Over the years I’ve come to realize that “relativism” is the wrong way to describe the way in which secular elite culture approaches moral questions. It’s obvious that all things are not permitted, which is why Pope Benedict coined the term “dictatorship of relativism.” One MUST be affirming, inclusive, and non-judgmental. We’re heavily policed, as the term “political correctness” indicates.

Furthermore, the moral norms that progressives endorse aren’t just of this sort. In America, our secular elites put a great deal of emphasis on subtle forms of moral formation. First there is the imperative of success. Getting into a good college is all-important. This cult of success requires a great deal of self-discipline, and although one often sees a work-hard/play-hard mentality, that’s more characteristic of the 1980s and 1990s than the rising generation. Today parents emphasis the need to make “healthy choices” or “responsible choices.” That may allow for hedonism, but it’s a moderate hedonism organized around the larger goal of controlling one’s destiny and being successful.

This cult of success carries over to marriage and family. The well-educated and successful in America don’t affirm “family values,” and in fact many are politically and culturally opposed to social conservatives who do. Saying that marriage is morally necessary or even socially normative is “exclusive” and “intolerant,” a stance inconsistent with elite commitments to “inclusion.” Nonetheless, the same elites have a strong culture of marriage and family. It’s sustained by a super-subtle moral system only accessible to insiders who know the nuances of “responsible choices.” This system makes is entirely consistent for a Harvard graduate to have many sexual partners in his twenties and thirties, and then marry and accept the traditional presumption that he’s to be faithful to his wife. Making sense out of this requires a profoundly esoteric moral wisdom, one that can parse the differences between relationships that are “unhealthy” and those that are “healthy.”

It’s this quality—the esotericism—that is as destructive today as political correctness and the dictatorship of relativism. I’m not a fan of the elite approach to sex and marriage, but it’s shown itself to be a functional system—for elites. The problem is that for everybody else it’s mysterious and inaccessible. And so we have no functional social norms for ordinary people. Traditional views are bludgeoned by the elite commitment to “inclusion.” But nothing clear takes it’s place. Elites are happy with their esoteric approach, which can’t function for society as a whole.

Why the esotericism? Why no commitment to a larger, functional social ethic of sex and marriage?

I don’t want to be too Marxist, but I think it has something to do with sustaining class domination. I can’t imagine a system more congenial to elite domination than one that demoralized most (the dictatorship of relativism) while allowing elites to flourishing according to esoteric norms that only insiders can apply (“healthy choices”).

Articles by R. R. Reno


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