Moral Relativists In The University: They Aren’t Who You Think They Are

This year the movie God Is Not Dead preyed on every Christian parent’s fear of sending a child off to college only to have their family’s faith and values undermined by an atheist college professor espousing some form of moral relativism. The movie hinges on a certain cliché, but the cliché is a cliché because many of us took a class with “that professor.” He might not have been so over-the-top, but his prejudices were evident.

The American university tends to be fairly hostile to the conservative movement. One of the core tenets of conservatism is the Judeo-Christian teaching that humans are fallen creatures. Moral right and wrong are objective categories, and human nature tends toward the wrong in absence of coercion. God-given social structures, e.g., family, community, and government, help restrain wickedness.

Progressivism, on the other hand, tends to view the human spirit as intrinsically good. For some progressives, “good” becomes a relative term defined by the individual. The only “bad” is to infringe on another person’s ability to express their own version of “good.”

It is no secret that most university professors are progressives, and over the last forty years, universities have replaced real virtues with tolerance and diversity. The prevailing spirit of progressivism has led to many forms of insanity on college campuses. Yale’s Sex Week is perhaps the most notorious example of how American universities celebrate the demise of tradition, but moral relativism permeates every college classroom.

Many conservatives blame left-leaning professors for this rise in moral relativism. Certainly a liberal faculty will promote progressive values, but the battle for conservatism was lost long before these students ever met their first college professor. In my experience, freshmen arrive on campus as moral relativists.

I realized the problem in my first year of teaching when a class of freshmen tried to rehabilitate Hitler. After reading some of Mein Kampf a couple of students in the class suggested that Hitler had a few good ideas. As our discussion unfolded, more than half the class agreed that perhaps what was good and true for the Germans was not good and true for the Jews. They suggested that we were dealing with a difference of perspective. Most of these kids identified themselves as conservatives. They were shocked when I informed them that truth was not dependent on nationalism. Over the years, dozens of students have earnestly asked me what made Hitler do what he did. They need a social-scientific explanation because they do not understand the conservative notion that humans are fallen. When we have lost the ability to call Hitler evil, we have lost much.

Recently, my students gave me further proof of their moral relativism. In my freshman history class, I assigned a short paper based on excerpts from Thucydides. Thucydides wrote about the devastating war that took place in the fifth century BC between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. In addition to having them read Thucydides, I lectured on the war and assigned readings from secondary sources. I thought that I had prepared them.

The assignment covered Thucydides’ account of the funeral speech by Pericles and Thucydides’ account of the dialogue between the Athenians and the people of Melos. In the funeral oration which takes place at the beginning of the war, Pericles lauds Athens as being the school of Hellas. Athens is the greatest of the Greek city-states. She is the greatest in both military and artistic achievement, and her greatness rests on her democracy. In the Melian dialogue which takes place mid-way through the war, Thucydides describes how the Athenians attempt to force the neutral island of Melos to join their alliance. When the Melians ask why they should join, the Athenians threaten to destroy them if they resist. The Athenians explicitly argue that might makes right. In the end, the Athenians kill all the men on the island of Melos and sell all the women and children into slavery. Athens, so proud of its own democracy, refused to allow its neighbors self-determination.

When I created this assignment, I had high hopes for it. I asked my students to explain why the same author would write two vignettes that show his native city in such different lights. I expected to hear that Athens began good but lost sight of its values. I thought perhaps some would blame Athens’s moral failure on its overweening pride. I had hoped that some would point out that democracy can be an unstable form of government if it isn’t founded on virtue. I was shocked and dismayed by what my students told me.

About two-hundred students did the assignment, and almost three-fourths of them failed to see anything wrong with Athens’s attack on Melos. Their line of reasoning was scarily consistent. Pericles said Athens was a democracy. We know that democracy is good. Therefore, Athens was good. Many even explicitly approved the genocide that occurred at Melos because it showed that democracy makes a people strong. An overwhelming majority of students could not even see Thucydides’ condemnation of Athens. Athens was a democracy, and democracies only do good things. Seemingly evil acts must be explained away. Interestingly, those students who could tell the difference between good and evil were not necessarily my best students. It seems that a sensitivity to morality has nothing to do with academic ability.

