Moral Relativism: 2 Thumbs Down

In a recent New York Times article entitled “If It Feels Right…” columnist David Brooks reviewed a study performed in 2008 by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. The research consisted of interviews with 230 young adults from across America concerning their morals. The results paint a clear, yet dejecting picture of the moral degeneration going on in our society.

“The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, … you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

“When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.”

“The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. ‘It’s personal,’ the respondents typically said. ‘It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?’

“Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme [saying]: ‘I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.’”

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

Brooks sums it up in this sentence:

Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism – of relativism and nonjudgmentalism.

Responses like this, “moral choices are just a matter of individual taste”, or “I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong”, are very telling. These answers are moral relativism at its finest. Each gives the impression that what is moral, what is right or wrong, is relative to each individual and what they choose to believe. In this scenario each person becomes his or her highest authority to appeal to. The Lord worded it this way,  “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god.” (D&C 1:16)

What’s the problem here? Well, the problem is morals are not relative, the truth is absolute and unchangeable. The clearest definition of truth I have found is D&C 93:24, “And truth is a knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” A synonym would be reality, the truth is reality – things as they really are. We are each responsible to choose what we believe, but regardless of our choice, that does not change reality. Truth is independent of belief and acceptance. Elder D. Todd Christofferson said, “Resenting the law of gravity won’t keep a person from falling if he steps off a cliff. The same is true for eternal law and justice.” The fact is, there are in existence natural laws of justice, laws that not even God can break. If he did, Alma teaches us that “God would cease to be God.” (Alma 42:25)

With that in mind, we might ask: why are so many people, particularly youth and young adults, embracing this idea that morals are relative? Where did this surge of spiritual stupor come from? I believe the answer to those questions is found in evaluating principles.

Brigham Young once declared, “If I do not learn what is in the world, from first to last, somebody will be wiser than I am. I intend to know the whole of it, both good and bad. Shall I practice evil? No; neither have I told you to practice it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.”

So, if we are to learn “every principle there is in existence in the world”, we have a responsibility to examine what the principles are that would lead someone to believe in a doctrine such as moral relativism. For me, the Book of Mormon is the most effective tool when considering the verity of a principle. It was given not only to testify of Christ and teach true principles, but also to expose Satan and the principles he endorses. For the subject at hand, we look no further than Alma chapter 30, where we find an account of Korihor the Anti-Christ. In an Ensign article from February 2014 Professor Daniel L. Belnap of Brigham Young University presents eight conclusions pronounced by Korihor that in my view, form the very foundation of the movement we are discussing.

“Korihor. . . established a moral relativism that challenged the Nephites for years to come. His assertions, many of which may be familiar to a modern audience, contain the following:

a. There is no God (Alma 30:28, 37-38)

b. Belief in Christ is “a foolish and a vain hope” (Alma 30:13)

c. Those who believe in a remission of sins are under the effects of a frenzied or deranged mind (Alma 30:16)

d. Their derangement is caused by following the traditions of their fathers and the whims of corrupt leaders (Alma 30:14, 23-28, 31)

e. Man is a creature (Alma 30:17)

f. One “fares in this life according to the management of the creature; and whatsoever a man does is no crime” (Alma 30:17)

g. There is no sin and no need for a Savior (Alma 30:17-18)

h. Those who encourage people to keep God’s commandments are stripping away an individual’s “rights and privileges” (Alma 30:27)”

Now, lets analyze these falsehoods one by one and observe how each one can be used to initiate moral relativism.

a. There is no God

This one may at first be startling to someone who doesn’t believe in God but still rejects morals being relative. But this principle is the cornerstone of the foundation. Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “living without God in the world brings a functional lack of consistent perspective. If there were no eternal truths, to what principles would mortals look for guidance? If not accountable to God, to whom are we ultimately accountable? Furthermore, if nothing is ever really wrong, then no one is ever really responsible.” If we remove God from the picture, and morals are not appealing to absolute truth that comes from what God has said, then we have moral relativism in every case. The objection will then be made, “that’s not true because we are held accountable to the laws we make through legislation.” This might seem reasonable, but it presents a dilemma. Laws of the land are subject to those who make them, and can easily become corrupted.  Frederic Bastiat stated,”But the law is made, generally, by one man, or by one class of men. And as law cannot exist without the sanction and the support of a preponderating force, it must finally place this force in the hands of those who legislate.” He goes on, “This inevitable phenomenon, combined with the fatal tendency which, exists in the heart of man [to engage in plunder], explains the almost universal perversion of law. It is easy to conceive that, instead of being a check upon injustice, it [can become] its most invincible instrument.” Cicero boldly taught the dangers of using man-made laws as a standard: “The most foolish notion of all is the belief that everything is just which is found in the customs or laws of nations. . .What of the many deadly, the many pestilential statutes which nations put in force? These no more deserve to be called laws than the rules a band of robbers might pass in their assembly.” If morals are not based on God’s laws as revealed through his prophets, and are relative to worldly governments or laws, that is still moral relativism, no matter what type of government is used. In a monarchy, the morals are relative to the king or ruler. In a democracy, the morals are relative to the people as a body.

b. Belief in Christ is “a foolish and a vain hope”

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) King Benjamin taught, “And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ.” (Mosiah 3:17) The Apostle Paul testified, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) If we dethrone Jesus as the only way to receive salvation and return to God, and declare a belief in him to be “a foolish and a vain hope”, what follows is religious relativism. Now the door is open to any other idea of how to be saved. You choose.  This principle generates responses like this, “I don’t think I could say that Hinduism is wrong or Catholicism is wrong or being Episcopalian is wrong – I think it just depends on what you believe . . . I don’t think that there’s a right and wrong.” (Christian Smith 2009) A God who is himself bound by invariable natural laws, cannot be the author of confusion – leading each living soul down a different path with contrasting ideologies, and offering the same reward.

