That's Just, Like, Your Opinion Man

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Eugene Volokh has a great post up (and Matt Yglesias some interesting commentary) on a longstanding pet peeve of mine: the indiscriminate conservative use of "moral relativist" as a term of abuse against liberals and libertarians. (The preferred Straussian variant is "nihilist.") In my experience, most such uses are, as Volokh suggests, pretty confused.

But what's really annoying is when the transparent speciousness of the charge is then used to derive a witless "gotcha" charge of contradiction. So, for instance, I can't count the number of times I've seen some keyboard jockey post the equivalent of the following to some message board: "You know, you think we should be tolerant of all sorts of sexual deviants, anything goes—but you're not so tolerant when you call us bigots for wanting to exclude those people." A few clicks of the mental gears, of course, would make it obvious that the underlying position wasn't: "all judgements about sexual ethics are equally valid" but rather "the right view of sexual ethics entails that there's nothing wrong with practice X."

I assume what's going on there is that some folks are so hopelessly Manichean that they can only imagine the dispute being Morality (theirs) vs. amorality, rather than between distinct moral theories—think 12th century Englishman asking a Buddhist whether he worships God or the devil.

NEXT: Straw Man

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  1. What, no pictures?

  2. People who charge others with the vile atrocity of “moral relativism” are often the first to back US military adventurism and scoff at complaints of US atrocities on the grounds that our actions are for a good cause or that everybody does it and it’s a dangerous world, etc. etc. And sometimes they’re right. Only they should can the “moral relativism” song & dance they pull out when others’ moral apprisements differ. Seems to me all morality is relative in the sense that you need to know the whole circumstance before you can tell if an act was morally reprehensible or not. That’s why we make distincitions between homicide, accidental killing and killing in self-defense, to cite one example. And our mega-posting buddy Joe wouldn’t kick a female protester being held down by the secret service, but he’d damn well kick a terrorist in the same position, to cite another! 🙂

  3. is murder good or bad.
    is divorce good or bad.
    is reagan good or bad.
    is abortion good or bad.

    if your answer isnt yes or no, you are a moral relativist. context is mere hair splitting.

    “the scourge of moral relativism” = philosophy for dummies.

  4. http://www.mala.bc.ca/%7Ejohnstoi/Nietzsche/genealogytofc.htm

    Well, I’ve yet to see a convincing refutation of “On the Genealogy of Morals”/”The anti-christ”, which makes the case rather better than Volokh.
    Also, similar rhetorics, when someone complains about “Political Correctness”, it usually means that the dude can’t argue his/her case in full sentences & paragraphs.

  5. Paging the President of the United States…

    (Did he take a typing class in high school?)

  6. I mean Nietzsche makes case better than Volokh ! Sheesh !

  7. Granted, the charge of moral relativism is extravagantly employed by those on the right but, for example, what is multiculturalism but a form of moral relativism?

    Which end of the political spectrum argues, to continue with my example, that the US cannot criticize genital multilation of females or forced abortion because to do so would be to engage in either cultural imperialism or ethnocentrism?

    Who makes that argument? Where do we hear it? Is that not moral relativism? Is that not saying, “It’s wrong here, granted, but they think and believe differently and who are we to say otherwise?”.

    Who says that?

    Is forced abortion wrong? Or is it not wrong? It’s wrong here but okay there?

    That my friend is moral relativism? Deep and deadly moral relativism.

    Where do we hear the argument that the US cannot criticize the forced sterilization in China because we do not have health care here? Or because we have “political prisoners” here.

    Who makes these arguments?

    Who defends the arguments of Peter Singer?

    Again, the accusation is sometimes recklessly used. But the substance of the observation is sound. History shows it, facts demonstrate it, evidence reveals it.

    Look around. Visit a university.

    SMG

  8. What made me a libertarian was the realization of the difference between actions that are immoral because they unjustly harm someone not a willing party to such actions, and those that may be undesirable to my conception of the well-lived life, but which are consented to by the actors. Discouraging the former is the reason governments are established among humans. Discouraging the latter is a matter for private example and persuasion, not coercion. Neither the statist left nor the statist right can wrap their heads around that distinction consistently, though they both can express the “Leave us alone” meme when it is convenient, and forget it when it isn’t.

    People can condemn the immoral behavior of others all they want, as long as they reserve the opprobrium of the state to its proper sphere.

    Kevin

  9. Which end of the political spectrum argues…that the US cannot criticize genital multilation of females or forced abortion because to do so would be to engage in either cultural imperialism or ethnocentrism?

    Er, noone on the left that I’m aware of, Steve, says you can’t “criticize” crimes against women. Unless of course what you mean is that this should be a basis for invasion/colonization…though even there, military action on humanitarian grounds is a stereotypically liberal (not really lefty, but liberal) idea…

    A quick google of who the hell Peter Singer is yields a PETA-type philosophy professor who seems at first glance to be, on his own terms, a moral absolutist.

    So, besides missing the point of the post, Steve, what the hell are you talking about?

    m

  10. Michael:
    Are you seriously arguing that NO ONE on the left argues that the US or the West in general has no moral standing to criticize practices such as genital multilation?

    That multiculturalism requires that we respect the different cultural practices and traditions of other peoples? That to criticize those said practices is to engage in a form of cultural imperialism or ethnocentrism?

    Have you not read any of those arguments?

    Have you been asleep these past two decades? Have you ever read anything about the proponents of multiculturalism, for example?

    My gawd, I have no time to teach you here, my friend. I suggest that you go back to whatever school educated you and demand a refund.

    SMG

  11. In any case, why aren’t we talking about the Indian sex-furlough idea at the top of the Volokh page?

    m

  12. Michael:
    See “The Disuniting of America” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

    About a decade old but the arguments, observations steal ring true.

    Pete Singer a moral absolutist?

    Geezus.

    SMG

  13. Michael:
    See “The Disuniting of America” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

    About a decade old but the arguments, observations still ring true.

    Pete Singer a moral absolutist?

    Geezus.

