Portfolio Magazine, February 27, 2002:


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         Travis Charbeneau  3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221
            travischarbeneau@gmail.com    Phone: 804 358 0417
                         www.travischarbeneau.com

                         Moral Relativism Unmasked
                             Travis Charbeneau
                               slug "moralrel"
                                 859 words
     PULL QUOTE: "With God on your side, why trouble with mere humanity?
     I was 20 in the summer of 1965 when my father, a World War II
RCAF/Marine Corps aviator, sold me the Vietnam War. His one/two punch of
Munich and domino analogies convinced me that, when my number came up, I
would serve. When I came home from Ann Arbor for Thanksgiving, however, I
was opposed to the war. Dad, God rest his soul, put the blame squarely on
my "leftist professors" at the University of Michigan.
     Actually, it was my roommate Tom who pointed out the deadly follies of
the war -- many of which, as America discovered only a few months ago, were
simultaneously tormenting the conscience of Lyndon Johnson. Nonetheless,
those leftist professors got the blame then and they are still getting it
today.
     Recently, the University of Maryland's Edwin A. Locke took them to
task, asserting, "Our most worrisome enemy is not Osama bin Laden [but]
corrupt little college professors who have striven relentlessly to destroy
their students' confidence in their power to think and to make moral
judgements."
     "We are afraid," Locke claims, "because we are not certain we are
right." He compares this unfavorably to the great Gung Ho of 1941 and asks,
"What happened in the 60 years since World War II?" Answer: "Our leading
citizens went to college." Once there, and despite the existence of
professors like Professor Locke, other, bad professors undermined moral
certainty by assaulting students with history. Curse those rascally
professors and, most especially, what Locke condemns as their "plague of
moral relativism."
     I am unsure how moral relativism can be so misapprehended. It's not an
exotic concept, much less a "plague." An obvious example might be the old
self-defense test: It is morally wrong to kill, but, if attacked, killing
is OK. The "morality" is "relative" to the context. It is morally wrong to
lie. However, telling Mom her hair coloring looks nice when you really
think otherwise is OK. Moral relativism is employed every day by everybody,
but Prof. Locke and Co. pine for "moral certainty." May they pine forever.
     In the long, lamentable record of human misery, few characteristics
are more lamentable than moral certainty. Emperors, kings, popes,
dictators, commissars, and, of course, their armies down through the ages,
were so morally certain that they typically claimed to have God on their
side. (At least the commies made do with "history.") God wouldn't support
both sides, so who is "good" and who is "evil"? Correct! The answer is
relative. George III was certain that George Washington was a terrorist,
and, relative to George III's interests, he was. Relative to American
interests -- again, this is not an exotic concept.
     A more recent example of moral relativism inquires whether the 9/11
terrorists were evil incarnate or standard-issue humans driven to evil
extremes. Any history examining America's role in helping to drive them to
evil extremes is considered unpatriotic.
     Just as Locke says, critics advance such examinations because "they
went to college," but any public library would suffice. The historical
record is plain concerning America's Cold War antics in the Middle East,
our oil interests propping up corrupt autocrats, our neocolonialist
behavior respecting Israel, the etymology of "sand nigger." Nevertheless,
describing terrorism as one possible consequence of this behavior is
denounced as moral relativism.
     Locke would also be correct asserting that I learned to think this way
in school, but not college. In grade school I learned that America is a
happy product of the Age of Reason. It is precisely the faculty of reason
that leads to skepticism and an appreciation of moral relativism.
     If only Americans had been as skeptical of the Vietnam War as Lyndon
Johnson turned out to be, we could have saved millions of lives and
billions of dollars. But Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon -- all pretended to moral
certainty and sold the war as a crusade against evil. Never mind the
context (in this case, a Vietnamese civil war) that actually determines
right and wrong. We were John Wayne; "they" were the bad guys. Only such
moral certainty can produce the required cannon fodder: the True Believer.
     The planes-cum-cruise missiles of 9/11 were hijacked by True Believers
-- people with just the sort of moral certainty Prof. Locke so admires.  
Almost certainly, none of them stopped to consider, "In the present
context, and considering my humanity above all, is this really the best way
to redress our grievances?" Less moral certainty would have served humanity
more.
     Mysteriously, the hijackers were well-educated, some of them right
here in the US. Inexplicably, they apparently missed out on all those
"corrupt little college professors" and got some variety of Prof. Locke. 
Instead of human conscience, they got moral certainty. Human conscience,
acting through reason, allows us to hope we are right. Moral certainty,
acting through the arrogant assertions of propaganda, renders human
conscience irrelevant. After all, with God on your side, why trouble with
mere humanity?
     Given our profusion of mass death technologies, we can only hope
corrupt little college professors, and roommates named Tom, will prove
sufficient to save us. In truth, there is always an abundance of moral
certainty. Humility, as ever, is scarce.