Relativism is a funny thing. It is a self-refuting concept: how can there be no truth if that statement is itself a truth claim? Yet this is the default worldview of the vast majority of Americans, according to many conservative social analysts. No one is better qualified to analyze the contradictions at the core of relativism than Jonah Goldberg, one of the best cultural commentators of our day. In a recent piece in National Review, Empty Integrity, Goldberg analyzes relativism while providing laugh-out-loud lines throughout.
Introducing his topic, Goldberg makes the understatement of this young century:
[S]omething in the culture has changed.
That “something” can be identified by two simple words: subjective and objective. They differentiate between what is inside an individual’s mind and what is outside of it. The difficulty in accepting the qualitative difference between the two is a radical departure from how the West and much of the rest of the world thought until very recently.
Tying this to the idea of integrity, Goldberg argues the heroes in the past did good out of a desire to create a good that existed outside of themselves, that conformed to an external idea:
The hero clung to a definition of “good” that was outside himself, and therefore something he had to reach for.
Thus goodness was objective, existing apart from whatever the hero thought about it. That, Goldberg says, is no longer widely accepted:
Now everyone reaches inward for his own vision of integrity.
The reason your neighbor may buy into this subjective diminution of reality, Goldberg notes, is because popular culture is awash with it and thus it is in the cultural air they breathe. Goldberg argues that the views of atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche have won the popular culture and now suffuse it:
[D]o-it-yourself morality, informed by personal passion rather than old-fogey morality, is the new norm. . . . [O]nce you become aware of the movement to define integrity as a commitment to self-made principles (no matter how evil), you see it everywhere you look in popular culture.
This isn’t found only in ambitious cable TV fare such as Game of Thrones or Mad Men, Goldberg writes:
The truth is, it’s hard to find a children’s cartoon or movie that doesn’t tell kids that they need to look inside themselves for moral guidance.
As ubiquitous as it is today, this moral vision has been alien to Western civilization throughout most of its history. What we learn from popular culture, he writes,
overturns millennia of moral teaching. It takes the idea that we must apply reason to nature and our consciences in order to discover what is moral and replaces it with the idea that if it feels right, just do it, baby.
Such do-it-yourself-morality is the logical conclusion of moral relativism, and it means that literally anything goes. Of course, many relativists betray these principles through their actions. It is common for people who profess relativism to live quite conventional lives. In addition, many people steeped in relativism profess absolute, objective moral values, such as that racism is bad, smoking is evil, religion is dangerous, and the like. Note how colleges and their students treat commencement speakers whose political beliefs don’t accord with theirs. Although they are loath to admit that these opinions are no more valid than any others (a fundamental tenet of relativism), they appear to have no doubts at all about the rightness of their positions.
The cultural divide today isn’t between Democrats and Republicans, between conservatives and liberals, between atheists and religious believers. The divide is between relativists, or subjectivists, on the one hand, and those who acknowledge belief in objective truths, including moral precepts, which can be discovered in the nature of reality apart from however we might wish to view it.
“This won’t end well,” Goldberg predicts. We desperately need more believers in objective truths doing the work of popular culture, lest we end up in due course where Jonah predicts we will. Being true to yourself, and only yourself, is not a solid foundation on which to build, or continue, a civilization.