Don’t Fall for the New Morality
How the oppression hierarchy underscores the dangers of moral relativism.
In 1943, C.S. Lewis delivered a series of lectures at King’s College that warned about the erosion of moral values and the rise of relativism, which he believed would lead to humanity’s ruin. These thought-provoking lectures were later compiled into The Abolition of Man, a book that has since been acknowledged as one of the most significant and influential works of the 20th century.
Today, I believe society has reached the very crossroads Lewis forewarned—an era of subjectivism where concepts of “right” and “wrong” have lost their objective anchor and are instead dictated by personal whims and desires. A striking manifestation of this shift is evident in the construction of an oppression hierarchy. This hierarchy asserts that moral judgements in any given situation is not determined by external, consistent values for judging behavior, but rather by the fluctuating perceptions of who is deemed “privileged” and who is deemed “oppressed.”
In his lectures, Lewis emphasized the importance of universal virtues in guiding our morality. He referred to these virtues, which he believed to be found universally across humanity, as the “Tao.” Originating from Chinese philosophy, the Tao represents a way of life in harmony with the world. Discerning the right way to live, according to Lewis, requires wisdom and character. He describes the Tao as “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”
Regrettably, Lewis observed a decline in such wisdom and integrity among the youth of his era, leading to what he termed “men without chests”—individuals devoid of honor and virtue. His critique was not about dictating the specifics of what is “right,” “moral,” and “good.” Rather, Lewis lamented that we have lost any sense that the right, moral, and good exist at all, writing: “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it.”
To illustrate his point, Lewis began his first lecture with an anecdote about the English poet Samuel Coleridge. Coleridge was once gazing at his favorite waterfall when two tourists came along, one calling the waterfall “sublime” and the other as merely “pretty.” Coleridge approved the former judgment and rejected the latter.
Lewis’ intention was not to dictate perceptions of waterfalls. His concern was that, when the story was referenced in a “little book on English” for schoolchildren that he called The Green Book, the authors declared that the tourist who called the waterfall “sublime” was merely making a statement about his own feelings. This, according to Lewis, exemplified a troubling shift away from recognizing objective beauty and value.
This sly inward turn toward subjectivity, and away from the belief that certain emotional responses can be congruous or incongruous with reality, deeply troubled Lewis. He feared this trend would lead to “men without chests.” He posited that we would demand from such men qualities like drive and self-sacrifice while relegating virtues like honor and patriotism to mere feeling and opinion. He uses the example of a Roman father telling his son that it is a “sweet and seemly thing to die for his country.” The authors of The Green Book, however, would feel the need to debunk this sentiment the same way they debunked the idea that the sublime nature of the waterfall has any reality outside of the tourist’s own feelings.
Lewis further illustrated his point using a humorous example of himself and his attitude toward children. He admitted, “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind.”
Rather than trying to justify the fact that he doesn’t enjoy the company of children by forcing the rest of society to see it as a virtue, Lewis acknowledged it as a personal shortcoming, recognizing that we should value spending time with children. However, it often seems today that people do the opposite: they argue that what they personally like is valuable and what they personally dislike is not. And this is exactly what Lewis saw coming.
When we move away from the Tao and the idea that certain attitudes toward the world are really true and good, we risk evaluating the world solely through the lens of desire and emotional impulses. “When all that says ‘It is good’ has been debunked,” says Lewis, “what says ‘I want’ remains.” He further remarks: “Those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.”
I believe Lewis correctly predicted humanity’s moral trajectory, which is highly concerning considering where he said it would lead. What I don’t think he could have predicted, however, was that one of the major ways that subjective and relativistic morality would manifest was through the oppression hierarchy.
Based on identity characteristics like race, sex, sexuality, and “gender identity,” the oppression hierarchy slots individuals into a stack that ranges from most privileged to most oppressed. At the top, you will invariably find “cis” straight white men. At the bottom, you will likely find black “trans” women, often bearing additional marginalized identities like “disabled.”
The morality underpinning this hierarchy is inherently relativistic. It contends that those lower in the stack are incapable of wrongdoing toward those above. For example, you might have heard that non-white people can’t be racist against white people because they are more oppressed as a group on the basis of race. It is also reflected in the idea that there is no such thing as misandry because under patriarchy men as a class oppress women as a class. This ideology further manifests in attitudes that trivialize or even endorse acts like shoplifting, justified by the belief that capitalism is an “oppressive” system.
Gone is the traditional notion of treating others equally and recognizing antisocial behaviors like theft as inherently wrong. According to this new moral framework, any attitude or action directed against an “oppressor”–be it an individual or a system–is deemed justifiable.