    SMG

  14. Michael’s right; Singer, whatever else one might say about him, is no relativist. And sure, you can find a few out there if you go poking through sociology and comp lit departments, but the genuine relativist is a rara avis indeed.

  15. michael,
    What, no pictures?

  16. Indeed, the percentage of even fringe-left organizations who won’t condemn FGM or forced abortion and sterilization is, despite what SteveMG is implying, vanishingly small. So small as to be significantly insignificant. I wonder, in light of his preening insistence that his argument is self-evident, if he can support it with some, you know, citations?

  17. Ah, Steve. Well done! Repeat your strawman arguments and then tell me you don’t have time to teach me. Touchee, mon ami! Insults always beat evidence and argument.

    Look, I’m sorry I said, “hell,” ok? Now really, what are you talking about?

    The only people I’ve ever of heard (NOTE the qualification both times) making the kind of “multicultural” arguments you refer to in response to “criticism.” something like GM or forced sterilization are spokesmen for the governments involved. But I’ll stipulate you can dig up some kook somewhere who said something stupid, and you’ll take that as proof that everyone to the left of you is a moral idiot.

    Still, two things: there is more to moral judgment than feeling superior to others. Saying the US doesn’t do this particular evil thing is not the same as saying the US is above reproach. And saying “The US is no better” is not “moral relativism.”

    Also, disagreement about the efficacy and safety of a particular solution (eg: crimalization for abortion; invasion for Saddam) does not equal moral approval or even suspension of moral judgment about (abortion/Saddam).

    The point of the Volokh’s post (as I read it) is that a) all morals are in some sense relative; and b) the objects of the “moral-relativist” epithet are often precisely not. Precision in terms matters. What the point, or rather the logic, of your comment was continues to elude me.

    m

  18. I think Julian made an astute observation regarding the “Manichean” mindset that seems to dominate political discourse in the country.

    Many who post here view the political spectrum as a mere shell game which shields the true realities of power politics.

    Nevertheless, if we object to how the war is being conducted, we’re immediately tagged as “Kerry supporters” and some chucklehead wants to engage in a protracted debate about font spacing.

    Whether it is Waco or Abu Gharib, in each instance, you still have a group of individuals who claim to be “morally” correct justifying state-sponsored torture.

    When do the apes take over?

  19. Just to be thorough:

    I never heard of Mr. Singer, and have little interest in learning more. But the following is his words from this site

    I am probably best known for Animal Liberation, 1st edn 1975, 2nd edn 1990, a book that gave its title to a worldwide movement. The essential philosophical view it maintains is simple but revolutionary. Species is, in itself, as irrelevant to moral status as race or sex. Hence all beings with interests are entitled to equal consideration: that is, we should not give their interests any less consideration that we give to the similar interests of members of our own species. Taken seriously, this conclusion requires radical changes in almost every interaction we have with animals, including our diet, our economy, and our relations with the natural environment.

    Marginal? yes.
    Kooky, even? I’d say so.
    Offensive to Steve? Absatively.
    An example of “moral relativism”? uh, no. Rather, it’s morally absolutist ad absurdum.

    Please correct me with something more helpful than “Geezus.”

    m

  20. Yes, and it’s our differences of opinion that sets the day’s agenda, man.
    Check out my post of the War on Terror I wrote yesterday.

    Tom

  21. Likely a dead thread but…clicking over to Yglesias and then through to Crooked Timber et al got me a bit lost in isms & metas & antis…Matt, Drum & others seem to have gotten into a long session on what relativism is and/or isn’t and how it relates to lots of things I may have recognized if I wasn’t a music major.

    In any event, I found this from Peter Levine very helpful and refreshingly free of what Stephen Fry would call “sixth-form” words…

    m

  22. Moral relativists see mores as applicable only within agreed upon cultural standards; rarely do people hold this view in totality. Protagoras’ notion that “man is the measure of all things” is an early version of moral relativism.

    Moral relativism is contra to moral absolutism, which views mores as fixed by either some extra-existential entity (e.g., a God) or by the bioligical make-up of man (e.g., human nature, Jean-Jacques Rousseau).

    The great Scottish philosopher David Hume suggested in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) a theory of moral relativism that is remarkably similar to the definition used above.

  23. And yes, Peter Singer is a moral absolutist. Stupid people claim that he is otherwise because he has a differing absolutist moral system than they do.

  24. We’ve gone from “no one on the Left” to a few kooks to a few academic departments that embrace multiculturalism and, with it, cultural and moral relativism.

    Interesting progression here.

    Let me cite, as an example, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Disuniting of America”. It’s a somewhat thin work but with rather extensive documentation of Leftists in academia and out who argue that the West in general and the US in particular has no moral standing to condemn such pratices as suttee or genital mutilation of females.

    Moreover, they argue that Western culture itself, i.e., private individuals and not governments, cannot criticize these practices because to do so is to somehow engage in cultural imperialism or ethnocentrism. What is right and wrong here must not and cannot be applied over there.

    This has been taught throughout academia by the Left in social sciences departments for more than two decades, viz. that the West cannot, must not condemn traditions and practices in non-Western societies. “We may not like it”, they say, “but it’s their way of life.”

    I’ll exclude for brevity’s sake the arguments by the Left in defense of the policies of the Soviet Union, e.g., de-kulakization, collectivism, et cetera, during the Cold War. Entire volumes have been written detailing the moral relativism of the Left during that period (see Paul Hollander’s “Political Pilgrims” and also his “Anti-Americanism at Home and Abroad”).

    Frankly, I am astonished that some posting here are ignorant of these sentiments. They are well documented and are thoughts that are well entrenched among the Left.

    Simple Google search will suffice.

    SMG

  25. Peter Singer believes that sometimes it’s okay to kill months old infants. Sometimes, it’s not.

    My own view is that it’s not a good idea to kill a 3 month old baby simply because it has Down’s syndrome.

    Singer says it may be okay.

    And Singer is a moral abolutist?

    SMG

  26. Steve:

    I don’t know why I’m bothering; it’s obviously pointless to talk to you since you’re so convinced you know all about this ominous, vague and undifferentiated straw-monster you call “the Left.”

