Moral relativism. It sounds so reasonable, so tolerant, and so neutral. But there’s a fundamental flaw.
One of the most entrenched assumptions of relativism is that there is such a thing as morally neutral ground, a place of complete impartiality where no judgments nor any forcing or personal views are allowed. Each takes a neutral posture towards the moral convictions of others. This is the essence of tolerance, the argument goes.
Moral neutrality, though, is a myth, as the following illustrations show.
Moral relativism has become institutionalized in our education system through different forms of instruction in morality that claim to be values-neutral. The most well-known, values clarification, was developed in the mid-60s by social scientists Louis Raths, Sidney Simon, and others. It became very popular and was widely used in public schools during the seventies and early eighties.
According to Simon, values clarification “...does not teach a particular set of values. There is no sermonizing or moralizing. The goal is to involve the students in practical experiences, making them aware of their own feelings, their own ideas, their own beliefs, so that the choices and decisions they make are conscious and deliberate, based on their own value systems” [emphasis in the original].1
The foundational assumption of values clarification, however, is not the student’s own. The notion that morality is exhaustively described by one’s own personal feelings, ideas, beliefs, and values is the contribution of Simon and Raths. This is not a neutral point of view, but rather is a particular view of morality called relativism.
This leads values clarification advocates into contradiction, as Paul Vitz, professor of psychology at New York University, points out: “The theorists clearly believe that values clarification is good...They criticize traditional teaching of values as ’selling,’ ’pushing,’ and ’forcing one’s own pet values.’ But when it comes to the value of their own position, relativism has conveniently disappeared, and they push their moral position with their own sermons.”2
Values Clarification in Hawaii
My youngest brother raised his children in Hawaii. At the time, the public school system there conducted exercises in values clarification in which the students were encouraged to develop their own beliefs about morality. The teacher was “neutral,” explaining to the students that it was up to them to formulate their own moral conclusions to these ethical dilemmas.
The children were asked to solve this problem. An aged man had taken the life of his seriously ailing wife to put her out of her misery. He was being tried for murder. Should he be punished for his “mercy killing,” or should he go free?
My brother made a visit to the school to register his concern, but the teacher defended the practice. “We’re not pushing our views or imposing our values,” he said. “We’re careful to let the students know that it’s up to them to decide what to do. This is ’value free’ instruction. We’re neutral.”
My brother pointed out that the teacher’s approach was anything but neutral. “You’re telling my children that when they face the hard questions of right or wrong, when they’re confronted with the most difficult problems of morality, there are no guidelines. There are no absolutes. There are no rules. You’re teaching my kids that when they must decide critical issues of right and wrong, it’s simply up to them.”
The Value of Cheating
Philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers exposes the moral confusion of values clarification in this true story she relates:
One of my favorite anecdotes concerns a teacher in Newton, Massachusetts, who had attended numerous values clarification workshops and was assiduously applying its techniques in her class. The day came when her class of sixth graders announced that they valued cheating and wanted to be free to do it on their tests. The teacher was very uncomfortable. Her solution? She told the children that since it was her class and since she was opposed to cheating, they were not free to cheat. “In my class you must be honest, for I value honesty. In other areas of your life you may be free to cheat.”3
Think about this response for a moment. Does the teacher’s solution follow from the instruction on values clarification she has just given to her students? Of course not. If the teacher values honesty, then she should be honest without imposing her values on her students. They should still decide for themselves, which they had.
At best, the instructor is stuck in a contradiction. When faced with the destructive consequences of relativism, she falls back into imposing her morality on her students—the very thing she’s been teaching against.
At worst, the teacher’s lesson is that power is the ultimate element in morality, that might makes right: “I give the grades. If you cheat, I’ll flunk you.” Technically, this is called the fallacy of argumentum ad baculum, or to paraphrase Mao Tse Tung, “persuasion from the barrel of a gun.”4
Values clarification is not neutral. Vitz points out five areas of bias. First, its exercises embody the moral ideology of a small, ultra-liberal segment of America. Second, its values are relative to individual tastes. Third, possible solutions to the moral dilemmas posed to students are limited to the most liberal options. Fourth, the exercises focus on the individual in isolation from family and society. And fifth, morality is construed simply as self-gratification.5 Vitz concludes, “It is a simple-minded, intellectually incompetent system.”6
What are values clarification exercises meant to teach? That there are difficult ethical circumstances in which the lines are not clear and the solutions are ambiguous? We already know that. No, these exercises go further. They imply that because some circumstances are ethically ambiguous, there are no ethical certainties at all.
Values clarification aggressively promotes a particular ethical view called moral relativism. It uses ethical ambiguities to encourage agnosticism about universal moral rules. By posing extremely difficult problems to children untutored in ethical decision-making, values clarification destroys their confidence in moral absolutes.
