Can Anybody Here Tell Right from Wrong?

Item: Ray Brent Marsh takes hard-earned money from honest people on the condition that he cremate the remains of their loved ones. Then, blaming faulty equipment for the problem, he instead dumps the bodies of scores of people in a swamp. Question: so what?

Item: Enron executives make off with piles of loot as the ship goes down; thousands are left high and dry financially, out of work and holding shares of stock hardly worth the price of the paper they’re printed on. Question: what’s the big deal?

Item: Priests, sworn to celibacy and to directing people toward God, instead take advantage of little children and abuse them sexually. Question: is this really a moral problem?

Item: Terrorists fly planes into buildings, killing thousands, in the pursuit of their misguided goals. Thousands of Muslims dance in the streets in jubilation at the news, while the hearts of Americans break. Question: why does this bother people?

Lest you think I’m out of my mind, consider one other fact.

Item: According to a recent poll, the overwhelming majority of Americans claim that they do not believe in the existence of absolute truth.

It has become quite trendy in modern-day America for people to claim not to believe in the existence of absolute truth. In fact, those who cling to a belief that there are certain truths and ethics which are universal and absolute find themselves treated to ridicule. Witness the uproar over President Bush’s recent description of certain countries as forming an “axis of evil”. His “crime” was to speak in moral categories, to draw a firm line whereby some actions might be judged wrong and others right.

I grew up in a world which understood that such categories were meaningful, that while all people were flawed and no one could claim to be without sin (now there is an outmoded concept, is it not?), there nonetheless existed such things as truth and error, right and wrong, good and evil. The situation is different now. As the late Professor Allan Bloom said a few years back in his epic The Closing of the American Mind, the one thing we can be certain of regarding incoming freshmen in the university is that they will profess to believe that truth is relative.

Thus we are left with what William Bennett called “the death of outrage”. We seem incapable of mustering real disgust about certain subjects—that the outcry to remove Bill Clinton from office was not nearly unanimous might be “Item 1” in our list of evidence—but at the same time, schizophrenically, we do find it in us to be outraged by other offenses. Most people understand how terrible it was that bodies were dumped in a Georgia swamp, that rich executives ripped off their employees, that terrorism really is evil, and not just from a certain viewpoint. The truth is that, for all our protestations to the contrary, and despite polling data which might suggest otherwise, most people really do understand that there exist certain truths that are universal.

Trendy philosophers say silly things like, “the truth is that there is no truth”, but then they keep speaking, oblivious apparently to the contradiction inherent not only in their initial statement, but also in their continuing to mutter on. Postmodern professors waste students’ time and parents’ money by insisting that categories such as right and wrong are passe, but then will find themselves furious if students cheat on their exams. Moral relativism sounds so chic, but upon further examination, we find that it fails to square with reality, and offers us no livable ethic by which to guide our lives and build our society.

Moral relativism remains popular nonetheless, because those who espouse it understand all too well that the alternative involves the admission that ethical standards transcend time and situation. Oh, and by the way, that alternative, that truth exists as a category and thus that ethics are not situational, demands the existence of a lawgiver, an unchanging moral reference point by which to judge our actions. At all costs, so these situation ethicists would tell us, let us not admit the possibility that there is a God Who has placed in us these moral impulses—for then we might actually be accountable to this God for how we live, and that could really get messy!

So, anybody else out there really ticked off at Enron, and Osama bin Laden, and Ray Brent Marsh? Thanks, then, for the tacit admission—regardless of what we tell pollsters—that you really do believe in the existence of truth!

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