Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When Liberty is Too Much

This is an in-class essay that I wrote for my grade 12 English class earlier this month. My teacher vehemently disagrees with my position, yet has conceded that my essay is "undeniably well written" and that I have well-supported my position with my citations. For posterity, I have transcribed the essay and am posting it here on Epagonizesthai, with some minor changes in form, including a few minor revisions suggested my teacher.

When Liberty is Too Much

When Individualism Reaches Excess

"It's my own life and I'll live it how ever I want." This is (arguably) the rallying cry of our age. Many in our generation do not like being told what to do, and would prefer to set themselves as their own final authority. If anyone says that there are higher standards and virtues that we are to be held accountable to, let him be anathema!

Of course, this is not to say that we are one hundred percent self-centered all of the time. No sane person could live such a way. As writer John Langone has pointed out,

If you always thought only of yourself, chances are you wouldn’t think about being loyal to anyone. You might betray those around [you], and be betrayed by them. There would be no reason to distinguish between right and wrong because whatever you felt was right would be right.[1]

This kind of attitude is what inevitable takes us to moral relativism, which is defined as the belief that there are no absolute moral standards, that right and wrong are relative to the individual (or group if you have that herd mentality), and eschews the notion that moral judgments can be grounded in any way, so that moral reasoning becomes a completely subjective endeavor.[2]

This brings to mind one particular incident when the popular writer and thinker Ravi Zacharias was speaking at Oxford University. At that time, some students came up to him and insisted that absolute values don’t exist. As Zacharias recounts,

I asked one of them whether it would be wrong for me to take a butcher knife and cut to pieces a one-year-old child for sheer delight. There was a pause, and then he said, to an audible from those listening, “I would not like what you did, but I would not honestly say that it would be wrong.”[3]

It sounds sick, doesn’t it? And yet the student in that encounter was being logically consistent in his beliefs. How indeed can we say that it is wrong? When Pol Pot murdered millions of his countrymen and claimed, “My conscience is clear,” we may protest at his grotesque depravity, but do we have any solid basis for even making such a judgment? A consistent moral relativist would have to say no. This is what happens when we turn ourselves as individuals into our own personal “ground of all being.” If we follow this paradigm to its logical conclusion, we end up with Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil.” Like Nietzsche, we would dismiss caring for the “little guy” as utter folly, saying that those who do, “have preserved too much that which should have perished,” and be, “work[ing] for the deterioration of the European [or in our case the human] race.”[4]

And yet, those who espouse this view become “moralists” in denouncing those who defend the notion of absolute right and wrong. These pundits will preach and pontificate on their paradigm, even though they have no real basis for doing so, As Philip Yancey has observed,

The pioneers of unmorality [sic] have practiced a blatant contradiction… the new moralists first proclaim that morality is capricious, perhaps even a joke, then proceed to use moral categories to condemn their opponents… These new high priests lecture us solemnly about multiculturalism, gender equality, homophobia and environmental degradation, all the while ignoring the fact that they have systematically destroyed any basis for judging such behavior [as] right or wrong. The emperor so quick to discourse about fashion happens to be stark naked.[5]

This has also been the critique on our education system, as Robert Nielsen (in his review of writer Allan Bloom’s book, “Closing the American Mind” writes:

Literate or not, earnest or trifling, rich or poor, nearly every student… enters university with one fixed belief—that truth is relative. Students assume that areas are valid only for their time and place, or perhaps only for the individual holding them; that there are no universal and eternal verities for people to learn and live by. This leaves everyone free to think and do as they please, without worrying about right and wrong, so long as they don’t infringe on others’ freedom to do otherwise. The only sin is intolerance.[6]

What if we had a math class where every individual is free to decide for himself what the sum of two plus two is, and anybody who claims that any answer other than four is wrong is immediately branded as “close-minded” and “intolerant.” It sounds like a surreal scenario, yet that is the kind of logic that is being propagated by schools and by popular culture today. It is no wonder that many of our youth end up broken and disillusioned as they grow older. We need to break out of this individualistic mentality of relativism. It is my contention that we have lost our grounding on matters of truth and morality, and must bring ourselves to the consequences of our ideas, not to mention those higher standards of absolute truth and right and wrong that we have so foolishly relinquished. Then, and only then may we be able to find our way, rather than spinning our own heads around hopelessly in circles.

End Notes
  1. Langone, John. Thorny Issues: How Ethics and Morality Affect the Way We live. Little, Brown and Company, 1981. p. 9-10.
  2. Spinello, Richard. “Relativism.” Ethics: Revised Edition, Volume 3. Salem Press, 2005. p. 1252.
  3. Zacharias, Ravi. Light in the Shadow of Jihad: The Struggle for Truth. Multnomah Publishers, 2002. p. 21.
  4. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. PlanetPDF.com, 1886. p. 95-96.
  5. Yancey, Philip. “Biological Imperative Does not Cause People to Act Ethically.” Ethics: Current Controversies. Greenhaven Press, 2000. p. 38.
  6. Nielsen, Robert. “The Closing of the (North) American Mind.” Echoes: Fiction, Media and Non-Fiction. Oxford University Press, 2002. p. 327.

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