Young People and Relativism

Students on the UCLA campus in 2009 (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)

“As a young conservative,” writes Kevin D. Williamson, “I was taught to despise something we were taught to call ‘moral relativism.’” Kevin may still consider himself to be a “young conservative” — age descriptors are relative, even if morality is not — but he does have 20 years on me. That’s 20 years of living, reading, and writing, which — to be very clear, Kevin — I only mention in order to compare our different starting points.

As a young conservative, Kevin had a clear idea of his enemy. The Soviet Union was not a faceless abstraction, rather it was . . .

 . . . a place of gulags and political prisoners, unnecessary privation, suppression, and — above all — lies. It was an empire of lies, and in such an empire no man is safe – no chess master, no novelist, no composer. The United States had its problems, as did the United Kingdom and the rest of our allies, but you could mock Ronald Reagan day and night and never fear hearing the sound of someone’s standard-issue boot kicking down your door in the dead of night. That was a moral truth, not a point of view.

Today the threat of Russia persists, China looms large, Islamic terrorism rages on. Yet these are not — as perhaps they once might have been — obvious starting points for political orientation. Now we look for enemies closer to home, in metaphors (i.e.“culture war”), though the old ones still have their rhetorical uses.

In 1990, Michael Godwin wrote that “[when] an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1,” thus coining the term “Godwin’s law.” Why it is always Hitler and not Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, or Nero, for that matter, is partly explained by several decades of progressive education, which have resulted in historical illiteracy (often accompanied by the whitewashing of communism). But if Godwin’s law proves anything other than that, it’s that few of us are really moral relativists.

As Kevin notes, this becomes obvious on the left, in the realm of sexual ethics, where supposedly everything is permitted [relativism] yet nothing is forgiven [absolutism]. “Consent” does next to nothing to resolve this contradiction, as explored in that New Yorker short story “Cat Woman.” But once you’ve pointed this out directly, you’re guilty of another sin: victim blaming.

So hypocrisy begets cynicism. Of which there is no better example, in all of literature than in John 18:38, when Pilate, having found Christ to be innocent, asks him: “What is truth?” Pilate, of course, knows what truth is. He is staring Truth in the face and asking Truth the question.

Still, conservatives need to realize that cynicism also begets hypocrisy. On this point, Kevin helpfully draws a line between moral ambiguity (an inevitable fact of life) and relativism. And also explains how moral certitude can be conflated with absolutism in order to justify, well . . . anything.

Believing in moral truth is very different from believing that truth is easily ascertained or articulated. I suspect many young conservatives would be saved considerable embarrassment if they only realized this sooner.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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