Religion Vs Moral Relativism
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL
When Robert A. Rockaway, a recognized authority on Jewish-American history, decided to chronicle the story of the Jewish mob, he sought out Jewish old-timers in order to gather information on this less than reputable element.
Rockaway even interviewed his own mother, a native of Detroit, Michigan, who personally knew some friends and family members of the nefarious subjects of his research.
Once, while talking to his mother about the reprehensible conduct of a particular mobster, his mother stopped him short in his tracks: “All that you say may be fine and good, no one said the guy was a saint. Between you and me, he was known to have made a few people disappear. . . But you shouldn’t rush to judgment. Don’t forget that he was always kind to his mother! Does that count for nothing? Trust me; the man was a real Mentch!”
No great, inspiring culture of the future can be built upon the moral principle of relativism. For at its bottom such a culture holds that nothing is better than anything else, and that all things are in themselves equally meaningless. Except for the fragments of faith (in progress, in compassion, in conscience, in hope) to which it still clings, illegitimately, such a culture teaches every one of its children that life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing
– Michael Novak
The debate over objective morality is not a new one by any stretch of the imagination. Still it has never been as emotionally charged as in recent times. The ramifications of this contested issue seem more relevant now than ever before. At the center of the debate is the philosophical theory of ethical and cultural relativism – the notion that different moral truths apply to different people and different cultures.
Ethical relativism maintains that morality is relative to individuals, cultural relativism maintains that it is relative to culture. Both deny the existence of moral absolutes – objective moral truths that apply to all people in all places at all times.
Some see moral relativism as an undeniable and obvious truth; others see it as a threat to the moral foundation on which society is founded.
To the believer in moral relativism, it makes no sense to ask the abstract question whether a given act is good or bad, for there is no goodness or badness in the abstract; there is only goodness or badness within a specified context. Thus, an act may be good for one person yet bad for another, or good in one cultural setting yet bad in another, but cannot be either good or bad full stop.
The fact that everyone agrees there are mitigating circumstances and exceptions to the rule, does not satisfy the proponents of relativism. They take exception to the very notion of an absolute bad and good, or wrong and right. To this end they cite various proofs:
They note that relativism best explains the existence of divergent moral beliefs among individuals and cultures. Moral disagreement demonstrates that morality is merely a product of personal opinion or culture.
Moreover, the alternative to moral relativism, moral absolutism, they cite, inevitably breaks down in certain circumstances; there are occasions on which, for example, lying, stealing, and even worse acts are morally justified. If morality is not entirely absolute, then relativism is obviously the truth.
Most importantly they insist that theirs is the only tolerant philosophy that leaves room for those with whom we disagree, particularly those of differing backgrounds. “We do not have the right to think that we or our way of thinking is morally superior to others’. If relativism is true, the question whether an act is good or bad is not cosmic, but rather limited to a given situation and culture, this prevents imposing our moral standards on others.”
There is mounting evidence that moral relativism is, in fact, deemed the more “fair” or “neutral” ideology compared with the alternative “Hard-line” stance on morality.
A 2002 column by news analyst Bill O’Reilly, who finds himself mystified as to why it is “Wrong to be right,” cites Zogby poll data indicating that 75% of American college professors teach that there is no such thing as right and wrong. Rather, they treat the questions of good and evil as relative to “Individual values and cultural diversity.”
One has to wonder whether there is any connection between this burgeoning ideology and the ever growing crisis into which our country tends to be slipping.
Cheating appears to have become the way of the land. Faith in our blue-chip corporations has been shattered by a tidal wave of bankruptcies. Since the turn of the century the U.S. has seen some of the largest and most devastating corporate bankruptcies and pension deficits ever. Many of which were spurred by fraud, greed and scandal.
With $63.4 billion in assets, Enron was the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, until it was eclipsed by WorldCom the next year and Lehman Bros in 2008. Fraught with obscure accounting practices that concealed billions of dollars in losses, Enron’s downfall of December 2001, will likely be remembered as one of the most notorious scandals in history.
