Monday, September 20, 2004
There has been a very interesting series of posts about the role of moral relativism in contemporary liberalism, all kicked off by Eugene Volokh. A bunch of bloggers have chimed in- Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Brian at Cooked Timber. This debate has devolved a bit into disputing the meaning of words like cognitivism and expressivism, which probably just confuses the laymen. Heck, it confuses me at I have a degree in this stuff. So let's step back and identify in commonsense terms what this dispute is about.
Conservatives at least since Goldwater have accused liberals of being culturally permissive, that our mantra is of the "if it feels good, do it" variety. Conservatives assert that the decline in traditional sources of moral authority (like the church) and the erosion of Victorian morality is undermining the health of the U.S. and/or is leading us all to hell (literally).
Although it may surprise you, I think conservatives have a point. It is true that many on the left have hesitated to accuse anyone (other than conservatives and white males) or moral wrongdoing. The reasonable concern about intolerance of minorities sometime makes us unwilling to criticize any action on moral grounds (unless it is intolerance). But of course most liberals, both rank and file Democrats and philosophers, believe no such thing. Only those of the somewhat wacky postmodernist new left have subscribed to such a theory. Conservatives knew they could paint the entire liberal movement with that broad brush, and were eager to do so. Clinton tried to move to immunizing the left from these accusations, but his personal behavior undermined his case.
Is there anything of philosophical or political merit here? Well, it is important to distinguish the two basic forms of relativism: cultural relativism and moral relativism. The former says that societies create their own sources of value, and the latter says there are no sources of value. There is obviously a link between these two, but the latter is a far more extreme position. Philosophically it is a non-started, particularly where political theory is concerned. And as Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, cultural relativism has actually been used by authoritarians as justification for oppression (witness the whole "asian values" question). I agree with Nussbaum- we should reject both forms of relativism, and embrace the universalism that was always at the heart of the liberal message, that all people everywhere deserve to be treated with respect. This is both good politics and good theory.
Finally, I think it is funny that it is the right which attacks the left for moral relativism. Liberals actually forthrightly defend the positions they are for, and these positions are usually moral ones. It is the right which in politics acts in an amoral (or immoral) fashion, believing the end justifies the means. As usual, those who care most about morality in words pay it little regard in deeds.