Everybody Else’s Biggest Problem: You Just Can’t, Okay?

Welcome to the fourth installment of act three of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s […]

Mockingbird / 6.1.16

Welcome to the fourth installment of act three of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem but your own. If you missed one or more of the previous installments, the entire series can be found here.

In Terminator 2, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s titular cyborg is about to kill two innocent civilians in a dark parking lot, when young John Connor intervenes.

“You can’t just go around killing people!” John says to his protector.

“Why?” the terminator responds in his oft-imitated monotone.

“Whattaya mean, why? ’Cause you can’t!”


“You just can’t, okay? Trust me on this.”


We are on a year-long quest to find a collectively applicable definition of greed. In Act III, we’ve identified three modern phenomena and debated their implications: the ascension of narcissistic individualism, the increase in religious “nones” and, via the build-a-god mentality and with a philosophical boost from Ayn Rand, the apotheosis of “I.”

Today we’ll look at a logical and unavoidable by-product of these phenomena, moral relativism, or perhaps, to avoid some of the baggage that accompanies that politically loaded term, let’s call it moral subjectivity. Regardless of the verbiage, I’m referring to the rejection of objective standards of right and wrong that transcend time and place, or what we might call moral absolutes.

A few hopeful commentators have recently suggested that moral subjectivity is on the wane, in articles with titles like “Moral Relativism, R.I.P.” They argue that it’s dead because the flyover politicians who overuse it as a punching bag are not only easy targets, but their constituents do not read their work. They are not the hopefuls’ customers. Moreover, they note how social media shaming appears to be premised on a new code of moral absolutes. State an opinion that contradicts the morals-du-jour and then sit back and absorb the “unmerciful moral crusades on social media” that result, as Jonathan Merritt wrote in The Atlantic this past March in an article titled “The Death of Moral Relativism.” But trending hate tweets are not indicia of objective standards of right and wrong. Even when “the crowd” piles on, it’s still hate. Moral subjectivity is not dead.

On the contrary, if moral subjectivity was once a guerrilla force subject to catalogs of vociferous hand-wringing, today it is the entrenched third generation dictator. Widespread acknowledgement of its existence, not to mention opposition and dissent, have largely been silenced.

Terminator2As The New York Times pointed out two months ago, “There are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd.” A few weeks ago Mockingbird’s Ethan Richardson quoted a 2016 Times article that assumed we live in a “relativistic age.”

Data confirms what to me is painfully obvious. Just a few days ago, Barna released a poll of 1,237 people that the Christian Examiner deemed “shocking.” A majority of Americans, including three-quarters of millennials and nearly a third of practicing Christians, say that morality is based solely on their personal feelings. Fifty-seven percent of all respondents agreed that “whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know,” while 74% of millennials and 31% of practicing Christians affirmed the belief. Sixty-five percent agreed that “every culture must determine what is acceptable morality for its people,” including 70% of millennials and 47% of practicing Christians.

Indeed, our 21st century culture breathes in subjectivity; our self-centered worldview requires it; it is our oxygen. And, just like oxygen, in high concentrations it can be toxic, even fatal.

James Cameron, author of the T2 screenplay and self-identified atheist, explains the rationale for John Connor’s feeble response to the terminator: “I think everybody invents their own moral code for themselves, and it usually happens in your teens based on what you’ve been taught, what you’ve seen in the world, what you’ve read, and your own inherent makeup.”

Ayn Rand shared a similar opinion in 1957:

I would say that man’s only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a ‘moral commandment’ is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments. My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists–and in a single choice: to live.

Like our build-a-god personal spirituality, in a world of moral subjectivity, there is no greater arbiter of righteousness than the self. It is up to us to invent–or choose–our own morality. Renowned philosopher and atheist Richard Rorty described our culture as one that embraces “the refusal to believe in the existence of Truth … something which has authority over human beings.” In other words, we both build and calibrate our own moral compass.