Adelphia was the fifth largest cable provider in the US, until founder John Rigas and his son Timothy were convicted for embezzling millions of dollars from the company, hiding $2.3 billion in debt and deceiving investors about its true profits and growth.
WorldCom was one of the largest long-distance companies in the U.S. Its $107 billion dollars in assets made it the second largest bankruptcy in history. WorldCom’s financial decline revolved around a massive accounting scandal in which the company’s assets had been inflated by an estimated $11 billion.
Former CEO Dennis Kozlowski and CFO Mark Swartz of the electronics giant Tyco International are yet further examples of executive scandal and corporate excess. Tyco filed for bankruptcy shortly after the two were found guilty of embezzling about $600 million from the company. And the list goes on and on.
Eight of the largest filings in American history occurred in the past year—with Washington Mutual, Thornburg Mortgage, General Motors (GM) and Chrysler joining Lehman Brothers in topping the list.
Neither is the problem limited to the financial sector. The cheating bug seems to have infiltrated all areas of our culture, from government and media to sports and education. A survey conducted by Northwestern University revealed that half of 527 randomly selected journalists surveyed, admitted to have seen unethical behavior in their newsroom.
60%-75% of high school students admit to some cheating academically. It is likewise no secret that competitive sports, from professional to amature, are saturated with the illegal use of steroids in order to gain an unfair advantage. A 2001 CDC survey indicated that 5% of all high school students reported lifetime use of steroids without a doctor’s prescription. There is of course no need to discuss the scandals inherent in government, as they are so prevalent and notorious.
Whether the above has any connection with the prevailing cultural attitude of moral relativism is certainly worthy of consideration. I shall leave that for the reader. What needs no consideration, however, is that to any person of religious conviction the question of relativism is essentially irrelevant. If there is one axiom indigenous to religion, it is that there is a Supreme being, who’s declared values and dictates are absolute and immutable.
The question of moral relativism has everything to do with our core belief in the origin and purpose of life. There is a clear line in the sand between the belief in moral relativism and belief in G-d. It can, in fact, be argued that the case for moral relativism is a back door assault on the very existence of a Supreme creator and Divine morality.
Moral relativism goes hand-in-hand with evolution, for if life is accidental, without meaning or purpose; everything is OK, because ultimately nothing matters. On the other hand, if one believes man to be the product of intelligent design who’s every action counts, then the notion of moral relativism is completely absurd, since all things created are subject to a set of supreme laws.
For the Jew the notion of moral relativism is twice as absurd, since it is diametrically antithetical to the Torah – the foundation and constitution of Judaism. This would be no different than say, a vegetarian who eats meat, a generous miser, or an honest thief. It is oxymoronic; the two simply don’t go together.
Just in case it is not completely self understood that Judaism leaves no room for moral relativism, the Torah makes sure to spell it out explicitly. It is the subject of the opening verse of this week Parsha, Re’ei:
“See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: That you hearken to the commandments of the Lord your G-d, that I command you today. And the curse: If you do not hearken to the commandments of the Lord your G-d, and you stray from the path that I command you today . . .” (Deuteronomy 11: 26). Is there any ambiguity in these words?
Our Parsha proceeds to admonish: “Should there rise up in your midst a prophet or a dreamer of a dream – and he will [even] produce for you a sign or a wonder . . . saying: ‘Let us follow G-d’s of others, which you did not know, and we shall worship them!’ Do not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of dreams. . .” Is there any room to maneuver?
Continuing this theme, Moshe makes the following assertion in the proceeding Parsha: “According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will teach you, right or left.”
The commentaries interpret this to mean that one must obey the Torah and its guardians in each generation; even if he is convinced that it is wrong – even if it seems to be telling you that right is left and left is right. So much for moral relativism, or subjective morality.
In conclusion, for the sake of G-d and for the sake of humanity let us be clear that the notion of subjective morality is plain wrong. Moral relativism makes a mockery of G-d and threatens the foundation and moral fabric of society as a whole.
Through our acceptance of the Divine will regarding morality and spirituality we will certainly merit His abundant blessings, as promised in our Parsha, with the ultimate blessing of the Messianic era speedily in our times.