In 2018, Isaac Withers was one of 300 hundred people who attended the Vatican Pre-Synod of Young People, speaking with Pope Francis on the issues that his generation and younger face. Inspired by this incredible trip he has written an eight-part series of articles highlighting these challenges and sharing how we, the Church, can support and nurture this young generation. We are excited to present the fifth of his articles here. You can find the other parts of his series at the bottom of this page.
‘They try to accuse people like me who believe in empiricism and the enlightenment of somehow what they call moral relativism, as if its some appalling sin, where what it actually means is thought’. This was a statement that Stephen Fry made in the 2009 Intelligence Squared debate entitled ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’ and it captures well the cultural conversation around relativism and truth. Is relativism a damaging and destabilising thing, or is it in fact just free thought?
Well, before we get in to it, a definition for the term would be helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary defines relativism as ‘the doctrine that knowledge, morality, etc, are relative rather than absolute’.
Put simply it’s the belief that your morals are not universal truths but are in fact more personal opinions ‘relative to’ or ‘related to’ your upbringing or class. At first that may seem like a totally inoffensive idea but it is a debate that has continued passionately over the decades between liberal and conservative thinkers.
Paul Ryan, four years before he became Speaker of the House said, “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.”
How could this idea possibly be that important?
Across the generations we can see a statistical rise in the idea that morals are relative. In their research, ‘The End of Absolutes: America’s New Moral Code’ the Barna Group found that over half (51%) of millenials were moral relativists compared to only 39% of the pre Boomer generation of Elders.
It is then perhaps not surprising that in Barna’s more recent study of Gen Z (those after millennials) found that only 34% thought that lying was morally wrong. Jonathan Morrow, one of the researchers stated, ‘When only 34 percent of Gen Z can agree that “lying is morally wrong” – that’s a big problem. Not only is our culture deeply confused about moral and spiritual truth, gender and sexuality, but we are getting to the point where no one will listen to someone else’s point of view unless the completely agree with them.’
Young people will also be aware that society has held too collective moral norms that were wrong not too long ago, with Jim Crow segregation laws only ending in 1968 and with marital rape only being made illegal in 1993 (both in the US). Clearly, we have collectively been morally wrong before as a society, which would suggest that morals are relative to the time period.
An interesting counter to the idea that diversity encourages moral relativism however comes from Dr. Norman Doidge (author of ‘The Brain that Shapes Itself’). Doidge writes ‘When the ancient Greeks sailed to India and elsewhere, they too discovered that rules, morals and customs differed from place to place, and saw that the explanation for what was right and wong was often rooted in some ancestral authority.
The Greek response was not despair, but a new invention: philosophy. For the ancients, the discovery that different people have different ideas about how, practically, to live, did not paralyze them; it deepened their understanding of humanity and led to some of the most satisfying conversations human beings have ever had, about how life might be lived.’
Doidge’s comparison of the ancient response of philosophy, to the modern response of relativism, is really fascinating; that cultural differences in the ancient world did not get rid of long held truths but encouraged comparison and philosophical conversation.
That certainly sounds like more fun to me. Doidge continues that, ‘Aristotle argued that though specific rules, laws and customs differed from place to place, what does not differ is that in all places human beings, by their nature, have a proclivity to make rules, laws and customs.
To put this in modern terms, it seems that all human beings are, by some kind of biological endowment, so ineradicably concerned with morality that we create a structure of laws and rules wherever we are. The idea that human life can be free of moral concerns is a fantasy.’ Doidge goes on to describe humans as ‘moral animals’.
All the above quotes from Norman Doidge are actually from his introduction to Canadian clinical psychologist Dr Jordan B. Peterson’s ‘12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos’.
This book rose to be a number one Sunday Times and International Bestseller, and Peterson has been called ‘one of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years’ (Spectator). His lectures have been watched on YouTube sixty-four million times to date.
His rules for life are ‘traditional wisdom’, presented through the collective stories and religions of many cultures, calling people to unifying human truths and to live responsibly in order to find meaning. Why would this become a sensation – especially among the young audiences he attracts?
Doidge, in his introduction, presents his theory about Petersons’ millennial audience.
‘They are, I believe, the first generation to have been so thoroughly taught two seemingly contradictory ideas about morality, simultaneously… The first idea or teaching is that morality is relative … the additional claim that one group’s morality is nothing but its attempt to exercise power over another group. So, the decent thing to do – once it becomes apparent how arbitrary your, and your society’s, “moral values” are – is to show tolerance for people who think differently, and who come from different (diverse) backgrounds. That emphasis on tolerance is so paramount that for many people one of the worst character flaws a person can have is to be “judgemental.”
And, since we don’t know right from wrong, or what is good, just about the most inappropriate thing an adult can do is give a young person advice about how to live. And so a generation has been raised untutored in what was once called, aptly, “practical wisdom,” which guided previous generations. Millennials, often told they have received the finest education available anywhere, have actually suffered a form of serious intellectual and moral neglect.’
When I read that, I totally understood why a book that was just ‘rules for life’ had become a phenomenon – because to progress your life in the right direction, you have to believe there is a right and a wrong direction – a relativistic society would never offer that to young people. But it goes deeper than that too. Peterson believes that without these foundations it is impossible to find meaning in life.
‘In the absence of such a system of value, people simply cannot act. In fact, they can’t even perceive, because both action and perception require a goal, and a valid goal is, by necessity, something valued. … We are not happy, technically speaking, unless we see ourselves progressing – and the very idea of progression implies value. … We must have something to set against the suffering that is intrinsic to Being. We must have the meaning inherent in a profound system of value or the horror of existence rapidly becomes paramount. Then, nihilism beckons, with its hopelessness and despair. … So: no value, no meaning.’
But this is not merely intellectuals making statements about young people; this is what Peterson says young people tell him all the time.
‘They say one of two things … a quarter of them say ‘when I listen to you talk it’s as if you’re telling me things that I already know’. It’s like yeah well that’s exactly right because that’s what archetypal stories are … the other thing that people say and this is more like three quarters of them is ‘I was in a very dark place, I was addicted, I was drinking too much, I had a fragmented relationship with my fiance and I wasn’t getting married, things weren’t going very well with my family, my relationship with my father was damaged, I didn’t have any aim, I was wasting my time – some variant of that. I’ve been watching your lectures, I’ve decided to establish a purpose, I’m trying to tell the truth and things are way better. … People stop me on the street all the time and tell me exactly that story, which is just wonderful! … It’s like the lights are going on.’
And yet, Peterson is not the only sign of a secular reawakening to objective morality. We are seeing this come through on the political scene too in America. In ‘How the American left is rediscovering morality’, you have former Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders saying ‘It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be involved in politics if one didn’t have a moral sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice’ and newly elected New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying ‘Everyone’s going crazy about socialism and democratic socialism. For me, that’s not my seat. My seat is a moral seat.’ Whatever you think of their policies, those are interesting things to say.
In some ways, we are seeing a new emerging culture of moralism, but perhaps in not as healthy a way; David Brooks, in his piece ‘The Shame Culture’ for The New York Times, claims that, ‘College campuses are today awash in moral judgment. … Those accused of incorrect thought face ruinous consequences. When a moral crusade spreads across campus, many students feel compelled to post in support of it on Facebook within minutes. If they do not post, they will be noticed and condemned. Some sort of moral system is coming into place. Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action. The big question is: What is the nature of this new moral system?’
Andy Crouch writes compellingly that we are moving from a culture of guilt to a culture of shame. Crouch draws this from anthropologist Ruth Benedict who wrote about her discovery of shame culture in Japan in her 1946 book, ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’. This book, ‘popularized the idea that Japan was a “shame culture,” in which morality was governed by “external sanctions for good behavior.”
In other words, you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you. By contrast, in a guilt culture such as the West, you know you are good or bad because of an “internalized conviction of sin”—by how you feel about your behavior and choices.’
Crouch thinks that Benedict’s statements about Japanese culture are ‘sweeping’ but that the insight ‘that some cultures place a higher priority on preserving honor and avoiding shame—has remained.’ Crouch points to the online mob that manifests on social media as proof of this, as well as how university campus controversies egnite so fast.
He also claims though, that whereas the opposite to shame in Japanese culture was honour, we are not evolving into an honour-shame culture but ‘are starting to look something like a postmodern fame–shame culture. Like honor, fame is a public estimation of worth, a powerful currency of status. But fame is bestowed by a broad audience, with only the loosest of bonds to those they acclaim.’
Of this theory, Brooks remarks,‘The guilt culture could be harsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner. The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in.’
It’s a messy issue, but perhaps the most helpful things the Church can do for young people is offer them a space for the existential conversations, and to offer them that strong guidance on right and wrong whilst engaging their search for meaning.
Bishop Robert Barron sums up the classical morality versus modern morality debate humorously. ‘The modern approach is boring. I say it because it locks the subject so much into himself, there’s no thrilling adventure of discovering formal truth or discovering finality and purpose. All that matters is my little world of my desires, my identity, my sense of myself. I think classical morality … is a much more thrilling, much more adventurous project.’
The Church might first have to convince younger generations that truth exists, or even potentially exists, but when it does that, it also needs to provide a space to explore the different truths in that philosophical tradition. Something like the Alpha course springs to mind here, just the space to thrash the basic ideas out and not be told you are wrong, just to have the conversation of meaning that people are starving for.
Essentially the Church needs to hold to its guns on morality, though it could do with some explanation on the term sin. Again to a generation scared of judgement, sin sounds awful, but its Hebrew origin comes from the archery term for when an archer missed the mark, meaning in a moral sense that sin is a misdirection of our truest desire.
An important emphasis too would be that the Church has these morals to protect people from harm. When Jordan Peterson was asked why people are responding positively to his message, he replied, ‘well I’m actually on their side.’ Young people need to be able trust that the Church is on their side, not moralising for no reason, that in the words of Saint John Bosco: ‘Enjoy yourself as much as you like-if only you keep from sin.’
Ultimately, a society without a belief in sin has no need of a saviour, and even Jesus in his famous ‘do not judge’ teaching says ‘why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the great log in your own?’ (Matthew 7:3)
There He’s calling for a deep knowledge of our own flaws first to enable our interior transformation, but He is not refuting that there are things in life that are damaging, as His core teaching was ‘repent and believe in the good news’: that balance of the two.
Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College, says it well in his book ‘A Refutation of Moral Relativism’:
‘What do you think Jesus meant when he said “judge not”? Do you think he meant “don’t judge deed, don’t believe the Commandments, don’t morally discriminate a just war from an unjust war or a hero from a bully?” He couldn’t have meant that. He meant “don’t judge the motives and hearts, which only God can see.” I can judge your deeds, because I see them. I can’t judge what your motives are, because I can’t see that.’
In all this we have to remember though that it is not just about rules and morals, that that is not the primary reason for Christianity. As Pope Benedict XVI put it so perfectly, ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’
This Bishop Barron video on modern morality v classical morality.
‘12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos’ by Dr Jordan B. Peterson
‘The Return of Shame’ by Andy Crouch
‘The End of Absolutes: America’s New Moral Code’ by The Barna Group
‘The Death of Moral Relativism’ by Jonathan Merritt
‘Light of the World: The Pope, The Church, and The Sign of the Times’ by Pope Benedict XVI and Peter Seewald
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