Our personal perception of greed is no exception. “As a concept greed has largely lost its moral sting,” author Julian Edney wrote in Greed. “Greed is neither good nor bad,” we read in Crain’s in October 2015. Actually, “greed is good,” goes the ’80s mantra. Morality is not absolute. I decide for myself what is right and wrong for me.

unnamed-1If we subscribe to this worldview, what will we inevitably select from the all-you-can-eat morality buffet? Odds are, we will consume what suits our needs today, at this moment, under our current circumstances. And when the situation changes, when we need a new compass to point our lives in the desired direction, no problem. Like our diets, we are free to adopt a new moral regime as circumstances demand. As Dana Carvey’s Church Lady would say, “How convenient.”

So, what if I, as a Darwinian animal living on this godless blue marble circling an insignificant star, decide that following our unexceptional nation’s laws inhibit my personal growth and survival? Surely I am able–perhaps even obligated–to concoct a new ethic that promotes my flourishing. Trade stocks on inside information. Rob a grocery store for food. Murder a rival for a mate.

I’m rational. I understand there may be negative consequences associated with my actions. A chimpanzee climbing to the top of a tree for a piece of ripe fruit can fall to his death. A lion vanquishing an elder not only devours the cubs of the defeated, but also becomes a target for the young. I understand the natural world and its method of selection, and I’m willing to take my chances. The strong devour the weak, and I’m hungry.

So I call my stockbroker. I buy a gun. I’ve chosen my moral code; there are no commandments, no absolutes to get in my way. If inherited morality is merely a construct designed to control, to coerce, to oppress, then who can tell me I’m wrong? Who among us has the authority to condemn (or approve) of my actions? The cranky “crowd” with access to Twitter and Facebook? And what might give them this authority?

“When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man. And I want. I want it all. Now.

“You can’t just go around killing people,” a gentle friend may reply.


“You just can’t, okay? Trust me on this.”

But I don’t trust my friend, even if he has an enviable social media following. Why should I? Consciously or unconsciously, I assume he’s operating under the same worldview as I am. Where moral subjectivity thrives, trust dies.

article-2526016-1A2F419400000578-409_634x337Sure enough, as we’d expect, trust levels in the USA are comatose. First and foremost, we do not trust each other. A New York Times survey found that “only 35 percent say that most people can be trusted,” lower than responses in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Last month Pew Research revealed “just half of Americans (52%) say they trust all or most of their neighbors, while a similar share (48%) say they trust some or none of their neighbors.”

We also don’t trust the women and men we elect to lead us. In November 2015, Pew reported: “Public trust in government remains near historic lows. Only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right ‘just about always’ (3%) or ‘most of the time’ (16%).” Before the Vietnam War and “me generation,” the trust number was 75%. A month later, Gallup reported that 13% of Americans named “government” as “the most important problem facing the country today.” Nine percent said our economy; 7% said guns. Finally, just last month, an AP poll revealed that “78% of Americans said they are dissatisfied or angry with the federal government.” A common saying is “we get the government we deserve.” I’d suggest it’s true. If we can trade in our moral compasses to suit our specific needs, surely politicians can, and will, as well. Who are we to judge?

Nobel laureate and agnostic Mario Vargas Llosa offers an explanation for our political predicament:

The great loss of prestige in politics is doubtless related to the break-up of the spiritual order that, in the past, at least in the Western world, could curb the outbursts and excesses committed by the powerful. Since that spiritual tutelage disappeared from public life, all manner of demons have prospered that have degraded people to see politics not as something noble and altruistic, but rather as a largely dishonest activity … Is not the system now so putrid that the only response is resignation, accepting that society is, and always will be, a jungle where the wild beasts will always devour the lambs?

Llosa uses the word “putrid.” Fellow Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn uses a similar word to make a similar point: “Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.” One might suggest our current political options confirm his lament.

As with our politicians and our government, we as a nation do not trust organized religion, the media, our judiciary, and the labor market. When asked by Pew which occupational groups contribute to our society’s well-being, only 37% of people endorsed clergy with an “a lot” vote. Journalists fared worse (28%), and lawyers were at the bottom (18%).


