It’s All Relative

June 18, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Right and wrong are relative.  At least, we treat them like they are.  This is the thesis of an op-ed piece for The New York Times by David Brooks.  In “The Moral Diet,”[1] Brooks explains:

Nearly everybody cheats, but usually only a little…That’s because most of us think we are pretty wonderful.  We can cheat a little and still keep that “good person” identity.  Most people won’t cheat so much that it makes it harder to feel good about themselves.

The basis for Brooks’ thesis is a new book by Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology at Duke University, titled The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.  Through a series of surprisingly creative studies, Ariely finds that people are disturbingly comfortable bending moral standards to suit their own purposes…as long as they don’t bend them too much.  For instance, for the purposes of his book, Ariely asked a blind and a sighted colleague to take several taxi rides.  The drivers happily cheated the sighted client by taking longer routes in order to rack up higher fares.  They did not, however, cheat the blind client nearly as often because of the stinging psychological guilt associated with cheating a blind person.

Brooks summarizes Ariely’s findings:

For the past several centuries, most Westerners would have identified themselves fundamentally as Depraved Sinners. In this construct, sin is something you fight like a recurring cancer – part of a daily battle against evil.

But these days, people are more likely to believe in their essential goodness. People who live by the Good Person Construct try to balance their virtuous self-image with their selfish desires. They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory. In this construct, moral life is more like dieting: I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I’m still a good person.

The Good Person isn’t shooting for perfection any more than most dieters are following their diet 100 percent. It’s enough to be workably suboptimal, a tolerant, harmless sinner and a generally good guy.

Brooks and Ariely assert that when it comes to our modern moral reckonings, most people assume close is good enough.  But are Brooks and Ariely right in their analysis?

One of the bad habits I have is reading what commenters post at the bottom of online articles.  These comments range from the insightful to the mundane to the paranoid to the bellicose.  Nevertheless, the reason I read these commenters – as maddening as they can sometimes be – is because they give me a sense of our society’s zeitgeist.  It is with this in mind that I had to chuckle at the top comment, as chosen by The New York Times, on David Brooks’ piece:

Most people in the world today are just trying to survive. A billion people don’t have access to clean water. In America, we see people who destroyed the economy not prosecuted. We see soldiers fight in far off lands, many coming home damaged for life. We see corporations allowed to buy elections. Millions of dollars are thrown away on tawdry campaign commercials that only enrich the coffers of media companies.

There is so much angst in the world today, and Mr. Brooks thinks we should worry about stealing office supplies, or eating an extra cookie.

Thank you for proving Mr. Brooks’ point, kind commenter.  Notice how this commenter gauges morality.  There are big moral issues – things like dirty drinking water, crimes left unprosecuted, physically and emotionally wounded soldiers, and corporate corruption – and there are small moral issues – things like stealing office supplies or eating an extra cookie.  Who has time to sweat the small stuff when there are bigger fish to fry?

But notice the subversive self-aggrandizement that undergirds this commenter’s response.  For all of the immoral injustices this commenter identifies are “out there.”  Immorality resides in greedy politicians and corrupt corporations, not in people who casually comment on New York Times pieces.  This commenter intimates his own morality by decrying others’ immorality.  He implies his own relative goodness by opining about the macro-moral problems of our world while jettisoning the micro-moral failings of his life.  He seems to believe, to use Brooks’ language, in his own “essential goodness.”

All this is not to say our macro-moral problems are somehow unimportant.  They are vitally important.  But our micro-moral problems matter too.  Why?  Because there is no macro-immorality problem in our world that did not begin as a micro-immorality problem in a life.  Big injustices begin one person and one decision at a time.  Just ask Adam and Eve.

David Brooks concludes his column with a sage warning:  “We’re mostly unqualified to judge our own moral performances, so attach yourself to some exterior or social standards.”  Brooks is almost right.  An exterior standard is indeed necessary to gauge human morality in any sort of meaningful way.  But I would argue that this exterior standard should not be a social one.  For social standards, though they might be relatively external to us, are not absolutely external to us, because they are based on the collective consensus of human societies – you and me.  Thus, even morality guided by social standards ultimately collapses into an internal moral narcissism.  Only God is absolutely external.  Therefore, in the Christian view, only God can serve as humanity’s enduring moral compass.  Only God can judge our moral performances for what they truly are.  Is it any wonder the preacher of Hebrews declares of the Lord, “‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge His people’” (Hebrews 10:30)?

Our modern moral mores decry judging other people’s morality.  Christianity decries this too (cf. Matthew 7:1-2).  But Christianity takes it a step further.  For Christianity not only prohibits judging other people’s morality, it also prohibits judging our own morality.  Christianity teaches that we are so morally depraved, we can do nothing less than judge ourselves with a foolhardy rose-colored ethical optimism.  In other words, we dupe ourselves into believing we are better than we really are.  This is why it is God’s job to adjudicate morality – all morality…our morality.  And we are called to listen, follow, and believe God’s verdict on morality – all morality…our morality.


[1] David Brooks, “The Moral Diet,” The New York Times (6.7.2012).

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Why Didn’t God Do A Better Job? Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism

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