The social cost of relativism has been on the minds of some folks at The New York Times. Columnist David Brooks ran an excellent piece last week entitled "The Cost of Relativism," while Ross Douthat penned a piece entitled "For Poorer and Richer." With each passing year, society is reaping the destructive consequences of a culture that has come to view normative moral standards as oppressive and antiquated. This rejection has caused and continues to cause damage and misery, particularly among society's most vulnerable members.
Brooks opens his argument by painting a sobering statistical picture:
"Roughly 10 percent of the children born to college grads grow up in single-parent households. Nearly 70 percent of children born to high school grads do. There are a bunch of charts that look like open scissors. In the 1960s or 1970s, college-educated and noncollege-educated families behaved roughly the same. But since then, behavior patterns have ever more sharply diverged. High-school-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity."
Progressives would have us believe that the disparities outlined above are a result merely of economic discrepancies. Douthat considered this claim in his column and found that it doesn't bear up under scrutiny:
"[L]ower-income Americans have more money, experience less poverty, and receive far more safety-net support than their grandparents ever did. Over all, material conditions have improved, not worsened, across the period when their communities have come apart.
Between 1979 and 2010, for instance, the average after-tax income for the poorest quintile of American households rose from $14,800 to $19,200; for the second-poorest quintile, it rose from $29,900 to $39,100.
Meanwhile, per-person antipoverty spending at the state and federal level increased six fold between 1968 and 2008 — and that's excluding Medicare, unemployment benefits and Social Security. Despite some conservative skepticism, this spending did reduce the poverty rate (though probably more so after welfare reform). One plausible estimate suggests the rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012, and child poverty fell as well.
These trends simply do not match the left-wing depiction of a working class devastated by Reagonomics. . . . This is a dense debate whose surface I can only skim. . . . But the basic point is this: In a substantially poorer American past with a much thinner safety net, lower-income Americans found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety and thrift to an extent that they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.
So however much money matters, something else is clearly going on."
For Douthat, that "something else" is a culture of permissiveness, particularly regarding sexual matters, and this echoes the observations made by Brooks:
"It's not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it's norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically."
While America's forefathers were certainly not without their moral blind spots, at the time of our nation's founding there was a social consensus that acknowledged the existence of a divinely ordained moral order. This social consensus was the glue that held society together and permitted people to be largely self-governing. But with the embrace of moral relativism, the societal fabric began to unravel. Might was equated with right. Desires were not to be deferred. If it felt good, you did it. If you wanted it, you took it. If the baby was inconvenient, you killed it. The idea of "doing the right thing," or "being honorable," came to be viewed as antiquated, even stultifying. "Being true to yourself" became the new moral mantra. C.S. Lewis observed the rise of this trend in his own day, and wrote about it in his book The Abolition of Man:
"The operation of The Green Book (a book promoting relativism) and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. . . . It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so. And all the time – such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."
Lewis, in a way only he could, articulates the problem with striking probity. Without foundational moral norms to guide human behavior and values, there can be no agreed upon notion of the common good, and without this, societal flourishing is impossible. People must be able to know what to expect of one another, and what to expect of themselves. This requires a moral compass that is guided by something deeper and more universal than individual feelings or desires. Our founders referred to such things as self-evident truths. Theologians know it as revelation, philosophers as the natural law. These truths may not be capable of empirical quantification or scientific verification, but man has known from the beginning of time that when you ignore them, bad things happen and the social order unravels. That's what is happening to us today. All the statistics documenting the downward spiral of American social and cultural life are evidence of a sick society that has abandoned moral norms and lost its way.
Brooks tells us that to right the ship we must reintroduce moral norms into the American cultural framework. But how?
"Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren't destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.
Next it will require holding people responsible. People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?"
Next it will require holding everybody responsible. America is obviously not a country in which the less educated are behaving irresponsibly and the more educated are beacons of virtue. America is a country in which privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once."
This last point echoes an observation made by Douthat, who noted that socioeconomic and cultural elites have a critical role to play in addressing this crisis. Relativism, after all, is a byproduct of an intellectual movement that venerates mankind's baser nature and calls it "progress." If society's intellectual leaders and culture shapers truly wish to do something "progressive" for society, they will discard this degraded philosophy and take responsibility for their role in promoting and upholding moral norms. Without this, a lasting reformation is not likely. C.S. Lewis put it thus:
"We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man."
Truer words were never spoken.