A Postmodern Mode of Happiness

“What’s right for me is right, and what’s right for you is right.” This postmodern slogan drips rich with agent relativism or moral subjectivism.[1] Moral subjectivism maintains that there are no objective, universal, absolute, or external ethical truths or norms for all people at all times and in all circumstances. There are only one’s own individualistic tastes to sample and explore.[2] On this view of the world, it is not difficult to see how a person can morally justify engaging in any whim, desire, passion, thought, or emotion[3] that comes her way.[4] Sexually speaking, rape can be right for one person, and consensual sex can be right for another. Pedophilia can be right for one person, and consensual adult sex can be right for another. Homosexuality can be right for one person, and consensual adult heterosexual sex can be right for another. Again, there are no privileged moral principles by which one can judge right from wrong.[5] It is not difficult to understand, according to this worldview, why today Johnny cannot tell right from wrong.[6]   

Another form of relativism is cultural relativism or conventionalism, which holds that a cultural consensus determines the validity of ethical truths or norms.[7] In other words, what can be considered right and wrong is culturally created and there are no objective moral norms for all cultures to live by. Similar to the slogan “What’s right for me is right, and what’s right for you is right,” cultural relativists claim, “What’s right for one culture is right, and what’s right for another culture is right.”

Cultural relativism came about not by philosophical ideology but by anthropological discovery. Cultural anthropologists used to report on the similarities and differences of the assorted value systems of the cultures they studied.[8] This falls under the moral umbrella of descriptive ethics, which simply means that the ethical practices of a culture are being reported. But it was not until recently (about the twentieth century) that western anthropologists, who sought to avoid the imperialist pitfalls of their colonialist ancestors, focused more on the moral differences between assorted people groups rather than their similarities. Because of ethical dissimilarities, as well as subjective social contracts, some anthropologists and sociologists concluded that there are no moral absolutes or universal principles by which any culture can or should adjudicate another culture’s actions.[9] This moral reasoning falls under the ethical umbrella of normative (prescriptive) ethics, which, ironically, in this case, prescribes a non-absolutist morality as an absolute moral truth. Ethical dissimilarities that led to a pluralism of perspectives became ethical norms that escape external judgment, no matter how morally repulsive their practices seem to outsiders.[10] Thus, conventionalism has moved from describing what is the case to prescribing what should be the case, culturally speaking. Conventionalists justify this assertion by wrongly believing that what a society should do is based on what the society is de facto doing. This is-ought problem in philosophy is called the naturalistic fallacy.[11]

One can easily see how the same mistake that applies to agent relativism also applies to cultural relativism. Just as any and all inhumane individualistic acts can be considered right for a particular person, any and all cultural acts can be warranted right for a respective society.

Take, for example, the cultural practice of female genital mutilation. According to conventionalism, removing a woman’s external genitalia is right in some African and Middle Eastern countries, and there is nothing objectively wrong with it. But, of course, there is something morally wrong (nay, morally repulsive) with forcing a woman to have her genital organs removed for non-medical reasons. It violates a universal human right because of God’s design for women. But if one were to stick hard and fast to cultural relativism, it is ethically taboo to call female genital mutilation wrong. The naturalistic fallacy here is that since female genital mutilation is a cultural phenomenon, then it should be respected as normative for that culture.

Moreover, what makes conventionalism so unattractive—although it is still the most popular form of relativism in America today—is that it whitewashes at best and contradicts at worst the ethical efforts of countries that have indefatigably worked together to declare universal human rights. Cultural relativism is a direct contradiction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) drafted by the United Nations after the Second World War. According to conventionalism, the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis was right in Germany during the Third Reich because there is no universal rule by which one culture can or should judge another.[12] But cultural relativism violates in spirit and word what this declaration stands for. Simply put, conventionalism makes a mockery of moral progress.  

It is also important to note that the progression from cultural relativism to agent relativism should be apparent here in the West where personal autonomy, individuality, self-expression, and spontaneity are highly valued. Both forms of relativism, which can be amalgamated into the term moral relativism, are contrary to moral realism, which maintains that the individual or society does not invent morality; objective morality exists externally of individuals and societies.[13] Moral relativism is one aspect of a larger zeitgeist: postmodernism.[14] To be accurate there are two seminal types of postmodernism: Continental and Anglo-American.

