Allan Bloom began his Closing of the American Mind with this memorable observation: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” (25) College education does not make these students relativists – they come to university that way. This is what I have seen myself from high school students over the last ten years.
This becomes evident during an exercise I give to them in which they are asked to distinguish “facts” from “opinions.” I give them twenty statements, such as “Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa” and “Goodnight Moon is the best children’s book ever” and have them label these as one or the other. Among the twenty statements are three moral statements: “Sexual exploitation of minor children is immoral,” “it was unjust for the Nazis for persecute the Jews” and “human sacrifice should not be allowed as a form of religious freedom.” Overwhelmingly, students will label these as “opinions.”
Why? They consider statements “facts” which are provable by observation and experiment, and therefore carry widespread assent. Moral statements are to them disputable and unprovable. They are “intangible” or “emotional” or “cultural.” This makes them opinions. There is almost no crime so heinous – genocide or child molestation or ritual sacrifice – that they will not shrug and say, “but the people who were doing it thought it right.” For them, nothing offers a basis for argument or proof in moral questions. All views have equal weight.
In recent years, I have introduced statements such as “it is a violation of basic human rights for Muslim countries to execute homosexuals.” A minority of students will think that this is a “fact” because it appeals to “rights.” Why? They believe that there is widespread consensus on “rights.” After all, there is a U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. I then offer the following challenge – why is the United Nations belief in “rights” a fact, when traditional Muslim societies disagree with it? Why is the UN right and the Muslims wrong? Students are puzzled by this, and some pipe up that those who called human rights “facts” are being inconsistent. “Human rights” is just another way of talking about “justice” which is merely another moral and hence “unprovable” belief.
It is a fair question to ask whether students can be broad minded about these forms of injustice because they are in fact well to do suburban kids surrounded by decency and prosperity. Questions of injustice by and large are remote from their lived experience. To put it bluntly, their moral relativism costs them nothing. One has all the comforts of a liberal and non-judgmental outlook without its disturbing repercussions.
One way that I have tried to raise these issues more concretely is by having students read two articles on “honor killings.” This is the old world practice of killing a family member who has in some way disgraced the family; usually the victim is a young woman who has breached a strict code of purity and modesty. While the practice is old world, the stories take place in the new. One girl, Noor al-Malaki was killed by her father in Arizona, after she moved out of the home and adopted a more “Western” way of life. The second, Jessica Mokdad, was gunned down by her stepfather in Michigan for similar reasons. What happens when these different moral “opinions” are among us, not halfway across the planet?
Students are perplexed by what they see as a dilemma. On the one hand, they are of course horrified at teen girls being shot or run over for listening to Beyoncé and wearing blue jeans. These girls are not much older than my students. But on the other hand, they believe the fathers to be following their “culture” or “upbringing” and hence not accountable for their acts. They are uncomfortable with one group of people imposing their “morality” on another – yet they also accept the state’s right to imprison them for their murders.
At bottom, their moral relativism seems to flow from a hidden moral absolute: “Thou shalt not be judgmental.” If I say that my moral code is better than yours, then I am arrogant. Bloom observed among his college students “Relativism is necessary to openness, and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating.” (26) In my case, the students do not receive this from their previous schooling, but largely from the society around them. They absorb it through their music and movies, through their television shows and social media. This often has, I am sorry to say, more impact that what happens in a classroom, for it shapes their emotional responses in ways that school learning does not.
At the same time, this formation in “tolerance” and “openness” can begin a conversation about the basis for those beliefs. For they treat these qualities as moral “facts” not as mere opinions. Indeed, some of the students who are the most dogmatic about relativism are the most indignant when that “openness” is violated. The attempt to cast out nature in place of changing “conventions” is in fact the most insidious of conventions.