Relativism or Good vs. Evil?

Relativism is Absolutely Wrong
By Rabbi Mark S. Miller
Editor's Note: This talk was given by Rabbi Miller at the National Day of Prayer Breakfast for the Newport Mesa Irvine Interfaith Council, May 7, 2009.

A Cambridge professor of philosophy, Simon Blackburn, attended an ethics forum in which representatives of the great religions held a panel. First, the Buddhist spoke of the ways to calm, the mastery of desire, the path of enlightenment, and the panelists all said, “Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great.” Then the Hindu spoke of the cycles of suffering, of birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release, and they all said, “Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great.” And so on, until the Catholic priest spoke of the message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation and the way to life eternal, and they all said, “Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great.” The priest thumped the table and shouted: “No! It's not a question of if it works for me! It is the true word of the living G-d, and if you don't believe it you are all damned to hell!” And they all said: “Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great.”

I do not offer this vignette because I endorse the priest's position. I do so because I respect the certainty of his faith's truth. His certitude is at odds with a society that recoils from moral absolutes, that is infatuated with moral relativity, that prefers to not judge one way of living and believing as superior to any other. For the relativist there is no ultimate good or evil, no absolute right or wrong, no truth and no falsehood. They are simply what each person deems to be good, right, and true. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet : “There is neither good nor bad. But thinking makes it so.” For the relativist, all expressions are equally valid. Everyone is correct by his own standards and unjudgeable by others. Everything is morally symmetrical. “Wow, terrific, if that works for you, that's great.” Protagoras said: " Man is the measure of all things ."

What is morally wrong for me may be right for you. Opinions are unassailable. The 20th century was the worst arena of coldblooded evil in human history. Yet, large numbers of young people are unable or unwilling to make the simplest distinctions between right and wrong. Even horrific acts on the scale of Nazi genocide are declared to be unjudgeable. "Of course I dislike the Nazis," one upstate New York student told his professor, "but who is to say they are morally wrong?" The same argument can apply to the terrorists of 9/11, or to the Somali kidnappers. We are more concerned over the human rights of pirates than their inhuman wrongs. The Marquis de Sade took relativist assumptions to a logical extreme: “If you prefer having a good dinner at a restaurant to hurting people, that is your prerogative, fine, and I don't judge you. But if I prefer hurting people, what grounds do you have for judging me?” If there are no moral absolutes there are no moral absolutes. Moral relativity leads to moral equivalence. As Francis Beckwith writes: “When ethical judgments are relative and possess equal validity, we are led to the bizarre conclusion that Mother Teresa is no more and no less virtuous than Hitler.” Relativists may object to cruelty, but on what basis? Because they happen to feel that it isn't nice? You must not target civilians? Says who? You must not discriminate against others? Says who? Every moral statement a relativist makes falls when confronted with the simple question, “Says who?” "Says I" is the only ultimate response a relativist can make.

During the Nuremberg trials, Nazi defendants claimed they were only following the laws of their land. In frustration, a judge asked, “But is there no law higher than our law?” A moral relativist would be forced to answer “no.” One who arrogates to himself the power to define right and wrong will most likely decide it by his whims and wishes, and will then rationalize his choice. Hitler didn't deny that murder was wrong when applied to humans. So he defined Jews as vermin who spread moral disease. Exterminating them was not murder, but self defense. Any of us can find ideological excuses for doing what we want to do. Without clarity of what is murder, what are the lines that differentiate murder from self defense? Moral systems created by human beings are valid only as far as their executor has the power to implement them.

Without G-d, what prevails is the system of “might is right.” Of course, a person who doesn't believe in G-d can be good--many such live worthy lives. But we must appeal to G-d if we want to adequately answer the question, "Why should we be good?" Otherwise, the answer is simply up to you. If we do not follow the Ten Commandments, we end up following ten thousand personal desires. In this era of " moral deregulation," what is right is only what works for us. In a class on ethics, I discussed a Kansas high school teacher who gave failing grades to a number of her students. There was no doubt they had cheated on an assignment. It was disturbing to my class to hear intelligent students at that high school justify themselves, admitting they would stoop to whatever it took to win admission to an elite university. It was disconcerting to my class to hear the parents of the failed students defend their children with ludicrous excuses. One parent said: “They may have cheated, but it was not intentional.” Another: “They were told to not cheat but they were not taught to not cheat.” It was distressing to my class to learn of the school board's capitulation to the parents' demand that the children's grades be raised to a passing level, and that the teacher's authority be overridden. Where were right and wrong? Where were crime and punishment? …drowned in a sea of relativity, where college admission trumps morality. The ultimate blasphemy in the American religion of “success at any cost ” is: “Thou shalt not fail.”

In times past, getting caught in a moral misdeed was an embarrassment. Now, the scarlet letter does not have the scar it used to. I pointed out to my class that we live in a morally polluted climate, an era of entitlement in which the end justifies the means. Today, if immoral conduct pays off, it is considered acceptable behavior. I taught the students that while there used to be two classifications of behavior, right and wrong, now there is a third definition of morality: “everybody's doing it.” I cautioned them that even if everybody is doing it, that does not make it right. The popularity of a sin does not make it permissible. The problem of wrongdoing is not solved by multiplication. In the journal of Hillsdale College , philosophy professor Christina Sommers asks: “Are we living in a moral stone age?” She charges that today's young people are suffering from "cognitive moral confusion." They not only have trouble distinguishing right from wrong, they question whether such standards even exist. They are ignorant of and alienated from the Western moral tradition.

