Distinguishing Between Relative and Absolute Morality
According to research led by Notre Dame professor Christian Smith, we live in a world of increasing moral relativism. Behavior might be right for some people, but not for others. So, we can’t judge anyone. While I embrace empathy and acceptance for all people, many make the mistake of discarding values in the name of tolerance.
Every society must agree upon a set of values or morals by which they will live. The secret is to insure they’re fair and just for everyone, and that people agree upon those values. These might just be relative morals — ones that may not be true for everyone on earth — but they become the guidelines for life in that society. I believe, however, there are a handful of timeless morals that all humans must agree to live by if we have any hope to survive and thrive. In the same way there are relative truths and absolute truths, morals fit into one of these two categories. For example:
Relative Truth: It is proper to drive on the right hand side of the road.
(This is relative because it’s true in America, but not in Britain and other nations.)
Absolute Truth: If you jump off a hundred-foot cliff, you will drop a hundred feet.
(This is absolute because the law of gravity works regardless of where you live.)
I believe it’s essential to help students think more deeply about morality and ethics. Most of the students Dr. Smith and his colleagues interviewed had a superficial view of life and had not considered the ramifications of their morals. In short, they had not critically reflected on what the world would look like if everyone adopted their morals. This is one of the reasons our world finds itself in its current chaotic state.
There are thousands of perspectives on what’s right and wrong, and conflict arises when one group feels “judged” by another based on their particular view. So for many, it’s not politically correct to judge anything or anyone. Incidentally, I agree we all need a push toward empathy and to embrace a variety of people who, until now, had felt marginalized by society.
This doesn’t mean we throw all judgment out. While the list isn’t likely long, we must maintain a universal set of values, ethics and morals among all humanity. But as the pendulum of history swung from black and white to gray, we’ve become afraid to do so. Have you noticed the drift away from any judgment or evaluation of behavior for fear it’s improper? In the name of tolerance, our ability to possess wise judgment evaporates.
Amoral leads to apathy
To live by ethics and values means you are a “moral” person. When you have no set of ethics or values, you become “amoral.” You are neither for, nor against any values. I meet students today who claim to be amoral. They won’t judge anyone or anything. Sadly, however, this apparent progress actually leads to “apathy,” which means without pathos. “Pathos” means to feel emotion, pity or passion. When one is apathetic, they have no passion.
In our fight for tolerance and against judgment of others, we sadly become people afraid to feel strongly about anything. We’ve moved toward apathy. We have no pathos left for things we should, like faith, our country or neighbors. We become self-absorbed and fail to experience lasting marriages, families, companies or friendships. We have no firm convictions about anything outside. We would die for nothing. We merely care about ourselves.
The plumb line
Do you know what a plumb line is? I’ve referred to this instrument before. In times past, people used a plumb line to determine reality. It’s a long string or cable fishermen would toss into the ocean to discover how deep the water was. Builders also used it to discover if a wall was crooked. They could hold the line next to a structure and gravity would pull it straight down, enabling them to see precisely how straight the building was.
At the risk of oversimplifying, we need a plumb line for our morals today — an outside source that helps us evaluate our shifting morals so they aren’t merely reflections of what gives us pleasure, what others think or feel, or even what gets us where we want to go. With this, history could have avoided the holocaust that Adolf Hitler led against the ethnic races he chose to exterminate, or the later ethnic cleansings in Rwanda and Serbia. For that matter, we might have avoided the corruption of Joseph Stalin or Saddam Hussein. Ugh. How strange to see modern people committing such atrocities. It would have been good to have a plumb line for all to see their morals were crooked.
At the same time, it seems so antiquated to bring up old, stale, traditional values. Today, adults are often afraid to bring up traditional values to students because they appear “old-fashioned.” I simply propose that old doesn’t equal irrelevant. Isn’t it possible that “old” could mean timeless? Even though our world population now contains over seven billion people, could we say (for instance) that love, honesty and empathy are timeless and universal for all people?Discerning the timeless vs. the cultural
Good leaders can separate which values are cultural and which are timeless. Strong leaders are able to model both, and demonstrate to students which values come and go with the times and which don’t change regardless of what’s “hip” in culture. Let me suggest some steps to take with your students on this topic:
- Make two lists of values — those that seem “cultural” and those that seem “timeless.”
- Discuss the relevance of cultural values/morals and their importance.
- Talk about the vital role timeless values/morals play. Give examples.
- Create three specific actions that illustrate each value on each list.
- Choose to practice both sets of values. For example: utilizing a certain dress code, language or topics (cultural) and embracing universal values such as empathy or honesty (timeless).
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