The prevalent moral climate of the 21st century is characterized by our inability to distinguish between right and wrong; truth becomes a matter of taste, morality is about individual preferences or about obeying rules, everything (including truth) is negotiable; that’s why it is sometimes asserted that politics has its own morality (though it’s more accurate to say that politicians have their own morality).
These views are reflected in the US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s notorious mystery passage: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe and of the mystery of the human life.” In other words, what is good for us is up to us!
History repeats itself as this reflects the recurrence of Plato’s and Socrates’ denunciation of the relativism of the Sophists’ maxim “man is a measure of all things” (Protagoras) – the Sophists were the academics of that period. We have therefore become a society of philodoxers (lovers of opinions) rather than philosophers (lovers of wisdom). Opinion has replaced truth!
The study of philosophy, according to Thomas Aquinas (not our President!), is not for the sake of knowing the opinions of people, but for the sake of knowing the truth of things; which forms the mission of the University: to discover and disseminate truth and put it at the service of society. The idea of the University is derived from universal knowledge or universal truth, so it is therefore more accurate today to call universities ‘multiversities’ or ‘relativersities’ as the notion of truth becomes a matter of opinion or relativized – some believe that their research can create new truths as opposed to gaining insights into an objective moral order.
C.S. Lewis points out that people appeal to some standard of behaviour when quarrelling: how’d you like it if anyone did the same to you; that’s my seat, I was here first; leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm; give me a bit of orange, I gave you a bit of mine; come on, you promised.
Society has lost its moral language and its ability for rational deliberation and so is incapable of arriving at a consensus on moral issues (capital punishment, abortion, same-sex union, same-sex marriage, cloning, contraception, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, and so on). It often prescribes incompatible solutions that promote a culture of relativism and subjectivism (that is, one cannot impose moral demands on others) which leads to the denial that moral judgments can be true or false but are simply expressions of preferences. In other words, it presupposes the use of freedom in which one does what one wants based on what one finds pleasing, convenient, expedient, politically-correct or useful. Autonomy has replaced authority!
The final outcome spawned human-centred ideologies and political movements into all aspects of today’s culture, culminating in a practical militant atheistic materialist secularism in which, according to Voltaire, it was originally believed that God created man in his own image and likeness, and now man has proceeded to return the favour: he wants to determine when life begins (in vitro fertilization and cloning) and when life ends (abortion and euthanasia). Man has replaced God!
Modern Social Sciences: Dangerous and Misguided?
Leon Kass (University of Chicago) and Harvey Mansfield (Harvard University) observed that the social and behavioural sciences have a long history of being shaped and driven by political ideologies. For example, they cited that at one time psychiatrists almost universally considered homosexuality as a mental disorder based on scientific evidence as was classified in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM). After a sustained political campaign, the American Psychiatric Association voted in 1973 (majority vote of 58%) to remove homosexuality from the DSM, not because of new scientific findings, but in response to external political pressure and political manoeuvring within the Association. Politics has replaced science!
Kass and Mansfield further noted that the political climate has strongly influenced much of the existing research on many other issues such as same-sex marriage. Norval Glenn of the University of Texas wrote: “Given the widespread support among social and behavioural scientists, it is becoming politically incorrect in academic circles even to suggest that arguments being used in support of same-sex marriage might be wrong.” Apart from measurement limitations, one needs a large amount of data to come to any meaningful scientific conclusion. The data simply does not exist. Science has replaced common sense!
Beyond our Competence: A Moral Cliff
It is interesting to note that the moral dimensions of issues such as same-sex marriage, in vitro fertilization, abortion, and the death penalty have been largely ignored. Those who argue in favour of legalizing abortion because of unsafe practices have missed the point. There is no right way of doing the wrong thing! Empirical social sciences cannot lay claim to be a normative for human behaviour, but remain descriptive, indicative and conjectural. For example, if a longitudinal survey finds that a majority of women are taking contraceptives, one ought not to conclude that this is a trend so it must be morally permissible. This reflects a scientific and metaphysical blunder as the conclusion falls under the field of moral philosophy and beyond the competence of the social sciences. The moral blindness and legalization of actions based on subjective preferences while ignoring an objective moral order would be disastrous and plunge society over a moral cliff. Advocacy has replaced morality!
The Ethical Challenge
The ethical environment is characterized by human-centred ideologies propagated by analytical intellectuals who indoctrinate the masses with their gnostic enlightenment. What is required is a sincere search for truth which is the aim of all intellectual efforts in order to address the ultimate questions on the meaning of life and happiness based on a philosophy transcending what is time-bound to what is eternally-valid and permanent. In the words of philosopher Joseph de Torre, unless wiser people are forthcoming, the future of the world stands in peril!
Surendra Arjoon, Professor of Business and Professional Ethics at UWI’s Department of Management Studies, has summarized the text of his Professorial Inaugural Lecture, held in March, titled: What went wrong with the World? The Ethical Challenge for Business in the 21st Century.