    Still…

    Me: Er, noone on the left that I’m aware of, Steve, says you can’t “criticize” crimes against women.

    Steve: Are you seriously arguing that NO ONE on the left argues that the US or the West in general has no moral standing

    Me: The only people I’ve ever of heard (NOTE the qualification both times) making the kind of “multicultural” arguments you refer to in response to “criticism.” something like GM or forced sterilization are spokesmen for the governments involved. But I’ll stipulate you can dig up some kook

    Steve: We’ve gone from “no one on the Left” to a few kooks…

    We haven’t “gone” anywhere, Steve. You just decided to argue against what you felt like reading instead of what was there. I try to be careful about making categorical assertions, and to be clear about the limits of my own knowledge. I guess you’d call that lefty mush or “moral relativism”; I call it humility.

    Because you found someone who said something once doesn’t make that a basis for dismissing and condemning “the Left,” which in your formulation doesn’t particularly exist–at least not anymore–in America. I really can’t speak for the Weatherman, and I don’t care too much, but from what I do know the type of “multiculturalism” and “Moral Relativism” you describe have rarely if ever been significant enough in American liberalism to make any impact. It’s more of a rightwing fundraiser scare tactic than anything else.

    I don’t think anyone’s defended Singer on this thread. He’s your bete noire, not mine. As I’ve said, from what I know he’s uninteresting to me and probably an idiot; but your example has nothing to do with relativism. He has different values from yours. You disagree with his moral judgment. Super. You may be right. This does not make him a relativist.

    Just get your definitions straight.

    m

  27. SteveMG,

    Again, you confuse a differing moral standard (Singer’s) with moral relativism. Simply because someone’s moral standards differ from yours does not make them moral relativists.

    …extensive documentation…

    Can you give us an example of such?

    This has been taught throughout academia by the Left in social sciences departments for more than two decades, viz. that the West cannot, must not condemn traditions and practices in non-Western societies. “We may not like it”, they say, “but it’s their way of life.”

    Moral or cultural relativism is often contrasted with what you appear to argue for – ethnocentrism. Yet long ago Montaigne taught us that cultural relativism in most contexts is perfectly fine. This is the stance of most moral relativists; that moral codes differ among societies, and one can only utilize the “common ground” to judge moral matters between societies.

    I’ll exclude for brevity’s sake the arguments by the Left in defense of the policies of the Soviet Union, e.g., de-kulakization, collectivism, et cetera, during the Cold War.

    Then there is of course portions of the American right which supported Nazism in the 1930s (see the America First movement for example); and other portions whose ideas blended in with racism here at home (I am thinking of right-wing groups that some politicians like Lott of Mississippi are associated with) and homophobia (the “moral majority” crowd).

    And defense of the Soviet Union is not proof of moral relativism; what you are again confusing the difference between moral relativism and a different moral standard. While the Soviet system was a despicable one, it was not neccessarily relativist; indeed, proof of its absolutism can be seen in the violence perpetrated by it; one standard and only one standard was to be tolerated. Compare this to the relativistic system we have in the U.S., where there are plurality of creeds and ideologies that work along side, and even against each other.

    Moral absolutism can be seen in a number of monsterous systems; from Mao’s “cultural revolution,” to the “morality” and of the Nazi “conscience,” to the dictatorship of Cromwell, etc.

    For more insight into these issues see Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience:

    “The Nazi conscience is not an oxymoron. … the perpetrators of genocide had a powerful sense of right and wrong, based on civic values that exalted the moral righteousness of the ethnic community and denounced outsiders. The populizers of antisemitism and the planners of genocide followed a coherent set of severe ethical maxims derived from broad philosophical concepts.” pg. 1

  28. As further evidence that “moral relativist” is a horribly useless concept, this entire thread gets 9 out of 10.

  29. Everyone who pointed out that real moral relativism can’t possibly be restricted only to the left was right to do so, but if Yglesias is right, and if we’re not talking about intellectuals per se, then some of you are barking up the wrong tree.

    Many on the right misread “moral relativism” as a code word for atheism. When sending the kids off to college, much of the bible-thumping contingent would have their children stay away from “moral relativism” in much the same way that they would have them stay away from recreational drug use and premarital sex.

    If you’ve done hard time in a youth group, you know that situational ethics conundrums are as popular with lay group leaders as sing-a-longs. Considering that most of the lay people I’m talking about don’t really understand what they’re denouncing when they criticize “moral relativism”, it doesn’t bother me so much…

    …it’s like taking the minister in “Heathers” seriously when he warns parents to keep their children away from “MTV music video games.”

    A minister should know better (Aren’t the clergy of today supposed to have read something about if not by Lewis or Tillich?), but lay people on the right, just like people on the left, are just as ignorant as the general population.

    P.S. “you can find a few out there if you go poking through sociology and comp lit departments, but the genuine relativist is a rara avis indeed.”

    I found a few of them hiding in the Anthropology Department. Just for kicks, sometime, ask an Anthropologist if traditional Eskimo practices regarding infanticide and geriatric euthanasia are morally defensible in this day and age.

  30. thanks for the title/laugh, man.

  31. the “who are we to judge” variant of moral relativism and the contrary belief that natural law is handed down from a diety are maintained only by the foolish or those who wish to manipulate them

    judgment and conscience are among the most important tools in our survival kit and are easily understood as sociobiological constructs

    despite that what’s right for one person may differ from that for another who is differently situated or consituted, those judgments continue to be of supreme importance to each

    my judgment is that right now judgmental ‘conservatives’ are much less the enemies of reason than are those who seek to surrender individual conscience to the state, although, from the editorial slant evident here nowadays, one might guess that this opinion is less socially desirable amongst those being matriculated from our modern educational system

  32. Julian is certainly right that the political Right is stupidly cavalier when it comes to impugning their enemies with the woolly charge of “moral relativism.” When in fact, the Right is often as “relativistic” as anything found on the libertarian Left or libertarian “Right.” It’s just that it gives one’s cause a pretense of being exempt from skepticism (hence, being non-relativistic) when you have “God” on your side; the political Right, of course, being more often than not, pious.

