By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
For most of my married life I was a member of a parish located about 50 miles north of Manhattan. A large percentage of the parishioners were like my late wife and me, émigrés from apartments in the Bronx and northern Manhattan. But there was also a generous sprinkling of people from upstate New York and points further west, many of them employees of one of the IBM facilities in the area.
One night while working on a parish committee with a man from the Buffalo area, he said something I had not thought of before: “I like people from New York City, but one thing bugs me. No matter what you say, they always think that they have a better example of what you are talking about.”
His comment hit home. It was true. One of the most common reactions you will get from people from New York City is something along the lines of, “Dat’s nuthin. I’ll give you one better.”
I tried to explain to the man from my parish that he was taking the comment the wrong way; that the odds were that New York City men he was talking to did not mean to say that his comment was really “nuthin” or second rate, only that they had something to add that would corroborate his point. He was not entirely convinced.
So when I say that I have something to add to comments made by Dennis Prager in a recent column, I do not mean to imply that his words were inadequate or incomplete, only that I have an example of the phenomenon that vexed him that underscores his exasperation. It is not a better example than his, just one coming from a different angle.
In his column, Prager wrote of “Jeff from North Carolina,” a recent college graduate who had called his talk show. Prager was unable to get Jeff to take a stand on whether the United States was any different morally from the governments of Syria, North Korea, Iran, or Putin’s Russia. Jeff would not concede that there was “good and bad” in the world, and that it was only his opinion “as an American” that we were more virtuous than the aforementioned dictatorships.
Prager would not settle for that answer: “I don’t want you to answer me as an American. I want you to answer me as a moral human.”
Jeff’s reply? “I can only answer you as an American. I can’t answer as anyone else.”
Prager answered, “Wait a minute. That’s a terrible answer. If I asked you how much 2 and 2 is, you wouldn’t answer me as an American.” He went on to observe that Jeff’s attitude toward moral absolutes “reflects a fundamental left-wing doctrine taught at colleges — that there are no moral truths and we can only subjectively observe the world as members of a group.”
Prager had run head-on into the moral relativism that parades as open-mindedness and a nonjudgmental view of the world in intellectual circles. Those who hold to this understanding of morality cast their opponents as individuals who have succumbed to ethnocentrism, the view that their society’s beliefs and prejudices should be binding on those from different cultures. College students find this a difficult proposition to challenge. If they do, they frequently find themselves cast as unthinking and narrow-minded by their classmates and professors.
What do I have to add to Prager’s example of the implications of moral relativism? My experience teaching European history to 12th-grade honors students a few decades back. I would use Michel de Montaigne’s 1580 Essay on Cannibals to test my students’ commitment to their moral relativism. Montaigne’s goal was to shame those who were killing each other in the French religious wars of the time; to promote toleration between the Catholics and Huguenots by pointing out how difficult it would be to convince cannibals that they were morally wrong if the cannibals had grown up in a society where cannibalism was practiced by their forebears and viewed as an honorable practice.
His hope was that his essay would lead Catholics and Huguenots to ponder the notion that it was possible for a virtuous individual to be led to an erroneous religious conviction because of motives not warranting death; to cut each other as much slack as they would a cannibal.
I would like to be able to tell you that my students drew the line on their nonjudgmental thinking at cannibalism. But that was not the case. Most of them continued to make the case that cannibalism was wrong “only for them, but not for cannibals who thought it was morally permissible.” They didn’t want to end up like the priggish people mocked in the movies and the rock songs. But I always got the impression from the look on their faces that they were uncomfortable taking that stand; that they realized that cannibalism was — wrong, bad, immoral, evil, even if they didn’t want to say that in front of their classmates.
I think the caller to Dennis Prager’s program may have found himself in the same frame of mind.
There was another angle I would use to make the same point. Indeed, Prager may have brought it up if “Jeff” had stayed on the phone a bit longer. The proud moral relativists of our time, who are fond of calling traditional beliefs about things such as sex and marriage nothing more than opinions, “ethnocentric presumptions” and “societal prejudices,” can be made to squirm in their seats. All you have to do is bring up their politically correct beliefs.
The free-thinkers tend to not be such free-thinkers when that happens, when racism, sexism, and their understanding of social justice is the topic. Have you noticed? They want to send in the troops to rescue the girls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram; they applauded when Oprah Winfrey threw George Gilder off her show for taking note of the deleterious impact of the absence of fathers in the black family; they block the entrance to the lecture hall when Ann Coulter is scheduled to speak, just as their counterparts did when the late University of California-Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen was scheduled to speak on his theory of race-based differences in intelligence.
The nonjudgmental Wall Street “occupiers” smashed the windows of the corporations that they insist do evil in the world. The open-minded liberals agree that Hitler was evil; no two sides to that question.
All these things imply a conviction that there is right and wrong, evils in the world that must be confronted, rather than appeased. Moral relativism goes out the window when their favored causes are at stake. Which means that we are looking at a con game. The attack on moral absolutism is a way of undermining confidence in traditional values and the heritage of the Christian West. It has nothing to do with casting doubt upon the merits of the agenda of the secular left.