The Consequences of Relativism
by Francois Tremblay (e-mail: FTremblay@liberator.net) [May 12th, 2000] (part 3 of 3)
This is my last instalment of Columbine Innocence (see part 1: Exploiting the Children and part 2: Video Game Killers), and it is mostly theoretical. This is not an accident. An honest examination of the true causes of such events must necessarily not be superficial or opportunistic, and discuss things that are mostly inconsequential in the big pictures, but rather dissect the underlying basis of our actions as we know them to be in philosophy. In this way only can we re-establish everything in their due proportions, and establish a sense of perspective that is sorely lacking from common analysis. Then we can propose adequate solutions to the problem of teen school crime, based both on the facts and theories at hand.
I don't think I'm going to surprise anyone by saying that two kids pulling the triggers of guns and throwing bombs caused the killings at Columbine High School. That may sound excessively trivial, and for this I apologise. But there is a profound truth behind all obvious facts, and this one is no exception. What motivates anyone to do something rather than something else? The answer is: one's system of ethics. Despite the bad reputation that religion has given to morality, the term is used neutrally in philosophy to designate the study of what we should do. Everyone acts, therefore everyone has an implicit or explicit ethical system, however convoluted it might be. An ethical system basically answers the question: "how do/should we decide what to do?"
A movie doesn't shoot anyone, a bible doesn't shoot anyone, and a gun doesn't shoot anyone: people do. Blaming these things for a crime is childish behaviour.
There are three possible types of morality, which are mutually exclusive: moral absolutism (based on faith), moral relativism (based on skepticism), moral objectivism (based on reason). The prevalent view today is a pragmatic one, where the notions of "good" and "evil" are rejected and moral questions are superficially examined. Ultimately the standard becomes one's whims, emotions, culture or other subjective factors. This is basically the relativist view of ethics. We observe in reality that this translates in a sort of conceptual fog. Words like "duty," "morality," "responsibility" or "ethical" are used interchangeably, and vaguely, since standards vary with each person. On the other hand, moral absolutism is mostly a religious influence where notions of "good" and "evil" are perverted to fit an outer-wordly concept of religious duty.
How are these tendencies manifested in today's liberal education system? Religious rules are only paid lip service by the community, and they have no real effect except in religious schools. Moral education in schools is vastly deficient and concentrates on trivial and disconnected concepts; little, if any, objectivity is taught. Due to this lack, the basic moral position today is the default relativism: anything goes, as long as you like it.
As I have repeatedly pointed out before, all the factors the media like to accuse do not shoot people or throw bombs. A movie doesn't shoot anyone, a bible doesn't shoot anyone, and a gun doesn't shoot anyone: people do. Blaming these things for a crime is childish behaviour. But these factors do have an influence on a person's thinking, and they may lead him to commit a crime. You can see that a bible is a different influence than a movie, which does not necessarily tell the person what he should do. Movies, video games, hate literature are nothing more than emotional appeals. One's education, parents, religion and scripture purport to give rules of conduct. They are appeals to the intellect, or more precisely the ethical part of the intellect.
You can see that someone who already believes in strong principles will be less influenced by emotional appeals than someone who relies on his emotional states as a barometer of action. Therefore the education of the child is of a prime importance in this regard. For someone in an emotion-oriented mindset, the murderous and vengeful emotions triggered by hatred or violent movies are a signal to take revenge. The consequence of this relativism is that the actions of the individual are heavily dependent on his environment.
A teenager raised in a purely objective state of mind knows that killing people is not a valid solution to one's problems. It will undoubtedly ruin his life; who can doubt it?
Children get influenced by their parents and teachers also because they have not been properly taught anything about epistemology. It's a lot easier to keep them gullible, especially in the case of our socialist education system, but it also has deadly consequences. By breeding a society of epistemically passive minds, we are cultivating a skeptical and lazy mindset. You might wonder, what does epistemology have to do with teen killings? Simply this: epistemically passive kids are much more likely to accept, for example, the idea that killing people is a valid solution to their problem.
It all comes back to the intent to kill. Without it, there is no crime. You can place a kid in an isolation chamber, make him watch Rambo films and play Quake, make him listen to heavy metal music and force him to read the Bible. In the end he won't kill anyone as long as he does not have the intent to kill (and, by extension, the framework in which such an intention could be triggered by the movies, video games, and such).
In short, the concrete consequence of moral relativism in any part of society is: weakness towards exterior influences, which almost always leads to a disregard to one's own life and livelihood.
How can we wipe out this tendency? On the long-term view, we are looking at a whole change of paradigm. We need to replace the skeptical mentality by making the objective viewpoint appealing to people. Not only children, but also parents, since the parents' education have a strong influence on the ethical beliefs of their children. Unfortunately not much can be done in that regard. What can be done is change our moral education to reflect true selfish values. This, also unfortunately, cannot be achieved as long as education is in the hands of the government. Teaching epistemology would also require the same condition, although this is a lower-level question.
These measures would take a lot of time to implement and settle in the general consciousness. What can we do right now to help stop these events from repeating? It seems that the crucial factor in this killing in particular was that both teens had the Rage™. They had planned everything carefully but their motivation was a cold hatred towards their fellow students in particular. Such hatred would surely not have come to be if their peers had left them alone. It also seems to be a responsibility of schools to see that the children do not unduly harass or destroy property belonging to other students. Therefore, one obvious solution would be to stop suppressing students with rules without rhyme or reason and be more sensitive to their well being, i.e. suppress violence in schools. Of course that would be quite a commitment, yet I believe it is an important one.
As long as we leave our children brainless, frustrated, helpless and defenseless, we have no right to ask ourselves how killings like Columbine can happen.
The easiest way to achieve this goal would be to privatise education. Such a policy would have other benefits, like a more adequate tailoring of education to children's needs (thus reducing frustration) and the teaching of more adequate ethics. As I have pointed out in Gotta ban 'em all! this would also accelerate the suppression of rules against the freedom of students, and make for a better, safer atmosphere.
A last measure that can be taken immediately is to repeal gun rules and promote safe gun handling and practice in schools. It is obvious, even from the example of Littleton, that gun laws serve no purpose in stopping deliberate killings, and they deprive students of valuable protection. It remains to be seen whenever such a policy could have stopped the Columbine shooting, or at least slowed it down. In the same vein, teachers should have an incentive for carrying concealed guns in class. Not only would this help to stop crime, but would also help our goal of making children feel more secure. As we see in countries where everyone has a weapon, imagine how it would make premeditating killers think twice!
Unlike what all our politicians seem to think, we cannot expect the problem of crime in school to solve itself magically. Instead of attacking peripheral players who are not to blame for these unfortunate events, we need to take relevant and direct action. But we seem to be caught in a nasty catch-22: as long as people continue to impulsively act on knee-jerk reactions, we cannot make any progress. As long as we cannot make any progress, people will continue to impulsively act on knee-jerk reactions. The only thing that could save the situation would be a responsible government, but that is already too much to ask for.
As long as we leave our children brainless, frustrated, helpless and defenseless, we have no right to ask ourselves how killings like Columbine can happen. All we have is the responsibility to protest against our institutionalised system of violence and hope the situation doesn't degenerate. To me, that's not a big comfort. How about you?
[Visit Francois Tremblay's personal pages at http://www.objectivethought.com.]
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