Several years ago, in what often seems like a previous life, I was a college professor teaching moral philosophy to students enrolled in an open enrollment college in rural Nebraska. If it sounds like the premise of some Kafkaesque story, let me assure you that it often felt that way.
Teaching moral philosophy to students who could care less about philosophy is a challenge. And as we read our way through excerpts of Aristotle's Ethics, Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, and the ideas of Vaclav Havel, it was sometimes more of a challenge then I expected.
In the rural Midwest, a place that can rarely be called open-minded, I found myself awash in students who were ethical relativists. Yes, they would agree, genital mutilation is wrong in America. But those folks in Africa should be permitted to engage in such practices, they would argue. "It's their culture," the students would inform me, as if that explained it all.
I came to believe that ethical relativism is the governing principle of most every moral discourse in the United States. My students would tell me again and again that there is no absolute right or wrong. It's all relative to the situation, they would say. I must confess that I found this surprising, though there was once a time when I would have agreed with such an argument. In many ways, ethical relativism promotes a greater tolerance for cultural diversity. I think that is vitally important. But the more I read and taught moral philosophy, the more I came to believe that there is a bright and universal demarcation between right and wrong. Some moral standards must exist; right and wrong cannot be relative positions.
I know this is an odd conclusion for a liberal, educated, feminist, lesbian to articulate. I was born in 1967, the child of liberal baby boomer Californians. If anyone has a right to be a relativist, it's me. I grew up in an open-minded world governed by tolerance. Who am I to suggest that that there are absolute standards in the moral universe?
And yet I believe that there are absolute standards of moral behavior. I'm not sure how I would define it all, but there are some principles to which I believe that we must all adhere. Children are due our protection and must never be hurt. Genital mutilation is wrong. Always. We have a moral imperative to make every effort to end violence where it exists, or at least to avoid contributing to the sum amount of it in the world. Are these ideals that cannot be achieved? I don't really know the answer to that. Must we try to achieve them? Absolutely.
The new pope, Pope Benedict, has lately argued that ethical relativism run amok leaves us with no moral foundation. In a homily delivered to his fellow cardinals after the death of Pope John Paul, Benedict (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) said, "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." I couldn't agree more. And while I am certain that he and I have very different notions of right and wrong, I believe that he's right that relativism is the slippery slope to moral bankruptcy.
So here I am, an avowed liberal with a secret identity as the anti-ethical relativist. Who knew?