    But — going with Nietzsche here — there’s no difference between a God of ultimate creativity and the creativity of, say, the Overman (or of the “higher men”). Putting one’s faith in a God of omnipotent ultimate creativity — a god who will prosecute on behalf on a human being’s deepest fears, desires and ressentiment — is totally nihilistic.

  33. “my judgment is that right now judgmental ‘conservatives’ are much less the enemies of reason than are those who seek to surrender individual conscience to the state…”

    Tell that to every homosexual who wants to marry their lover, every woman pregnant with an unwanted child, every high school biology teacher who wants to teach real science rather than “intellegent design,” and every non-Christian who doesn’t want their tax money spent on monuments in court buildings devoted to 10 passages from some moldy old religous book.

  34. (disclaimer: With every day that passes, I know less. And everything I do know “is probably wrong”. So if you continue reading, please stick “I think” or “imo” before every affirmation below. [Except for statements concerning nominative absolutes and subordinate clauses.])

    We assent to that which works for us.

    We tend not to dissent from beliefs commonly held in the society we live in.

    Reality and consistency are not necessary to our “knowing” something.

    Different peoples at different times in different societies have assented to different scientific “facts” and different “moral absolutes”.

    All human beings always act in what they perceive to be in their own best interests. They seek to avoid pain and to obtain “happiness”.

    I have assented to the notions that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with (ie, it is in their nature to possess) certain unalienable rights, including (but not limited to) the rights to Life, Liberty, Property, Dignity.

    I have consciously assented to these notions because I think getting people to agree with me is the surest way for me to avoid pain and so possibly obtain some measure of happiness. And I will not do to others what I don’t want them to do to me because otherwise I don’t stand a chance of getting them to agree with me.

    A moral code based on these principles is absolute. It does not allow one to do anything which has as its goal or probable outcome the violation of these rights. Any act of consequence is judged by this moral absolute.

    Take eating pork, for example. In itself, it is not a moral issue. It becomes a moral problem if it’s infected with trichonosis and, knowing (or suspecting) this, I serve it undercooked to my family.

    Or drugs. Smoking dope is not in itself a moral problem. It becomes one only when fundamental rights risk being violated as a result.

    This is not “moral relativism”. The moral absolutes are there, shining brightly, throwing their light on the moral-neutral act, allowing one to judge.

    Nor is “situational ethics” necessarily the equivalent of “moral relativism”, if the discussion takes into account the moral absolutes. If I wave my hand, the “moral dimension” of the act depends on how close to it your nose is.

    What one professes to believe is not necessarily what he actually believes. We can know what a person believes only by how he acts.

    Take people in the United States, for example.

    Many people there affirm their belief in an unalienable right to Life. And yet, they defend the practice of capital punishment by arguing that “unalienable” means “alienable”. They defend the practice of abortion by defining “human being” as whatever is convenient at the time.

    Or take the moral outrage so many Americans feel at the violation of fundamental human rights in other countries – as evidenced by the annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” of the US State Department.

    In the 2002 report, written when Saddam was still in power, we can find the following:

    Security forces routinely tortured, beat, raped, and otherwise abused detainees. Prison conditions were extremely poor and frequently life threatening.

    This same criticism can be made, today, of “liberated” Iraq. In fact, it can be made of US prisons, where, for example, guards regularly allow rape as a means of control. (Reason had an article on this, btw.)

    What your agents do they do in your name.

    Is the United States a country of moral relativists, or is it simply a country full of people without any recognizable moral code whatsoever? Can we call “I will do whatever it takes” a moral code?

    cultural imperialism or ethnocentrism?

    Hypocrisy.

    And dangerous hypocrisy, to boot. Dangerous because it’s so obvious and thus gives aid and comfort to your “enemies”. Dangerous because it’s a lesson you’re teaching the world.

    Why have I wasted your time (if anyone has, in fact, read this)? (So many of you have already said much the same thing – and more briefly. ) After all, the pendulum in the Sparta v. Athens conflict will continue so long as humans roam the Earth. So why?

    Because your inconsistency and lack of moral absolutes are putting me and the people I love in danger.

  35. Julian writes:

    “the right view [i.e. Julian’s view is the right view!] of sexual ethics entails that there’s nothing wrong with practice X.”

    Ah, but you see boys and girls? What is the impersonal, fixed standard by which Julian — oh so wise Julian standing outside Plato’s cave, looking back at those dummies stuck in the cave chained before the wall and gazing at shadows — delivers himself of excoriations of witless “conservatives” for thinking “X” is a wrong practice? By what impersonal standard — i.e. it would have to be a standard or some dispensation superior to and transcending opinion — does Julian deliver himself of the rock-bottom insight such as to assert he’s availed himself of the right view of sexual ethics?

    Well, hate to break it to Julian, but the fact is that he DOESN’T have some impersonal or (to put on again our Nietzschean hat) uncreated standard/criterion by which to say: “X is the self-evidently right thing to do and the self-evidently right way to go.” Julian will tell you — straight up himself — that he rejects anything fixed (universal) about right and wrong; his notion here being premised on the belief that authentic, “true” moral precepts/exhortations must be subtended by “testable” considerations. Hence, authentic moral precepts cannot be considered universal. (Whatever is not testable amounts to gibberish). And this simply bespeaks Julian’s own relativism (nihilism).

    Julian’s simply too chickenshit to face the reality of his nihilism.

    And the reality is that Julian is as much a nomos lover as any pious Anytus or Aristophanes (cf. Strauss’s On Plato’s Symposium,p. 148). Julian is in love with his faction’s morality or piety and wants to ram it down the throats of his political enemies (“conservatives”) by having it legislated into law and enforced by (yes, even) police and army. He yearns to eliminate elements in his self (and in the world) opposed to his faction’s version of the universal good.

    Inside every Julian Sanchez is a little Anytus waiting to get out, wanting to kill Socrates for making him rely on commitment/opinin/belief rather than on self-evident rational insight to defend his piety, his faction’s piety (in this case “libertarianism”).

