A Critique of Moral Relativism in a Monkees Song?

021813There is a song about the sadness of moral relativism in an unusual place: “The Greatest Hits of the Monkees.”

Some who are old enough may remember growing up with the songs of the Monkees. I confess their song “Only Shades of Gray” was not one I remember well from those days. But it is a fascinating song about moral relativism.

Some think it’s just a song about growing up. But to most it speaks of a time when things were more certain and compares it to these more modern times when it seems everything is disputed and up for grabs, no more black and white, only shades of gray.

It is all the more poignant that the song was written in the turbulent 60s and, perhaps, represented the anxiety generated by those times when just about everything was being thrown overboard.

Now I know that it is wrong to point any particular age as the “golden age.” Scripture itself warns against this: Do not say: How is it that former times were better than these? For it is not in wisdom that you speak this (Ecclesiastes 7:10). I am also aware that not everyone feels the same about the “good old days.” For some they were not all that good. We should not forget the terrible wars of the early half of the 20th Century. Further, I serve in a parish that is predominantly African American and for many of my parishioners previous days featured “Jim Crow” laws, disenfranchisement, lynching and enforced segregation.

And yet, it remains also true that some fifty years ago we had a much wider consensus on basic moral teachings and appropriate behaviors.

  1. Premarital sex was considered gravely wrong and guarded against, even if it was not perfectly observed. Remember chaperons and separate dormitory facilities?
  2. Easy divorce and remarriage was considered wrong, and it was in fact legally difficult to get divorced.
  3. Abortion was illegal
  4. And it never even entered our minds to give children in school contraceptives.
  5. There was also strong consensus against homosexual activity and the thought of homosexuals demanding to marry and being taken seriously was something that would have seemed from an episode the Twilight Zone.
  6. Families were larger and most were intact.
  7. There was also a general appreciation of the role of faith and prayer in American life.
  8. I could go on but perhaps this is enough.

Here too I can hear the objections: “We might have had those standards but we didn’t live them well…. Things went on behind the scenes, families weren’t perfect, many kids still had sex etc. etc….”

But I will respond by saying, At least we had those standards and saw them as truths to be respected. It is an extreme measure, a kind of nihilism, to say that since we do not live up to our standards perfectly we should not have them at all.

And I also know we were more wrong about some things in the past. We were more racist and less open to legitimate diversity, less concerned about pollution. But here too it is extreme to say that because we were wrong about some things in the past the whole thing should be thrown out. Why not keep the best and purify what is needed?

So here we are today, is a radically relativistic and nihilistic time where there is less and less agreement about the most basic of moral issues. And, without a common basis for discussion, such as Natural Law, or the Judeo-Christian worldview, we are left to a battle of wills, an increasing power struggle where the one who shouts the loudest, has the most money, wins an election or has the most access wins, at least for the moment.

It is what Pope Benedict has described as the “Tyranny of Relativism.” Reason and principles increasingly do not transcend political, economic and social distinctions. There are fewer and fewer shared values that every one agrees on no matter what their party or background. Public policy is rooted more in power than in right reason. We are a culture without a “cultus” i.e. without God, or even a higher truth outside ourselves to which we all look and have general agreement. Closed in ourselves and our own little world we are like crabs in a basket, fighting and clawing for the top. There is nothing we acknowledge from above to order us.

Whatever our struggles of the past, we used to agree on more. Many of those certainties have been replaced by a wide presumption that everything is just shades of gray.

Listen to the song. Don’t forget my disclaimers. I do not propose a simplistic old=good; new=bad scenario. I just write to provoke thought. Please feel free to comment. . First the words, then the video.

  • When the world and I were young,
  • Just yesterday.
  • Life was such a simple game,
  • A child could play.
  • It was easy then to tell right from wrong.
  • Easy then to tell weak from strong.
  • When a man should stand and fight,
  • Or just go along.
  • Refrain:
  • But today there is no day or night
  • Today there is no dark or light.
  • Today there is no black or white,
  • Only shades of gray.
  • I remember when the answers seemed so clear
  • We had never lived with doubt or tasted fear.
  • It was easy then to tell truth from lies
  • Selling out from compromise
  • What to love and what to hate,
  • The foolish from the wise.
  • It was easy then to know what was fair
  • When to keep and when to share.
  • How much to protect your heart
  • And how much to care.

