Relativism used to be a hallmark of the educated liberal. For example, Paul Johnson’s 1981 history Modern Times begins with Eddington’s famous 1919 study of a solar eclipse that vindicated Einstein’s new General Theory of Relativity that starlight would be bent by a massive object like the sun. Johnson contended that this popularized relativity in nonscientific contexts.
A contentious question of morality much argued over in the 20th century was: Should Lord Bertrand Russell, mathematician, philosopher, earl, and grandson of a British prime minister, be cancelled for trading in his old wife for a new one every decade or two?(He was ultimately married four times.)
Nowadays, nobody would say a word about that, but lately Russell would be criticized for his second wife being 22 years younger than him, his third wife 38 years younger, and his fourth wife 28 years younger.
But are educated liberals becoming moral absolutists in the 21st century?
From American Sociological Review:
Miloš Broćić, Andrew Miles First Published September 18, 2021
Moral differences contribute to social and political conflicts. Against this backdrop, colleges and universities have been criticized for promoting liberal moral attitudes. However, direct evidence for these claims is sparse, and suggestive evidence from studies of political attitudes is inconclusive. Using four waves of data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, we examine the effects of higher education on attitudes related to three dimensions of morality that have been identified as central to conflict: moral relativism, concern for others, and concern for social order. Our results indicate that higher education liberalizes moral concerns for most students, but it also departs from the standard liberal profile by promoting moral absolutism rather than relativism. These effects are strongest for individuals majoring in the humanities, arts, or social sciences, and for students pursuing graduate studies. …
Research to date provides no clear answers about how higher education changes moral attitudes. Existing work suggests colleges and universities will generally liberalize moral concerns—that is, increase concern for others and reduce concern for social order. What is less clear is whether these liberal views will be accompanied by a growing sense of moral relativism, moral certainty, or some combination of the two. This narrative is further complicated by research highlighting that morality is learned early in life, and by the possibility that individuals select into higher education based on their family background or preexisting moral attitudes. Consequently, it remains unclear how higher education influences moral attitudes, and whether it does so at all.
We address these questions using four waves of data from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). The NSYR follows respondents from adolescence to early adulthood and contains measures of educational attainment and field of study, as well as variables capturing moral relativism, moral concern for others, and moral concern for social order. The data also contain a rich array of family background variables that can be used to control for selection into higher education and fields of study.
The NSYR is a four-wave, nationally representative survey study that investigates the beliefs and practices of U.S. youth. The first wave of data was collected from June 2002 to April 2003 and included 3,370 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17. During this first wave, a parent of each respondent was also interviewed. Waves 2, 3, and 4 were collected in 2005, 2007–2008, and 2012–2013, respectively, with respondents being between 23 and 29 years old during the final wave. Sample sizes for each analysis and our strategies for handling missing data are described below.
We measure moral relativism with two questions from waves 2, 3, and 4.2 The two items are moderately correlated (rwave 2 = .42; rwave 3 = .37; rwave 4 = .44), but the theoretical considerations given above suggest they might respond to higher education differently, so we examine them separately. The first question asks respondents to rate their level of agreement with the following statement: “[m]orals are relative, that there are no definite rights and wrongs for everybody.” This question taps a general belief in moral relativism. The second question asks for agreement with the statement, “[t]he world is always changing and we should adjust our views of what is morally right and wrong to reflect those changes.” We refer to this dimension as moral progressivism. Responses for both items include strongly disagree, disagree, agree, and strongly agree.
Unfortunately, this study peters out just as the Great Awokening is starting. Moreover, it’s uncertain what the well-educated are becoming more morally absolutist about, although we can guess it’s about disrespecting the Good Guys and cancelling the Bad Guys.