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 in American culture of the 1960's and 1970's sought to establish a new relativist framework for morality - do your own thing. In this view, everyone was free to choose or manufacture a system of morality that justified their own behavior. Truth was simply a diverse set of preferences, and not a constant reality.

On the other hand, non-relativists believe there is truth and morality which never changes, and that obeying the Ten Commandments, for example, leads to greater personal freedom than flaunting them. But relativists, whose morality justifies their own behavior, eventually create a tangled net of problems that limit future choices. Thus, God's system of goodness and virtue may well be the key ingredient of true freedom. Truly, "The truth will set you free."

Similar to metaphorically giving someone enough rope to hang himself, our system of democracy supports our freedom to choose our own destruction through a belief that there is no truth or morality. As we shall see, that belief will not long support democracy.

Whereas moral laws are likely to encourage moral conduct, the promotion of 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.

In an immoral society, people always have to protect themselves from one another. 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.

Thus, 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; their simultaneous decline is linked together. Our loss of freedoms since 9/11 is evidence of this truth, and so are the growing piles of other regulations imposed upon us because of carelessness, greed and sin.

Any virtue taken to the extreme loses its virtue. As relativist societies argue for different extremes, they eventually lose their greater virtues in favor of their lesser ones, and they increasingly promote troublesome behaviors that result in new forms of governmental regulation. Such societies prove that demanding more choices to improve the human condition is meaningless without increasing the virtue of individual citizens. As with the entertainment industry, choice without virtue leaves us little worth choosing.

Freedom, Virtue and the American Founders

The cultural 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 a highly metaphorical 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 pull together on the strings to open the rubber band and grasp the bottoms of six upside down paper cups - one cup at a time. Then, by opening the elastic again, release each cup, stacking 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 easy.

Now imagine, gathering a second group of six people to do the same thing. 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. "America is a free country," he proclaims, "we are free to choose our own reality about pyramids. Arguing for absolutes offends my virtue of choice and diversity; this is un-American."

The other five, decide that it is better to deny what they know to be true than to risk offending the minority member and appear intolerant. So they go ahead and alter the nature of truth about pyramids by 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 only one view, albeit the true one. To impose our reality would seem like we're acting superior - maybe even intolerantly tyrannical; it may even be illegal.

So, conditioned as they are to honor relativism as simply another choice - and seeing this packaged as the celebration of diversity, the majority silently allows the definition of reality to change. Like relativist pyramids, in this theoretical case a round one, which are geometrically nonsensical, traditional values start taking on new forms in society under the guise of honoring other people's right to make different choices. Families reconfigure, and parental roles are weakened to validate the pro-diversity choices of others. What was once deviant is now merely diverse; freedom becomes the right to choose for myself the shape of my world, or in other words the definition of reality.

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. They clearly knew the shape of things, but in their tolerance for relativism, they lost their children and they lost order. 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. Things they saw exemplified at home, and values their parents fought wars to preserve.

Alas, their children were taught in progressive schools 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 a Nutshell

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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