Tolerance and Moral Neutrality
One of the alleged virtues of relativism is its emphasis on tolerance. An extremely articulate example of this point of view was written by Faye Wattleton, the former President of Planned Parenthood. The piece is called, “Self-Definition: Morality.”
Like most parents, I think that a sense of moral responsibility is one of the greatest gifts I can give my child. But teaching morality doesn’t mean imposing my moral values on others. It means sharing wisdom, giving reasons for believing as I do—and then trusting others to think and judge for themselves.
My parents’ morals were deeply rooted in religious conviction but tempered by tolerance—the essence of which is respect for other people’s views. They taught me that reasonable people may differ on moral issues, and that fundamental respect for others is morality of the highest order.
“I have devoted my career to ensuring a world in which my daughter, Felicia, can inherit that legacy. I hope the tolerance and respect I show her as a parent is reinforced by the work she sees me doing every day: fighting for the right of all individuals to make their own moral decisions about childbearing.
Seventy-five years ago, Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood to liberate individuals from the ’mighty engines of repression.’ As she wrote, ’The men and women of America are demanding that...they be allowed to mold their lives, not at the arbitrary command of church or state but as their conscience and judgment may dictate.”
I’m proud to continue that struggle, to defend the rights of all people to their own beliefs. When others try to inflict their views on me, my daughter or anyone else, that’s not morality: It’s tyranny. It’s unfair, and it’s un-American.”
This is impressively and persuasively written, one of the finest expressions of this view available in the space of five short paragraphs. It sounds so sensible, so reasonable, and so tolerant, but there’s a fundamental flaw.
Wattleton’s Fundamental Flaw
Faye Wattleton’s assessment is based on the notion of neutral ground, a place that implies no moral judgment. Wattleton is not neutral, however, as her own comments demonstrate.
In her article, Wattleton in effect argues that each of us should respect another’s point of view. She then implies, however, that any point of view other than this one is immoral, un-American, and tyrannous. If you disagree with Wattleton’s position that all points of view are equally valid, then your point of view is not valid. Her argument commits suicide; it self-destructs.7
In fact, Wattleton has her own absolute she seeks to impose on other people: “Fundamental respect for others is morality of the highest order.” This is a personal moral position she strives to mandate politically. She writes, “I have devoted my career to ensuring a world in which my daughter, Felicia, can inherit that legacy.” What legacy? Her point of view. How does she ensure this? By passing laws. Faye Wattleton has devoted her career to ensuring a world in which her point of view is enforced by law.
I don’t object to anyone seeking to use the political process to enforce his or her particular point of view in this way. In our system, everybody gets a voice, and everybody gets a vote. We each get to make our case in the public square, and may the best idea win. Because we each can vote, no one can inflict the majority with his point of view (unless, of course, he’s a judge).
What is disturbing in Wattleton’s article is her implication she is neutral, unbiased, and tolerant, when she is not. She is entitled to her point of view, but she’s not neutral. The only place of true neutrality is silence. Speak up, give your opinion, contend for your view, and you forfeit your claim to neutrality.
As a case in point, in May, 1994, Congress passed a law making it a federal offense to block an abortion clinic.8 Pamela Maraldo, then president of Planned Parenthood, commented to the press, “This law goes to show that no one can force their viewpoint on someone else.” The self-contradiction of her statement is obvious: All laws force someone’s viewpoint.
Moral neutrality seems virtuous, but there’s no benefit, only danger. In our culture we don’t stop at “sharing wisdom, giving reasons for believing as [we] do—and then trusting others to think and judge for themselves,” as Wattleton says, nor should we. This leads to anarchy. Instead we use moral reasoning, public advocacy, and legislation to encourage virtue and discourage dangerous or morally inappropriate behavior.
Faye Wattleton is offering an ethic which, although it sounds fair and tolerant, turns out to be the most bankrupt of all moral systems. It’s called moral relativism. It’s not even tolerant, as Ms. Wattleton makes clear when she condemns those who disagree with her. It sounds persuasive, but it’s also misleading and fallacious.
Reaping What We Sow
In the Los Angeles riots of 1992, we watched with horror as buildings burned all over the city. Shops were plundered not by hooded looters, but by families—Mom, Dad, and the kids—moral mutants on the shopping spree of their lives, giggling and laughing with impunity while stuffing their spoils into shopping carts and oversized trash bags.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. During the L.A. riots these families did exactly what they had been taught. Nobody wanted to “impose” their morality on anyone else, so they learned that values are relative, that morality is a matter of personal preference. Make up your own rules, define your own reality, seek your own truth. In the spring of ’92, thousands of people did just what we told them to do, and civilization burned.
If we reject truth, why should we be surprised at the moral chaos that follows? As C.S. Lewis said, “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”9