In one of Russian literature’s most vexing passages, the sensualist older brother of “The Brothers Karamazov” asks: “What is goodness?”
He says: “Goodness is one thing with me,” but quite “another” thing for someone else.
“It’s relative,” he muses, “or isn’t it? Is it not relative?”
In the age of Donald Trump such questions on moral relativism are increasingly passé. In fact, on both the left and the right there’s a burgeoning renaissance of armchair moralizing that’s fanning out across Facebook feeds and prompting uncomfortable watercooler conversations around the country.
“The prevailing thought of the second decade of the 21st century is not like the mid- to late 20th century,” writes Jonathan Merritt for The Atlantic. “Law, virtue, and a shame culture have risen to prominence in recent years, signaling that moral relativism may be going the way of the buggy whip.”
Millennials, for example, “are no less convinced than their elders that there are absolute standards of right and wrong,” according to a Pew Research Center study from 2010. And, as college campuses have witnessed, the rising generation is even more apt to enforce their moral paradigms through forms of shaming and other kinds of soft censorship.
Meanwhile, on both political poles, Donald Trump’s performative persona has catalyzed America’s moral crusaders. His election has thrust into hyperdrive the generational trend away from laissez faire relativism.
Although those who are hoping to avoid contention on social media are undoubtedly tired of Aunt Maurine’s weekly political diatribes, there may be potential upsides to this phenomenon.
To be sure, America’s newfound moral certitude on the left and the right could end up exacerbating the nation’s hyperpartisan environment, leaving little room for common ground. Yet, it’s also possible that this ubiquitous chatter about ethics and morality might prompt greater self-reflection and perhaps even improvement.
Counterintuitively, the provocateur-in-chief might be making America moral again.
In this regard, Andrew Jackson is instructive.
Steven Bannon, Newt Gingrich and Rudolph Giuliani have all compared Trump’s unlikely rise to the White House to that of Andrew Jackson. In Trump’s Oval Office there now hangs a formidable portrait of America’s seventh president.
Jackson attracted controversy like Tom Brady attracts Super Bowl titles.
Trump is much the same. Yet, despite the era’s many moral shortcomings, the Jacksonian epoch gave rise to unprecedented religious interest and moral reforms. The Second Great Awakening resulted in thousands of mainline converts and evangelical fervor. New religious traditions sprung up, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and beginnings of the modern-day Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Meanwhile, moral reforms also took hold as religion and politics converged in pro-social ways. Grass-roots advocates pushed for temperance, women’s rights and prison reform.
There were national movements against gambling and prostitution and, most important, slavery.
Would there have been a Lincoln without a Jackson?
There’s no telling whether America will channel the current political and moral context to give birth to a revival of pro-social causes (a la the Jacksonian era).
But, if nothing else, Donald Trump’s steady stream of Tweets has America once again asking: “What is goodness?”