It seems clear that moral relativism has become a persistent part of contemporary moral dialogue. However, whilst it is common to associate relativism with moral latitude, even hedonism, what is less frequently noted is the extent to which it has become allied with a strange kind of legalism – albeit one that is almost completely arbitrary. The kind of legalism in question is a form of pharisaism, wherein one is felt to have achieved probity before the law by ticking various boxes, or adhering to a bare minimum of external observances; and the law which is being described here is not the moral law at all (as that would run contrary to the essence of relativism) but the civic law – which also has increasingly few objective moral foundations.
As we have discarded any objective standard of right and wrong, the only thing we have left ourselves to appeal to when discerning the rightness of our actions is the civic law; and furthermore, as laws in Western countries are becoming less and less informed by any traditional understanding of a moral code as an objective basis for decision making, they are more and more becoming a reflection of shifts in public opinion. This results in our looking to observe a law which we have made according to our own lights, and to endorse our own preferences – we are essentially asking a reflection of ourselves in a mirror what to do, and then doing it.
Ironically though, perhaps because of the felt lack of foundation to our moral lives, we seem to be clinging to the civic law ever more tightly, becoming more legalistic, and more judgemental of those who transgress the law. Our increasing demand for an abstractly defined set of individual ‘rights’ has led to a corresponding decrease in appreciation for the obligations we owe others, and a cooling of charity. Our moral lives, such as they are, have become purely external, and we are losing the Spirit-guided empathy with our fellow man that had lain at the heart of our previous moral allegiances. Moreover, a greater irony lies in the fact that the Christian moral code we rejected was itself set against precisely this externalised form of morality!
We rejected Christianity because it represented perceived restrictions on our liberty (i.e.; the ‘right’ to do whatever we want), and have instead embraced a view of the moral world that has no substance, leaving us with no other option but to cling to the letter of the civic law, which we now create in our own image. We have rejected the only true foundation of freedom – that of living in freely chosen harmony with God’s will, instead of being enslaved to an external adherence to the Law – and ended up with an external adherence to a law which cannot, by its very nature, guide us into the freedom of virtue, but only lead us further and further into our own selfishness.
At least the Mosaic Law, susceptible to legalism as it was, had the benefit of being divinely decreed, and at its heart was geared towards our living rightly. We are now wedded to a law which binds us solely to our own wills, which, thanks to our newly described concept of liberty, are essentially oriented towards the self. We have got the worst of both worlds – enslavement to the law, and enslavement to the ego. We want to be able to do what we want, but in our innate need for some structure to our moral lives we cling to an arbitrary law of our own making, becoming legalists and hedonists – those who live as they like within a law that reflects their own desires, but judge others who do not meet its requirements.
The aspects of our contemporary laws that are most often seen as touchstones to be adhered to, and which people are thus shunned for transgressing in some way, are those to do with equality and human rights legislation, all of which are underpinned by a doctrine that equates equality with sameness, and interprets individual rights as naked autonomy, with the right to assert particular desires as both normative and immune from criticism (e.g.; the increasingly long list of lifestyles officially endorsed by LGBT rights legislation – see here for some useful commentary on this). It is not enough to tolerate lifestyles and opinions different to one’s own – it is now necessary, according to the letter of the new law, to endorse such lifestyles and opinions, or risk judgement (at the very least) from the rest of the community.
These legislations are increasingly to do with promoting a view of the world that is relativistic, and in that respect actually amoral, as well as at the same time creating a culture in which adherence to the letter of these laws is necessary for social approval – the modern Pharisee does not bother with phylacteries and fringes, but rather with assent to various secular doctrines which, paradoxically, further the cause of those who wish there to be no restrictions on their personal lives. We have become a box-ticking culture, and a very judgemental one, yet have simultaneously severed ourselves from any kind of moral foundation that might guide the reasons we give for ticking those boxes. In fact, the boxes exist to support and promote that lack of foundation.
There is also another sense in which moral relativism has led to a more legalistic culture, and this connects more deeply with the world of legal-righteousness that was rejected by Christianity in favour of a more liberating ethic focusing on the heart of the commandments. We have also, in our focus on individual rights, lost any sense of how those rights are connected to obligations. Because we look to the civic law to tell us what is right, and because that law says absolutely nothing about virtue, we are slowly losing (indeed, to a great extent have already lost) any sense that ‘being a good person’ might include charity as an absolutely integral element of its makeup.
Whilst we demand our rights, we neglect the rights of others – our culture has become all about me, and because we look to an almost wholly arbitrary series of laws to guide us in our conduct, which say nothing about honour, decency, or virtue, we are not guided to anything else except the protection of our own interests. Having also rejected the Christian law of love, which counsels us to ‘not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness’ (Romans 6:13), we are left with nothing to guide our hearts, and an external law which does not guide at all, but only enables us to judge others for disagreeing with certain officially endorsed subjective preferences.
An excellent article at The Imaginative Conservative here explores this topic in much greater detail, and connects the lack of guidance we have brought upon ourselves with a decrease in charitable acts and in judgement towards our neighbour thus:
‘There have been in recent months reports of cities punishing private citizens, organizations, and ministries from breaking bread with their homeless brethren. While the legal reasons for this prohibition are many and varied, the root reason is that in the view of the state, individuals cannot meet the needs of their neighbours, and therefore should be legally prohibited from doing so. In such instances, the message is clear: it is wrong for a man of charitable heart to act thereupon. Doing so will incur legal consequence. It would seem that the human obligation of helping those in need is trumped by the law. Confusingly, such laws put forward that it is not the act that is illegal (and therefore wrong), but rather by whom this act is performed. How very curious. It is written on man’s heart to help his neighbour, but it would seem that this is not enough.’
We demand our rights, and services to meet our needs, but demand very little of ourselves, and are confirmed in this by the ever-increasing encroachment of the State into our lives – a State which counsels by decrees we have designed to support our desire to live unto ourselves, the way we wish to. The irony of our rejecting Christianity – which as Saint Paul wrote, was about true freedom (c.f. Galatians 5:1-15), and of true sacrificial love being the fulfilment of the Mosaic Law, and of all laws – to accept a situation where we judge others for not adhering to ideas with no foundation, are more enslaved to our sins than ever, and have become legalistic about the laws we create to justify our sinful behaviour, is great indeed.
True freedom though, as I have written about before here, really is available for the individual by giving oneself to Jesus Christ, and for whole societies, an embracing of the Christian ethic is to place their decision making in a framework that has both freedom and charity as part of its very essence. To have had the offer of abundant life (no matter how often it may have been ignored or abused in the past) at the heart of our corporate life, and to have replaced it with a system that manages to be both tyrannical and permissive at the same time, is very sad. However, it is never too late to turn back the clock.