Given that we curate our own personal morality and don’t trust government, lawyers or our justice system in general, it should come as no surprise that we have developed an indifference to laws. According to Llosa, “a key feature of our age is an attitude of contempt or disdain for existing legal regimes alongside a moral indifference that permits citizens to flout the law as often as they can….” Perhaps with an eye on Wall Street abuses, riots and looting in Ferguson and Baltimore, and even post-victory “celebrations” on university campuses, Llosa writes “people break the law to amuse themselves, as if they were practicing a risky sport.”

Imagine, if you will, what might have transpired in 1955 if a few hundred drunken college students burned cars and hurled rocks at police officers after a championship game. Would the response have been the same as in 2016? Would the golly gee Leave It To Beaver youngsters have even considered such behavior in 1955? I doubt it. Our “spiritual order” appears to have broken down and along with it, our moral order. We harbor violent disdain for our democracy and the institutions we created to control us. In the service of our self-justification, we alchemize our own morality, which allows us to break the law as an amusement – or tolerate, if not downright alibi, those who do.

One other important cultural reality must be added to the equation, ably articulated by The New York Times in “The Gospel According to Me.”

Traditional forms of morality that required extensive social cooperation in relation to a hard reality defined by scarcity have largely collapsed and been replaced with a New Age therapeutic culture of well-being that does not require obedience or even faith – and certainly not feelings of guilt. Guilt must be shed; alienation, both of body and mind, must be eliminated, most notably through yoga practice after a long day of mind-numbing work.

What aspect of our “New Age therapeutic culture” allows us to shed our feelings of guilt? Quoting Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, author and theologian Tim Keller writes: “The contemporary person does not feel much guilt because ‘he no longer feels there exists something in the world that transcends himself.’”

Both the Times and Keller speak of our western culture’s self-righteous apotheosis of “I.” Whether we concoct our own build-a-god personal spirituality or simply skip the charade and deny God altogether, we place ourselves in the center of our universe. The results are predictable and our nation suffers them today. Just don’t dare disagree with me; I’ll hate-shame-tweet about you and then you’ll really be sorry!

Regardless of the despair it has wrought and some pundits’ hopeful victory dance, moral subjectivity prevails in 21st century America. Many adherents, unable to grasp the irony, adamantly assert that their enlightened worldview is absolutely correct, and unenlightened, narrow-minded dissenters deserve to be harangued for holding an antiquated belief in objective morality — yes, even an objective morality based in forgiveness and grace.

C.S. Lewis prophetically addressed the absolutely-no-absolutes absolutists in 1944.

Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.

What Lewis is saying is that many of us who knowingly or unknowingly subscribe to moral subjectivity reject the notion of objective morality in hypocritically absolute terms. Their view is absolutely right: there are no absolutes. Tim Keller frequently points out the fatal flaw in this post-modern path to psychological malaise: “To say there is no absolute truth is in fact to give a truth, absolutely.”


New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote:

If we’re going to avoid a constant state of anxiety, people’s identities have to be based on standards of justice and virtue that are deeper and more permanent than the shifting fancy of the crowd. In an era of omnipresent social media, it’s probably doubly important to discover and name your own personal True North, vision of an ultimate good, which is worth defending even at the cost of unpopularity and exclusion.

But what moral compass will point us to True North? What ideology or philosophy can provide reliable standards of justice and virtue, “ultimate good,” in a culture of narcissistic individualism, religious “nones” and the build-a-god apotheosis of “I”?

Remarkably, James Cameron hints at the answer. At the end of Terminator 2, after the terminator destroys the evil T-1000 and saves the lives of John Connor and his mother Sarah, the beaten and battered machine willingly sacrifices himself to save all humans.

John Connor pleads with the terminator to spare his own life.

“It’ll be okay, stay with us, it’ll be okay!” John begs.

“It has to end here” is the terminator’s solemn reply, as he is lowered into the molten steel. John cries as his protector dies.

To save humanity, James Cameron did not give his audience a fresh ideology or more inclusive worldview. He did not provide a triumphant military hero or benevolent peace-loving monarch. He did not endorse a flaccid subjectivity. The atheist who once described the Lord’s Prayer as “a tribal chant” gave us a savior, a sentient being willing to die for humanity.

Sound familiar?