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Distinguished Fellow in Cultural Policy Studies,
The Heritage Foundation


NOVEMBER  9, 1998

Let me begin by congratulating The Heritage Foundation, and in particular its president, Ed Feulner, on the Foundation’s 25th anniversary. The Heritage Foundation’s contribution to the intellectual life of this nation is extraordinary. It is an institution that has had an immeasurably positive impact on the modern conservative movement—and the conservative movement has, in turn, had an immeasurably positive impact on the last half of this century.

My assigned topic this evening is truth. It is a big topic, one as old as Western civilization itself. As a student and former professor of philosophy, I first learned what Socrates had to say about truth in Plato’s Republic. He said philosophers were men with "no taste for falsehood; that is, they are completely unwilling to admit what’s false but hate it, while cherishing the truth." He goes on to tell his young interlocutors, "Therefore the man who is really a lover of learning must from youth on strive as intensely as possible for every kind of truth." Plato himself described truth as "food of the soul."

As a Catholic, I have also learned that the Bible has some profound things to say about the truth. Recall the life of Christ. More specifically, recall the exchange in the Gospel of John, when Pilate said to Jesus, "Art thou a king then?" Jesus answered, "Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice." Pilate saith unto him, "What is truth?"

Just as some individuals have forever sought and proclaimed the truth, there have also always been men who seek to undermine and even kill truth—and with it concepts like justice. Pontius Pilate tried. So did a man named Thrasymachus, one of Socrates’ most notorious critics. In the Republic, he said that justice does not truly exist but is merely "the advantage of the stronger." And so said the influential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared, "God is dead." (It turns out, of course, that it is Nietzsche who is dead; God remains.) Nietzsche, too, argued in favor of the Will to Power. Like all those before him and after who share his view, he understood that if God is dead—if there is no truth—then everything is permitted. We create a vacuum that human power will fill. Perhaps he understood less well that when we abandon God and truth, the blood begins to flow.

The nature, role, and importance of truth is an old topic, ladies and gentlemen, an old debate, and an old controversy. I hope to shed some light on it tonight by focusing my comments on moral truth.

Moral truth is a precious inheritance. It has convinced and inspired generations of Americans to dedicate themselves to, in the words of Lincoln, "the noblest political system the world ever saw." Among other things, reliance on moral truth has helped this nation declare its independence, abolish slavery, and topple the two evil empires of fascism and communism. Moral truth is precious, but today it has come under a relentless, withering attack—and the command-and-control center is the modern academy.

Moral Truth in the Academy

The American university is an institution to which I owe a great deal. The people and professors I met there opened and deepened my mind in ways I never thought possible. They taught me much of what I know today and a lot that I have forgotten. And they taught me to consider, and make sense of, moral truths and arguments that I—with youthful pretension—wanted to reject. For that I will always be grateful.

But the universities are also places that, during the past 25 years, have sorely disappointed me, especially in the humanities. Few things in this country are more disturbing and consequential than the transformation of the teaching of the humanities on our university campuses. In the matter of the humanities, many universities emphasize trends more than truths. In fact, in many universities moral truth is not explored or celebrated but damned and deconstructed.

You will remember the late (and much missed) Allan Bloom as the author of The Closing of the American Mind. Professor Bloom told the story of a psychology professor he knew who declared that his "function"—an interesting word, suggesting a machine-like efficiency—his "function" was to rid his students of their beliefs. He insisted that moral truths were simply subjective, personal values, the product not of objective reason or divine revelation but of whim and prejudice.

The example of the professor is instructive because he is so familiar; he is an archetype for the way moral truth is handled in today’s universities, places where "high thought" and "higher education" have become oxymorons. Everything there is lowered down. No religion, culture, or country—no aspiration, idea, or even person—has any claim to truth. Human beings are reduced to, and human achievement is understood only through, the lens of race or gender, sexual orientation or oppression. That is the lesson being taught in many places today.

And so, what are we to make of the self-evident moral truths claimed in the Declaration of Independence? What about the proposition "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights"? Even this is questionable for many of the intellectuals who walk under the philosophical banners of various "isms"—postmodernism, poststructuralism, deconstructionism, relativism, and multiculturalism.

Today, influential professors proclaim, "I do not have much use for notions like ‘objective value’ and ‘objective truth.’" They write that we need to "get to the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi divinity, where we treat everything—our language, our conscience, our community—as a product of time and chance." We are told, "there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves" and "there is no such thing as literal meaning...there is no such thing as intrinsic merit."

This belief system leads to chilling conclusions such as, "there is no answer to the question ‘Why not be cruel?’" and "what counts as being a decent human being is relative to historical circumstance, a matter of transient consensus about what attitudes are normal and what practices are just or unjust." The message to the students is to scrap the quaint, old ideas; get rid of moral truth, God-given unalienable rights, and all your antiquarian hang-ups. These things can mean nothing because man comes from nothing.

