A Paralysis of Moral Relativism

A tweet from Salon.com read,

“Pundits decrying the barbarity of ISIS might wanna take a closer look at American history”

The tweet linked to an article by Bill Moyers. In that article, “When America behaved like ISIS: Jesse Washington and the Bible Belt’s dark history of public lynchings” posted Tuesday, February 10, 2015 on salon.com, Moyers describes a particularly brutal lynching in 1916 of a young black man who was burned alive to the apparent delight of a large crowd and draws a clear parallel with the recent burning alive by ISIS of a captured pilot.

Moyers is suggesting that we are hypocrites in condemning the actions of ISIS because we have similar injustices somewhere in our cultural or genetic ancestry.

Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama drew a similar parallel:

“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

The President followed his comment with a discourse on humility and in that sense, his “high horse” comment was not inappropriate. But it followed a question he posed on how should people of faith deal with “those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends,” concluding that we should deal with them with humility and love.

The logical consequence of accepting Moyers’ implication of hypocrisy is that no one is ever qualified to criticize evil for no one on Earth does not have somewhere in their cultural or genetic ancestry doers of evil. If we are not even qualified to criticize evil, how can we justify fighting it?

The President’s prescription is equally paralyzing. The consequence of attempting to practice humility and love in the face of aggressive evil is to let evil have its way. For Christians in Syria and Iraq, having lived there peacefully and inoffensively for centuries, when faced with the advance of ISIS, their pacific nature did not save them or their children.

Love and humility are not to be discounted. It works to prevent the rise of evil, but once evil has taken root and flowered somewhere, history shows love and humility alone do not stop it. If and when evil is defeated by other means, then love and humility are needed to heal the wounds left behind.

History does not show that we are equally evil, but that we are equally human. What separates us and the barbarians of ISIS are our choices. And the single most powerful influence on our choices is the value framework we are raised with and how we as individuals respond to that influence. We are equally human, but not morally equivalent except when we make morally equivalent choices.

Unless we continue them, the sins of our fathers are not our sins. Both Moyers and the President neglected to mention the counter forces at play in our history. Our moral culture is not the child of slavery, but of the anti-slavery movement that defeated it; it is not the child of lynchers, but of the civil rights movement that defeated them. The story could have been different, but it wasn’t. The evils in our past lost to the better angels in our nature. Willy-nilly, we inherit our history; but it is there to learn from, not to bind us.

I think there are some things to learn from this.

  • First, the paralysis of moral equivalence guarantees the victory of evil.
  • Second, Moyers’ and the President’s ability to identify slavery, lynching, and the actions of ISIS as evil show they share a moral standard (or at least assume their audience does). But the ISIS gang also share a moral standard. They claim to believe their atrocities are called for by God and therefore morally justified. But when we excuse ourselves from judging others’ morality because we are not perfect, then for all practical purposes, we render ourselves amoral.
  • Third, in every culture, moral standards evolve over time – downward as well as upward. Only recently in human history has slavery been considered immoral. The challenge is differentiating between upward and downward moral trends and between the good and bad potentials of human nature through the study of history, human nature and the consequences of contemporary moral trends.
  • Fourth, incompatible moralities cannot long coexist, just as the pro and anti slavery factions could not long coexist in America. To be moral one is forced to choose a moral standard. To not choose is to be amoral. Evil arises from the cesspools of human nature where we find our darker impulses of envy, resentment, hate, anger, greed, lust, and sloth, but amorality by definition cannot distinguish the moral from the immoral – anger and patience, greed and generosity become equivalent.

Morality requires us to choose to engage in a continuing struggle to rise above our darker passions. Evil only requires surrender.

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