challenge of living in an increasingly godless and amoral society.”

Moralistic Relativism

Of course few proponents of the New Liberalism would accept Elder Oaks’ characterization of their worldview as “relativist.” Like leading liberals from John Stuart Mill to Justice Kennedy, they see themselves as motivated by a distinctive moral vision that is in fact superior to any traditional morality – more rational, more universal, more equal, more “progressive,” precisely because it is not tied to any particular understanding of natural or divine goods, or to the laws and limiting commandments that come with such a traditional understanding. The good is the individual’s liberation from the good – this is the paradoxical core of the New Liberalism.

This paradoxical moralistic relativism at the heart the New Liberalism expresses itself in the three common rhetorical strategies of the New Liberalism.

Progress

The first of these strategies is the idea of “progress.” “Progress” is a very convenient slogan, because it makes it possible to defer indefinitely the question of just where progress is supposed to be leading us, the question of the End or Purpose of progress. The End of progress is never articulated – and so we know only what progress is against, what it is we need to move away from, to leave behind: all traditional moral restraints, and in particular all binding norms governing sexuality, the complementarity of the sexes, and the natural definition of the family.

“Progressive” liberalism also tends to obfuscate the difference between the Founders’ practical liberalism and the New, theoretical, lifestyle liberalism; fundamental, qualitative differences are absorbed into a vague story of “progress.” It is undeniable as well that sincere Christian sentiments often accompany expressions of this progressive, moralistic relativism. There is such a thing, of course, as Progressive Christianity – but the risk is great that the adjective overpower the noun, and Christianity become an empty shell informed by the commitment to some elusive “progress.”

The Language of Compassion

The second key rhetorical strategy of the New Liberalism is the language of compassion, which allows the denial of authoritative moral standards to appear in moral and religious dress. And there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of New Liberals’ concern for their fellow human beings. But here is the problem: how can you genuinely care for a person without some understanding of that person’s good, and of the moral rules that give access to that good? How can the New Liberal distinguish a person’s true, eternal good from whatever seems good or feels good to the object of compassion?

True Christian compassion can only mean bringing people to Christ, and this is impossible without obedience to commandments. But the New Liberalism eschews obedience to anything but the imperative of individual liberation itself. Classical friendship aimed to make the friend better, more virtuous. Christian charity aims to bring people to Christ, with all the repentance and obedience that entails. New Liberal Compassion wants to care for people without distinguishing between a person’s true good and what that person happens to want.

The Language of Equality

The third key rhetorical strategy of the New Liberalism is the ever-present language of “equality.” The idea of equality certainly appears to function as an ethical norm, but, on closer inspection, it reveals its basis in relativism. Can equality be adequately defined without reference to some shared understanding of human nature and human purposes, as when Martin Luther King Jr. called upon us to look past the color of our skin to “the content of our character”? If the principle of equality is applied to moral and religious principles themselves, then our character has no content, and the result is in fact relativism.

The genius of liberalism, and the key to its great power, is that it promotes a certain view of the meaning of human existence, while claiming to be neutral on the question of the good. The New Liberalism pursues a certain moral vision only negatively, without having to take responsibility for any substantive moral principles, and it enacts this vision by criticizing, dissolving and undermining the authority of traditional morality and religion.

No one wants to take a position against “progress,” “compassion,” or “equality.” But, unless these New Liberal ideals are measured against the standard of some higher morality, then they will always end up adding to the sway of relativism. Moralistic relativism appeals to some very popular moral sentiments, but its heart is still relativistic. And relativism cannot sustain a good life or a good society.

This article appeared in Meridian Magazine (www.ldsmag.com).

Dr. Ralph Hancock is president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs and a Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of such works as Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics and The Responsibility of Reason, as well as numerous others arguing for philosophy’s openness to religious and moral insight. Moreover, Dr. Hancock has organized and directed more than a dozen scholarly conferences and colloquia concerning philosophical and religious dimensions of public issues. He holds degrees from BYU and from Harvard University.

 

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