Considered by conservatives to be one of postmodern society’s greatest threats, moral relativism may now be a relic of the past.
Four years before he was hoisted to Speaker of the House, a smooth-faced Representative Paul Ryan declared, “If you ask me what the biggest problem in America is, I’m not going to tell you debt, deficits, statistics, economics—I’ll tell you it’s moral relativism.” It was a bold claim given the depth of the economic recession, which began years earlier. But Ryan was echoing the sentiments of his conservative ancestors who’d made similar claims.
Moral relativism has been a conservative boogeyman since at least the Cold War. Conservative stalwarts like William F. Buckley claimed that liberals had accepted a view that morality was culturally or historically defined—“what’s right for you may not be right for me”—instead of universal and timeless. It’s true that the ethical framework was en vogue, particularly in places of higher education. Liberal college professors stocked conservatives’ arsenals with copious quotes to back up the claim that a squishy, flimsy understanding of morality had taken root in America.
Conservatives and liberals alike often use Supreme Court decisions and legislation to argue whether their side is winning or losing. But often the cultural zeitgeist is expressed through cultural artifacts. Film, art, literature, and music act as a barometer, signaling a society’s prevailing attitudes before they ever trickle into the public square. As the 17th-century Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher put it, “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”
The shift in cultural artifacts from the late 20th century to now illuminates America’s changing moral framework. Popular music in 1990s, for example, was marked by a live-and-let-live mindset voiced by musicians such as Kurt Cobain. Today’s top-40 charts look much different.
As Helen Rittelmeyer argued in The American Spectator, “Breaking taboos for shock value is relativism; breaking taboos as a means rather than an end is not, which gives Lady Gaga and Seth MacFarlane an alibi…over-processed chart-slayers like Katy Perry and Ke$ha don’t act as if they want to be judged by the brutal honesty of their self-expression, and neither do mannered indie darlings like the Decemberists.”
Rittelmeyer points also to recent trends in cinema, which are now dominated by heroes who draw clear moral lines. Modern audiences do not wonder if Voldemort or the Joker is actually justified, right, or moral.
“Virtue, authority, and law and order are all in fashion, as the bank accounts of Chris Nolan, J.K. Rowling, and Marvel Comics will attest,” Rittelmeyer says, “There are still plenty of enemies for conservative culture warriors to fight, but relativism is no longer one of them.”
Thoughtful conservatives who are less concerned with waging culture wars have begun to admit that such a shift is occurring. In The New York Times last week, David Brooks argued that while American college campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media.
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