Many writers have lamented America’s moral and intellectual decline but few have identified the cause. I submit that it is the cluster of ideas known as Relativism. First popularized by J. J. Rousseau in the eighteenth century as Romanticism, these ideas were expressed in the mid-twentieth century in the Humanistic Psychology of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow and became embedded in mass culture. Chief among these ideas were:
1) That truth and reality lie within individuals rather than outside them. In other words, everyone has his or her own truth and reality. As Rogers argued, “It seems unnecessary to posit or try to explain any concept of ‘true’ reality. . . “Clearly, [objective reality] does not exist in the objects we see and feel and hold . . . I am convinced that [having one reality for all] is a luxury we cannot afford, a myth we dare not maintain.”
2) That we find our truth and reality not through thought and reasoning but through feelings and emotion. Here, again, is Rogers: “When an activity feels as though it is valuable or worth doing, it is worth doing . . . I have learned that my total organismic sensing of a situation is more trustworthy than my intellect . . . I have come to prize each emerging facet of my experience, of myself. I would like to treasure the feelings of anger and tenderness and shame and hurt and love and anxiety and giving and fear. . . . I would like to treasure the ideas that emerge—foolish, creative, bizarre, sound, trivial . . . I like the behavioral impulses—appropriate, crazy, achievement-oriented, sexual, murderous. I want to accept all of these feelings, ideas, and impulses as an enriching part of me . . . .”
3) That moral judgments and values should not be based on objective rules or standards but on one’s personal outlook. Rogers wrote, “The criteria for making value judgments come more and more to lie in the person, not in a book, a teacher, or a set of dogmas. The locus of evaluation is in the person, not outside.” The implication of this assertion is clear—whatever a person’s moral judgment may be, it cannot be wrong. Even though everyday experience proves this notion absurd, it has become a central aspect of contemporary belief.
Ideas, of course, have consequences. And the measure of ideas—that is, of their soundness or unsoundness, wisdom or foolishness—is the kind of consequences they produce. The consequences of the three ideas noted above confirm the unsoundness, and indeed foolishness, of those ideas. Here is a sampling of those consequences, grouped according to the numbers used above. (A consequence may result from more than one of the ideas.)
Consequences of idea 1
The belief that we already possess the truth about any subject robs us of curiosity and interest in learning more about it, whether through our own research or by seeking out informed people to learn from. This belief seriously comprises our ability to grow in knowledge and wisdom and thus leads (at best) to mediocrity in school and on the job.
Even worse than individuals believing that reality is within them is education lending credibility to that notion. As educators have been persuaded that students create their own reality, they have doubted the value of the most fundamental study of reality—history—and to make it elective rather than required or, in some cases, to remove it from the curriculum. They have also emphasized self-esteem and inflated grades on the assumption that if students are already wise and wonderful, they deserve to esteem themselves and to receive high grades.
These consequences help to explain the appalling ignorance and apathy reflected in public opinion polls.
Consequences of idea 2
The results of trusting feelings and emotions while disdaining thought are all too evident in modern society. Journalists have abandoned the well-thought out standards and code of ethics their forebears developed a century or so ago. The most obvious example of this is ignoring the distinctions between fact and opinion and between truth and falsity. Instead of separating the facts from their opinions and putting the latter in a separate section of the newspaper or newscast block, they mix the two, thereby ignoring the wise standard of verifying facts and carefully weighing judgments. In their minds, their feelings about reality are more important than reality itself.
Feelings and emotions also run rampant among people presumed to be scholars and serious thinkers. The issue of climate change is a case in point. In the 1970’s the experts preached fear of global cooling. When the changes in temperature made it embarrassing to hold that view, instead of acknowledging their error, they simply changed their narrative to lament global warming. When that view became equally embarrassing, they changed the scare term to the present Climate Change, doubled down on the emotional rhetoric, and denounced as unscientific anyone who questioned the imminence of disaster or the efficacy of U.S. action to reduce its carbon emissions. And many of those who shouted the loudest about curtailing automobile use fly around the country in fuel-guzzling private jets to deliver their message. Following feelings rather than logic makes one blind to contradictions.
