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Moral Relativism

Somehow or other, Eugene Volokh's just woken up to the fact that conservative allegations of liberal moral relativism are bullshit. To put a charitable gloss on all this, though, I think what conservatives usually have in mind is that they think liberals are promoting atheism, which they think is equivalent to moral relativism. This comes in two slightly different forms. On the one hand, you have sincere religious believers who believe in good faith that atheism is equivalent to relativism in some bad way. On the other hand, you have a (more plausible) Straussian belief that there is a casual relationship between atheism and relativism. The Straussian himself is not a relativist, but he believes that the hoi polloi will have trouble retaining their faith in absolute ethics without retaining their faith in religion. Therefore, religiosity should be encouraged and those who promote atheism are ipso facto promoting moral relativism.

Now even though secular people in America are overwhelmingly on the left, I think it's doubtful that US liberalism is, in fact, promoting irreligion via its advocacy of a strong separation between church and state. Comparative empirical evidence seems to suggest the reverse: religious establishment entangles faith in politics thereby discrediting the church. One can see this process in countries ranging from the nominal theocracies of the United Kingdom and Scandinavia to the actual theocracy in Iran. The Iranian case is particularly interesting (and here I steal from Olivier Roy) -- the immediate result of the Revolution was for some clerics to seize political power. Once the theocracy and the principle of clerical rule is established, however, rather than making political decisions according to religious criteria one starts making religious decisions (who gets to become an important Ayatollah, etc.) according to political criteria (who is fit for high office in the regime consistant with the goals of the current rulers). The resulting process tends to discredit religion. Politics, meanwhile, will always be with us. So I think it's not out of the question that anti-religious Americans should get behind a movement to find some reasonably innocuous church (Presbyterian, say) and try to establish it.

Outside of political polemics, of course, moral relativism is a philosophical position usually called "non-cognitivism" or "expressivism" or some such thing the merits of which are complicated. It's important to note, however, that adherents of this view typically assert that no particular normative consequences follow from adopting. That may be wrong as a matter of logic or philosophy, but as a matter of subjective self-understanding it's almost certainly right. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone drawing controversial normative conclusions from meta-ethical premises and, indeed, I think most philosophers would call foul on anyone who did. In practice, moral argumentation proceeds as if expressivism were true. People seek to find a shared moral intuition and then argue about what follows from that intuition. Grounding the intuition in some absolute moral truth is unnecessary in practice because the two parties agree. People working from radically different premises -- Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill; Osama bin Laden and me -- don't have arguments, they fight wars. All that hinges on the meta-ethical controversy is whether Churchill was "really" right. On the ground, might makes right either way.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum goes astray here. The rightwing buzzword he's thinking of is "moral equivalence." The "moral relativism" charge long predates 9-11, while moral equivalence is a relatively new addition to the right's jargon arsenal.

UPDATE: Head over to Crooked Timber and comments for what's sure to develop into a fascinating discussion of some of the distinctions-without-differences that make philosophy so fun. Let me just clarify one thing. One: that you can't derive normative results from meta-ethical premises is a view that I (and others) hold but not a universally accepted thesis. For that reason, I don't think anything of consequence hinges on the nuanced differences between the major schools of thought.

September 18, 2004 | Permalink

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» Moral Relativism from Political Animal
MORAL RELATIVISM....Matt Yglesias notes today that Eugene Volokh has decided that charges of "moral relativism" against liberals are unfounded. However, it's not clear to me if either of them is talking about the term correctly. For his part, Eugene su... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 18, 2004 2:19:18 PM

» Moral Relativism from Political Animal
MORAL RELATIVISM....Matt Yglesias notes today that Eugene Volokh has decided that charges of "moral relativism" against liberals are unfounded. However, it's not clear to me if either of them is talking about the term correctly. For his part, Eugene su... [Read More]

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Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum have been discussing various ethical buzzwords that have been flying around recently, all starting from this post of Eugene Volokh’s. I don’t have enough expertise to helpfully say very much here, but I thought ... [Read More]

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