These modern-day professors, who like to think of themselves as clever Socratic gadflies, are actually not much different from Thrasymachus. Although they like to think of themselves as liberators—"whatever your heart desires" is their charm—what in fact they are liberating their students from is the belief that some things are objectively better than others, that some things are right and others wrong.

This is a terrible and discouraging development; emptying, flattening, deadening the souls of the young has become the unspoken goal of many so-called intellectuals. C. S. Lewis taught us that "the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts," but it is the creation of just such a desert of the soul that is the result of this new thinking which Professor Bloom aptly called "debonair nihilism." It has rightly been said that when people are taught only to doubt, they do not know any more what they may safely believe.

Moral Truth Outside the University

Perhaps the more urgent question—for us tonight and for this nation—is whether moral relativism reigns not only within but also beyond the walls of American universities. Have the ideas peddled by many intellectuals made their way into the mainstream of American life? Do most Americans still believe in something called truth? Or are we all moral relativists now?

My own observations—based on extensive travels, participation on various commissions, conversations with social scientists and philosophers, reading of the relevant literature, and my everyday experiences in a suburb of Washington, D.C.—is that pure, unalloyed relativism has not spread wide and deep across America. Most people (and even most university professors) don’t yet live their lives as if they were proud relativists. Most parents are not relativistic when it comes to the matter of whether or not their child uses cocaine. Most of us are not relativistic when it comes to distinguishing between the lives of Mother Teresa and Theodore Kaczynski. And most of us are not relativistic about whether South Africa moves from apartheid to democracy, or about whether the Berlin Wall goes up or comes down.

Also, and importantly, no university professor (even an Ivy League university professor) wants to encounter hard-core relativists in his everyday life. He does not want to deal with students who cheat on tests, or ransack offices, or refuse to pay tuition, or burn books, or rob and bludgeon professors, and then justify their actions by "deconstructing" rules and laws and "creating their own truth."

Yet relativism as an idea has made inroads; it has established a beachhead in American life—and it will, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, do more damage to America, and to Americans. Increasingly we see how relativism has manifested itself in different areas of everyday American life. Let me mention just a few.

The Supreme Court

I believe there can be little doubt that the Supreme Court has played a part in America’s widespread social disorder. Part of this has to do with the lessons the Court teaches through its judicial "reasoning." Consider Justices Souter, Kennedy, and O’Connor’s ominous opinion in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, in which they wrote, "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

Note well: This does not mean merely that you have a right to believe what you will, or say what you will, or even live as you will. It is announcing something far more sweeping; namely, you have the right to define reality, to make reality what you want it to be. In this utterance we see a breathtaking, blatant, proud embrace of moral relativism by this country’s most secure and respected branch of government. What this pronouncement says is that moral truth can be defined, or defined away, simply as one wishes. What this pronouncement means is that the subjective definition of truth has received the blessing of the highest court in the land.


The institution of marriage has sustained serious damage during the last three decades. Divorce rates are now stuck at around 50 percent. The effects of the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce, and out-of-wedlock births have been felt. We have reaped the consequences of marriage’s devaluation, reducing it from a sacrament, to a contract, to a mere agreement, to a mere arrangement immediately dissolvable at the whim of one or the other party.

Nevertheless, many believe that we should shatter the traditional definition of marriage in order to include same-sex couples. It has been argued by same-sex marriage advocates that the old "single, moralistic" model is insufficient and discriminatory. Heterosexual marriage is not the product of natural teleology and sexual and human realities but is instead an arbitrary, man-made convention. And so this argument against moral truth in marriage—while not yet widely embraced—is making headway.


We still are without a law prohibiting partial-birth abortions, the procedure in which a baby’s skull is punctured and his brains sucked out before he has been fully delivered. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senior Democrat from New York, called the procedure "too close to infanticide."

A recent Washington Post column by Fred Hiatt reported that in many states, abusers of children receive significantly lighter punishments than abusers of animals and it is the latter group—abusers of animals and not children—that ignites public outrage. For example, two Kansas men got three years each for beating and burning a Yorkshire terrier named Scruffy—and the judge in the case had received 5,000 letters demanding harsh punishment. But only last year, a woman in Maryland had all but 18 months of her sentence suspended after she was convicted of charges of first-degree assault and conspiracy to commit child abuse.

Let me tell you the gruesome facts of the case, as reported by Hiatt. The woman was convicted of tying five-year-old Richard Holmes to his bed with a cat leash for 22 hours a day, injuring his ankles so that he now has trouble running and jumping. While he was tied down, the woman repeatedly cut him, force-fed him whisky and hot peppers, and taped shut his mouth.

