In a recent article, I applauded a colleague for adapting a play to our school stage —Songs for a New World. This play, I contended, marked quite a radical departure from the standard Politically Correct line insofar as it resoundingly affirmed “the morality of individuality.” This phrase, I noted, was coined by a conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, and refers to “the belief that human beings are first and foremost individuals distinguished on account of their capacity to make and to delight in making their own choices” (italics original).
Quoting Oakeshott, I elaborated, observing that from this perspective, “‘morality consists in the recognition of individual personality whenever it appears.’” He adds that “‘personality is so far sacrosanct that no man has either a right or a duty to promote the moral perfection of another,” for in doing so we inevitably destroy “their ‘freedom’ which is the condition of moral goodness.”
Translation: slavery, of any form, is immoral—even if undertaken for the individual’s own good.
Incredulous, I remarked that the play invoked the imagery of the explorers of 1492 as “an emblem of individuality”—imagery featuring those in search of a “new world” calling upon God to guide them. I wrote that while He is “‘not explicitly invoked throughout all of the play’s numbers, the invocation of God at the outset of Songs sets a tone for all that follows. God, even when not acknowledged, is a source of hope and strength in every ‘moment of decision.’”
I explicitly contrasted this vision of morality with that of Political Correctness, a morality according to which “human conduct is all too often reduced to being the plaything of “‘social structures,’ ‘the system,’ ‘society,’ etc.’”
For writing all of this, I was accused by an editor of a publication that claims to be friendly to both liberty and the Christian faith of endorsing “moral relativism.”
First, to be clear: moral relativists are as nonexistent in the real world as they are in the world of academia. That the left-wing relativist of the right-wing imagination is a fiction can be proven easily enough: For a brief moment, those on the right need only consider how dogmatic, how doctrinaire, how absolutely certain is the leftist about his positions on abortion, affirmative action, “equality,” and every other issue to which he speaks. If only the leftist was a moral relativist!
Second, if anyone can be said to be a moral relativist (and even this is debatable) it is those philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche who expressly reject the existence of God. Nietzsche famously declared “the death of God”—meaning the end of the belief in objective morality.
In other words, Nietzsche recognized something upon which legions of believers—and other (but certainly not all) atheistic philosophers—insist: If there is no God, there is no objective morality.
God, you see, is the basis of moral truth, that which prevents moral judgments from dissolving into preferences of taste.
How, then, given my excitement over the theological subtext of this play, the manner in which it underwrites the morality of individuality with belief in God, could I of all people be seen as advocating moral relativism?
Finally, if I am a moral relativist for celebrating the morality of individuality, then so is every anti-collectivist that has ever lived a moral relativist—including God.
This last point is particularly crucial. I wrote that “the use of the imagery of the Spanish sailing ships of 1492 underscores the point that every lover of liberty aches to see impressed upon the world: the exercise of individuality, the making of choices, is, or at least should be seen as, an epic moral adventure in character building” (italics added). Here, I state what should be obvious to every lover of liberty: individuality and liberty are inseparable.
There is more. For thousands of years, theists have sought to justify their faith in God in the face of evil by appealing to human free will. God made human beings in His image, it’s been said. And this means that He’s given them the ability to make choices, choices for good—and choices for evil. Still, God knows that this uniquely human capacity is intrinsically valuable, that without it, human beings, being no different than puppets, would be as undeserving of praise as of blame—and, thus, incapable of friendship with Him.
It is the capacity for choice, not the substance of each and every individual choice, in which the morality of individuality centers. This is what my critic either wouldn’t or couldn’t grasp.
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at email@example.com or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.