c. Those who believe in a remission of sins are under the effects of a frenzied or deranged mind

Sin is the violation of a moral or religious principle. Remitting is to give pardon or forgiveness. What advantage does one gain by teaching that the belief that moral violations need to be remitted or paid for is the effect of a frenzied mind? He is no longer held accountable for violations! Paying whatever price it takes to have an offense pardoned is no longer necessary. So much for putting a child in time-out, or sending a criminal to prison, for both of those involve someone doing something wrong and then doing what it takes to receive a remission. It is the same principle.  If no remission is required, the individual is left to hold himself accountable. He conveniently becomes his own highest authority.

d. Their derangement is caused by following the traditions of their fathers and the whims of corrupt leaders

This principle breeds relativism because if this is true, then no moral can be passed down from one generation to the next through the channel of the family. Whatever God revealed as truth to one group of people is in the past, and is now, in the present, considered “a foolish tradition of their fathers.” Definitions of right and wrong would then be derived from what had not already been taught, or from the agendas of public figures or the “whims” of celebrities rather than what religious leaders teach.

e. Man is a creature

An effortless way to establish a basis for moral relativism is to teach that man is a creature, having evolved from animals we are nothing more than a species of brute. Here is an example from Benjamin Wiker of where a principle like this takes us. “Sexual revolutionary Alfred Kinsey pulled off his normalizing of sexual deviancy by arguing that homosexuality and “inter-specific matings” (i.e., sex between members of two distinct species, the equivalent of bestiality) regularly occur among animals. Since we are merely animals too, so he argued, then homosexuality and bestiality must be natural—and hence not immoral.” Identifying the dilemma he further states,  “But on this logic, anything that appeared with fair frequency among animals—such as cannibalism and sexual brutality—would be natural, and hence moral, for human beings.”

f. One “fares in this life according to the management of the creature; . . . and whatsoever a man does is no crime.”

Believing that we experience good fortune in this life according to our own management, that we prosper according to our own genius, that we conquer according to our own strength will naturally extinguish the flame of faith in God,  and dismantle the idea that there are laws “irrevocably decreed in heaven. . . upon which all blessings are predicated.” (D&C 130:20) With such beliefs, a sense of individualistic pride would be instinctive. However, “In spite of its outward, worldly swagger, such indulgent individualism is actually provincial, like goldfish in a bowl congratulating themselves on their self-sufficiency, never mind the food pellets or changes of water.” (Neal A. Maxwell) Eliminating the idea of a God who figuratively puts in our pellets and changes our water leads us to become ignorant goldfish, whose morals are up to individual taste and preference.

g. There is no sin and no need for a Savior

The only way we wouldn’t need a Savior is if there is no sin. This creates a paradox though. If nothing we do is really wrong, then nothing can be right either. Everything is relative. We wouldn’t need any sort of law to keep us to a level of ‘good’ behavior because there is no ‘bad’. Lehi worded it this way, “if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if those things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon.” (2Nephi 2:13)

h. Those who encourage people to keep God’s commandments are stripping away an individual’s “rights and privileges”

Professor Belnap notes, “This last point is particularly dangerous, for it elevates one’s rights while avoiding any discussion of one’s responsibilities. In purporting to be in favor of individual liberty, moral relativism actually threatens one’s privilege to exercise agency by ignoring the negative consequences of one’s responsibilities to others.” He continues, “In fact, Korihor’s emphasis on “rights” is nothing more than a revised version of Satan’s premortal gambit to strip us of agency. By focusing on perceived loss of rights, we do not hold ourselves accountable, particularly in our relationship with one another, and therefore lose agency, exactly as the adversary wishes.” Elder Dallin H. Oaks offers a similar claim, “One of the consequences of shifting from moral absolutes to moral relativism. . . is that this produces a corresponding shift of emphasis from responsibilities to rights. Responsibilities originate in moral absolutes. In contrast, rights find their origin in legal principles, which are easily manipulated by moral relativism.”

There is a common thread among every one of these principles – the desire to remove accountability. If this can be done, the rest of the dominoes will fall. “Removing accountability destroys agency, which destroys the need for law, which destroys the idea of God.” (Bob Canning)

In regard to eternal law and justice, Elder Christofferson explained, “Freedom comes not from resisting it but from applying it.” We cannot gain any freedom by holding off against the idea that definitions of right and wrong are unalterable. We are born with this knowledge. “For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil.” (Moroni 7:16) All of us are given a conscience with the awareness of moral law. To visualize this concept we refer to C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on quarreling. “They say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’ – ‘That’s my seat, I was there first’ – ‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm’ – ‘Why should you shove in first?’ – ‘Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine’ – ‘Come on, you promised.’ Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: ‘To hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.”

The determination of this post is that morals are not relative, and to subscribe to any of the eight principles taught by Korihor that have been mentioned, is to advocate moral relativism. Agency is the name of the game, the means to progression. And you cannot have agency without accountability. And you cannot have accountability if morals are relative. Thus, the solution to changing a rising generation of moral relativists to a society of moral absolutists, can be summarized in the words of Elder Christofferson: “Personal accountability becomes both a right and a duty that we must constantly defend; it has been under assault since before the Creation. We must defend accountability against persons and programs that would make us dependent. And we must defend against our own inclinations to avoid the work that is required to cultivate talents, abilities, and Christlike character.”

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