How did so many of my students become moral relativists? I did not teach them that, and I know my colleagues did not either. I teach at a fairly conservative university that promotes Christian values. We are not a group of leftist professors. Most of the students at my university identify themselves as conservatives. But every year hundreds students come to us as de facto moral relativists. What went wrong? Why do they not articulate a conservative worldview?

They cannot think with a conservative worldview because they have had limited exposure to conservative values. Children spend thirteen years in a school system which was founded upon progressive ideals about education and which increasingly promotes statism. For eighteen years the entertainment industry communicated to them an equally progressive worldview. From all sides children are taught to believe in the inherent goodness of humankind and to cherish the values of tolerance and diversity. There is no good and evil; there is just diversity. There is no justice and truth; there is only tolerance for other opinions. Democracy has become a good in its own right instead of being founded upon virtue. When democracy becomes its own end, any atrocity can be justified by a majority vote.

The conservative movement must accept some of the blame. Conservatives have made short-term political gains, using sound bites and slogans, but we have not communicated the depths of our worldview. Conservatives champion democracy just as fervently as the progressives, but we do not explain that democracy must rest upon a consistent system of values, a system that tells the truth about humanity. Why neglect this fundamental task? Perhaps imparting the conservative worldview diverts money and energy from political battles, and we fear no one would listen anyway.

We few conservative professors do the best that we can to make students think clearly about the human condition and the nature of good and evil. Liberal professors, on the other hand, will merely bring consistency to a student’s inchoate relativism. I hope to see the number of conservative professors rise as young scholars begin to react against their mentors’ sacred cows, but conservative parents cannot wait for the cavalry. It might not come. Parents need to impart their worldview to their children before the college professors get a crack at them. Preparing children to think with proper moral categories takes intentionality. Parents need to recognize the problem and admit that their children do not necessarily understand their worldview. American culture will not do the work of explaining virtue. One day a cultural revival may occur in America, but that day has not happened yet.

If conservative Christian parents want their own children to be the hero of God Is Not Dead, then parents must make sure that their children understand their worldview. Worldview isn’t about specific policies. It isn’t about a particular stance on taxes, military spending, or immigration reform. Real conservatives can disagree with each other about all these issues. Worldview tells us what it means to be human and what it means to be virtuous. Unfortunately, conservatives too often pick a “conservative” position on a certain policy and then justify it using the language and tenets of progressivism. If I don’t want my children to grow up to be moral relativists, I need to make sure that I myself don’t sound like a moral relativist when I talk about the world.

About the Author

Collin Garbarino is an assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University. You can follow him on Twitter at @cgarbarino.


  1. Yvonne Brown Reply

    I think Christians are much to blame for this state of affairs with our young. the evangelical church embraced forms of relativism a while ago, maybe as far back as 19th century. We know the church has embraced entertainment, watered down theology, softened the idea of sin, responsibility. Almost every church has counselors, psychologists, marriage therapy, etc. I don’t want to say therapy is bad–especially in light of all the people suffering from depression. But what is the grounding or epistemology of Christian therapy, anyway? Is the pursuit of happiness, self-fulfillment, or having others “get” you, which is not evil in and of itself, congruent with concepts of sacrificial love, denial of self, that Christianity is based on? I was struck recently by your post on ann coulter’s reaction to the Ebola stricken missionaries. The way we view people who make sacrifices for the greater good, particularly missionaries, has changed drastically even among Christians. People just don’t know how to conceptualize it; they see it as crazy or stupid. I think I remember that Eric Liddell, the famous runner was hailed as national hero for sacrificing his health/life as missionary to China. I can’t imagine that happening today. Alas, I have no answer on how to turn it around. I had a similar experience to yours in a seminar long ago. We had been assigned the book “Ordinary Men;” I think that was the name of it. As I remember it contained interviews with ordinary Germans who nevertheless became Nazis and murdered innocents. Everyone else seemed to like the book, but I had problems with the whole idea of it. Of what use was it to understand how ordinarily decent people, under extraordinary pressure, got pulled into murder and genocide. As harsh as it sounds. I felt like they made choices and should have to bear the consequences. But then, I was older than the others. I think that’s what’s missing. Our children aren’t seeing or realizing a connection between choices/actions and consequences. Or maybe they are?:) Sorry for the long post. Your thoughts?