There were not 5,000 letters protesting this. Nor was there much public outrage when a man in Silver Spring, Maryland, punched and shook his seven-week-old baby so hard that the child lapsed into a coma and, weeks later, died. The man received a five-year suspended sentence. No jail time. But remember: If you can define reality your own way, then it is legitimate and justifiable to lament cruelty to dogs more than the torture of children.

Popular Culture and Advertising

Many of our most respected businessmen and artists are modern-day relativists. I am referring to corporate leaders who believe in giving people whatever they want (so long as there is profit in it), regardless of how degrading it is, even if it celebrates misogyny, rape, torture, murder.

Look also at some of the new movies. One movie out this fall, Happiness, includes the subject of homosexual pedophilia. Happiness won the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics’ Prize in a rare unanimous sweep; according to its writer-director, the movie "might be disturbing, deals with longing and isolation and the struggle to connect emotionally and find intimacy." The post-modern attitude toward such things is, "Who is to say it is not right to want this? If people want it—if any people want it—it’s okay to make it."

Even in the world of mainstream advertising, we are being inundated with messages declaring, "The world has boundaries. Ignore them" (Isuzu). We hear the refrain, "Life without limits" (Prince Matchabelli perfume). We are told, "It’s not trespassing when you cross your own boundaries" (Johnny Walker scotch); "sometimes you gotta break the rules" (Burger King); there are "no rules here" (Neiman Marcus); and "All the rules have changed" (Woolite).

Now, no one would argue that each of these small things by itself can destroy our belief in moral truth. Each of these is trivial. But no one can argue that taken together, these clever and persuasive messages, repeated over and over and over, do not influence how we think and alter our frame of reference, our sensibilities.

The American Presidency

And sadly, we now have a President of the United States who could serve as an advertisement for moral relativism. In his world, words—vows, oaths, commitments, and promises—do not have fixed meaning; everything depends on subjective interpretation.

So the President can declare under oath, to a grand jury, with a straight face, against all the evidence, that his lawyer’s statement that "there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form" between Mr. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is true because—and listen to these words carefully—"it depends on what the meaning of the word is is." And in explaining how he can defend his false statement, made under oath, that he had no recollection of he and Ms. Lewinsky ever having been alone together, the President said, "It depends on how you define alone." Everything is up for grabs.

And yet, to many Americans, it seems not to matter. Today, it is the case that many Americans seem unsure whether violations of oaths to family, to country and Constitution, and to God are serious matters. They aren’t sure if character—if truth-telling—in our leaders matters.

We have a President who had a sordid, selfish, reckless affair with a 21-year-old intern, and who then began a methodical, calculated seven-month effort to cover it up. That cover-up consisted of lies to his family, aides, friends, lawyers, and Cabinet, and—emphatically and passionately—lies to the American people. Our President lied under oath during civil litigation and before a federal grand jury. And this President continues to lie to this day.

And yet many people don’t know what to make of this. It seems to them to be a hard and complicated issue, even though the President clearly violated his oath of office "to take Care that the Laws be Faithfully executed." In fact, this President’s job approval ratings have gone up since the scandal broke and his massive lies have mounted. So what do the American people think of him? One can make a plausible argument, I think, that they think rather well of him and want him to be left alone.

Some critics may say that the examples I have used are not, in the language of social science, an adequate or "representative sampling." In response, I would point out that in their 1991 best-selling book, The Day America Told the Truth, James Patterson and Peter Kim, two marketing and advertising specialists, conducted one of the largest surveys of private morals ever undertaken and concluded the following: "Americans are making up their own rules, their own laws. In effect, we’re all making up our own moral codes."

I would also point critics to Boston University Professor Alan Wolfe’s most recent book, One Nation, After All. Professor Wolfe’s book, based on fairly in-depth surveys and interviews with average, everyday Americans throughout the country, argues that "middle-class Americans have added an Eleventh Commandment...: ‘Thou shalt not judge’." Wolfe goes on to say that "[t]he idea of the ‘Ten Suggestions’ rather than the ‘Ten Commandments’ is exactly the tone in which most middle-class Americans believe we ought to establish moral rules." And during his appearance before the National Commission on Civic Renewal earlier this year, Professor Wolfe said, "The single most surprising finding that I came up with is how unbelievably relativistic Americans are."

Remember, these are middle-class Americans, not leftist professors, hippies, beatniks, or teenagers. When it comes to moral truth, Mr. and Mrs. America have become skeptical, diffident, uncertain, and deeply and proudly nonjudgmental.

