|Arts, Books & Culture
by Judy Cresanta
n a 1994 issue of the Heritage Foundations Policy Review, former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett compared and contrasted the concerns of teachers in two different generations: "In 1940 teachers identified [the top problems in Americas schools] as tallking out of turn; chewing gum; making noise; running in the hall; cutting in line; dress code infractions; and littering.
When asked the same question in 1990, teachers identified drug abuse; alcohol abuse; pregnancy; suicide; rape; robbery; and assault." Bennett also made the observation that between 1960 and 1990 "there has been a 560 percent increase in violent crime; more than a 400 percent increase in illegimiate births; a quadrupling in divorces; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; more than a 200 percent increase in the teenage suicide rate; and a drop of 75 points in the average SAT scores of high-school students."
Bennett along with other social critics and political theorists have argued that this radical change in our culture and its institutions is not merely the result of misguided public policies, though they no doubt have made a contribution, but rather, they are the result of a change in how people think about morality and civic culture. Instead of thinking of ethical virtue and vice as based on unchanging moral laws that transcend cultures and individuals, many people today embrace moral relativism, the view that morality is relative to cultures and/or individuals. According to this view, moral law is mutable, able to be changed by the political and social will.
The authors of On Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air not only maintain that this view is philosophically flawed, but is politically and socially dangerous, for it tends to lead people to think that morality is merely a matter of preference. And since preferences, such as ones taste in ice cream or a professional ball team, are not the sorts of things for which members of polite society think it is appropriate for outsiders to judge as right or wrong, one can see how traditional vices, once condemned as immoral, fall outside the scope of legitimate judgment. And from there it is easy to take the next step and conclude, by either conscious or unconscious inference, that violence, out-of-wedlock childbirth, substance abuse, marital status, and suicide are merely a matter of preference as well. Different strokes for different folks.
This book is authored by Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl. Beckwith, who earned his Ph.D. at Fordham University, is an associate professor of philosophy, culture, and law at Trinity Graduate School, Trinity International University, California campus. A former UNLV faculty member and the author of a dozen books, Beckwith is also a senior research fellow at NPRI.
Koukl, a professional communicator and radio talk show host, is the founder and executive director of Stand To Reason, an organization that helps ordinary citizens think more clearly about issues that touch on religion and public life. Beckwiths publishing experience and academic background combined with Koukls clarity of communication makes Relativism a very accessible though informative book for the non-academic. It is loaded with helpful illustrations as well as personal accounts in which the authors have dealt with the challenge of relativism in both their own lives as well as the public square. The books opening two paragraphs set the tone for the remainder:
In America today we seem to think nothing of keeping The Book of Virtues and The Bridges of Madison County together on our coffee tables. And in these United States we say we firmly believe that truth and morality are relative while simultaneously decrying the absence of virtue and the rise of incivility.
We believe, or say we believe, that all people have a right to their own opinionexcept those who hold that some opinions are better than others (though we believe that our opinion about them is better than their opinion about us). Our academic culture holds to the tenets of moral relativism while marginalizing those who apparently violate its rules against insensitivity, intolerance, and political incorrectness. We want to have our cake and eat it too.
After the books introduction, the authors help us to understand relativism and its different forms (chapters 1-3) and then provide us with a blistering critique (chapters 4-7). Chapters 8 through 13 deal with the influence of relativism on public policy, especially in the areas of moral education, higher education, racial politics, law, marriage, and medical ethics. The authors conclude the book with some tactics to refute relativism (chapter 14) and then explore the question of the role of religious belief in grounding morality (chapters 15 and 16).
This book is a must for anyone concerned with stemming the tide of moral relativism in our culture. It will equip parents, educators, policy makers, and ordinary citizens to respond intelligently, assertively, and convincingly to those who want to use the coercive power of the state to force us all to embrace moral relativism.NJ
Judy Cresanta is president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.