Monday, March 18, 2013

Moral Relativism

I recently completed a survey for the BSA regarding a potential change in the membership policy. One of the questions is this: What is your greatest concern if the policy is changed to allow charter organizations to make their own decisions to admit openly gay Scouts and leaders? 

As I pondered how to answer that question and how to explain my concerns I realized that my biggest concerns are centered around the concept of moral relativism. That idea is essentially that different people have different ideas about what is right and what is wrong. A more extreme version, and where the trouble really starts, is that no one moral view is any better than any other. It seems to me that a change in policy would promote this idea. I do not believe it makes sense for an organization which maintains that we have a duty to God to embrace moral relativism.

The BSA's Declaration of Religious Principle states that "no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God." Furthermore this declaration states: "The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members. No matter what the religious faith of the members may be, this fundamental need of good citizenship should be kept before them."

While the BSA remains nonsectarian, the wording given in this declaration implies certain beliefs. First, that there exists a single divine being who we all worship. We may understand Him and worship Him differently, but He is the same for each of us. As we strive to follow his rule to the best of our ability we will be led in correct paths by Him.

Second, that He is "the ruling and leading power in the universe" and that we acknowledge "His favors and blessings." If we accept that God is the ruling and leading power in the universe, then we must accept that He has made rules and laws for us to follow. This also implies some sort of judgement following this life based on our choosing whether or not to follow His law. For over 100 years, the BSA has acknowledged those rules and laws include prescriptions of moral behavior.

I do not know how an organization can explicitly state that God is the ruling and leading power in the universe, that we have a duty to Him, and that it's members pledge to be morally clean and yet state that morals are relative. It doesn't work. In my opinion it could lead to the erosion of every other value we have.

I really like the statement from the American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi: "By assigning value and spiritual ideals to private subjectivity, the materialistic world view, as I mentioned earlier, threatens to undermine any secure objective foundation for morality. The result is the widespread moral degeneration that we witness today. To counter this tendency, I do not think mere moral exhortation is sufficient. If morality is to function as an efficient guide to conduct, it cannot be propounded as a self-justifying scheme but must be embedded in a more comprehensive spiritual system which grounds morality in a transpersonal order. Religion must affirm, in the clearest terms, that morality and ethical values are not mere decorative frills of personal opinion, not subjective superstructure, but intrinsic laws of the cosmos built into the heart of reality" (emphasis added).

I understand that some will say that the BSA remains non-sectarian (which is true) and that religious training, including what is moral and what is not, should be left to the home and church. I also understand that some churches do not teach that homosexual behavior is sinful (despite the fact that every religious text I know of says otherwise). I get that. And in a way, it makes sense to allow chartered organizations to decide for themselves.

But my conscience tells me that making the proposed change to the membership policy would be wrong. I believe with all my heart that God is against it.


  1. Bhikkhu Bodhi would not be able to adhere to the declaration of religious principle because, as a Buddhist, he does not believe in God as "the ruling and leading power in the universe". I am fairly sure that as a monk in the Theravada tradition he'd also support acceptance and tolerance of different sexual orientations.
    Perhaps, then, you'd agree that the idea of changing how the BSA approaches this question is not based in moral relativism but in the idea that the "intrinsic laws of the cosmos" are much broader and than our current organizational limitations.

    1. I didn't say I agree with everything Bhikkhu Bodhi says or believes, nor did I comment on his potential views on this particular issue. That is completely irrelevant. I simply said that I liked his statement that morality and ethical values are intrinsic laws of the cosmos built into the heart of reality. That one single statement resonated with me in the context of this discussion. My point is that moral and ethical values are not defined by man's individual views on them, but rather by God. It is then incumbent upon us to live up to His law, not try to change it to fit our view. I also believe that the values the BSA has endorsed for the last 100 years are in harmony with God's laws--or--intrinsic laws of the cosmos.

      I didn't intend to imply that the the BSA's approach to this question was consciously based on moral relativism. However, I am concerned that should a change be made the default position of the BSA (whether stated or not) would be that no one moral view is any more correct than another. It does not make sense to me for an organization that expresses a belief in God as the ruling power of the universe to embrace an idea that there are no moral absolutes. In my opinion, that is a dangerous view and one that cannot logically co-exist with a belief in God.

      As to the idea of showing acceptance and tolerance of different sexual orientations; we should follow the Scout Law and be friendly, courteous, and kind to those who have feelings of same-gender attraction, but we do not have to accept indeed, we must not accept, or tolerate behaviors that we find distracting, degrading, or out of harmony with our ideals.

  2. I agree with you, Tory, 100%. Homosexuality, by its very nature will always be a moral issue (as matters relating to sexuality always are), no matter what you personally believe. And God ALWAYS has a strong stance on moral issues, particularly those that involve sexuality. I think that you are right--if we open moral decisions to be personal decisions and leave God out of it, why bother to have a moral code at all?

    As a new Webelos leader I'm hoping to dispel the misconception that some of the boys, parents, and even some other leaders have, that scouts is just a daycare program where there are some fun activities. Why are we asking boys to spend $100 on books and uniforms if that's our only goal--glorified babysitting? The easy answer is that *IT'S NOT!* But if we are not asking anything of them--if we are not doing something with them, then it doesn't matter. We might as well be a daycare program. What does it matter if you are a scout, unless being a scout means something? It mattered to me that I married an Eagle Scout because that says a lot about him (you!)--including his comittment to God and his strong moral fiber.

    Instead of lowering our standards to increase our membership, let's keep our standard high and raise ourselves to meet it. How else can we be and do our best?