This new morality and its value calculus is also prevalent in contemporary gender ideology. It becomes particularly apparent in how trans-identifying individuals demand privileges that clash with the rights of women. Gender self-identification is a disaster for women’s sports, women’s prisons, and women’s private spaces, but it doesn’t matter because “trans” people are considered oppressed, and “cis” people the oppressors. As a result, trans-identified men can therefore demand anything at the expense of women’s rights, and women who refuse or fail to swiftly comply with every demand are branded as hateful.
Oppression stack-based morality is why trans rights activists feel entitled to call for violence, rape, and death against so-called “transphobes” who disagree with them, and why they receive no real pushback from within their communities. It’s why they feel emboldened enough to hold up signs that say “decapitate TERFs” and to show up at women’s rights events with fake guillotines. It’s why they regularly jump to the defense of male pedophiles, rapists, and murderers who seek transfer to women’s prisons. Critics of such transfers are often accused of bigotry and “misgendering.”
No matter what, the “trans” person in any scenario is viewed as inherently oppressed and incapable of wrongdoing, especially against those deemed as oppressors.
A case in point is Audrey Hale, a mass shooter who killed three adults and three nine-year-old children at a private Christian school in Tennessee. Because she identified as a transgender man, activists quickly slammed media outlets for “misgendering” Hale by referring to her using female pronouns. CNN and The New York Times even issued “corrections,” essentially capitulating to the preferences of a mass child killer. Prominent transgender activist Eli Erlick even called the school a “right-wing institution” and asserted, without evidence, that Hale had been “abused” there.
However, perhaps the most striking illustration of this new morality at play was seen in the response to the Hamas terror attack against Israel on October 7, 2023. Despite the heinous nature of the atrocities committed on that day, a disturbing number of people praised the actions of the terrorists. The moral calculus has been grim. The terrorists were rebranded as oppressed freedom fighters. Consequently, their actions, regardless of how morally reprehensible, were often rationalized or justified because they were perceived as acts against “oppressors.” In this context, the conventional condemnation of acts like mass rape and murder has become contingent on the relative privilege of the perpetrator and the victim. Then, a terrorist attack is no longer a terrorist attack.
While Lewis couldn’t have foreseen the specific outcomes of a shift towards subjective morality, nor the intricate oppression hierarchy that now informs societal judgments of “right” and “wrong,” he was nevertheless correct in identifying that it would be based on nothing more than personal desires and emotional impulses. The supposed objectivity of the oppression hierarchy is, in reality, a façade. The allocation of characteristics within this hierarchy, and the corresponding levels of privilege or disadvantage they confer, are seldom reflective of real-life circumstances. Instead, they are dictated by prevailing social and political trends, and the caprices of those in power. The clearest evidence of this is that a straight man instantly plummets from a position of unrivaled privilege to one of significant oppression simply by donning a dress and wig.
But what implications does this perspective have for society? Lewis wasn’t optimistic. He argued that discarding traditional values in favor of self-crafted ones, based on whims and impulses, does not lead to emancipation. On the contrary, it subjects us to what he termed “Conditioners”—those who “cut out all posterity in what shape they please.” These Conditioners are, in my opinion, analogous to those making the decisions about where individuals sit on the oppression hierarchy. “They produce conscience,” Lewis says, “and decide what kind of conscience they will produce.” In this manner, the Conditioners effectively conquer human nature. However:
At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’—to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.
Lewis feared that a shift toward subjective and relativistic morality might inexorably lead to totalitarianism, with those in power guided by their basest instincts. Reflecting on the latter part of the 20th century, it appears his fears were not unfounded. At the time of his observations, such moral perspectives were already shaping the ideologies of fascism and communism. Despite his cautionary words and the unfolding of events that mirrored his warnings, this new morality continued to proliferate throughout society and it is now the guiding star of radical progressives.
While I favor Lewis’ view, I’m not arguing that everyone must necessarily agree with the concept of objective morality. I’m sure many lively debates could spring up around his words, and no doubt many have. I know numerous people with strong morals and values who might insist that they came to those values rationally, that we don’t need to rely on tradition, and that morals aren’t necessarily objective. I also know that some would say evolutionary biology has played a significant role in shaping moral attitudes, a view I accept, though I believe is not the sole factor at play.
Yet, I hope we can collectively recognize the dangers inherent in the other view—that right and wrong should be judged only according to the emotional intensity of a given impulse. This new morality has created an oppression hierarchy, where the moral standing of an action hinges entirely on the relative oppression or privilege of the involved parties. This perspective has led us to a precipice where, alarmingly, an act as heinous as cold-blooded murder might not be deemed wrong if perpetrated by someone from an oppressed group against an individual from a perceived oppressor group.
Do not let yourself become conditioned to accept this.
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