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  • Young People, Relativism, and Natural Law
  • C. Fred Alford (bio)

The origins of my research go back a few years, when I was invited to be a member of a committee charged with developing a new ethics curriculum to be taught in the county schools. On the committee were ministers, priests, rabbis, several "concerned parents," and I. We met in the conference room of the local school board, which was moderately impressive, sitting in the same chairs the school board members sat in. Other than the ghostly presence of the school board, we were on our own.

We began with elementary school students. What should they be taught? General principles were easy enough to agree on, such as "treat other students with respect." What got difficult was when we got down to practice, such as "students shouldn't hit each other."

"Some cultures value the physical expression of difference," said one committee member.

"Who are we to say otherwise?" added another.

And so it went with this odd conversation. Odd not just because of the extreme cultural relativism, but because not a single member of the ethics committee thought children should hit each other. Quite the contrary; all were against it. Not only that, but no one could name any actual culture in which students hitting each other was deemed a good thing. It was the very possibility that some culture, somewhere might value the physical expression of difference that stymied most members of the committee.

The committee members had lost (presumably they never had) confidence in their own ability to judge right from wrong, though this [End Page 303] puts it a little too simply. They themselves were in no doubt about whether children should hit each other. All were against it. But most believed they had no grounds to say something so clear and concrete. This included the minister, the priest, and the rabbi, all of whom said that according to their religious beliefs it was of course wrong for students to hit each other, but none wished to impose their religious beliefs on others. In our modern world, morality has been defeated by epistemology, or is it just sociology?

Rather than pursue further the motives of this hard working but quite literally demoralized group, I decided to devote my attentions to young men and women. Talking with the young, I mistakenly believed, would lead me closer to the source of citizens' lack of confidence in their own moral judgments, what is sometimes but misleadingly called relativism.

What Informants Said

Thirty young people ages eighteen to twenty-eight were my informants, almost equally divided between men and women. Hardly a random sample, they were nonetheless diverse, holding half a dozen different religious beliefs, with family connections all over the globe. Almost one-fourth were first generation Americans—that is, the first generation of their family to be born and bred in America. More non-whites than in a strictly random sample were interviewed. Though my sample size is too small to draw any conclusions, it is not my impression that race or religion made the slightest difference in how informants answered the questions. What did seem to make a difference for several informants was being raised by parents with strong continuing ties to traditional Asian, African, or South American cultures. Overall, however, it is the similarity in the beliefs of this demographically diverse group of young people that is most striking. Being born and bred in America is by far the most important variable of all.1

Unlike the ethics committee, informants were not intimidated by relativism. On the contrary, most held quite definite beliefs about right and wrong; furthermore, they regarded these beliefs as binding on others as well as themselves. Informants' moral views were not always crystal clear. They were, however, almost always expressed in the form of a coherent narrative, a story about the conditions of a decent human life, albeit not [End Page 304] an excellent one. To be sure, the story told by most informants had the quality of a radically simplified narrative, one in which most of the details are glossed over, so that it reads more like a plot outline than...


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