Continental postmodernism is the type of postmodernism associated with moral relativism, and other forms of relativism for that matter. It is in this sense that postmodernism and relativism have been used interchangeably. However, one can argue, as has Canadian philosopher James K. A. Smith, that not everything that is postmodern is relative and devoid of value or meaning.[15]

Contemporary Anglo-American postmodernism, on the other hand, should not be used interchangeably with relativism. Rather, according to philosopher Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American postmodernism was born from the crisis of relativism.

Murphy explains that contemporary Anglo-American postmodernism is an epistemological reformulation that involves “changing the unit of analysis from that of a static web of [coherent] beliefs or paradigm to that of a research program or tradition—adding the historical dimension—and, in addition, ensuring self-referential coherence such that the (tradition-laden) standards of rationality involved in the tradition are not violated when applied to themselves.”[16]

Simply put, contemporary Anglo-American postmodernity is a theory of knowledge that focuses on tradition and historical problems of tradition in order to overcome its problems so not to jettison the tradition.[17]

It is Continental postmodernism, however, that is the culprit when discussing the weltanschauung (German word meaning “worldview”) responsible for moral relativism. And in a Continental postmodern (i.e., moral relativist) society, the meaning of happiness is relative to the individual and/or society.[18]

Evangelical leader Charles Colson sums this up with poignant prose: “postmodern society tells us that the ultimate goal of life is personal autonomy—to be free from all restraints, free to pursue our own happiness. As a result, pleasure and personal gratification rule the day. Our culture tells us that we alone are capable of making ourselves happy, that life is all about finding out what we really want and then letting nothing get in the way of achieving our hearts’ desires.”[19]

But happiness is not merely a “Shadow of Ourselves,”[20] as Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) believed. True happiness transcends personal autonomy and gratification. As we will see, objective happiness is about living virtuously, fulfilling one’s nature, and considering the interests of others.

In America, subjective happiness has found a political ally in the propagation of human rights, particularly in the right to be happy, which has become void of any moral meaning.  People today have wrongly superimposed this superficial understanding of happiness onto the Declaration of Independence.

One can surmise, as has Horner, that the Founding Fathers, who were steeped in the classic conception of happiness—εὐδαιμονία eudaimonia (anglicized as eudaemonia), could hardly be thinking of happiness as a right to “whatever makes you happy.”[21] Theologians J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, in their book, Lost Virtue of Happiness, expound on the Founding Fathers’ influence of the pursuit of happiness. I quote them at length: “The Founding Fathers looked to the eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone for wisdom about where happiness comes from. He wrote, ‘[The Creator] has so intimately connected, so inseparably woven, the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and if the former be punctually obeyed, it can not but induce the latter.’ “[22]      

They continue to explain: “Though Blackstone’s language is archaic, he meant the same thing that C. S. Lewis intended when he wrote, ‘You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.’ “[23] Or as Jesus said, ‘Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ ” (Matthew 6:33).[24]

This is not to say that a modern (current) moral philosophy of happiness cannot be contrived. But as British philosopher Julia Annas has pointed out in her book, The Morality of Happiness, modern theories of happiness relegate happiness to physical pleasure making little room, if any, for moral and/or intellectual virtues. “In modern theories happiness is often treated as a definite goal, independently specifiable as a state of pleasure or satisfaction; and this can lead to regarding the ancients as engaged in the high-minded but quixotic and hopeless task of showing us that virtue leads to that.”[25] The modern portrayal of subjective happiness in secular universities in America is a microcosm of how the world in the West perceives happiness. Sadly, happiness has been relegated to a socio-political right to self-indulgence in order to maximize physical pleasure. This explanation of happiness, by the way, is the textbook definition of hedonism. As historian Darrin M. McMahon puts it, the modern observer is “more inclined to think of happiness as feeling good than being good. . . .”[26] Sadly, he is right. In more detail, Horner says something similar: “These days our English word, ‘happiness’, typically refers to a feeling or subjective state of pleasure, satisfaction, contentment, or enjoyment—a largely subjective, superficial, and luck-dependent matter.”[27] As we can see, a postmodern view of happiness maintains that the highest good for an individual or society is the right to increase positive feelings of intense enjoyment.