This was recently demonstrated, she writes, by Jay Leno during his popular "man-on-the-street" interviews. One night he asked young people questions regarding the Bible. "Can you name one of the Ten Commandments?" he asked two college-age women. One replied, "Freedom of speech?" Mr. Leno said to the other, "Complete this sentence: ‘ Let he who is without sin... '” Her response was, "Have a good time?" Mr. Leno then turned to a young man and asked, "Who, according to the Bible, was eaten by a whale?" The confident answer was, "Pinocchio." As with many humorous anecdotes, the underlying reality is not funny at all. These young people are morally confused. Ask them if there are such things as right and wrong and the answer would no doubt be, "It's kind of like whatever works best for the individual. Each person has to work it out for himself.” The trouble is that this kind of answer, which is so common as to be typical, is no better than the moral philosophy of a sociopath.

Allyson Hornstein from Yale University writes: “On the morning of September 11th, 2001, my entire college campus huddled around television sets, our eyes riveted in horror to images of the burning, then falling, Twin Towers. By evening, there were candlelight vigils where people sought to comfort and be comforted. But by September 12th, as our shock began to fade, so did our sense of being wronged. Student reactions expressed in the daily newspaper and in class pointed to the differences between our life circumstances and those of the perpetrators, suggesting that these differences had caused the previous day's events. Noticeably absent was an outcry of indignation at what had been the most successful terrorist attack of our lifetime. These reactions and similar ones on other campuses have made it apparent that my generation is uncomfortable assessing, or even asking, whether a moral wrong has taken place.” In a college seminar on September 12th , 2001, a professor said he saw little difference between suicide bombers and American soldiers who died fighting in World War II. The students nodded in agreement when the professor said that both were fighting for their ways of life in declared "wars." The professor and the students could not see the distinction between American soldiers in uniform who did not target civilians, and suicide bombers who wear plainclothes and do target civilians. One student then cited poverty and colonialism as justifications for terror. Not one of them questioned its morality. Nothing, to these students, was objectively wrong if you are downtrodden and oppressed, you have an excellent excuse to commit terror. At a lecture on the Middle East that I presented at UC Irvine, a young woman said that she could understand that poor people, who had been discriminated against would use any means, including suicide bombings, to ameliorate their plight. I invited her to contemplate an analogy. I offered that few people on earth were as brutally oppressed as African Americans through centuries of enslavement and brutal segregation. What if Dr. King, I inquired, had advised young African American men and women to strap on explosives, enter restaurants and shopping centers, religious observations and social gatherings, and murder innocent men, women, and children? Would that be justifiable? “Yes, it could be,” she answered. She would sympathize with a desperation that left no alternative. When I said Dr. King proved that there is another way and that resorting to violence is never acceptable, the expression on her face registered pity for my antiquated perspective.

It was not always thus. When Jefferson wrote that all men have the right to "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness," he did not say, "at least this is my opinion." He declared it as an objective truth. I proposed an experiment to my class comprised of young teens. I asked the students to close their eyes and point northward. I then told them to keep their finger pointed, open their eyes and look at their classmates. They saw that there were fingers pointing every which way, from pole to pole and east to west. I taught them that we cannot, from within, point ourselves in the right direction. We need a compass to find our ethical true north. I remember Jeb Stuart Magruder's testimony over his role in the Watergate cover-up. He lamented, “Somewhere between my ambition and my ideals, I lost my moral compass.” Without external authority, without transcendent commandments, without a moral compass that points due north, we go astray.

Religion stands for timeless truth, calling upon us to distinguish clearly between good and evil. It does not accept that we are morally autonomous beings who are permitted to act by our own standards. A society that removes G-d as its moral barometer does so to its great peril. Absolute good means that whatever is good at one time and at one place is good at all times and at all places. What is good for one person is good for all persons. Good is revealed by G-d; it is not invented by man. G-d did not place Adam and Eve in the garden to make up the rules as they went along. No one can be a moral and righteous person without yielding to a binding set of rules other then his own. If man is left to decide for himself what is right or wrong, he will always set the standards to fit his own drives and desires. How long can a society exist when based on an attitude of “Wow, if that works for you, that's terrific?” A man underwent a physical exam. It was discovered that he was in a serious condition. “The best thing you can do,” the doctor warned, “is to give up drinking, smoking, and carousing.” After a moment's thought, the man asked, “What is the next best thing?” The next best thing is useless. A little morality is of little avail. When our young adjust to evil, rather than stand out against it, they are crawling down a road to a bad end. We hear today that there is a new morality. But the so-called “new morality” is just a new name for the same old immorality. We hear calls for a new code of ethics to govern behavior and confront malfeasance. We do not need to create a new code of ethics. The old is the only one that matters.
Happy Memorial Day!


  1. I really enjoyed that essay. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. That is awesome!!! I was just at the Arlington Cemetery... Is that the backside of the Unknown Soldier monument? It looks just like it?!

  3. It sure is! I'm glad you got to go there!