30 Replies to “A Critique of Moral Relativism in a Monkees Song?”

  1. And to think we owe so much of our relativist society today to Helen Keller who was instrumental in the founding of the ACLU. Miss Keller was strongly influenced by her teacher Anne Sullivan’s husband John Macy, a Harvard instructor and prominent socialist. Miss Keller was a supporter and friend of Margaret Sanger who advocated birth control and fought for pro choice issues. The shades of gray are strongly a result of the blind leading the blind. Miracle worker or atheist?

  2. Amazingly deep lyrics from the Monkees – who’d a guessed! Yes, there was no golden time but there’s no doubt that our age has completely lost its moral compass. As you say, Msgr, there’s no overriding, commonly agreed, God-given outlook now and it’s the powerful in-group who dictates what goes. We just saw a perfect example of this in the UK where the government pushed through “homosexual marriage”. Here in Switzerland sanity still reigns but for how long? As the Western world slides into disaster I can’t help thinking of the words of one of the Ancient Greek playwrights: “Whom the gods would destroy, first they make mad.” God Bless you, Msgr, for speaking the truth loudly and fearlessly!

    1. The lyrics and song were not written by members of the Monkees band. Burt Sugarman, who created the band for commercial profit after the Beatles went back to England, controlled what was permitted to be produced. Mr. sugarman hired many difffferent professional song writers such as Neil Diamond to write hit songs for the prefab four. When the four guys in the band tried to go it on their own, Mr. Sugarman replaced them with another of his creations, The Archies, and the Monkees faded into relative obscurity. The Archies were not a real group but a number of various musicians and artist who outsold the Monkees without ever becoming a visible commercial band. Now that’s

        1. correction re:“We just saw a perfect example of this in the UK where the government pushed through “homosexual marriage”
          The members of the House of Commons voted on a policy position. Nothing has been “pushed through” or made the law of the land, yet. the Law Lords in the second chamber of the British democratic system (based on the hermeneutic of continuity of aristocratic rights and duties) have yet to debate or vote since no legislation has yet been put forward for their consideration. The majority of the cabinet’s own party members rebelled against their whip to vote against the motion. The UK’s Conservative government could fall over this, and it would be all their own fault, they’d get no sympathy from me – who needs that kind of conservative?

          1. Hi Clare. Technically, you are absolutely correct: the process followed the normal constitutional procedure. However, when the government tries to impose such an enormous change which was a) never mentioned in their election brochures and b) after a complete sham of a public consultation, then coercion is very present. Here in Switzerland, no politician could change such a fundamental plank of our society without a referendum – which they would lose overwhelmingly. Thank God we don’t have that “British democratic system” with it’s “hermeneutic of continuity of aristocratic rights and duties”! At least we can agree on the fact that this may well bring down the government, and a good thing to. Regards.

  3. I was a huge fan of the Monkees as a kid (catching them during the first round of re-runs in the 70s). What has always struck me about this song is the sadness in Peter’s voice as he sang. There was this sense that sadness was appropriate to the subject matter. I think that does point to a cultural shift. When we have a sense of sin, even if we run with the sin, there is a sadness buried in the “running.” It is an even deeper problem to have no sense of sin, and so to have no clear idea what is the cause of our sadness. There are, unfortunately, deeper and deeper ways to divorce ourselves from Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

  4. I read an OpEd piece this morning and the author was hoping that a new Pope would bring the Church into US version of the modern world as opposed to taking the Church back 600 years, or words to that effect. After reading the article I don’t think I want the Church to be ‘modernized’ at least not the ‘modern’ I witness on a daily basis.

  5. But I will respond by saying, At least we had those standards and saw them as truths to be respected. It is an extreme measure, a kind of nihilism, to say that since we do not live up to our standards perfectly we should not have them at all.

    Taken to the extreme, society at large is against murder, yet some people still commit the act should we then rid ourselves of this “taboo”? How long before it becomes further justified beyond the womb and is “okay” depending on the situation?

  6. “Premarital sex was considered gravely wrong and guarded against, even if it was not perfectly observed. Remember chaperons and separate dormitory facilities?”…how true this is. We’ve been looking for colleges for my son to transfer to & I was surprised and disappointed at all of the Catholic colleges that have mixed dorms or cross-visitation allowed. Thankfully, there are some good schools out there (he chose to apply to Christendom), but there are definitely shades of gray that shadow the truth in many Catholic colleges.
    Thank you for the reminder that we need to be aware of this in all areas of our lives.