    If Julian really understood what philosophy is he would hate it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see that his libertarianism — endorsement of philosophy — is unphilosophic. For two reasons:

    (1) Philosophy lives in a problematic world, a world of questions, of possibility, specifically the question of its possible good or evil.

    (2) Politics, on the other hand, luxuriates in a world of actual rectitude.

    Julian has neither. He openly rejects conditions in (1) and (2). So Julian labors under a philosophized politics. (“Political philosophy has lost its credibility in proportion as politics itself has become more philosophic than ever in a sense.” –Leo Strauss). Aversion to subversive doubts about the human possibility of unclouded self-love (i.e. being in love with the nomos wherein one has rock-bottom self-evident rational insight that what one is doing is moral, beautiful [kalon] and right*) incites ridicule or hatred of philosophy; ridicule if philosophy is not taken seriously and hatred if it is. This constitutes the permanent tension, indeed war, between philosophic and political self-knowledge, a conflict easily decided by the latter in its own favor.

    Of course, those open to erotic necessity — i.e. the philosophers (“pure,” not “great” philosophers) — never see themselves as victorious in this struggle: Eros cannot topple piety’s hegemony. However sisyphean his insubordination, eros never views himself as decisively bested by that hegemony, nor as finally victorious. Victory would sanctify eros, caricature him into another loyal servant of political sanctification. In this crucial respect, a legitimate or respectable — i.e. a great as opposed to pure — “philosopher” is unphilosophic. Politically or socially licensed philosophy is an oxymoron. It is, in this sense, easier to be philosophic in ancient Spartan souls or communities than in modern ones which tolerate “philosophy” and even publicly extol the fatuous virtues of its “open-mindedness,” its openness to alternatives, to “diversity.”

    —-

    * Or differently put: Unequivocal self-esteem is what all of us unphilosophic yearn for; the passion coveted by all, the yearning to be liberated (by gods, supermen or scientists) from erotic turpitude/insurrection. Unlike beasts or gods, men cannot escape being flummoxed by their inner conflict between eros and political piety, a conflict seen by the latter as between good (itself) and evil (eros). Only pure philosophers — a rare if not impossible species — speculate, probably endlessly, on the possible good of that evil. This speculation precludes unequivocal self-esteem for the philosopher; philosophy cannot see its way clear to put paid to the enigmatic issue of self-knowledge. Accordingly, Socrates (the purest philosopher who ever lived, according to Heidegger) is not disillusioned, rendered misanthropic, either by his or his interlocutors’ inability to adequately defend what they most cherish.

  36. “Murder is bad” is a tautology. Since a murder is by definition a bad killing, what is really said here s that “a bad killing is bad”, which is of course hard to deny but which doesn’t really say anything by itself.

    It is amazing how tautologies that essentially amount to “Forbidden actions are forbidden” or “Bad actions are bad” give anyone the status of some kind of a moral absolutist, while their subjectivism is, of course, hidden in the definitions of words such as “murder” that are used to distinguish between the acceptable and unacceptable killings.

  37. Fyodor: “Seems to me all morality is relative in the sense that you need to know the whole circumstance”

    True, but how can one ever know “the whole circumstance” ? Any finite-length description of the situation describes an infinite number of possible situations. Start with e.g. “Alice did something to Bob” and keep adding single pieces of info “Bob was wearing a yellow hat”, and the description never gets complete so that it describes only one situation.

    No matter how long and exhaustive the description, in some of these remaining infinitely many possible situations that the action in question is right, and in some of them that action is wrong. Of course, in practice one stops after some point and gives out the moral judgement.

  38. I grant that it’s hard to find a consistent relativist, moral or otherwise (with the exception of the Einsteinian sort found in cosmology or high energy physics). Thus, it is hard to find a consistent relativist on the left or anywhere else.

    It doesn’t follow that they don’t exist. Consider that it’s also hard to find someone who argues consistently from the penumbra of the US Constitution, or to find someone who argues consistently from the proposition that the US should spread democracy and human rights through Muslim Asia. Does that mean that they don’t exist? What about the multitudes of people who argue that a woman has a right to control her body, but not, e.g., to control how many painkillers she takes as she’s dying of bone cancer? What about people who support remaking Afghanistan “democratically” and are untroubled by the idea that those Afghanis that the US singles out as connected to the drug trade should not be able to participate in the new government? or that Iraq human rights abuses should be ended, but US occupiers should have a get out of jail free card even for rather alarming actions, e.g.
    http://www.snappingturtle.net/flit/archives/2004_09_17.html#004772

    Just as consistent “woman’s right to her body” and “spreading democracy and human rights by the sword” folks are thin on the ground but deadly serious inconsistent ones are easy to find, so it is easier to find people who argue opportunistically from relativism when it suits them than it is to find consistent ones. I don’t know how to summarize cleanly, but Google for “relativist feet hypocrite” for one view into the amount of prose that goes into this kind of thing.

    I like Julian Sanchez’ writing, and Will Wilkinson’s too, but I don’t much share their interest in classical and other philosophical morals chasing. I can’t, e.g., think of a morals-as-philosophy book I’ve read, ever. (a few articles and chapters, yes; a book, no) That pattern of ignorance leaves me short of *moral* relativism cases to argue one way or the other, and disinclined to disagree with Julian’s summary judgment. But I do have some interest in philosophy of science, and through that (and courtesy of the Sokal hoax) I have some exposure to what might be unsympathetically paraphrased as “truth is relative.” And I have considerable interest in various kinds of social science and behavior and in biology, and it’s hard to miss the way people from Gould on down pooh-pooh the idea of easily measurable (or, sometimes, meaningfully definable) absolute intelligence — even the same people who are upset at what they see as a fairly consistent pattern of mental deficit among presidential-level Republican politicos from Reagan onward. My take on this is that for all the relativisms that I have much knowledge of, the game of “only the unsophisticated would try to apply a naive absolute standard to such a subtle issue” is a pretty consistently leftist academic thing. (A possible alternative is that it is just an academic thing and that “leftist” is redundant…)

    So, as support of this, I offer my Sokal and anti-IQ examples off the top of my head and claim that they’re clearly recognizably left; correspondingly clear rightist examples aren’t occurring to me at the moment. And given the way that the other relativisms seem to be leftist academic things, I had been predisposed to think moral relativism was too. Maybe I was wrong?

    (The right does enjoy the “only the unsophisticated would try to apply a naive absolute standard to the real world [esp. of foreign policy]” game. One could claim a family resemblance between that game and some kinds of relativism games. But the right doesn’t exactly have that game all to themselves: you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, after all.)

  39. Straussians are the worst sort of moral relativists. And those who brag of their moral absolutism – and attack others for being “moral relativists” are engaging in nothing but projection.

    Some of them are Unprincipled Ideallists. This would be the folks at Koch Fellowship. (In 1729, Edmund Burke noted “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We are here to prove him wrong. We are the few, the committed, the mighty, the proud, the strong. We are the Charles G. Koch Summer Fellows of 2004, and this is our forum. Welcome and be warned.)

    Some of them have only one moral value, one principle: Look out for number one. Raymond is the latter. (Because your inconsistency and lack of moral absolutes are putting me and the people I love in danger.)

    If your principle cannot be turned around and applied to you (that is, it conveniently fits only groups X & Y, and never group Z, to which you yourself belong) or if you are not willing to submit to the burdens you so gladly bind upon others (*cough*Bill Janklow*cough*Deal Hudson*) then you are a moral relativist in the commonest sense of the word.

    It’s grade school ethics: it’s wrong if you punch me, but not wrong if I punch you, because I’m the good guy, even if I hit you first, because I’m me. QED.

    An ethical principle which can’t be universally applied is worthless, and those who won’t even try to hold themselves to their own standards are worthless.

    By the standards of those conservative pundits I see accusing us of moral relativism, St. Thomas Aquinas and Socrates are the worst sorts of moral relativists, for factoring intent into every action as part of determining whether it was good or bad, or at least mitigated in either direction. (qv Euthyphro)

    Of course, Aquinas is already out the door since he was a pinko commie who didn’t believe in any absolute right to property and thus was willing to redefine stealing in ways that would have given Locke the vapours, but then Locke used the routine infanticide of deformed infants that was common in those so-moral prior centuries as justification for slavery, so while I’m agin the Aristotelian-Thomist sexism, I’ve got way more respect for Aquinas when it comes to intellectual honesty and valuation of human beings than for the heirs of Locke.

    I once heard someone who had taught at Heidelberg in the 20s and 30s talking about the day when they came in and told the faculty, “From now on, you will not concern yourselves with whether something is true or false, but only with how it serves the German people.”

    (Which is the Straussian attitude towards religion in a nutshell, which is why I call it the worship of Tashlan.)

  40. Rob:

    Jesus H. fricking Christmas.

    Julian writes:

    “the right view [i.e. Julian’s view is the right view!] of sexual ethics entails that there’s nothing wrong with practice X.”

    uh, no. Julian actually wrote:
    …the underlying position wasn’t: “all judgements about sexual ethics are equally valid” but rather “the right view of sexual ethics entails that there’s nothing wrong with practice X.” …in the context of pointing out how this does not qualify as “relativism” or “nihilism”…

    notice, you know, the quotes & stuff? Did you bother to pay attention to what the post was about?

    Of course not. You decided to use a willful misreading to launch on a long, snotty and basically unreadable diatribe that, as far as I can decipher your verbiage, boils down to chanting “Jul-i-an’s A Faa-ag!!”

    bravo.

    m

  41. When I grew up in the white-trash part of the South, I did know of some Klan sympathizers (or possibly full-bore members, I’m not sure) who claimed that they were victims of intolerance, from evil nigger-lovers who didn’t respect their beliefs that Anglo-Saxon Americans were the only people who counted in this world. I wonder, if Julian had used THAT example rather than anti-homosexual bigotry, would Rob have still been so upset?

  42. Wow

    I do not believe I have ever read a more incomprehensible post than the last one from Rob which Michael just mentioned.

    I am wiping tears from my eyes as I struggle to remain fixed to my chair. This is particularly noteworthy:

    ***********
    Eros cannot topple piety’s hegemony. However sisyphean his insubordination, eros never views himself as decisively bested by that hegemony, nor as finally victorious. Victory would sanctify eros, caricature him into another loyal servant of political sanctification.
    ***********

    Wow! Wow is all I can say.

  43. Ilkka K,

    “Of course, in practice one stops after some point and gives out the moral judgement.”

    Exactly. I think you’re reading me a bit too literally if you think my point was that we need to know absolutely everything there is to possibly know about a situation before we can pass judgment on a particular act. Naturally we make decisions on what is or isn’t relevant and then cut off the investigation of the matter there. My point, though, is that we do that to one degree or another in every single case of moral judgment such that there’s essentially no such thing as an absolute morality that cuts through all situations because all situations are different and we always have to consider the differences in situation. Now, we may attempt to draw up rules that can be consistenly applied despite the situation, and actually I think that is a very good thing. But inevitably we will come across differences of opinion on which aspects of “the situation” matter to the discussion. For instance, is female circumcision an acceptable practice within secluded tribes in which it is an integral part of their way of life? Now don’t get me wrong, I unequivocally believe that the practice is horrible and damnable, and certainly anyone who practices it who participates in a larger, modern society should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But if going into a secluded tribe and enforcing our law on them would cause social upheaval and dissolution within their group? I’m not so sure. It’s hard to say. The point is that the alternative has to be considered. It always does. And that’s why murder is different from killing in self-defense. And why some people supported the Iraq war, even though I hope they realize that killing people is, y’know, kinda bad. Because they considered the alternative worse. Now, I apparently require a higher standard of certainty that killing people is going to be of benefit than some others do. These are issues that we all wrestle with, and painting those who disagree with you because they consider aspects of the circumstance relevant that you don’t with the broad condemnational brush of “moral relativists” is unhelpful.

    I repeat: all morality is relative.

  44. You can use language to inform or obscure. For instance, I’m trying to work out what catastrophic success means.

  45. Mark S.,

    If we’re to value the individual conscience, the conservative way to do it is to take the state, and the benefits it distributes, out of the marriage business and let voluntary organizations do the consecrating. I’m not a libertarian purist by any means and another worthy alternative would be providing said benefits only to families (e.g., couples with children).

