The Rise of Relativism
and the Decline of Virtue and Freedom
in America

by James R. Birrell, Ed.D.
Associate Professor of Teacher Education, BYU
Meridian Magazine

The revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s sought to establish a new relativist framework for morality in America - do your own thing. This is the morality of the self, i.e., each man, group or culture individually determining the nature and purpose of truth. In this view, truth exists as a diverse set of preferences, and not as a universally agreed upon reality. To the relativist, the virtue of democracy, then, is not that it promotes absolute truth, but that it encourages individual choice about truth. Put another way, freedom to choose is the virtue.

Here’s a non-relativist look at choice. The Lord said, “In the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency…and commanded that they should choose me” (Moses 7: 32-33). In this reality, choice exists that we might freely choose to become “agents” unto God.

Lucifer would have denied us that right to freely choose God. In the absence of choice, virtue would have escaped us. For choosing God is an act of virtue that increases virtue. Democracy, then, is a set of prerequisite principles that support the conditions necessary to choose God and increase virtue. Freedom to choose is the prerequisite to virtue.

Both of these views about the meaning and purpose of democracy are valid. Choice is essential to freedom; but then, so is choosing virtue. Those who lack virtue may enjoy the liberty afforded by law, but they are not free in the truest sense. Those who make virtuous choices will have the right to increased choices in the future. Those who choose poorly, limit future choices. Virtue may well be the key ingredient of true freedom.

Moral laws will more likely encourage moral conduct than will relativist ideals. Moral conduct will usually not create victims, while the pursing of relativist aims just might. Promoting unfettered freedom apart from virtue encourages irresponsibility and invites a host of unintended consequences. Self-interest run amok runs over the innocent, thereby creating victims who must bear the consequences of the foolishness of others.

An immoral society will always have to protect itself from one another. Thus, less morality means more regulation and less freedom; 74,258 pages of proposed and final rules and regulations were added to the Federal Registry in 2000 alone to further legislate our lives for good or bad.

A democracy that cannot produce morality and virtue cannot maintain freedom. The sociologist Emile Durkheim said, “When morals are sufficient, law is unnecessary; when morals are insufficient, law is unenforceable.”

A reduction of morality will result in a gradual restriction and elimination of freedoms and safety; they simultaneously decline together. Our loss of freedoms since 9/11 is evidence of this truth, so are a host of other regulations imposed upon us because of carelessness, greed and sin.

Any virtue taken to the extreme loses its virtue. Since relativist societies always argue for the extreme, they eventually lose the greater virtues while holding fast to the lesser ones, and increasingly promote troublesome behaviors that result in new forms of governmental regulation. Such societies prove that demanding more choice is meaningless without increasing virtue. As with the entertainment industry, choice without virtue leaves us little worth choosing.

Freedom, Virtue and the American Founders

The rebellion of the 1960’s and 1970’s left many Americans confused about the reality of pure virtue and the meaning of true freedom.

Our Founders were clear on the relationship between freedom and virtue; so, I believe, were most Americans prior to 1960.

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams wrote that “without virtue, there can be no political liberty.” He also wrote that the principles that sustain our form of government “are easily destroyed, as human nature is corrupted. … Private and public virtue is the only foundation of Republics.”

President John Adams spoke to the U.S. military on October 11, 1798 and said:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest chords of our Constitution…[which] was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Earlier, on June 21, 1776, John Adams wrote:
The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our people in a greater measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty.
Our God-given freedoms stem from our precious virtues; preserving our virtues, then, maintains our precious liberties.

Relativism and the Decline of American Virtue
and Freedom

When issues of morality or virtue are raised, relativists are quick to respond- “whose morality” or “whose virtue?” Or they might ask, “Who are you to impose your morality on me?” Christians, ever eager to be tolerant of difference, may concede the point or abandon the forum at the first sign of resistance. But we do this at our own peril.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Gather six people together and ask them to grab hold of one of six strings tied to a rubber band. Have them collaboratively pull on the strings to open the rubber band and individually grasp the bottom of six upside down paper cups- one cup at a time. Next, by pulling open the elastic with the string, release each cup, stacking and forming them into the shape of a pyramid - three cups at the base, two in the center and one at the top. If all willingly cooperate, the task will likely be successful.

Now imagine, gathering a second group of six individuals to complete the cup activity. Five agree that a pyramid is triangular- three at the base, two at the center, and one at the top. The sixth, a relativist, believes that pyramids can be any shape or form; reality is only a choice. “In America,” he proclaims, “we are free to choose our own reality about pyramids. Arguing for absolutes only offends our virtue of choice and diversity; this is un-American.”

The other five, believing that it is better to deny what they know is true than to risk offending the minority member- or risk appearing intolerant, consent to altering the nature of truth about pyramids and allowing the minority member his way. After all, they reason in a relativist fashion, who are we to impose our view of pyramids on the world- ours is but one view, albeit the true one. To impose our reality would seem superior- perhaps even intolerant tyranny; it may even be illegal.

Conditioned to honor relativism - packaged as the celebration of diversity, the majority silently allows reality to change. Like relativist pyramids, traditional values begin take on new forms in society under the guise of honoring other people’s right to make different choices. Families reconfigure to validate the choices of others. Parental roles diminish with new dimensions imposed upon society by so-called diverse thinkers. What was once deviant sexuality is now merely diverse sexuality; freedom is the right to choose for myself the shape of my world.

In the chaos of arguing the shape of pyramids, that which was historical and traditional common sense now becomes controversial and judgmental. In the relativist world of round pyramids, morals- and moralists are now square. And so the five people who agreed to “tolerate” round pyramids could not have known how the shape of everything would change once the relativist camel was in the tent.

Like the parents of the rebellious children of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, these five traditionalists could not have known how relativistic ideals would alter society. In their tolerance for relativism, they lost their children and order. They clearly knew the shape of things - but their children are confused. Perhaps these individuals thought that in time their children would see the truth about pyramids and other things, i.e., that families require a legally married mom and dad, sex is to occur after - not before or outside of marriage, and such as they exemplified at home and fought to preserve through wars.

Alas, their children were taught in school to respect all pyramids, because all pyramids are equally valid and valuable, as are belief systems about family, sexuality, and such. And they were scorned for thinking that pyramids were only triangular- this was the mythology of the majority, designed to oppress those with alternative views about pyramids.

In conclusion, I have argued the illustration of pyramids to make a point. Relativism does not increase freedom - it breeds chaos. Chaos invites regulation - regulation always demands taxation. Regulation and taxation limit freedom. Being tolerant about the wrong things will cost us our virtue - then our freedoms.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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