Throughout the 19th century, theories abounded in the English-speaking world about the relativism of human knowledge and, therefore, the difficulty in establishing moral standards. John Stuart Mill, notably, reduced the idea of morality to a form of subjective ideal. In the early 20th century, Einstein’s theory of relativity, for all the wrong reasons, gave a semblance of justification to the idea that there were no such things as absolutes. This led to an increasing acceptance of the notion that all cultures and moral ideas are conditional and that none can pretend to be any “better” than any other.
Today, moral and cultural relativism has become a form of public orthodoxy which pervades virtually all educational and intellectual spheres and disciplines. It is the Zeitgeist, the dominant spirit of our times. Among people with university degrees, it is a kind of civil religion, one that views those not subscribing to the relativist creed pretty well the same way Churches of another era viewed non-conformists, i.e., as heretics.
The appeal of relativism is easy enough to understand. Those who claim that there are no moral absolutes tend to think of themselves as devoid of any “rigid” opinions and moral values, and as both “tolerant” and “open-minded.” While never very explicit about it, people with this mindset generally view themselves as models of an enlightened attitude issuing from the most sophisticated and advanced form of culture and civility. If pressed, they might even go so far as to acknowledge that their greatest hope in life is to see all those sombre sorry souls shackled by a religious upbringing free themselves from the nasty influence of earlier generations.
This easily recognizable moral smugness is now widespread in our media as well as in academia. Anyone having doubts on the subject should, as an experiment, apply for a teaching position in any one of our postsecondary institutions and declare himself proud of his Western heritage, or express doubts about multiculturalism or feminist ideas. In addition to being quickly discarded from any “short list” of candidates, he may well find himself accused of being a bigot.
But this kind of soft intolerance is not the worst part of relativism. What is worse is that individuals are no longer required to hold consistent, coherent beliefs. In a culture that boasts of being scientific and rational, intellectual laxity reigns supreme. We live in a world where one may, without blushing, uphold the right of every woman to unfettered access to abortion at taxpayers’ expense while at the same time frowning upon the “slaughtering of baby seals” or the consumption of tobacco in the presence of children.
Even our judicial system is no longer immune to contradictions of this kind, as testified by the Supreme Court ruling of December 2005 where Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin declared that the law should never be used to enforce morality — thus ignoring the fact that, by upholding the principle of moral neutralism (i.e. the notion that there are no universal objective moral standards by which our behaviour can be judged), she was herself being non-neutral.
Relativism began with the promise of freeing people from moral prejudices inherited from a religious system incompatible with science and reason. It is now becoming a source of oppression for those who do not subscribe to its articles of faith.
The process through which initial claims of “greater freedom” quickly turn into new forms of oppression is not hard to figure out. Moral relativists are prone to use terms like “pluralism,” “diversity,” “tolerance,” that belong to the classical liberal tradition fostered by the old Christian culture. However, they give new meanings to such terms by cutting them off from their traditional Christian context. For example, the separation of church and state, a Christian invention designed to prevent the state from imposing any particular belief on citizens, becomes an instrument to strip the public square of any kind of religious reference.
Traditional terms are thus given a new ideological connotation without the change ever being clearly spelled out, a situation analogous to moving the furniture around in the apartment of a blind man without ever making him aware of the change. This technique enables our “progressive” thinkers to legitimize any kind of behaviour and, more importantly, to “privatize” all moral opinions. Their purpose is to turn the exercise of any judgment about human conduct into a taboo, which in turn facilitates the spread of opinions according to which, for example, certain forms of human life are “not worth living” and certain persons, such as “unwanted” children, or the very old, or the infirm should be eliminated outright through procedures like abortion and euthanasia.
Yet, people who believe in absolutes and universals should not despair. As conservative thinker William Gairdner has noted in his recently published Book of Absolutes, there are increasingly numerous scholars and scientists from various fields who are challenging the reigning orthodoxy because they find it logically incoherent and contrary to actual experience. More specifically, they have come to the conclusion that their own professional fields require the existence of a great number of absolutes, constants and universals. This is particularly true in areas such as law, human biology, including sex and brain sex, and human language.
The view expressed by Gairdner may seem surprising to Canadians writers and thinkers, but not to their American counterparts. Whereas the U.S. has a plethora of articulate and sophisticated writers who see themselves as followers of the intellectual tradition represented by Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, F.A. Hayek, T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk, Canada has very few.
This explains why there is no Canadian equivalent to American conservative magazines such as First Things, National Review, Commentary or The New Criterion. One would hope that conservative-minded people in English Canada might soon find the intellectual energy to join their American counterparts in challenging the prevailing relativist orthodoxy.
Richard Bastien is an Ottawa-based contributor to the French-language quarterly ÉGARDS, as well as a regular contributor Mercatornet.
Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen.