Tackling Moral Relativism: Ryan Teehan ’14 Wins UVA National Essay Contest
Posted August 28, 2012
It’s football season but Delbarton students are tackling more than just offensive linemen. Mr. Moral Relativism, we mean you.
Last winter sophomore Ryan Teehan ‘14 decided to flex his brain cells in a novel way. As if his school work, Forensics competitions, playing two instruments and working for his Eagle Scout award weren’t enough, he wrote a philosophical essay and submitted it in the High Phy Essay Contest sponsored by the University of Virginia Philosophy Department.
At the encouragement of his Religious Studies teacher Philip Bauchan (who doubles as Teehan’s Lincoln Douglas debate coach and is himself working for a Doctorate in Philosophy) Ryan produced his essay -- he had exactly one week until the deadline -- and was pleased to learn recently that that he won first prize. High schoolers from around the country were given a choice of various philosophical questions to consider, and Ryan decided to opine on the topic of moral relativism.
Do moral rights and wrongs depend entirely upon cultural biases and how we were raised? Are some concepts universally right or wrong regardless of context or culture? Ryan's thesis On the Objective Moral System argued that for moral relativism to exist one must implicitly accept an objective standpoint. He posited that relativism contradicts itself. Relativism depends upon the belief that some concepts are always morally good, thus the relativist argument must accept what it sets out to reject (we should have warned you that this story might hurt your brain.)
Meanwhile, even after Ryan pretty much nailed it, moral relativism remains a hot topic for philosophers. The concept has been promoted, criticized, and debated for thousands of years, from ancient Greece and India to modern day, in a variety of fields including philosophy, science, religion and ethics.
Ryan reports that his preparation as a Delbarton Lincoln Douglas debater gave him a definite edge in the philosophical essay-writing department. In fact, when we chatted with him this week he was attending Forensics Boot Camp Monday thru Thursday morning, an intriguing way to transition from lazing woozily on a beach thinking about your next meal, to the start of fall term on September 5.
A teaching moment
Lincoln–Douglas debates are often called values debates because of their heavy emphasis on logic, ethical values, and philosophy. The one-on-one Lincoln-Douglas debate format is named for the famous 1858 Lincoln–Douglas Debates, a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, then-Republican candidate for Senate in Illinois, and incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Party candidate. In those days U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures, and Lincoln and Douglas were vying for their respective parties to win control of the Illinois legislature. The debates previewed issues Lincoln faced in the aftermath of his victory in the 1860 presidential election, particularly the issue of slavery that later ignited the American Civil War.
Back to our favorite philosopher. Does now-rising junior Ryan Teehan contemplate a career in philosophy? Too soon to tell, especially for a young man equally interested in biology, physics, medicine and philosophy (plus reading and TV). For the time being Teehan contents himself with working hard in school, hanging around with friends, competing in the dynamic Delbarton Forensics program (moderated by Br. Kevin Tidd who is always looking for new brains), making music as a member of the Clarinet Ensemble and working towards his scouting merit badges. Oh, and elucidating complex philosophical concepts while winning national collegiate essay contests. Don't forget that.
We salute Ryan Teehan ’14 for having the initiative, intelligence and writing skills to weigh in on such a challenging philosophical concept and for proving once again that, at Delbarton, not all tackling takes place on a football field.
Go Wave Philosophers (Football guys too)!