Modern vs. Western Thought: Relativism vs. Virtue

William H. Young

Except in condemning and disparaging Western civilization, multiculturalism’s mantra of morality is that one must not be judgmental—relativism and subjectivism are thus its tenets.

In relativism, concepts such as right and wrong, goodness and evil, or truth and falsehood are not absolute, but change from culture to culture and situation to situation. Absent belief in a common human nature, there is seen to be no basis for an objective understanding of right and wrong as a basis for virtue.

In Modern subjectivism, relativism replaces virtue, feelings replace reason, mere opinion replaces knowledge, illusion replaces reality, emotion replaces reflection, unconscious bias replaces evidence, instinct replaces intuition, solipsism replaces empathy, and adolescence replaces adulthood.

Moral Relativism

Allan Bloom titled the Introduction to The Closing of the American Mind (1987) “Our Virtue” and observed: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative….Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue…. Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.”[1]

Tragically, a recent report on the state of America’s youth by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and other collaborators, Lost in Transition (2011), found that things have become even worse since Bloom expressed his views. Their quantitative survey and in-depth qualitative interviews explored moral reasoning among 18- to 23-year old’s. Smith identified

five major problems facing very many young people today: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life. The trouble does not lie only with the emerging adults or their poor individual decisions but has much deeper roots in mainstream American culture—a culture that emerging adults have largely inherited rather than created.[2]

Smith blames the moral relativism in the adult as well as youth culture upon the powerful influence of postmodernism that began as academic theories in the 1980s and 1990s, spread through the humanities and social sciences in colleges and universities, and became widespread in American culture.

Simplified versions…were now a driving influence on MTV and in high school “world cultures” classes.” By the time it reached the American hoi polloi, postmodernism had become a simple-minded ideology presupposing the cultural construction of everything, individualistic subjectivism, soft ontological antirealism, and absolute moral relativism. All of this is very evident in emerging adult culture as well.[3]

Smith found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism. In response to questions about right and wrong and moral dilemmas, interviewees did not have the categories or vocabulary to say anything sensible. They have not been given the resources—by schools, institutions, and families—to cultivate their moral intuitions. Their judgments about right and wrong came down to what they felt about something themselves at the moment, about which Smith observed the following:

The adult world of American culture and society is failing very many of its youth when it comes to moral matters. We are…sending…most of them out into the world without the basic intellectual tools and basic personal formation needed to think and express even the most elementary of reasonably defensible moral thoughts and claims…

Consider one example of this kind of moral failing. Central to many of the confusions in emerging adult moral reasoning is the inability to distinguish between objectively real moral truths or facts and people’s human perceptions or understandings of those moral truths or facts. The error of not distinguishing these two things is this: the realities themselves are confused with, and therefore dependent upon, people’s cognitive grasp of them. What actually exists is conflated into what is believed to exist. But these are different things that must be kept separate….

Yet most emerging adults do not understand that….They think that people believing something to be morally true is what makes it morally true.[4]

Ironically and tragically, we see how deeply into American life the academy’s subjectivism, dismissal of truth, social construction of reality, and acceptance of feeling as the basis for decisions has penetrated. Objective reality has been replaced by the cultural construction of reality by the cultural group.

The Meaning of Sex

In his award-winning article “The Meaning of Sex” in The Weekly Standard, Peter Wood added a later, further, and powerful perspective:

“Sex without meaning” is, paradoxically, an important and meaningful idea in contemporary life….Of course, sex outside long-term attachment is nothing new….But the attempt to make sex into a recreational activity equally available to men and women and free for both from the burdens of shame and guilt is something pretty new….It took the peculiar combination of feminist advocacy, the gay rights revolution, modern technology, the breakdown of the two-parent family, and the liberated college campus to create the conditions whereby this assault on human nature could have the opportunity to play itself out….

The distortion of women’s sexuality plainly distorts men’s sexuality as well, though in a more deferred way. Men, instead of learning how to be responsible, committed partners and eventually husbands and fathers, learn that the pleasure-seeking dimension of their sexuality can be sustained with relative ease. As a result, the men shun social maturity. The women who are veterans of the hooking up culture find that, once they are in it, their options for getting out are reduced. The fictionalized portrayal of this situation is the hit TV show Girls.

All this distorts and diminishes the lives of those who are caught up in the pursuit of sex without attachment. They eventually become those for whom genuine attachment is far more difficult. There are also less obvious consequences. As the philosopher Peter Kreeft has pointed out, the disruption in college of traditional sexual mores is part of the devaluation of truth and the rise of subjectivism; the emphasis on instant gratification undermines the habits of character that depend on patience and longer-term planning and it cuts away the authority of the past in favor of the instant wisdom of the present and utopian dreams about the future. As Kreeft puts it, “If you want to restore liberal education, restore sexual morality. And if you want to restore sexual morality, restore liberal education. The same virtues of honor, self-control, innocence, purity, respect, patience, courage, and honesty are cultivated in both places. They reinforce each other.”…

Both biologically and culturally, we need to plant ourselves in an order that accommodates our sexual complementarity. The meaning of sex is that it leads somewhere—somewhere beyond orgasms and the excitements of strangers. An older generation called that “somewhere” marriage.[5]

The New Antinomian Attitude

In his contribution to The State of the American Mind (2015), First Things’ Editor R. R. Reno argues that one feature of Modern thought is the new antinomian attitude. Reno attributes that attitude to the social philosopher Norman O. Brown, whose book, Life Against Death (1959) “gave theoretical expression to the counterculture of the 1960s.” Brown made “desire” the redemptive principle of social science. Reno explains:

The American Mind has a moral dimension, one transformed in recent decades in a fundamental way….[It] has reorganized itself to be as solicitous as possible of desire’s longings, giving itself a whole different path of obedience. Today, we do our moral reasoning in an Empire of Desire….

We find an antinomian sensibility, which means a tacit conviction that human beings flourish to the degree that they’re free to satisfy their personal desires, even if those desires run against long-standing moral traditions and [certain] mainstream norms. What makes for happiness and fulfillment—and here we enter into the metaphysical dream that defines our era—is an Empire of Desire. Ministered to by a therapeutic vocabulary of empowerment, the pedagogy of multiculturalism, and our dominant paradoxical moral code of non-judgmentalism, this empire has come to dominate the American Mind….

Today…postmodern cultural theory teaches that social norms and cultural ideals are nothing more than the extruded, solidified manifestations of the primitive, primeval dimensions of the human psyche: sexual desires, will-to-power, a lust for domination, and so forth. Even our selfish goals—to look thin or dress for success—are analyzed as social constructs energized by manipulative advertising driven by capitalist desire for profit. All norms, including those we impose on ourselves, emerge from a more primary circulation of desire….

In this regime, moral authority is largely exercised for a very specific purpose: to minimize the psychological power of moral authority. Middle school teachers catechize their students. One…must be nonjudgmental. We’re now trained to counter the slightest hint of judgment with discretionary gestures. “Speaking as I do from a white, privileged, first-world perspective,” and so on. It is forbidden to forbid, and our moral judgments need to be transformed into their true meaning, that is expressions of class bias, historical circumstances, or (best of all) personal preferences.

The greatest threat we face is not…global warming, nuclear proliferation, genocide, or poverty, pressing as these problems may be. The antinomian revolution in the postmodern West poses a deeper, more fundamental, and profound existential threat to the human future, because it erodes the cultural capital necessary for a morally robust response to these challenges and others. The richest and most powerful countries of the world are dominated by an elite that, however individually well-intentioned and personally influenced by inherited moral traditions, think as Brown urges, giving priority to desire….

We have accepted the bargain—a public culture of petty regulations and forthright economic discipline in exchange for freedom to live in accord with our private, intimate desires. The best one can hope for, I suppose, is to detail the havoc that desire’s metaphysical priority produces—broken families, broken relationships, social pathologies.[6]

Adler on Moral Virtue

In Ten Philosophic Mistakes (1985), Mortimer Adler argues that many make the philosophic mistake of considering moral values and prescriptive judgments to be subjective and relative. Rather, they are objective and absolute when self-evident truths and proper views of knowledge are understood and utilized. It is a self-evident truth that we ought to desire only what is really good for us and that all human beings naturally desire or need knowledge. We reach the conclusion that we ought to seek or desire knowledge.

The lesser goods are limited goods, such as sensual pleasures or wealth, things that are good only in moderation, not without limit. The greatest goods are unlimited, such as knowledge, of which we cannot have too much.

Moral judgments are not mere opinion, establishing the objectivity and universality of moral values and giving moral philosophy the status of knowledge.[7]

While Adler talks in terms of philosophy, he makes clear to us that moral virtue should be considered objective knowledge to be sought and followed rather than subjective and relative.

Modern Thought

One key feature of Western thought at the American founding was the belief that being judgmental is the essence of what makes us moral beings and lets us live in cooperation and happiness. Non-judgmentalism has turned that upside down in Modern thought, with the tragic consequences described herein—which are only beginning to be fully realized.

The next article will examine the return of Francis Bacon’s seventeenth-century “idols” in Modern thought.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Nothing Wrong Sign by johnhainCC0 Creative Commons


[1] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 25.

[2] Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[3] Smith, Lost in Transition, 15.

[4] Smith, Lost in Transition, 61.

[5] Peter Wood, “The Meaning of Sex,” The Weekly Standard, 4 May 2015.

[6] R. R. Reno, “The New Antinomian Attitude” Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow, ed., The State of the American Mind (West Conshohocken, Templeton Press, 2015), 217-29.

[7] Mortimer J. Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes: Basic Errors in Modern Thought—How They Came About, Their Consequences, and How to Avoid Them (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 108-11, 120-27.

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