  2. IA Reply

    “Progressivism, on the other hand, tends to view the human spirit as intrinsically good.”

    Minor quibble but I don’t think this is true anymore. If all they believed was this then what’s the fuss over white males being intrinsically racist? You even allude to this by putting whites/Germans on the defensive. Why not use a more pertinent example of say Islamic persecution/murder of christians happening today? Don’t you know that the entire middle east was once christian?

    Also, you don’t seem to question the progressive dogma that there is no difference between races. The evidence points to the contrary.

  3. Alaina Urbantke Reply

    I didn’t truly understand conservatism until my professor assigned an excerpt of Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”. Reading it, I realized that the conservative aims to protect. What struck me most was his general argument that while the French government was far from perfect, destroying it caused more chaos. There was a reason the traditions had longevity.

    I’ve observed today that his claims still hold water. Perhaps they are even more applicable today. As you pointed out, our society prides itself on its tolerance and diversity, and much of that pride stems from the destruction of tradition. “Oh, well we used to think that way about marriage, but now we are enlightened.” I often feel culturally pressured to celebrate progressive victories. Let me echo Burke: If you want my congratulations, let me decide whether it’s due.

    I wish I knew how I, as a future parent, could teach classical and Judeo-Christian values to my children. I want to conserve that tradition for their sake.

  4. This article contains a contradiction. At the beginning, it asserts that progressivism views the human spirit as intrinsically good. But then in the last paragraph, the author warns conservative parents not to use the language and tenets of progressivism.

    The source of this problem does not actually belong to the author though, Mr. Garbarino. For nearly a century, progressives have cloaked their true goals, that’s the problem – and it is why this type of conflict can exist and flourish. In front of cameras or in newspapers or other, progressives always use the most flowery language that can come to mind to try to fool people. But in their own writings, progressives have plotted and schemed at the best ways to usurp the individual and take control of every aspect of their lives. For example, Stuart Chase, an advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wrote the following checklist:

    1. A strong, centralized government.

    2. An Executive arm growing at the expense of the legislative and jucicial arms. In some countries, power is consolidated in a dictator, issuing decrees.

    3. The control of banking, credit, and security exchanges by the government.

    4. The underwriting of employment by the government, either through armaments or public works.

    5. The underwriting of social security by the government – old-age pensions, mothers’ pensions, unemployment insurance, and the like.

    6. The underwriting of food, housing, and medical care, by the government. The United States is already experimenting with providing these essentials. Other nations are far along the road.

    7. The use of the deficit spending technique to finance these underwritings. The annually balanced budget has lost its old-time sanctity.

    8. The abandonment of gold in favor of managed currencies.

    9. The control of foreign trade by the government, with increasing emphasis on bilateral agreements and barter deals.

    10. The control of natural resources, with increasing emphasis on self-sufficiency

    11. The control of energy sources – hydroelectric power, coal, petroleum, natural gas.

    12. The control of transportation – railway, highway, airway, waterway.

    13. The control of agricultural production.

    14. The control of labor organizations, often to the point of prohibiting strikes.

    15. The enlistment of young men and women in youth corps devoted to health, discipline, community service and ideologies consistent with those of the authorities. The CCC camps have just inaugurated military drill.

    16. Heavy taxation, with especial emphasis on the estates and incomes of the rich.

    17. not much “taking over” of property or industries in the old socialistic sense. The formula appears to be control without ownership. it is interesting to recall that the same formula is used by the management of great corporations in depriving stockholders of power.

    18. State control of communications and propaganda.

    This does not sound like a person who believes that the individual is intrinsically good. That’s because progressives don’t believe that when they say it. They believe that the individual should be controlled by government. Particularly #17 in the list. This gets right at the deceitful nature of the progressive. They will gladly let you keep your name on your property title – they’ll just slap 100,000+ regulations on you so that you cannot do one thing without government permission.

    Chase was not some random advisor, just some guy who was there by chance. Stuart Chase coined the phrase “New Deal”. His advise was taken seriously.

Leave a Reply