Friday, September 17, 2004

Moral Relativism, or Something Like It


Eugene Volokh writes about "Moral Relativism":
Conservatives often accuse liberals of "moral relativism." Now I surely disagree with most liberals on many specific moral issues. But I'm puzzled about exactly what the commonly heard charge of moral relativism in general, as opposed to a charge of moral error on a particular issue, means.

I take it that it can't be that liberals don't believe in moral principles. They surely do: Most liberals, for instance, believe that race discrimination is wrong [not true, because they support discrimination in the form of aggressive "affirmative action": ED], rape is wrong, murder is wrong [not true, because they support abortion -- see next item: ED], legal interference with a woman's right to get an abortion (at least until a certain gestational age) is wrong, and so on....

Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians...agree, for instance, that killing is generally bad, but the definition of when killing is evil and when it's permissible (or even laudable) necessarily has to be pretty nuanced, so that it properly treats killing in self-defense, killing in war, and the like. In fact, some liberals of the pacifist stripe may employ a more nearly absolute prohibition on killing (at least of born humans) than conservatives do -- in my view, that's their moral error, but it's not an error of moral relativism....[Yes it is, because it implies that aggressors are morally equal to those who would defend themselves against aggression: ED]

So is there anything to this charge about liberals being "moral relativists," or at least being so materially more often than conservatives? (I'm not asking whether isolated liberals have at times made truly moral relativist arguments, whatever they may be, but rather whether liberals generally are more likely to endorse such views.)...
Yes, there is something to the charge.

Consider the usual liberal clamor to understand why "they" attacked us on 9/11 and why "they" hate us. I know there's something to be said for understanding your enemy, in order to defeat him, but that's not how it's meant. Those who cry out for "understanding" mean (and sometimes baldly state) that it's America's fault when we are attacked and hated. That view emanates from the same, fairly large, body of liberals who see Palestinian terrorists as morally superior to Israel.

The same brand of moral relativism elevates the U.N. -- which is dominated by corrupt, racist nations -- to the status of a moral arbiter, imbued with the wisdom to dictate American foreign and defense policy. And guess which camp loves the U.N. -- conservative or liberal?

In sum, there's a form of reverse cultural-centrism common among liberals who reflexively believe in the moral inferiority of America. It's moral relativism in the extreme: Not only are we not better than other countries and cultures -- we're worse, we are "corrupt" Americans. So "corrupt" that a liberal extremist like Michael Moore is free to spout venom about his native land, venom that large audiences of extreme and not-so-extreme liberals pay to hear and applaud.

If that isn't moral relativism, I don't know what is.