Part of the explanation of why this has come to pass is that there is an allure to untethering ourselves from the claims, and constraints, imposed on us by moral truth. The wayward part of man wants to do away with rules because where there are no rules, there are no wrongs. "If it feels good, do it" has its appeal. This temptation has always existed—but in the past, civilizations have found ways to fight back. Today, we seem less sure of our ground and whether we even want to fight back.

I also believe many Americans have confused tolerance and relativism; often, they assume that tolerance means not merely respecting people’s right to their opinions but refusing to make any reasoned judgments about those opinions. To put it another way, although it is true that "we all have an equal right to our opinions," it does not follow that "every opinion is equally right." The modern expression of this confusion is the question, "Who am I to judge?" or the eight-letter word that in many ways is emblematic of the ’90s: "Whatever."

In the classical liberal understanding, tolerance means according respect to the beliefs and practices of others and learning to live peacefully and civilly with one another despite deep differences. Tolerance allows for the "free trade in ideas," which in a fair exchange is the best way to ensure that the right beliefs will emerge. It assumes that all reasoned opinions will get a fair hearing, even when what is said may not be popular.

So tolerance is a great social good, which is precisely why it needs to be rescued from the reckless attempt to redefine it. But we cannot allow its meaning to be massively disfigured. The invocation of "tolerance" can be genuinely harmful when it becomes a euphemism for moral exhaustion and an indifferent neutrality toward moral truth. We do not want "tolerance" to be what G. K. Chesterton feared it might become: the virtue of a people who do not believe in anything.

Defending Moral Truth

There is no more important task in our time than defending truth against its enemies. To this audience, I need not belabor the point that if we give up on objective moral truth, we will not be able to understand and fight authentic evil where we find it. Pope John Paul II, in his masterful encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), said that societies that deny truth inevitably fall into bondage; we are left defenseless against tyranny, brutal repression, monstrous lies. "Authentic freedom," he wrote, "is ordered to truth."

So it is. And in a society without respect for moral law—a world of "all against all"—it is always the weak, innocent, and vulnerable who will suffer most at the hands of the strong, rapacious, and unprincipled. In a world where moral truth is denied or repressed, the reality is that—and here I come back to those Socratic dialogues—justice means nothing but the "advantage of the stronger."

History has taught us all too well, too regularly, too poignantly that intellectual and moral disarmament leads to terror. At the end of this bloody, brutal century—with the searing images impressed in mind and memory of Auschwitz and Nanking, the Soviet gulag and the Cambodian killing fields—if there is one thing we have learned it is that there are horrific human consequences to pernicious, evil ideas. And no idea has more consistently done more evil than the idea that there is no right or no justice except as dictated by the strong.

But there is also this: The enemies of moral truth have an impoverished understanding of reality, of human dignity and the human drama. They declare (implicitly or explicitly) that there is nothing worthy to which we should give allegiance; nothing deserving of our reverence; nothing elevating for which to live; and nothing—not family, country, faith, honor, or truth—for which to sacrifice or even die. Theirs is a world that cannot celebrate human excellence or heroism, for it is a world where everything is equally good, equally bad, equally meaningless. The real stuff of life—its vividness and grandeur, its joy, majesty, and beauty—is thought to be illusory.

If the relativists are right, then, as Malcolm Muggeridge once said, "the cynics, the hedonists, and the suicides would be right. The most we can hope for from life is some passing amusement, some gratification of our senses, and death." But as Muggeridge pointed out, that is not all there is. There is more to life than shadows and caves. There is also, always, sublime truth.

We need sublime truth today. And like the Marines, we desperately need not only a few good men and women who are interested in seeking truth—a worthy endeavor for sure—but a few good men and women who are interested in defending it.

Several years ago, Saul Bellow wrote that "our post-industrial, post-Christian, post-everything period of flux and crisis does not breed stingable horses, only millions of gadflies." Today, we have millions more gadflies and not enough stingable horses. What is a stingable horse? It is a person who stands for the truth in whatever arena he finds himself and who endures however strong the sting—people like Pope John Paul II and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Wilson Reagan.

In the defense of truth we must be prudent, large-minded, non-censorious, intellectually serious, and morally imaginative. But we must also be engaged and purposeful. And perhaps, above all, we must be brave. We must not be afraid.

In 1938, Winston Churchill gave a speech called "Civilization." I quote:

But it is vain to imagine that the mere perception or declaration of right principles...will be of any value unless they are supported by those qualities of civic virtue and manly courage...which in the last resort must be the defense of right and reason. Civilization will not last, freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them.... [Emphasis added.]

A half-century later, it is time we again unite together—in defense of our civilization, our ancient faith, and truth itself. I will close by reminding you of what was said two thousand years ago, in luminous words that resonate even now, even still, in the heart of man: We shall know the truth, and the truth—and only the truth—shall set us free.

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