By Bob Hiller –
Moral relativism..BOO! Ha! Scared you, right? Is there anything that gets us religious folk in a tizzy more than the relativism of our culture? I suppose one could argue that the culture is not so much relativistic over what is right and wrong. Rather, they’ve just decided to name wrong things right things. After all, when someone says, “What’s right for you may not be right for me,” isn’t that just a boring, wimpy way of saying, “You’re wrong?” Nonetheless, ours is a time where many attempt to blur the lines of what has been traditionally considered right and wrong.
In an effort to get out from underneath what are considered “culturally shaped structures,” many are questioning traditional views of what is morally good vs. what is morally wrong. What is ugly to one person may be beautiful for another. Thus, all beauty is defined relatively. The good, the true, and the beautiful are no longer objective, transcendent categories, but have been reduced to subjective preferences.
Whoa, slow down there, Hiller! Looks like the sports dude may have been listening to too much Virtue in the Wasteland. Aren’t we stepping a little bit outside of our box this week? Maybe. But, a recent episode of ViW did, in fact, get my wheels spinning as the men discussed CS Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man. In this book, Lewis gets really mad at a school text book for how it’s authors relativize the beauty of a waterfall. The text book taught children not to say that the waterfall was beautiful, but that they felt it was beautiful. Thus, they made beauty a preference and feeling, and not a transcendent category. Lewis says this sort of thing is going to destroy us.
And it has. I have a friend who teaches art at a University who is constantly trying to convince her students that there are objective standards by which a piece can be criticized. Nothing drives me crazier than when I talk music with someone and they say something foolish like, “The Beatles sucked.” In no way is this true. I point out how far afoul such comments are only to hear the response, “Fine, well, I just don’t like them.” Not liking something doesn’t mean the thing itself sucks, rather that you don’t prefer something that is an actual good. Preferences have no bearing on the actual goodness of a thing. You may like, say, Boston more than the Beatles, but that doesn’t make Boston better. It only makes your preferences questionable.
And, as an aside, reducing all such conversations to tastes and preferences is just more boring than discussing why something is good. It is just narcissism to use a piece of art or music as a reference point for talking more about “me.”
I think this is where bar room debates about sports are the salvation of our relativistic society. Think about it. This week, Peyton Manning retired, as did Detroit Lion’s wide receiver Calvin Johnson. No doubt both men will be in the Hall of Fame. And it is not because fans preferred them over other players. It is because they were objectively better than most other players. Upon their retirement, discussions broke out in barrooms across the country: Is Peyton Manning the best quarterback of all time? Where does he rank among the best ever? How does Calvin Johnson’s career stack up compared to the likes of Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and Michael Irvin? Who are the top five receivers of all time? And so on. These conversations would lead to rankings of all kinds of players in all kinds of sports.
What sports talk hosts and sports bar patrons get that “post-modern” ethicists and art critics seem to miss is that there are objective standards by which the good can be distinguished from the bad. Think about all the hullabaloo in Denver when the Broncos got rid of the beloved Tim Tebow and signed Manning. Preference plays no role in arguing over who is a better quarterback in this instance. To be sure, there are people in Denver who love Tim Tebow because he’s a nice Christian young man and looks good in underwear ads. But if you watch him play, compare his arm with other quarterbacks in the league, and analyze his numbers, you will inevitably conclude that he is a far inferior quarterback to Manning. Yet, a recent survey found that Tebow is still among the NFL’s most popular players. This is remarkable as he isn’t actually playing on a team. He isn’t playing on a team because he isn’t very good. No matter what some fans may prefer, their preferences to not a great quarterback make.
Arguing over a list of the greatest quarterbacks of all time reminds us that there are objective standards which distinguish something that is good from something that is bad. Sure, you could say that many people will have different guys on their lists. Granted. However, those differences will still be based on facts and numbers that we all know to be true. The arguments are still grounded in objectivity. You can analyze and criticize quarterbacks in objective ways. The difference between the good (Manning) and the bad/ugly (Tebow) is real.
What is true of sports lists debated over beers is true of music, art, and moral standards as well. There are objective truths that transcend us and our preferences which, when understood and pursued, create for a more beautiful and fruitful existence. Not only this, but they make for far more interesting conversation at the bar.