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Moral Relativism and Freemasonry

Freemasonry is emerging as an important alternative to the larger culture’s response to moral relativism. Moral relativism was the name given to the cultural phenomenon in which subjective personal values seemed to be replacing universal moral principles. Under moral relativism, morality was culturally or historically defined.  Since the 1970s, conservative cultural warriors were ceaselessly wringing their hands about “moral relativism” and the decline in traditional values. This was a time after the tumultuous 1960s when defined gender roles, respect for institutions in general and religious piety were in decline.

Freemasonry has never been a philosophy of moral relativism. In fact the system of morality that freemasonry promotes is expressly based on truths that are seen as universal and timeless.  In many respects, freemasonry was the embodiment of moral relativism’s opposite. Because it adhered to an older philosophy based on objective standards, freemasonry suffered a loss of pertinence in the larger culture during these times of shifting social norms.  The fraternity has probably lost membership, social importance and cultural power in the last fifty years in part because of the ascendancy of moral relativism. This is not surprising because freemasonry is not and has never been a live and let live, relativistic way of organizing a man’s life. And it did discriminate, was viewed as a traditional institution and always adhered to requiring a belief in a supreme being, all at a time of changing attitudes towards traditional norms regarding gender, race and faith.

The Emergence of a new Moral Culture

But now change comes more rapidly and from a totally different direction.  The communication revolution is radically influencing how we view and judge the behavior of others.

The technological revolution that started with the transistor and the silicon chip has brought us the internet and social media. These technologies are changing the moral landscape. In this changing moral framework, moral relativism seems to be giving way to a new kind of moral system.  Instead of a culture of laissez faire relativism, a new culture of public shame is coming into focus. Andy Crouch of Christianity Today argues that the power of social media in the culture is creating a new kind of shame based culture that is different from the moral relativism of the recent past. It is no longer a question of whether there are different standards depending on one’s historical or subculture origins, instead it is rather, whether you are viewed as included or excluded.

In the world of social media, if the ethical code is violated, the results are immediate and unequivocal.  The incorrect action is attacked in cyber space and broadcast instantaneously. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Yelp can be unmerciful and effective in their condemnation. Groups will call you out and call for punishment. Transgressions are broadcast and are done so publicly and vociferously. In the shame culture created by the power of this social media, moral life is built on a continuum of inclusion and exclusion as opposed to a continuum of right and wrong.


But herein lays a new problem. As Jonathan Merritt wrote in The Atlantic  magazine describing the death of moral relativism, the new code of conduct has created a “paradoxical moment in which all is tolerated except the intolerant and all included except the exclusive.”

Why the Social Media shame culture is different from the Past

Shame cultures are not new. In fact, the traditional cultures of the Far East in places like Japan and China developed highly evolved shame based cultures. However, in those shame cultures, it was very important to be known as dignified and upstanding. The opposite of shame was given the name “face.” Face is what we in the West would consider “honor”. However the shame culture that seems to be emerging with the rise of social media does not have honor as its positive anchor.   Instead, the opposite of shame seems to be fame or “celebrity” status. It is not about one’s perceived integrity; it is about how popular or interesting you are to the group. This new moral continuum arguably has shame at one end but it has notoriety at the other. It is not firmly set in a value structure.

Freemasonry as an alternative to Moral Relativism.

Freemasonry has some commonality with a shame based culture. Freemasonry assigns a very significant role to the importance of honor, using its rituals, lodge etiquette and customs to reinforce and celebrate the positive aspects of meritorious and exemplary behavior.  When we call out and punish members for “unmasonic” behavior it is done so in a very legalistic and shaming way that exposes the mason to “the condemnation of his brethren”. One can be forced to demit from a lodge or expelled from the fraternity. In other words like a traditional shame culture, we either honor or we exclude. In this sense we are more like a traditional shame based culture because the positive anchor is honor not notoriety.

While Masonry has more in common with traditional shame based cultures, I am not advocating that we go back to the social norms that tolerated discrimination. The enduring intellectual strength of Masonry is that it is a moral philosophy that is based on standards of virtue and justice that have a permanency that is more durable that the shifting judgement of the crowd.  Temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice, the cornerstone virtues of Masonry, are tried and true values that have withstood the test of time. Imbedded in these masonic virtues is the particular importance we assign to exercising tolerance.

The Importance of Tolerance

My point is that you do not need to be morally relativistic in order to be tolerant. In the shame based culture fostered by social media, the emphasis is the culture of the times, the ephemeral preferences of the crowd and the biases of the larger culture, all of which are transitory in their moral foundation. The masonic approach is to exercise tolerance in the acknowledgment of higher objective standards.  For example, acknowledging the existence of the Great Architect of the Universe means humbly taking the position that there is something greater than your ego or self. This humility is the fountainhead that fosters understanding and real tolerance for differences. This is another reason why freemasonry fosters   brotherly love – the capacity to accommodate differences enables brotherhood and the love of your fellowman.

The Eternal

Freemasonry, born of the enlightenment and the heir to the Western esoteric traditions has survived into the 21st century despite major social and cultural changes since its formation. Uniquely, it remains a private and non-religious institution that still uses initiation and adopted oral histories in an effort  to contemplate  the eternal.

This recognition of the importance of the eternal is the Masonic  touchstone. We value the esoteric because we understand that it enables us to bring our lives closer to the depths of human consciousness and the innate goodness of God.  This is our strength and it is the reason we should not compromise our solid philosophical position. Eventually, men of substance, men who seek a firmer foundation in their ethical and moral lives, will seek out the most excellent tenets of our ancient institution.

Vance Thomas Langford, PM

Benicia Lodge U.D.