The issue of abortion is an even better example of emotion having replaced reason, particularly on questions such as, When does human life begin? and When does the human in the womb become a person? Scientific advances have put us in a better position now than at any time in human history to answer these questions with confidence. Human life begins at conception, and since the definitions of human life and personhood are in essence identical, the human in the womb becomes a person at conception. Furthermore, since all human persons have inalienable rights, the legal system is obligated to protect the rights of the unborn exactly as it does those of the already born.
This is logical reasoning allied with scientific fact. Nevertheless, many people denounce it, claiming not only that a fetus is a non-person, but that it is not even human. Some go further and say it has no existence of its own, but is simply a part of a woman’s body and therefore disposable at her pleasure. (That is the unmistakable, and absurd, implication of the “woman’s right over her body” argument.) This view of abortion does not derive from reasoning or thinking, let alone science, but instead from sheer emotion, and over the last half-century it has claimed over 60 million human lives.
A third example of preferring emotion to reason is the open borders movement and its companion the sanctuary movement, both of which provide the exhilaration of doing good while ignoring the serious problems they are creating.
Yet another example of a view based mainly on emotion is the favorable view of socialism reportedly held by over 40% of Americans and close to 100% of 2020 Democratic candidates for President. Their favorable feelings toward socialism cannot be based on fact, for throughout history it has caused more suffering than any other system of government—and is still doing so in many countries, notably Venezuela. No, their embrace of socialism is most likely a mindless expression of their hatred of democracy.
Consequences of idea 3
The best example of ignoring objective standards of moral judgment—ethical, religious, and/or jurisprudential—is arguably the response to the 2016 presidential election by many Democrat officials and mainstream journalists. In fact, that response also exemplifies the irrational embrace of “personal truth” and “feelings over reason.”
The foundation of that response was and still is strong feelings for Hillary Clinton and against Donald Trump, feelings so strong that they allowed no room for fairness or common sense. The feelings for Hillary were manifest before the election, in the refusal to hold her responsible for her handling of the Benghazi affair and her violations of the rules for handling classified information.
After the election, the feelings became more irrational, to the point of denying reality—“she couldn’t have lost the election; he must have “stolen” it; we must right this horrible wrong, hold him accountable.” The feeling that something had to be done stoked the hatred of Trump even more and that passion led to spying and false accusations against him and those associated with him, and a long, costly investigation conducted by a man who clearly did not favor Trump and a staff most of whom had supported Clinton.
When the long, costly, and wide-ranging investigation uncovered no wrongdoing, reason might have taken over, ended the suspicion, and allowed elected officials to get back to serving their constituents—notably by dealing with the border crisis they had been blocking the President from solving.
Instead, the powerful negative feelings not only thwarted reason again; they actually increased in intensity. Democrat officials refused to accept the truth that there was no case against Donald Trump. They clung more tightly, at this point delusionally, to their personal “truth” that he MUST be guilty of something and turned several Congressional committees to the task of finding it by reinvestigating what had already been thoroughly examined, a move that recalls Einstein’s definition of insanity. This action has not only been a colossal waste of time and taxpayer money; it also has made a mockery of the legal standard of “innocent until proven guilty” and the benefit of the doubt. One congressman actually demanded that the President do the impossible and prove a negative when he said, “I think he acted on Russia’s behalf and I challenge him to prove he didn’t.”
The consequences I have mentioned are far from the only ones that can be traced to false notions of truth, reality, emotion, and values. Many more could be cited, one of which is important enough to end with. That consequence is the divisiveness that plagues our country and prevents polite, honest, and productive discourse from taking place. Addressing that one would be a good first step toward correcting the false notions and restoring common sense.
Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved