Three Political Dangers of Moral Relativism

There are three political options that offer strong temptation on a regular basis in a relativistic world. For individuals whose morality is unpinned from an objective reality, these are logical possibilities not temptations. In other words, these three political options are viewed as a menu of choices rather than a list of dangers when relativism is the accepted epistemological basis for morality.

As we sort through the muddle of mixed morality, we need to recognize these dangers for what they are. Until we recognize them, we can take no positive steps to avoid them. I have been helped recently by reflecting on the moral situation in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as it reveals much about contemporary politics.

Lesser of Two Evils

The first political danger is to choose the lesser of two evils.

In a fallen world, sometimes we do need to accept proximate justice. We must work toward what good we can accomplish, recognizing there is much good that is left undone. Such compromise is necessary sometimes, but not always. There are times when we must reject false dichotomies and choose a third option.

Photo Credit: Battle of Vera by Lord Willington1815 Used by CC license.

Photo Credit: Battle of Vera by Lord Willington1815 Used by CC license.

In the case of politics, this sometimes means that we attempt to impact the future by voting for a cause that is certain to fail in the present. This is why there is a case for a write-in ballot or voting for a third party in an election. It is unlikely that such a candidate will win in our present circumstance, but it gives evidence that we will not be forced to choose the lesser of two evils. In politics, we will never choose perfectly nor have perfect options to choose from, but sometimes the two options presented by our system are simply unpalatable.

There is justification for choosing the lesser of two evils in some cases, such as amputating a limb instead of starving because a hand is pinched in a rock. Before we get to that point, however, we should consider whether there are other options.

Without a thorough acceptance of the existence of objective good, it is unlikely that someone will look past two mediocre options to find a third option that better matches the moral order of the universe.

This danger can be witnessed in Saruman’s alliance with Mordor in an attempt to defeat Mordor. On the one hand he saw a total defeat of good by Mordor if he did not establish his own empire. On the other hand he could see that he would have to use many of Mordor’s methods to build an empire capable of resisting. The lesser of two evils seemed to him to be to turn Orthanc, his little kingdom, into a mini-Mordor in hopes of achieving the lesser of two evils.

At some point, he made a logical choice in his own mind, but it becomes clear later in the narrative of The Lord of the Rings that he did not sufficiently consider a third option that was not evil at all. This led him to use Mordor’s tactics to fight Mordor, and ultimately corrupted any good he could have hoped to accomplish.

When in Mordor

The second political danger that regularly presents itself is to use unwholesome tactics simply because the opponent uses them. This approach recognizes that evil will be done through the unwholesome tactic, but the abuse of power is justified for some later good.

Tolkien captures the essence of this error in his classic work. The One Ring offered such a draw it leads to the corruption of the formerly good Saruman. The desire for power turns him to corrupt means to gain it, supposedly for the common good.

It was, arguably, with the intent to do good (as he understood it) that Saruman sought power. There were justifiable motivations for Saruman’s alliance with Sauron. Power, if used well, can lead to doing good. But such power when concentrated in the wrong hands, is a danger in itself. It proved to be too great a lure to Saruman. His invitation to Gandalf to betray his friends reveals the dangerous trajectory of the utilitarian logic of such political alliances:

“A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. . . . This then is the one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand, and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the power grows, its proved friends will also grow and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evil done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs only in our means.”

In his attempt to draw Gandalf to join him, he offers the lure of power through the One Ring:

“The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.”

But Gandalf recognizes the problem with such a quest for power, even if it was intended to be used for good. The good that is done via evil means, in this case through the use of the One Ring, would turn to evil. The goodness of the result would be diminished and ultimately corrupted because of the unwholesome means that are used to reach the desired goal.

A moral relativist will be unlikely to recognize this, because when there is no objective good there can only be a calculus of benefit for a majority. In such a calculation, the inconvenience of a few is less significant than the relative good of a larger number.

Redescription of Good

A third political danger is to redescribe something that is evil as good. This is the ultimate fruit of moral relativism as it is being fleshed out in our society.

Saruman did not see his own corruption. He had not only assumed the end justifies the means, he had begun to redefine a negative end as good to cover his immoral actions.

Thus even after sending his armies to destroy and enslave his neighbors he still tried to lure Gandalf in to his plot to gain power. He still couched his goals as being for the ultimate good. Saruman saw his perverted domination of Middle Earth as a moral good. As he said to Gandalf after being unmasked as a traitor,

“Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world. Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk! Let them wait on our decisions! For the common good I am willing to redress the past, and to receive you.”

But Tolkien provides a foil to that relativism in the character of Gimli the dwarf:

“The words of this wizard stand on their heads, [Gimli] growled, gripping the handle of his axe. ‘In the language of Orthanc help means ruin, and saving means slaying, this is plain.’”

In this passage, Saruman is demonstrating a consistent postmodern epistemology and Gimli recognizes it. He has redefined “help” and “saving.” Gimli, being grounded in an objective epistemology, recognizes this and calls him out. Simply by changing the terms evil did not become good, though things can be made confusing through that process.

The Present Context

I realize that I demonstrate a degree of nerdliness in using the Lord of the Rings to illustrate my points. However, this is the purpose of good literature. It delights and instructs. It tells us something about who we are as humans and not simply what is happening in a fictitious world. In this case, it helps us recognize some of the dangers of relativism.

Our world is swimming in a relativism that is largely unrecognized. To many people, the acceptance of any sort of non-relativistic understanding of morality is a form of violence. We may have reached a critical mass of relativism where a plea to the self-referential incoherence of absolute relativism is incomprehensible. It seems to me that this is so.

Despite this overwhelming relativism around us, we cannot fall prey to it. In order to remain faithful to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, we cannot use the means of the world to stand our ground. We need to be aware of these political dangers and stay away from them. There is an objective moral good in the universe. We need to avoid compromising it by using flawed methods to achieve a supposed good.

Everyone is a hero in their own story. Relativism provides an easy path to self-justification. It does, however, leave one exposed as an evildoer in the presence of a real, holy, and objective God. We need to remain faithful to our objective epistemology and avoid these three pervasive political dangers.