Strangely enough, under this reign of relativism, happiness for one person can be interpreted as, say, torturing a human being or animal for fun, and for another it can mean eliciting in sexual fantasies with children. (God forbid!) This artificial convention we call happiness has vanished the horizon of objective morality by presenting a pluralism of ethical perspectives that made it possible to relativize right and wrong, or good and evil.[28]


[1] Relativism, generally speaking, maintains that whether we are discussing religion or ultimate reality, politics, and/or ethics, we should appeal to one’s own personal preferences, beliefs, feelings, etc., as the final authority on the matter.

[2] A prominent worldview ethic that is nearly indistinguishable in function from moral subjectivism is found in transcendentalism. Transcendentalism, which started in America in the nineteenth century, teaches that since our depravity is replaced by divinity, morality is moot. Our spiritual consciousness is what matters. Thus, practically speaking, we can do whatever we want. Hollywood is known for its transcendental bent.

[3] I differentiate between emotion and feeling. Emotions typically involve feelings but differ from them in that emotions engage with the world we experience. Feelings, on the other hand, are purely mental as the mind interprets emotions. Take the relationship between happiness and joy for example. When I interact with the world in the right way, I flourish experiencing happiness both objectively via living virtuously and subjectively via human emotion. My mind then interprets my happy emotional state as a feeling of joy. Thus, I enjoy being happy.     

[4] In Tennessee Williams’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire, this postmodern mode of happiness proves disastrous for his main character, Blanche DuBois, who experiences her share of tragedies due to the ugliness and brutalities of hedonism.

[5] Of course, we, in America, do legally adjudicate right and wrong, but that is based on a changing social-cultural contract.

[6] In a controversial book entitled Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong, William Kilpatrick has rightly shown that the main reason why our kids are having trouble telling right from wrong is because they are no longer taught character education or moral lessons learned throughout history by our public education system. Rather, they are being taught moral reasoning or moral choices for the purposes of self-esteem and self-awareness. See William Kilpatrick, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong and What We Can Do About It (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).       

[7] Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, [1995] 2009), 85.

[8] For a multicultural, multireligious list of similarities concerning objective value or morality, see C. S. Lewis’s “Illustrations of the Tao” in the Appendix of his book, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins, [1944] 1974), 83–101.    

[9] In 1947, the American Anthropological Association declared that “moral ‘values are relative to the culture from which they derive’, and ‘respect for different cultures is validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered.’” Christopher W. Gowans, ed., Moral Disagreements: Classic and Contemporary Readings (London: Routledge, 1999), 8; quoted in Paul Copan, “True for You but Not for Me”: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, [1998] 2009), 70–1.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) helped popularize the notion that morality is a human invention for the purpose of survival: “It can no longer be maintained nowadays that there is one, single morality which is valid for all men at all times in all places. We know full well that morality has varied. . . . The purpose of morality practiced by a people is to enable it to live; hence morality changes with societies. There is not just one morality, but several, and as many as there are social types. And as our societies change, so will our morality. It will no longer be in the future what it is today” (W. S. F. Pickering, ed., Durkheim: Essays on Morals and Education, trans. H. L. Sutcliffe (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), 12–13; quoted in Paul Copan, “True for You but Not for Me”: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, [1998] 2009), 88).

[10] Philosopher Paul Copan rightly draws attention to the fact that “moral relativism does [not] follow from diversity of cultural norms.” Paul Copan, “True for You but Not for Me”: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, [1998] 2009), 89.

[11] Deriving ought from is, however, is not always a naturalistic fallacy. It is only a problem when we assume—without question—that everything that is natural is necessarily normative.