  7. I don’t think this rather simple song is easily appropriated by the narrative you’d prefer (which is really, despite the caveat, that times were better then than now).

    Look at the lyrics “We never lived with doubt or tasted fear”. This is not the world of a conservative yesterday or a conservative tomorrow. This is the world of a moment in childhood that everyone must forfeit. The fact is that in every age, despite moral consensus or not, the quest for the upright and moral life is always an arduous one– not in the least because a great portion of the people who officially represent the “upright life” are themselves the rhetoricians and the pharisees who have mastered the art of outward appearances, often deceiving even themselves. Many of the people most devoted to the upright life are its secret enemies.

    In fact, the Book of Ecclesiastes that you quote undertsands this quite well, and the text can be read as not unlike the Monkees song above. Righteousness and justice appear to gain nothing and are pursued for no purpose. In light of this widespread intuition, corruption reigns. “Morever, I saw under the sun that in place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well”. (3:16). Yes God will judge them for he is “testing them to show that they are but animals” (3:18). But lest we think that God’s judgment dispels the ambiguity created by the perception of the futility of “the right”, the Teacher continues “the fate of animals and the fate of humans is the same…all go to one place”…”and turn to dust”…”for all is vanity”.

    The cry “vanity, vanity, vanity!” of Ecclesiastes is nothing else if not a grappling with that fundamental experience where our absolutes are challenged by a persistent mind hungry for truth. Of course, the text is not fundamentally nihilistic, but the Teacher clearly once stood in the cross-roads of the cartoon you’ve chosen to depict above.

    The Monkees song is not one particular to our age, not a “prophecy” of the outcome of the cultural revolution that you would like it be. It’s a simple, banal version of the same song sung since antiquity: the answers are not clear, not just a given, the moral life is not simple, and every type of life will appear vain, even “the good life” of “the just man”. Nonetheless, despite all this, we must press through this experience where we will ultimately learn to “fear God and keep his commandments”- whatever that means!

  8. What a blessing it is that we don’t have to be concerned that the new Pope will teach us falsely in areas of faith and morals.

  9. Msgr. Pope
    Some excellent observations on moral relativism. I was in college at that time and really did not care for their
    music however, that is all you heard on the juke box in the social hall. What is even more interesting I
    think in retrospect, is what brought them down and what replaced their music. It was a remark the press
    had headlines over about them being more popular and loved than Jesus. That was the end and the music
    that replaced them as popular in frat parties etc. was Motown and unless I am mistaken the beginning of
    the sexual revolution. The Supremes, Elvis etc. Pax.

  10. Let me play devil’s advocate:

    1.Premarital sex was considered gravely wrong and guarded against, even if it was not perfectly observed.
    >>>You mean, adults faced threats of social and economic exclusion if they didn’t adhere to the church’s restrictions on sexual behavior.
    2.Easy divorce and remarriage was considered wrong, and it was in fact legally difficult to get divorced.
    >>>You mean adults were forced to remain in relationships that were detremental to their mental, emotional, and physical health, even after both husband and wife admitted they were no longer in love.
    3.Abortion was illegal
    >>> You mean, women were denied the right to control their own healthcare choices.
    4.And it never even entered our minds to give children in school contraceptives.
    >>>You mean, pre-pubescent children were denied the means to protect themselves from STDs and unplanned pregnancies.
    5.There was also strong consensus against homosexual activity and the thought of homosexuals demanding to marry and being taken seriously was something that would have seemed from an episode the Twilight Zone.
    >>>You mean, gay adults were denied the right to live a normal life upon pain of severe social, economic, and physical threats.
    6.Families were larger and most were intact.
    >>>You mean, women were forced to have large families; and children lacked the opportunities to pursue their own interests.
    7.There was also a general appreciation of the role of faith and prayer in American life.
    >>>You mean, adults and children were forced to fake support of religion, upon pain of severe social threats.

    I just mean to show that what we consider as positive, others definately view as negative (I do not agree at all with the points I make above!).

    I think we do live in a “shades of gray” era – but we must also recognize that some of what was ‘black’ is now ‘white’ and it will NOT change back. For example, there is no going back at all on ‘gay rights’; on pre-marital sex; on the general availability of and use of contraceptives; on co-habitation; on children raised without two parents/without a mother/with two non-biological fathers; the primacy of rights; the primacy of personal freedom over supposedly restrictive dogmas; and, ultimately, the individual as ultimate arbiter of all their own major life decisions.

