Panel Puts Moral Relativism under a Secular Microscope: Conferees Decry Postmodernism

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College students aren't the moral relativists they claim to be, says George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni.

He tells of a college class whose students said it was impossible to pass moral judgment on fellow students. When their professor told his charges he would flunk those whose term paper supported moral relativism, they complained, "That's not fair."

The point, Mr. Etzioni told a conference last Friday on "Beyond Relativism," is that students do have a moral standard by which they can judge fairness. Just where their standards come from is part of the great modern debate in ethics and social science.

Organizers of the conference, hosted by the Institute for Communitarian Studies at GW, which Mr. Etzioni directs, said some relativism has broken down old prejudices and allowed progress.

But the notion that all ethics, morals and truths are matters of opinion is having dire social consequences, said a panel of academics specializing in social and political science, psychiatry, education and biology.

No theologians were included because the conference aimed at secular sources to describe human nature. Mr. Etzioni said that there are six possible sources for the "moral sense" in humanity, "none of them completely satisfactory," he said.

The first four are social agreements such as a democracy, a bill of rights, a universal declaration of rights, or the "golden rules" found in human cultures.

Another option, Mr. Etzioni said, is appeal to a divine commandment. "Religion ends this conversation" on morals, he said.

His own preference is the conviction that right and wrong are "self-evident" to humans. "Certain moral causes speak to us in a compelling manner," Mr. Etzioni said, adding that what is moral "speaks to us in an unmistakable voice."

The opposing view, postmodernism, holds that all morality is relative, unimpeded by divine law. Harvard government professor Peter Berkowitz said the "impulse" of postmodernism came out of classic liberalism, with its emphasis on freedom.

But postmodernism has developed a "practical program" to gain more freedom by saying human nature is whatever one says it is, that truth is invented and reason is not real, but only a tool of power.

Mr. Berkowitz said the postmodernist attempt to "liberate the individual from internal fetters" only creates social chaos and thus takes away freedom.

The economic and political ideas on which British and American democracy were built continue to work best for liberty, he said, adding, "liberalism at its finest resists the democratic impulse to absolutize democracy."

Norton Garfinkle, board chairman of the institute, said the idea of relativism has moved from the classroom a generation ago to common use in society. However, he added, "there is a significant countercurrent to relativism flowing through American academic life."

That would be the "character education" movement in public schools, said Thomas Lickona, State University of New York education professor.

He said that a definition of objective truth - "truth that is independent of the observer" - has become important in character education, which tries to set up exemplary behaviors.

Those norms, he said, had been undercut by modern philosophies that say a moral claim has no scientific reality. Personal experience, not divine or human authority, is what defines reality. Since court rulings also had made teaching morals seem unconstitutional, public education has tried "values clarification" - letting students pick their own morals. …