For a complementary explanation on the origin of the is-ought problem, see The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, Vol. 1. Schaeffer locates it as an irrevocable consequence of determinism, particularly Marquis de Sade’s chemical determinism. He writes that Sade—from where we get the word sadism—concluded that “if man is determined [like a cog in a machine], then what is, is right.” Because of this, Schaeffer comments, “Morals become only a word for a sociological framework. [That is] morals become a means of manipulation by society in the midst of the machine.” The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, [1982] 1985), 231 (emphasis in the original). It is no coincidence given Sade’s reductionist moral philosophy that he frequently mistreated prostitutes for his own sadistic pleasure.  

[12] But we intuitively know that the Nazis were guilty of committing heinous crimes against humanity. We did not need the Nuremberg Trials to tell us that. We objectively know via natural law that it is wrong to commit genocide.

[13] For a thorough defense of moral realism, see Russ Shafer-Landau’s Moral Realism: A Defence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003).

[14] Generally speaking, postmodernism in the western world is the societal paradigm shift from modernism, and modernism from premodernism. In order to better understand these shifts according to their respective time frames, one can say that premodernism took place prior to the seventeenth century; the modern era commenced with René Descartes (1596–1650); and postmodernism found its voice in the herald of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Looking at these eras from the perspective of justice in the West, which is now more about rights (law-affirming) than virtues (character-building), James W. Sire, makes the astute observation that “there has been a movement from (1) a ‘premodern’ concern for a just society based on revelation from a just God to (2) a ‘modern’ attempt to use universal reason as the guide to justice to (3) a ‘postmodern’ despair of any universal standard for justice.” He goes on to say, “Society then moves from medieval hierarchy to Enlightenment, universal democracy to postmodern privileging of the self-defining values of individuals and communities.” James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 4th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, [1976] 2004), 215.  

[15] I state Smith’s assertions here about key aspects of the thoughts of three (Continental) postmodernists: Jacques Derrida—“There is nothing outside the text”; Jean-François Lyotard—“Postmodernity is ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’”; and Michel Foucault—“Power is knowledge.” James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 22.

[16] Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 60.

[17] Murphy places philosophers Imre Lakatos, Theo Meyering, and Alasdair MacIntyre at the forefront of such a new philosophical tradition.

Since I mentioned in an earlier footnote that Nietzsche was the harbinger of postmodernism, I believe it is important to clarify of which postmodern camp he belongs. Given Nietzsche’s ethic of the transvaluation of all values (umwertung aller werte)—or what I call the transtraditioning of all tradition, which has usurped the Judeo-Christian tradition moving us beyond good and evil—it is safe to say that Nietzsche belongs to the camp of Continental postmodernity and not to Anglo-American postmodernity.

[18] From here on out, whenever I use the term postmodernism, and/or its cognates, I will be referring to Continental postmodernism and not Anglo-American postmodernism, unless stated otherwise.

[19] Charles Colson and Harold Fickett, The Good Life (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2005), 104 (emphasis in the original).

[20] Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, eds. Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1999] 2008), 145.

[21] David A. Horner, “The Pursuit of Happiness: Why Christian Ethics Should be Eudaimonistic,” Evangelical Philosophical Society (November 2003): 4. Moreover, it is important to point out that the unalienable right to pursue happiness that Jefferson talks about is conversely different from the right to pursue “whatever makes you happy.” The former is objective and organic because it is given by God; the latter is subjective and artificial because it is derived by man. 

[22] Gary T. Amos, Defending the Declaration (Charlottesville, VA: Providence Foundation, 1989), 119–20; quoted in J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006), 15. In Chapter 5, I comment on the biblical relationship between justice and happiness.  

[23] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 280; quoted in Moreland and Issler, 15.  

[24] Moreland and Issler, 15.

[25] Annas, 431 (emphasis in the original).

[26] Darrin M. McMahon, The Pursuit of Happiness: A History From the Greeks to the Present (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 65 (emphases in the original).

[27] David A. Horner, “The Pursuit of Happiness: C. S. Lewis’s Eudaimonistic Understanding of Ethics,” Resurgence (2005): 2.

[28] It is no mistake that Sire entitled Chapter 9 (“The Vanished Horizon”) of his book, The Universe Next Door, after Nietzsche’s “The Madman.” In the parable, the madman equates the act of murdering God as “wiping away the whole horizon,” whereby we become gods creating our own morality. See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Thomas Common (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2006), 90. 

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