    A lot of the efficiencies sought from marriage (inheritance, hospital visits) can be legally arranged without marriage, with the notable exception of health insurance and social security survivors’ benefits. The law could reasonably require that insurance be offered to a child-rearing partner (insurance companies are eager to receive the additional premium anyway). Social Security accounts should be semi-privatized and devisable anyhow.

  46. A few comments:

    I think Julian Sanchez brings up a few good points. Despite my agreement with conservatives on most foreign policy issues, they all too often DO mistake alternative moral philosophies as “relativist.”

    But I would also argue that members of the left are hypocritical moral relativists. They use relativists arguments to undermine the concept of capitalism and property rights as an arbitrary system rigged in favor of “the rich.”

    Yet they only want to force their version of morality and social order upon the masses, in which THEY will be the powerful and elite.

    I’m not a moral absolutist. I agree with Hume’s emotive theory of moral sentiments. To say X is wrong is to say 1. I strongly dislike X, 2. I will take action to prevent X, ranging from simple moral condemnation, to ultimately using force and violence.

    But I certainly do not believe that female genital mutilation, forced abortions, etc. are policies that cannot be condemned simply because there is a lack of some universally recognized, God given, moral code.

    The right does use the accusation of “moral relativism” too much. But the left is guilty of hypocracy, because if they did take relativism seriously, they wouldn’t have such distaste and distain for conservatives, as they so obviously do.

  47. Three more corpses with their heads decapitated were recovered this past weekend in Baghdad.

    Civilian contractors have been murdered and their bodies mutilated. Parts strewn across a bridge. Crowds cheer the desecration.

    Car bombs kill hundreds of Iraqi civilians. Other civilians targeted and murdered and their headless corpses dumped in the streets like pieces of meat.

    And Michael Moore says: “The insurgents in Iraq are the moral equivalent of the Minutemen.”

    And the accusation that the left (some, not all) embrace moral relativism has no merit?

    See Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism” for more documentation on this thinking, of this moral relativism, of this failure or unwillingness to use a single standard for unacceptable actions.

    SMG

  48. Here is my two cents on moral relativism; I usually do what I please, relatively few complain.

  49. “Eros cannot topple piety’s hegemony. However sisyphean his insubordination, eros never views himself as decisively bested by that hegemony, nor as finally victorious. Victory would sanctify eros, caricature him into another loyal servant of political sanctification.”

    to be fair, this is rather poetic. it would have been easier to write “there’s a reason people continue to engage in homosexual behavior even in places controlled by religious maniacs, despite the danger of having masonry collapsed on them.”

    the last sentiment in the last sentence being the poetic part.

    the IRS is the chief cause of tax fraud.

  50. “And Michael Moore says: ‘The insurgents in Iraq are the moral equivalent of the Minutemen.'”

    That’s a grotesquely mistaken statement, obviously, but not on face a relativistic one. Moore could believe that by some impartial ethical standard, American revolutionaries and Iraqi insurgents are both praiseworthy.

    As for Rob, he appears to be trying to ensure I’ll return the favor of his misreading (I summarized a position; I didn’t claim to have a “right” view of sexual ethics, and I do not, in fact, believe root level moral propositions to be “testable” as empirical ones are supposed to be) by rendering himself nigh-unreadable, but the thick clouds of jargon, fortunately, cloak a fairly thin thought: That I can’t claim access to a transcendent perspective (that is, one that’s not a situated, human perspective) from which to assess moral claims… or any other sort, for that matter.

    Well, true enough; nobody can. Ethics, science, and even logic are in the same boat so far as that’s concerned. But that’s an objection with bite only if we’re laboring in the shadow of such impossible transcendence. Only, that is to say, if we’re assessing our judgements by the standard of that squared circle, the view from nowhere.

    If the point is that when I claim “human lives have intrinsic value and dignity,” I can’t mean that this is written in to the point of view of the universe, which I couldn’t have access to even if there were such a thing, that’s true enough. But I think we all have strong reasons to respect other people, and that we have those reasons irrespective of the details of our culture or whether particular people themselves acknowledge those reasons. I think that counts as “universal” in the meaningful senses that are available to us. If Rob still thinks that’s nihilism, I’d dearly love to hear him articulate the non-nihilistic alternative. Preferably in his own words, without gesturing vaguely in the direction of some hoary tome.

  51. “Michael Moore Elected King of Nebulous ‘The Left’ Shocker!!”

  52. Oy.

    When a poster says that the Soviet Union was “not necessarily a relativist” state, all hope has been lost.

    Time to move on here, folks. Not much left to look at.

    SMG

  53. That’s right, Phil, Michael Moore is a nobody.

    He has no influence in American society of issues political. Not in any way representative of some, repeat some, on the Left. He has no follower, no adherents, no admirers who embrace his worldview.

    Odd isn’t it? During a debate someone asks for an example of “A” and when you cite an example of “A”, someone tags along and dismisses it as anecdotal.

    SMG

  54. And Michael Moore says: “The insurgents in Iraq are the moral equivalent of the Minutemen.”

    I have been unable to find that direct quote anywhere on the Net. There are a lot of instances of “moral equivalent” being used in blogs hostile to Moore, though.

    Here’s what I found in Moore’s words:

    First, can we stop the Orwellian language and start using the proper names for things? Those are not contractors in Iraq. They are not there to fix a roof or to pour concrete in a driveway. They are MERCENARIES and SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE. They are there for the money, and the money is very good if you live long enough to spend it.

    Halliburton is not a “company” doing business in Iraq. It is a WAR PROFITEER, bilking millions from the pockets of average Americans. In past wars they would have been arrested — or worse.

    The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not “insurgents” or “terrorists” or “The Enemy.” They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow — and they will win

    Michael Moore April 14, 2004

    He is not saying that hostage-taking and sawing off heads are acceptable.

