Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Moral Abdication

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Moral Abdication

Article excerpt

Any conservative who expends energy denouncing relativism is wasting his time fighting the last war." So argues the bright young author Helen Rittelmeyer in the American Spectator, and she does so with wit and not a little insight.

In the Yale English department, many of the professors have the PC seal of approval, focusing as they do on Marxist literary theory, "gender and sexuality," and postcolonial studies. However, the graduate students are more likely to list actual literary topics as the focus of their interest: Romanticism, for example, or Victorian literature, or Milton. As Rittelmeyer observes, the rising generation recognizes that the PC cant about how everything is a mask for power is "like noodly jazz: fun to play, dreadful to listen to."

The highly theorized moral relativism that once put the "po" into "po-mo" may be on the wane, but all is not well. By Rittelmeyer's way of thinking, a utilitarian mentality is ascendant today, and it gives new expression (and new vitality) to the progressive war on traditional morality. "Relativism claimed that we could sidestep moral controversies by letting everyone decide ethical questions for themselves; the new utilitarianism claims that there are no moral controversies, just empirical ones." Not long ago we'd hear that "people have a right to make their own choices and not be judged for it," as well as lots of talk of "cultural differences." Now "the most annoyingly ubiquitous genre in journalism is social-scientific analysis, as if a person can't speak with authority without citing economics or sociology."

Rittelmeyer gives the examples of pornography and gay marriage, both of which put pressure on us to make a moral judgment. Is pornography immoral in a robust sense? It's an existentially hot question, because it involves many judgments about the moral significance of our sexual imaginations as well as our behavior. The question of gay marriage is even hotter, implicating as it does a whole range of judgments about sex, gender, and reproduction.

Faced with questions of right and wrong, the relativist shifts to what people "feel," or to some form of cultural analysis ("from a white, male, middle-class perspective..."). "The same evasive maneuver can be seen" in utilitarian arguments.

Morality isn't about "taboos," we're told, but instead about the empirical consequences of behavior. …

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