The ideology of moral relativism is a common theme among today’s college-aged youth. Phrases such as “live your truth” as well as maxims that prioritize individuality, autonomy and self definition above all other values have swept youth culture. This philosophy has been largely painted in a positive light as the philosophy of diversity and inclusion, a philosophy that finally allows for every person to truly be themself, and it is largely associated with the political left. Yet this ideology of moral relativism could have dangerous consequences that affect the very moral fiber of society. In a culture where there is no objective truth, and everybody is free to define what is right for themselves, where do we end up? If we draw moral relativism out to its logical conclusion, any number of frightening possibilities become a reality.
My peers exemplify moral relativism when they say things such as: “I don’t believe we can define the truth,” “everything we think we know is nothing more than a social construct” or “our experiences are all individual and therefore none of us has the right to judge anyone else’s decisions.” These such beliefs have led them to conclude that there are in fact no objective truths and that there is not an objective morality; “live and let live,” as the old saying goes.
While, on its face, this ideology seems harmless and maybe even admirable, there are some deep issues that can arise in a world where we tell everyone that the only person they are accountable to is themself. When one applies this ideology to simple things such as how to dress or what to eat, maybe it is harmless. However, when we apply this ideology to greater moral debates, we see that it falls flat. Let’s take the infamous case of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who became the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP by claiming she was Black. Few people feel that it was OK for her to appropriate Black culture the way that she did, but if we believe that the only person who can define what is right or wrong for her life is herself, then who are we to judge? Maybe she can “identify” as Black as she so claims. Maybe then, when it suits us, we all can identify as whatever we like. She claims her ethnic identity isn’t harming anyone else, and while there are arguments to be made to the contrary, in a world where we claim morality is relative anyway, then who can truly condemn her? If we believe there is no objective morality, and no objective truths such as one’s biological ethnicity, then condemning anyone for ethnic or cultural appropriation becomes a hypocritical and moot point. In a world where there is no truth, there is no right or wrong.
The truth is that while our youth are constantly saying things like “live your truth,” they aren’t living up to the true meaning of that ideology. They aren’t condoning all sorts of previously condemned actions such as the racial appropriation mentioned above. They are, if anything, more polarized and critical than ever. As a society, we are constantly condemning our political adversaries as “immoral,” and I can’t help but note the inconsistency of these two competing ideologies that are attempting to coexist side by side on the liberal side of the aisle. My friend might tell me to live my individual truth when we disagree on something they deem insignificant and, in the next breath, tell me that my pro-life stance is “morally” harmful to women.
The objective truth is that inherently we all believe in some measure of right or wrong, which comes out in the form of the truth claims we make on a day-to-day basis. No matter how philosophical we attempt to be, or how much we attempt to understand the complexity of the human experience, we know that there are objective truths, and this is a good thing. When young liberals and/or Democrats claim to believe in moral relativism, they undermine their claims to being the party of human rights and social justice, because if morality, dignity and equality aren’t inherent qualities that we all possess, and are nothing more than a social construct, then they really don’t exist at all! They are as fragile as the whims of our culture. If tomorrow somebody comes to me claiming that “women belong in the kitchen,” I can’t tell them this is a backwards and oppressive ideology because that is their truth. There is no oppression in a world without truth because oppression can only occur when somebody’s freedom, dignity and equality are being infringed upon. If these are nothing more than relative social constructs, however, then the “oppressor” can simply claim his actions exist within the realms of his version of the truth and are therefore morally permissible. In fact, this is almost exactly what the Nazi lawyers tried to claim in the Nuremberg trials, that they were just living out the ideology of their cultural beliefs and therefore, the rest of the world could not condemn them.
It may be convenient to claim that truth is relative in an increasingly politically-correct collegiate environment, where safe spaces and trigger warnings are common talking points, but if the left wants to cling to moral relativism, then they will have to learn to let their “safe spaces” go, because on a campus where any truth, any conspiracy theory and any wild claim is true as long as I believe it is, then there are no safe spaces at all. Liberal colleges are on one hand becoming an echo chamber where only liberal viewpoints are accepted as “right” and “moral” and yet, on the other hand, these same “social justice warriors” are patting each other on the back for not oppressing one another with objective morality. It’s a huge hypocrisy of today’s new leftist movement.
While we should always be wary of those who attempt to oppress us with their versions of “the truth” that may not be decidedly true at all, if we believe that truth, justice and morality exist, we can keep seeking after them. We, as the next generation of difference makers, can seek to live up to the creed of “all men created equal” that is laid out in the U.S. Constitution. Because, while it may not have been truthfully fulfilled when written, due to our belief in the inherent dignity and equality of man, we can fight for the realization of this equality. However, if we forego morality and truth, we have no ground to stand on to fight for equality, justice or any other form of human rights. That is why we shouldn’t allow moral relativism to permeate our society fully. We can be more inclusive and tolerant than past generations without foregoing our beliefs in objective truths and morality. In fact, we need these beliefs to truly be inclusive and tolerant at all.
Abbie Berringer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org