Rumspringa and the Exaggerated Threat of Relativism (Moral Autonomy, Part 3)

(Tim Leet, June 2023)

I grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and many of my classmates in elementary school were Amish. Jeffery’s barn had a hay loft that was fun to jump from. Louella was funny and usually kept her long braids tucked under a bonnet. Mary was gentle, quiet, and ran faster than you’d guess she could in her dress and blocky, black shoes. I moved away in fifth grade and was sad about it for years after. 

One of the traditions observed among the Amish is Rumspringa, a period of time beginning in adolescence and lasting about two years when young people deliberately step away from the strict norms and rules that govern Amish life. Rumspringa is a ritualized period of exploration, the very sort of exploration I asserted in my last post was necessary for all of us. Amish teens venture out to see what life is like among “the English.” At the end of this experiment, most of them choose to return and resume their traditional ways. 

One of the criticisms I’ve received over my advocacy for adolescent moral autonomy is that it leaves too much room for moral relativism. If this is a new concept to you, moral relativism is what philosophers are left with when they deny the existence of moral absolutes. God of the Abrahamic traditions would be one such moral absolute. So could objective moral values, if such things exist, or the categorical dictates of human reason. Moral relativism says that nothing is really good or bad in itself. When it comes to our moral judgments, all that actually exists are our personal opinions or a cultural consensus. I used to worry a lot about moral relativism. 

When I say we must support our adolescents’ moral autonomy, some will say, “But if we don’t instruct them in what the good actually is, who knows what sort of despicable ideas will take hold of them.” This fear is overblown. 

Moral relativism is more a theoretical threat than an actual one. It’s a hobgoblin lurking always over moral philosophy, but the truth is, most people don’t care that much about philosophy, moral or otherwise. Most of us live out our days, instead, ruled by our moral psychology. 

As a species, we have evolved to possess deep psychological intuitions about the nature of good human relationships. We are pre-wired to exhibit care for the vulnerable, seek fairness in our dealings with others, and bond ourselves to groups to which we show great loyalty. We are also naturally self interested, prone to coasting while others work hard, and hell-bent — albeit unconsciously — on passing our genes on to future generations. Our evolved psychology is a moral mixed bag. After all, “We are born of risen apes, not fallen angels.”1 

Nevertheless, our moral human nature pulls on us like gravity and keeps us in close orbit around these ancient moral commitments. Philosophy might need the anchor of moral absolutes to avoid relativism, but philosophers do not. Philosophers, just like you and me and the adolescents we care about, are human beings, and our shared moral human nature is enough to keep away the hobgoblin of moral relativism. 

I wonder if the parents of Jeffery, Louella, and Mary were fearful when it came time for their children’s Rumspringa? Were they worried their kids would be seduced by the comforts and sensual pleasures of “the English?” I’m sure they were. But it seems they placed a greater value on their children’s autonomous decision to rejoin the community once their exploration was complete. Keeping their kids at home would be safer, but letting them go makes the coming home an immeasurably more powerful commitment. 

1 Robert Ardrey in African Genesis

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