2017 ended with a bang—an explosion of sexual harassment charges. Harvey Weinstein, Dustin Hoffman, Donald Trump, Kevin Spacey, James Toback, Ben Affleck, Cris Savino, Roy Price, Blake Farenthold, John Besh, Al Franken, Mark Halperin, Michael Oreskes, Lockhart Steele, Matt Lauer, Roy Moore, Russell Simmons (and this only scratches the surface). I’ll call this group “Weinstein et al.”
If each is guilty as charged, I stand with all who condemn and repudiate their actions. However, beyond the issue of what their accusers claim these men did is why so many express moral outrage, while at the same time saying morality is relative. In cases like this, all but the most ardent moral relativists become moral absolutists. Why is that? Moreover, how can this fact point us toward a more just, healthy and flourishing culture?
Our Condemnations Assume Moral Absolutes
Weinstein et al. are being condemned by political leaders, by cultural spokespersons, and by media celebrities. A common theme is that how Weinstein et al. treated women is wrong, that he had no right to behave this way, and that his actions are morally reprehensible.
First, note what the critics are not saying. No one is saying, “I find Weinstein et al.’s actions distasteful and so I wouldn’t behave that way. However, who am I to impose my morality on you? If you think it is OK to treat women this way, that’s your right.” Here we see Individual Relativism: We each have our code of right and wrong, and we cannot tell another his or her ethic is wrong. Weinstein et al.’s critics are far from Individual Relativists.
Neither are they saying, “Our culture doesn’t condone this type of behavior. However, if your culture does, then who are we to judge?” This latter response would be Cultural Relativism: each culture has its own moral code of right and wrong which we must live by, but we can not tell those from other cultures what they should or should not do.
If his critics were assuming Cultural Relativism, they might have changed their minds about Weinstein when he said, “I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” He could have also argued that this is just what business executives in his industry do. Or, it is what his “West Coast culture” approves of. Or, he could make any other number of appeals to “everyone’s doing it” in what he defines as “his culture” (what executives do, “West Coast” values, etc.) None of these defenses would appease the accusers, because they are not Cultural Relativists.
The accusers assume the only option left. If one is not a Moral Relativist one is a Moral Absolutist: it is wrong for anyone, at any time, in any culture, and for any reason, to treat women as objects, as playthings, as disposable. Period. On this view right and wrong are not based on what individuals or cultures think. Right and wrong transcend these differences. Things just are right and wrong objectively.
There are many ways to defend these absolutes. Some philosophers have argued they are part of the “Natural Law” of the Universe. Some atheists have argued for their basis in Platonic universals. Christians, Jews and Muslims have argued they are grounded in God's nature and His revelation. Regardless of how one defends absolutes, the fact is that everyone just knows they exist. As C. S. Lewis argues in The Abolition of Man, it is impossible to deny this universal law of objective moral values.
The existence of these Moral Absolutes is proven every time actions such as Weinstein’s are condemned as objectively wrong. It on the basis of these moral absolutes that they argue Weinstein et al. should be fired, prosecuted, fined, imprisoned, not elected, and so on.
So Let’s Call It Like It Is
Our problem is that we want to have it both ways. We want to condemn Weinstein et al. based on Moral Absolutism. At other times want to keep echoing the bankrupt Enlightenment mantra of Individual or Cultural Relativism: “There are no objective moral values. Don’t impose your private, subjective morality on me or anyone else.”
But we can’t have it both ways. We must be consistent. Either Weinstein et al. are just exercising their right to self-determined morality, and we should stop condemning them, or their actions are morally wrong and sexually deviant, and they should pay the consequences. Our shared outrage at the actions of these men is a clear indication that we take the later option. We all believe it is objectively wrong to treat women in this way, because women are intrinsically valuable and ends in themselves, not a means to another person’s enjoyment.
Only by recognizing this can our outrage and condemnation have any weight. Otherwise, it sounds hollow, shallow, and self-contradictory (because it is). The media, the courts, and our Facebook posts can continue to condemn such action. However, the Weinsteins of the world can easily call us out on this, asking who gave us the right to stand in judgment. They can rightly ask “Who are you to impose your morality on me? Just mind your own business!”
Marquis de Sade, during the Enlightenment, also questioned others who condemned his actions by an objective moral standard. He also enjoyed imposing his will on women, reducing women to objects for his own personal sexual satisfaction (from him we get the word “sadism”). When others prosecuted him for his actions he asked, “What gives you the right to judge me?” He said if there are no moral absolutes, his views of how to treat women were just as good as the next guy’s. This Enlightenment relativism has continued, and an increasing number of de Sades today can rightly ask the same question. Now, most of us know this is wrong. We just need the courage to stand against Individual and Cultural Relativism and “call it like it is.”
In my next post I’ll explain how only by being consistent Moral Absolutists can we promote human flourishing and the common good.
Until then, grace and peace!