Yale undergraduate Alison Hornstein became a national celebrity this past December when her guest Newsweek column challenged the inability of her classmates and professors to say that what happened on September 11 was….well, wrong. As in absolutely, unambiguously, no-doubt-about-it wrong. One Yale professor said he didn’t see all that much difference between the hijackers and American servicemen in World War II. Hornstein’s classmates cited, presumably as excuses, the “provocations” that led men to become terrorists.
To her credit, Ms. Hornstein found this incapacity to pull the trigger of moral judgment troubling. She also correctly identified one of its sources: a public education system that is great at teaching tolerance and hopelessly inadequate at teaching that some things are just wrong.
In the third grade, Hornstein recalled, her teacher had read a story about one boy kicking another at a school bus-stop. The moral (so to speak) was that the miscreant “had feelings that sometimes led him to do mean things;” that kicking was wrong, period, got lost in the psychological shuffle. Later, in high school, Alison Hornstein and her classmates agreed that, while they found the practice of female circumcision repellant, they should not impose “their standards on other cultures.” It’s just as well that the class seems not to have pondered suttee, the Hindu practice of burning the surviving widow on her dead husband’s funeral pyre. Any condemnation of this would likely fall under the one moral absolute recognized in Alison Hornstein’s pre-September 11 world: the ban on being “judgmental.”
Alison Hornstein’s intuition that September 11 should compel an entire generation to rethink their moral relativism was right on the mark. So was her personal conclusion: “we should recognize that some actions are objectively bad, despite differences in cultural standards and values.” But then Ms. Hornstein faltered: “To me, hijacking planes and killing thousands of civilians falls into this category. Others may disagree. It is less important to me where people choose to draw the line than that it is that they are willing to draw it at all.”
Alison Hornstein and other thoughtful young people now have to recognize that that simple phrase, “to me,” is at the root of the problem. Ms. Hornstein’s instinctive rejection of her professors’ and classmates’ relativism – her intuition that something is seriously awry when otherwise normal people can’t bring themselves to make elementary moral judgments – was the sound reaction of moral common sense. But common sense gets trumped (as Alison Hornstein discovered at Yale) when morality is reduced to a matter of personal taste – when things are right and wrong “to me,” but not right and wrong in themselves.
Given the radical relativism with which Alison Hornstein grew up – a relativism an entire generation has been taught to associate with “tolerance” and “respect for others” – there’s something to be said for her claim that it’s less important where people choose to draw lines than that they be willing to draw them at all. But not much. For it will soon become clear to Alison Hornstein – it may well have already – that any willingness to “draw lines,” to identify the boundary between right and wrong, demands a very different notion of morality than the one with which she grew up.
It’s a question of kind, not just degree. The alternative to the wacky relativism that repelled Alison Hornstein is not tough-minded relativism. The alternative is a concept of the morality in which “right” and “wrong” are recognized as truths embedded in reality itself, not reduced to constructs in our heads.
That thicker notion of the moral life will come as a shock at Yale – and at many, many other campuses in post-modern America. But September 11 ought to have forced the good folks at Yale (and elsewhere) to consider the possibility that a society without moral truths – a society without oughts – is going to find it difficult to defend itself against aggressors motivated by distorted oughts.
Recognizing the dangerous, dehumanizing inanity of moral relativism is a good first step. The next, giant step is to have the courage to be “judgmental” – because you know, with clarity and humility, that your moral judgments are rooted in the truth of things.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.