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Relativists & Sociopaths

Gregory Koukl
July 16, 1994

Yesterday morning I saw something in the paper that happened in Florida. It absolutely disgusted me and ought to have surprised me, but it didn't. The L.A. Times, a small piece, says that a youth is charged in slaying a motorist who ran into a girl. Here's basically what happened, ladies and gentlemen, a man had a collision with a pedestrian. The pedestrian was a small girl, apparently. She was banged up a little bit, but not seriously injured. He'd gotten out of his car to check her and was immediately mobbed by a number of youths who beat him up, robbed him of something like $23.00, and shot him dead, killed him. You think, well maybe they're bugged because he hurt the girl. No. They were just a mob. They're a bunch of youths, youngsters basically. They mobbed him, beat him up, robbed him and killed him.

If that isn't bad enough, the other side to this, the other aspect of this-- and this wasn't in the L.A. Times today but I heard it on the radio yesterday--is that there were a number of pedestrians, people standing around, watching it happen who were adults. Not only did they not intervene but they also wouldn't cooperate with the police unless they were paid, apparently. In other words they wanted the T.V. crews to interview for cash before they would give any material information that would lead to the apprehension of any of the people who were involved in this brutal slaying.

This is another one of those things we hear that cause us to cluck our tongue, shake our head and say, What's becoming of the world? Last week I had occasion to speak quite a number of times on the issue of moral relativism. Even though this is a disgusting event it doesn't surprise me in many ways when many people espouse a moral viewpoint of relativism--in other words, that people are, by in large, responsible for their own values and responsible for making their own moral rules. This is, by the way, expressed in government and educational programs like values clarification in schools where kids are led through moral exercises to decide for themselves what they think is important when it comes to what's right and wrong. It doesn't surprise me when those who hold to an absolute morality are vilified and criticized and condemned in public for their position, not just for their moral position but for the fact that they hold a particular moral position that they think applies to everyone.

We're essentially teaching our children that they need not be accountable to anyone. Why are we surprised when they're not accountable to anyone?

When we champion those kinds of things in a culture, ladies and gentlemen, why should it be surprising to us when young people in our society begin practicing what we're teaching them. We teach them ultimately that values are an individual kind of thing and that morals are the kinds of things that are subjective and relative to every person's view of right and wrong. When we say, Don't force your morality on me, and, Who are you to say?, well, we're essentially teaching our children that they need not be accountable to anyone. Why are we surprised when they're not accountable to anyone?

I want to share with you two particular points that I made in this talk that I think relate to this incident that happened in Dade County, Florida this last week. The first one has to do with an overall critique of relativism as a moral point of view. I outlined eight serious flaws with moral relativism, individual ethical relativism, the idea that people make up their own moral rules and that we ought not force our morality on other people. All of the eight flaws, though they're expressed differently, really hinge on the same basic idea. The idea is this, that in order for certain concepts that we hold dear and valuable--concepts that seem to be intuitive, that seem to be true concepts on the face of them, things like praise and blame, the existence of evil in the world, the value of justice and fairness, the reasonableness of personal accountability, the idea of moral discourse and moral improvement and reform, and the idea of tolerance--all of those things are tied up with a particular idea. The particular idea that these notions rest upon--have as their foundation--is the very idea that is repudiated by those who hold to moral relativism. That is that there is a moral standard of some sort that stands outside of a person and that is a judge on the person whether the person accepts it or not. In other words, for those concepts that I just listed to make any sense whatsoever there must be some kind of absolute standard, some morality that is not utterly subjective and not utterly personal. That's why if you hold moral relativism--let everybody make up their own rules and decide for themselves what's right and wrong and let's not push our morality on any one else--then if you're going to be consistent you have to abandon the idea that there is anything like an absolute right or wrong.

Therefore, your language of wrong-doing has to be excised from your vocabulary. The language of things being evil in themselves or wrong in themselves must be removed because there is no such thing. There are only things that you like and dislike so your moral assessments are merely reduced to autobiography. What feels good or bad to you, not what is morally right or wrong in itself. You have to get rid of the idea that there is blame and praise because you can't blame or praise people unless you have a standard by which blame and praise make any sense. You can't ask for justice or fairness because that implies that there is a moral standard that stands outside of everyone that says, for example, that we must treat people equally or we must not punish the innocent and let the guilty go free.

If relativism is true then there is no standard like that standing outside of us so there's no sense to the notion of justice or fairness. There's no accountability. Everybody does their own thing. There's no possibility of moral improvement or moral discourse, you can't even discuss things morally in an intelligent fashion because there's no better or worse morality in the context of relativism. Ultimately there's no tolerance either because the rule that one ought to be tolerant is an absolute rule that stands outside of our individual tastes. If there are no absolute rules then the absolute "Be tolerant" is no longer there either, and therefore relativism, the fact that everybody makes up their own rules, ultimately does not lead to tolerance either. My point being that if relativism were really true then we would be living in a world in which nothing is wrong, nothing is considered evil or good or worthy of praise or blame, a world in which justice and praise are meaningless concepts, in which there is no accountability, no possibility of moral improvement or even a moral discourse. Also, it would be a world in which there is no tolerance.

When I did that talk I had a note that following this belief in and practice of relativism produces this kind of world. But I left that out in some of my talks. I thought that's too strong of a statement. Just because you believe in relativism doesn't mean it's going to produce this kind of world because maybe there's something else of goodness or something inside of you that will redeem you in the long run so you don't end up living consistent with your alleged world view. I think this is even truer as I reflect on what happened last week than I was willing to admit even to my own audiences when I talked about relativism. That belief in and practice of relativism does produce a world like this and we're seeing the fruits of that, and we did in Dade County, Florida.

One of the things that I mentioned as I was talking about relativism last weekend is that you can, in a sense, assess the significance or the value or worth of a particular moral point of view by asking what kind of moral champion does this point of view produce. For example, if your moral point of view is that you should take no thought for yourself but always think of other people, and you watch people who live that out most consistently, this ethic produces someone like a Mother Theresa, for example. Or if you have someone who says that one of the highest ethics is non-violent passive resistance and lives that out in exemplary fashion, it produces a Gandhi. If the ethic is to obey the Father in all things and you live that out thoroughly, it produces a Jesus Christ. When we look at the moral champions of these different viewpoints it speaks well for the standard they espouse.

There's got to be something wrong with an allegedly moral point of view that produces a moral champion who has the moral substance of a sociopath.

But what about the issue of relativism? What about those that espouse the view that one ought not judge someone else and that each person ought to live by their own moral rules? What kind of moral champion does that produce? In other words, if you take as a moral guideline that we make up our own moral rules, basically the question is what is the best that relativism has to produce? What do we call the kind of person that marches most thoroughly to his own personal moral drum and is most thoroughly unconcerned with the moral attitudes of other people? Well, we have a word for that kind of person in our culture and language, we call him a sociopath, a person without any conscience or any morals or scruples whatsoever.

There's got to be something wrong with an allegedly moral point of view that produces a moral champion who has the moral substance of a sociopath. Someone without a conscience. This is the problem I think that we are seeing as relativism has taken more and more root amongst the rank and file, and in fact is being absorbed by our children by osmosis from our culture and even taught directly to our children. Why are we surprised when young people then produce what amounts to sociopathic behavior. We look at this behavior in Florida, and there is other behavior like that, and remember the wilding event a couple of years ago in Central Park, New York, where the woman was severely beaten and raped and these young men were wilding? There is a statistical variation in a sense for people who are sociopathic. In other words, you are going to find somebody that is just a weird one every now and again who has no social conscience, no moral conscience whatsoever. But it's not likely that all of these strange cases are going to show up in one group at one time. No, what happened in the wilding event in New York City a few years back and this thing down here in Dade County near Miami Beach in Florida is sociopathic behavior exhibited by a group of people.

My point here is, their behavior wasn't a result of some bizarre abnormality they were born with. These people are learning this behavior. They are learning that it's okay to do whatever you will. They are learning that values are entirely up to them and are completely subjective, that there is no absolute morality. How are they learning that? We are teaching them. And this is why you can do a poll of young people that they did two years ago just after the riots, and you can ask them, "How many of you would have stolen something if you knew you wouldn't have gotten caught?" And a statistically significant amount said, "I would have." I think it was something like one-third to two-thirds, something on that order, said they would do that because morality for so many people has been not only an abandonment of absolute morality but a ridicule of such. Young people's morality has been reduced to mere pragmatism. In other words, don't do it because you'll get caught. Don't do it because you'll get punished. And if you don't get caught and you won't get punished, well then, shoot, there is nothing else that constrains you from that kind of behavior.

I was at some Little League baseball games a couple times over the last few days. I don't go to these games as a habit so it was interesting when I was there to hear when the ball went out of bounds and flew down the hill the announcers say, "If you return the ball, young kids, we'll give you a free candy bar from the snack bar." And one of the older men that I was sitting with said, "Gee, some things never change." So apparently this is the same thing that was said when he was a kid, too. You know, return the ball and we'll give you a candy bar. Maybe this is just that people understand human nature, okay I understand that and I'm not criticizing this, but it did prompt a reflection.

Isn't the virtue of being honest reward enough for returning the ball? Is it worthwhile for us to teach children that virtue is its own reward? That sounds so quaint it is almost embarrassing to say such a thing. But is it worthwhile to teach young people that doing things that are honest, even if it costs you immensely, is worthwhile in itself. It has intrinsic value in itself and one ought not be honest merely for the pragmatic reason that when they are they will get something in return that has value, like a candy bar. But rather the act of giving the ball back in itself ought to be fulfilling.

Now, I want to tell you something honestly for me. I want to say that thanks to the Lord that this has been a product of being a Christian for 20 years. That's really true to a great degree for me. There are things that I enjoy doing because they are virtuous. That isn't to draw attention to me, it's simply to make the point that such a thing is possible. For those of you who are out there saying, Gee what do you mean enjoy doing virtuous things? Come on! I mean let's get real here. Well, I am real. I'm entirely real. I think that virtue is rewarding, but that idea has to be taught because it doesn't usually just sprout on it's own. Why? Because there are other things in there that are sprouting in that garden of moral conscience that needs to be weeded out and nowadays, not only are they not being weeded out, these other things are being fertilized.

What is being weeded out is genuine moral sensibility.


  This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show "Stand to Reason," with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason.

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" Relativists & Sociopaths "
1994 Gregory Koukl
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Posted: Oct 25, 1996


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