Adrift in a Sea of Changing Values
A POPULAR legend says that he walked about in broad daylight with a lantern in a determined but vain search for a virtuous man. His name was Diogenes, a philosopher who lived in Athens in the fourth century B.C.E.
Whether that legend is accurate cannot be confirmed. Still, if Diogenes were alive today, he might be forgiven if he had to look even harder to discover moral individuals. Many seem to reject the belief that people should embrace any fixed ethical values. Time and again the media call our attention to moral lapses—in private life, in government, in the professions, in sports, in the business community, and in other areas. Many of the cherished values of past generations are no longer respected. Established standards are being reevaluated and often rejected. Other values are revered in theory but not in practice.
“The day of shared moral standards is gone,” says religion sociologist Alan Wolfe. He is also quoted as saying: “Never in history has there been more a sense that people can’t rely on traditions and institutions to guide them, morally.” Regarding the past 100 years, the Los Angeles Times notes philosopher Jonathan Glover’s observation that the decline of religion and universal moral laws played a major part in a global collapse into violence.
Such confusion over commonly accepted values, however, has not stopped some people from searching for a moral code. A few years ago, Federico Mayor, former director general of UNESCO, stated that “more than ever, ethics is at the very, very forefront of the world preoccupation.” But the world’s failure to adopt positive values does not mean that there are no wholesome values that can and should be adopted.
Can all people, though, agree on what standards to adopt? Obviously not. And if there are no agreed-upon standards of right and wrong, how can anyone assess any values? Such moral relativism is fashionable today. Yet, you can see that this attitude has not really improved morals in general.
British historian Paul Johnson holds that this philosophy of relativism has helped to “undermine . . . the highly developed sense of personal responsibility, and of duty towards a settled and objectively true moral code” that seemed to prevail before the beginning of the 20th century.
Is it possible, then, to find an “objectively true moral code” or to live by “universal moral laws”? Is there an authority that can provide timeless, unchangeable values that can add stability to our lives and give us hope for the future? The next article will address these questions.