Students Are Moral Relativists: Problem and Solution

The Problem

One thing I’ve learned in my years of teaching in the U.S. is that many young Americans are moral relativists. As students in elementary and secondary schools, they were taught that there is no moral fact of the matter. Thus, when people disagree about moral issues, their different perspectives are equally valid. It would be wrong to criticize anyone from another culture who sees things differently.

For example, my son’s high school English teacher wanted her students to say that child slavery in Ghana is morally permissible, the unstated premise being that there are no absolute moral principles that apply to all cultures at all times and places. In my college teaching, I often encounter the results of such thinking.

If I leave students’ relativism unchallenged and ask “Was the Holocaust evil and immoral?” many students will say “No.” “Was slavery evil and immoral?” I ask. Students often respond, “No. At the time people thought it was moral; society said it was moral, so it was moral.”

I often describe female genital mutilation, practiced in places like rural Sudan and argue that it is immoral because it is painful, involuntary, can lead to infection and death and removes the possibility of feeling sexual pleasure. Thus, this practice is immoral. But my students frequently respond, “That’s just your perspective. The Sudanese would be unlikely to agree with you.”

Students enter my classroom believing nothing is truly good or evil and that moral beliefs are the result of what society says. Their moral nihilism can be seen when they write good and evil with scare quotes—i.e., “good” and “evil”—and when they demonstrate their desire to tolerate any evil imaginable as long as it is practiced in another culture.

Teachers are apparently so worried that moral disagreements will lead to conflicts that they teach that “everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

Well-meaning liberal teachers think they are thereby promoting “tolerance,” but they are actually unintentionally producing moral nihilism in their students, leaving them with the moral compass of a psychopath.

The term “Islamophobia” is now used by teachers and professors to prevent legitimate criticism of Muslim cultural practices and behaviors. The liberal media are mostly silent about Pakistani rape gangs in England, the killing of homosexuals, and the ill-treatment of women. Moral relativism and its cousin cultural relativism (the notion that moral criticism of another culture is neither possible nor permissible) are widely taken to be true in America.

There is one enormous exception to the prohibition on cultural criticism. Liberal teachers and professors, meaning very nearly all of them, think Western culture is to be condemned as ethnocentric and immoral, with the crime of colonialism being the chief criticism. All other cultures, however, must be defended against all-comers in the name of tolerance, anti-racism, and anti-ethnocentrism. They are beyond criticism and most students accept that.

Of course, it isn’t just college students who are moral relativists. Many of their professors are. For example, I was accused of being a racist by a college professor from Wisconsin for condemning the sexual attacks on non-Muslim German women in Cologne during the 2016 New Year’s Eve celebrations.

He quibbled that mostly Egyptians were involved rather than Syrian refugees. I replied that my concern was Muslim immigration to Europe in general, not just Syrians. His response was that I was implying that all Muslim immigrants are rapists and that I was a despicable racist for saying such a thing, which of course I had not said.

The Solution

I have found that it is not difficult to get students to abandon their relativism. Here’s my approach.

Students will agree that it would be immoral to ask someone for a ride to the airport but then refuse to ever return the favor. Students will also agree that it would be unfair to distribute grades in class arbitrarily. They will agree that helping the elderly with their taxes is morally good and that intentionally running them over with their cars is not.

The point is to show them that our most basic moral intuition concerns justice. 

Evidence that moral thinking is not a “social construct” can be shown further by pointing to elements of morality that are demonstrated in the animal kingdom. For example, as this video shows, a monkey that sees that his neighbor continues to get a grape for doing a specific task while he is now given cucumber for that same activity will express frustration and outrage.

Students can thus see that justice is not a human invention.

Most students do in fact behave in a moral fashion, despite the moral nihilism promoted in schools and colleges. But these false doctrines can only undermine their dedication to pursuing moral goods and they can also leave them incapable of thinking coherently about how to deal with Muslim terrorism or other crucial moral issues of the day. Without a coherent moral framework, students are prone to crazed witch hunts and scapegoating.

Examples include the figurative lynching last fall of the Yale faculty member who said that perhaps “offensive” Halloween costumes should be permissible. She and her husband were forced to resign their positions. More recently, students on social media said that expressing sympathy for the murdered French citizens was “racist” because similar sympathy was not being expressed for victims in some Third World countries.

By starting with students’ own moral practices and intuitions concerning justice, a professor can lead them in productive conversations about moral matters. The most important step is to point out the contradiction in saying that there are no moral standards that apply to everyone, and then prohibiting legitimate criticism of other cultures. For in that case, there are indeed moral principles that apply to everyone and criticism of other cultures is not simply being “intolerant.”

I have had success in getting students to agree that the Holocaust was immoral, that female genital mutilation is immoral, that slavery in other cultures is immoral. Some students express the concern that for changing their beliefs in these ways, they will be judged racist and immoral by their contemporaries. But that is a risk that all moral realists must face.

  • DrOfnothing

    There is not a single credible UK news source reporting on these alleged “Pakistani rape gangs.” Cultural tolerance does not equal moral nihilism, and it is profoundly misguided to argue that it does. There are certainly Humanistic values that are inherent in a Liberal Arts education, but other Pope Center writers have advocated so vociferously against this ideological stance that it is hard to imagine support of it every being published here. What you are arguing for, instead, is a very simplistic notion of Judeo-Christian values, and claiming they are universals. Instead, if you want to assert some type of universal moral code that can serve as a rational basis for policy, you should reference the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of course, “human rights” itself is a deeply political construct, and most scholars of it would argue that it can easily be twisted into a tool of neo-colonialism. In short, the whole equation of morality you are proposing does not hew at all with either our current understandings of moral philosophy or the landscape of political and cultural power in the globe today. More importantly, you are doing exactly what other writers on this site have condemned, roundly, other academics for–promoting your own ideological stance in the classroom. Either way, sir, you need to update your paradigm and stop partying like it’s 1959!

    • Cromulent

      Pakistani rape = Rotherham.

      Oh, almost forgot: you are disgusting.

      • DrOfnothing

        All we needed was the reference: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-28939089

        Personal insults will get you nowhere.

        • joshgl

          Is their trolling on this site? You sound so much like a parody that it’s hard to take you seriously? In any case, I don’t think the udohr is what the author is getting at.

          • DrOfnothing

            I address the author’s points directly, I simply disagree with him. That’s not trolling, it’s merely an argument. Do you have anything substantive to add to the conversation? If so, by all means.

          • Richard Cocks

            I have published in The People of Shambhala mostly, The Orthosphere, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, Praesidium (The Center for Literate Values), The Brussels Journal and have a forthcoming book review in The University Bookman. The requirement that I publish in liberal journals makes no more sense than asking feminists to publish in conservative journals.

            Topics include: emotions and modernity, love in the western
            world, nihilism in the movies, why there will never be conscious robots, Ken Wilber, John Locke, existentialism, Darwin and morality, Nietzsche, ethics and metaphysics. If this sounds narrow and purely ideological, it is not.

          • DrOfnothing

            Just out of curiosity, may I ask why you have avoided the more standard journals in the field (e.g. Philosophical Review, J of Philosophy, American Philosophical Quarterly, European Philosophical Quarterly, etc.)?

        • Richard Cocks

          I guess the question is: which kind of villainy practiced by another culture you would like to defend? I have given you many examples in the article. Which one would you like to choose? If you choose none, then you agree that these particular practices are immoral.

          • DrOfnothing

            There is a difference between arguing that, by our standards, these practices are immoral, and generalizing about all students and the vast majority of faculty and then blaming it on Liberal ideology.

