© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

the red herring of relativism

red herring
Last week I watched from our front porch as my five-year-old daughter Delaney received a moral lesson on a subject that has fascinated philosophers for centuries: ant squishing. Her brother Connor — eleven years old and pro-life in the deeply literal sense — found Laney busily stomping her way into ant mythology on the front sidewalk.

“Laney!!” he screamed. “Stop it!”

“What for?” she asked without pausing. “There are lots of others.”

He spluttered a bit — then a classic grin spread across his face. He raised his foot and aimed the sole at her. “Well there are lots of other little girls, too!!”

She screamed and ran. The ants huzzahed, and Monkey-Who-Pointed-Foot-at-Other-Monkey-And-Saved-Many entered the colony lore.

My boy had applied a great critical thinking technique by using the faulty logic of his opponent to generate a ridiculous counter-example. I wondered from the sidelines if it would stick.

A few days later, as I loaded the last of the boxes for our move, I got my answer. Laney walked with her head hung low, doing the aimless, foot-scraping walk of the bored child in midsummer, then announced her intention to “go squish some ants.”

“Hm,” I said.

She stopped walking. “What?”

“Well, I dunno. Does that seem like a good thing to do, or no?”

She shrugged.

“Tell you what,” I said. “You think about it for a minute and let me know what you decide.”

“Okay.” She took a little walk around the yard and thought.

A person of a certain perspective will see in that moment the spectre of moral relativism. Such a silly person will claim that instead of informing Delaney of the right answer, I gave her permission to pick and choose her morality at random — to declare ant squishing good or bad on the toss of a coin.

That’s a red herring.*

A red herring is an argument used to distract attention from the real question at hand. I hate red herrings but love the origin of the term. British foxhunters kept a stinky smoked red herring in their saddlebags with a long string tied around the tail. When the sun was setting and the hunt was done, one rider would get ahead of the hounds and drag the fish across the fox’s trail so the dogs would be thrown off and retire for the day. I hope that’s a true story.

To prevent secular parents from pursuing the moral instruction of their children without religion, religious advocates often drag the stinking red herring of relativism across the trail. The invocation of moral chaos is so unsettling that many parents sign their kids up for Sunday School…you know, just in case. But a moment’s reflection makes it clear that there’s something between stone tablets and coin-flipping — between Thou shalt not and Whatever makes your weenie wiggle.

It’s called moral judgment.

I knew that Delaney knew the answer. Everyone knows the answer. Like most basic moral questions, knowing what’s right is not the hard part when your foot is raised above the skittering dots on the sidewalk. The challenge is to do what we already know is right. And the best foundation for that right action is the ability to say why something is right.

Not knowing right from wrong is so rare that it is a complete felony defense. Think about that. You are rightly considered barking mad if you fail to recognize the distinction. It’s so thunderously rare that the defense rarely succeeds. So why do we continue to pretend that our children’s moral development is best served by merely dictating lists of rules? Why could Representative Bob Barr (R-GA) say, with a straight face, that the Columbine shootings would have been prevented had the Ten Commandments been posted at the entrance? How can our understanding of moral development be so pit-scratchingly inept?

Instead of simply listing “thou shalt nots,” we ought to encourage our kids to discover and articulate what they already know is right, then ask them why it’s right. This, not the passive intake of rules, leads to the development of moral judgment, something that will allow them to think and act morally when we aren’t in the room with them.

Delaney came back after two minutes. “I’m not gonna squish ants anymore,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s what you decided?”


“Why did you decide that?”

“Because they should get to have a life, too,” she said. “Like me.” That old reciprocity principle. You can’t beat it.

Next time someone drags out that old red herring of “moral relativism,” nod and smile, knowing that you’re giving your kids something much richer than commandments — the ability to think morally.

*Critical thinking nitpickers (like me) will protest that this is really a straw man argument, not a red herring. I counter that the straw man is a type of red herring argument, and the Fallacy Files agree with me. So there. Plus I wanted to tell the story of the origin of the term. Plus “straw man of relativism” makes me yawn, whereas “red herring of relativism” — zing!
Oh, still reading, eh? Then I’ll tell you that Parenting Beyond Belief is profiled in the Beliefwatch column of the current (July 16) issue of Newsweek .] Now shoo.

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This was written on Sunday, 08. July 2007 at 23:35 and was filed under morality, My kids, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. God I love to read your posts! Does this mean that you’ve arrived safely in GA? I hope so. I have no idea how you managed to find the time to post, though. But thanks. 🙂 You always make me think.

    Comment: Karen – 09. July 2007 @ 1:39 am

  2. Just wanted to pop in and say I too enjoy your posts – I’ve been lurking here for a few months now and am glad to have found your site.

    Also wanted to say that I have always thought we’d be better off if more people considered not stepping on ants. In fact, I think a person’s stance on ant-stepping tells a lot about the person. (for the record, I’m an anti-ant-stepper)

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 09. July 2007 @ 7:48 pm

  3. One might say you can tell a lot about a person by whether or not his stance on ants is literal.

    Comment: Dale – 09. July 2007 @ 8:27 pm

  4. Great post. I’ve always hated that “be the firm parent and demand obedience” stuff. My inlaws always give the Shepherding the Childs Heart book to people that have kids (they didn’t give it to us though!). I’ve flipped through the copies at their house, and it basically says to demand complete obedience-and spanking is the only form of discipline-if you aren’t spanking, you aren’t a good Christian parent. Which makes perfect sense if you are trying to indocrinate your child into something as illogical as literal Bible interpreting Christianity.

    Comment: matsonwaggs – 10. July 2007 @ 10:18 am

  5. […] Beyond the Stinking Red Herring of Relativism 12 07 2007 From Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief blog re: teaching our kids moral judgment and the “the red herring of relativism” (good […]

    Pingback: Parenting Beyond the Stinking Red Herring of Relativism « Cocking A Snook! – 12. July 2007 @ 8:41 am

  6. […] written about this nonsense before (”The red herring of relativism,” July 8, 2007), so I won’t go too deep into the idea that moral relativism follows from the […]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » An Inconvenient Commandment Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 14. September 2008 @ 1:04 pm

  7. Hi Dale, have you discovered this book by my friends Phil and Hannah Hoose called Hey Little Ant? It started as a song, which was later published as a picture book. It takes the form of a conversation between an ant and a child who proposes to squish the ant. At the end of the book, the child’s foot is still poised, and it is left up to the reader what should happen next.

    Here’s a link:

    Comment: montyharper – 07. February 2010 @ 11:45 am

  8. @Monty: Oh yes indeed. It was a favorite of my kids a few years ago, and I can even remember the song printed in the back (“Hey little ant down in the crack…”)

    Comment: Dale – 07. February 2010 @ 12:59 pm

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