    These battles have been lost – certainly in the US and Europe – I think it is up to the Church to show that, even if these are accepted norms and legally available choices for people, that adherence to the Christian life is the only true path to joy and fulfillment.

    1. Yes Devil’s advocate is the appropriate term Advocatus diabolus tu es certe. And by the way, while you require pure and perfect motives for everything the rest of us poor slobs might be willing to put up with a few lesser motives in the meantime. The Best is not the enemy of the good Jamie, which seems to be your point.

      1. Jamie,
        Ah yes, you got it! The concept of “good and evil” is inverted and it came straight from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – from the Devil’s tree.

    2. “Nevertheless, I think that with us the keyword is “inevitability,” or, as I should be inclined to call it, “impenitence.” We are subconsciously dominated in all departments by the notion that there is no turning back, and it is rooted in materialism and the denial of free-will. Take any handful of modern facts and compare them with the corresponding facts a few hundred years ago. Compare the modern Party System with the political factions of the seventeenth century. The difference is that in the older time the party leaders not only really cut off each other’s heads, but (what is much more alarming) really repealed each other’s laws… Now this modern refusal to undo what has been done is not only an intellectual fault; it is a moral fault also. It is not merely our mental inability to understand the mistake we have made. It is also our spiritual refusal to admit that we have made a mistake.”

      ~G.K. Chesterton: Eugenics and Other Evils

  11. I think Jamie is echoing the voice of popular culture; summing up what we are up against and saying that we can and should strive even harder than the folks in the ‘good old day’s’ to live out our faith genuinely as a light shining in this present darkness.

    1. Fair enough, but I still think we ought not be too dismissive of less than perfect motives for what we do. Frankly I know of almost no one who has perfect motives, there is a little ego in everything we do. Further the Church permits imperfect contrition while we strive for more perfect contrition.

      Thus, even if, in the past we had less than perfect or pure motives (as we do today), at least we had some motives and I don’t appreciation our modern tendency to look too cynically at the past and to presume our motives were not right or that we were just a bunch of hypocrites, or that everything was just cultural inertia, or other modern tendencies to arrogantly sit in judgement over the sincerity of past eras or people.

    2. Agreed Monsignor. My folks who came through the depression and WWII, and attempting to start their own business during the 70’s while facing a radical change in culture and raising four children in this context, were really up against some real struggles. We should honor our Mothers and Fathers, our ancestors, rather than criticize them through a rear view mirror.

  12. Sure, I remember those days. Ahh…the good old days! Blacks had to sit at the back of the bus where I came from. They weren’t really able to vote, either! Or go to the good schools. And I loved that everyone could smoke cigarettes anywhere they wanted. What a stupid article.

  13. To Tom T— a grave correction sir. The Monkees never said they were more loved than Jesus. You are confusing them with John Lennon, who said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus (and it was not more loved). The Monkees had nothing to do with that….just to clear their name.

    1. You are correct Ellen. It was the Beatles whose popularity sunk after that remark although,
      I really did not care for their music either. I apologize for the mistake. Getting old. Memory
      is not as good as it used to be, should fact check before I comment. I certainly wouldn’t
      want to tarnish their image. Pax

  14. The Monkees themselves were a good example of the grayness of relativism. They never played on their own recording sessions, and the public did not know until much later that they were basically frauds. Deeply humiliated when found out, they faded away. Relativism will too, one day.

    1. Not true. They did not play on the first 2 albums. They played on other albums, live tours, and never really “faded away”. Their reunion tour was the highest grossing tour of 1986 and they still have a very large and loyal fan base to this day.

  15. I’d like to add another example.

    There was (hopefully) a time long ago when, if someone was accused or had sexually abused a child, they were turned in to the authorities, given a fair trial, and thrown in jail.

    We, as a moral society, recognized child sexual abuse as a heinous and sinister crime.

    Yet the Catholic Church, when given the choice between protecting the most vulnerable in our society versus protecting “their own,” betrayed the children every time.

    Furthermore, no one in position of authority within the Church dares to speak out against these heinous crimes. “It’s a few bad apples,” they say, which, of course, isn’t true. “Hate the sin, not the sinner,” they chide us. They refuse to speak out in a clear moral voice – why?

    For example, Why, Charles, are you not calling for Cardinal Mahoney to be investigated and jailed? It’s national news. All of us scared, directionless lemmings are anxiously awaiting your unshakable moral leadership.

    And you have the audacity to complain about “moral relativism.”

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