            What I am curious about is two things:
            1.) why you don’t list any examples of immorality in US society, and omit some of the quite heinous acts and policies of the last Republican administration (e.g. waterboarding and other types of torture, Guatanamo Bay, rendition, indefinite incarceration without trial).
            and
            2.) why you use such hyperbole in your descriptions, since this only serves to trivialize a more interesting and significant point. To say that promoting tolerance leaves students “with the moral compass of a psychopath” is patently absurd.

    • Richard Cocks

      Dear Drofnothing,
      Here is the argument for cultural relativism: There are no absolute universal moral principles that apply to all cultures, at all times and all places. “Therefore, it is always morally wrong to criticize other cultures, regardless of culture, time or place.”
      This is a flat out logical contradiction and is therefore not true. And with regard to modern moral philosophy, a rejection of moral and cultural relativism is the absolute norm. Moral and cultural relativism are mostly promoted by those with no philosophical training whatsoever and certainly not predominately by moral philosophers.

      • DrOfnothing

        I think it’s important here to distinguish to between _complete_ cultural relativism, which only a very small segment of those in the academic community would advocate, and the common call not to make moral judgments in ignorance or assume that one’s own moral code in inherently superior to all others. Your argument belies the complexity of this issue, and ignores the problematic nature of absolute moral judgments sans context. For example, most people would agree that courage is a moral virtue. But courage alone does not make a person “good,” since history is rife with horrible acts committed by very brave men and women. Similarly, those singularly lacking in moral virtues have not infrequently committed acts that were of considerable benefit to their societies. I was raised being told, again and again, that the Soviets were evil and bent on world domination. Now, 25 years after 1989 and having come to know, quite initmately, folks who lived behind the Iron Curtain, I know that this was both inaccurate and unfair (and you have implied that “fairness” should be a moral absolute, no?). For example, many older Russians deeply mourn the old system, since they had free health care, security from violence, a job, and a place to live (all of which can be much more tenuous under the crony-capitalist system that has replaced Communism).

        You’re right in arguing that absolute cultural relativism, if poorly taught, can lead to some rather skewed moral judgments. But arguing that the solution is to instead teach moral absolutes can foster knee-jerk judgments that, in their own way, can be every bit as damaging. Painting other cultures with a broad brush as being inherently evil is one of the most effective precursor justifications for genocide, and that’s exactly what we are trying to prevent! Perhaps the greatest lesson we can teach young people is to have the moral courage to come to their own conclusions about right and wrong, rather than trying to convince them that cultural relativism will make them “psychopaths” and moral realism will make them saints.

  • To paraphrase the Bagavad Gita, which says,
    Grow attached you become addicted.
    Become addicted you lose discrimination.
    Lose discrimination you lose a life purpose.

    These students were taught to be addicted to a Multi-Kulti myth and they have lost discrimination between right and wrong.

  • I do not understand how the word Racist can hold such power over people. People know who and what they are. It’s a bogus bully word, and the solution to the intimidation of bullies is to bully back since power is the modus operendi they understand. In the real world, biggest bully wins, since forever, like it or not.
    I have found when that word has been thrown at me via intolerance in discussion, I forcefully throw it back that I know I am not. Bullies are so used to others kowtowing they usually back off when confronted by more power, personal power and force of will.
    Kids need to learn to stick up for themselves, but they have been molded into brainwashed blobs, if they stick up for slavery, FGM, beheading for leaving or not joining a fascist ideology of male supremacists hellbent on apartheid and totalitarianism with pedophilia thrown in.

  • Rafterman

    I’ve heard professors saying this about students for decades now, but I’m not sure that it is true. First, I have a lot of very religious students, and they are not moral relativists. Second, some students might take a cultural relativist approach to some aspects of human life, but very few embrace a full-blown moral relativism. I rarely have a student who thinks that if some culture embraces cannibalism, then it is OK for the people of that culture to eat other people.

    I suggest experimenting with the students a bit. I remember getting a bunch of my students to express the belief that morality was relative followed by my asking if they believed in human rights. They all believed in human rights. I then pointed out that moral relativism was inconsistent with universal human rights. I don’t know if these students are relativists or if they are just massively confused.