    I don’t know what kind of news you’re getting over there, but what we’re seeing and reading here is that there are a whole lot of Iraqis who are disappointed with (ie, loathe) the US and consider the Americans occupiers.

    It has always been the case: One man’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter”. As one man’s “collateral damage” is another man’s baby girl.

  55. Julian,

    Don’t have time to get into this at length right now (gorgeous day here and I’m going to the beach to fulfill my erotic necessity of playing beach volley ball with hot women in bikinis . . .); but just quickly — to address one of your points. Regarding any moral statement (X is good, X is the right way to go), supposing someone says:

    “X has an eternal, inescapable, universal moral quality.”

    I would think that you — yes, you, Julian — would have to agree that such statement is untestable, undemonstrable and hence gibberish. As an interpetation of how moral statements arise, saying that “X has an eternal, inescapable, universal moral quality” does seem to be widely believed. However, lots of clever people believe in global warming so beliefs are neither any proof of anything nor any cause for surprise. This is all I meant by my saying that you consider moral statements valid only if in some way informed or subtended by things shown to be shown to be (or to have been) testable.

    I’ll unpack the rest of my comments which you picked on later today.

  56. Raymond-
    The reason Iraqis see America as an occupier is because they are under occupation. No one has said differently, including the president and UK PM who have commented several times on the state of the occupation. This is what happens in the wake of a war, the loser is occupied while the country is put in some semblance of order. I think when the word occupation is used in the Arab press (with respect to the US in Iraq) it is often a veiled reference to occupied Palestinian territories. Lets not forget that when the US went into Iraq it was with the cooperation of a couple of million Kurds. No matter how many times Iraq tried to purge itself of the Kurds they are still in fact Iraqi citizens. It is also worth mentioning that a video has just been released of your so-called ?freedom fighters? beheading three Kurds. Where were these freedom fighters when Iraq was under Sadam? Most likely taking leisure in his palaces or taking part in his death squads. I don?t support this war but resistance against a reluctant occupier doesn?t seem nearly as heroic as resistance to a totalitarian dictator.

  57. Correction:

    “subtended by things shown to be (or to have been) testable.”

  58. This is absurd. If the Iraqis loathed the US as much as critics say, we would be losing not 30 soldiers a month but 30 soldiers per hour.

    Moore’s statement is in line with his other odious views on the US. That he would equate the thugs and butchers in Iraq with the Minutemen in the US reveals the sickness in his worldview.

    And to repeat the old cliche that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is the ultimate example of if not only moral relativism but moral nihilism.

    SMG

  59. “And to repeat the old cliche that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is the ultimate example of if not only moral relativism but moral nihilism.”

    Whether it’s nihilistic or not, it’s true. In that there are people in the world who look at those we think of as terrorists as freedom fighters. That doesn’t mean you or I have to look at them that way. But there are people who do, so the cliche is essentially correct. And worth noting too is that the people who look at our enemies as the good guys see themselves as the righteous and us as the nihilistic. FWIW.

  60. Steve, as has been pointed out multiple times, the official moral outlook of the Soviet Union was, as in most totalitarian states, rigidly absolutist.

    Note that this doesn’t mean “good.”

    Stalin, the Nazis, the Spanish Inquisition, all of em eeevvvilll; all of em decidedly NOT moral relativists.

    Once again, Steve:

    Moral relativism =/= evil
    Moral relativism =/= disagrees with Steve
    Moral absolutism =/= Good
    Moral absolutism =/= agrees with Steve

    Is this getting through at all?

    Btw, I seem to remember a recent American President saying that a particular rebel group–one with quite an impressive record of murder, rape and torture–was the “moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.”

    m

  61. michael,

    SteveNG is now simply being purposefully obtuse.

  62. Oh and Steve:

    This is absurd. If the Iraqis loathed the US as much as critics say, we would be losing not 30 soldiers a month but 30 soldiers per hour.

    uh, pay some fucking attention Steve:

    1) We’re losing quite a bit more than 30 per month. Click through and look it up. This is what you’re ignoring.

    2) We’re not the ones taking most of the hits (Note that the estimate on this page is decidedly on the low side).

    3) It may help to limit the casualties that we, you know, have all the big guns & training and armor and stuff.

    4) Of course, we’re also avoiding casualties by gradually ceding control of the country.

    This isn’t fun any more, Steve. Your willful ignorance and obtuseness are beginning to get annoying. Get your head out of the sand and try to unclog the entrances to your mind.

    m

  63. That’s right, Phil, Michael Moore is a nobody.

    Free tip: When you find someone who claimed that, feel free to argue with them. Until then, you may want a CO2 extinguisher to put out that straw.

  64. “We’re losing quite a bit more than 30 per month. Click through and look it up. This is what you’re ignoring.”
    I think the point remains. US casualties would need to be an order of magnitude higher to make the claim that the insurgency had any real popular support. It seems most are just paying it lip service.

  65. pigwiggle,

    US casualties would need to be an order of magnitude higher to make the claim that the insurgency had any real popular support.

    Why is that? If they largely remain on base, do not infiltrate the more hostile areas, are well protected when they do move, the enemy is ill-trained, etc., I can see why casualities would be relatively low, yet the population overwhelmingly hostile.

  66. Jason-
    “If they largely remain on base, do not infiltrate the more hostile areas, are well protected when they do move, the enemy is ill-trained, etc”
    Thats just not the situation. The army and marine casualties are not from direct ingagement of an enemy but rather from IED and car bombs. Most of these are aimed at the Iraqis themselves. I think it is clear that these are the actions of a minority tring to derail efforts to put Iraq back on its feet. al-Sadre is a good example of a real Iraqi resistance, however he was quickly put in his place by al-Sistani. Like I said before, support for this so-called resistance is mostly lip service.

  67. It’s been my experience that, when pressed for specifics, very few people are actual moral relativists. Those I’ve spoken with who espouse relativist platitudes will withdraw when asked to consider things like genital mutilation. At the heart of their moral code is really something that I have found much more common (including in myself) – a moral absolutism in which the absolute source of morality is ones own instincts, or intuition, or conscience, or whatever you want to call it. Some folks half-heartedly embrace moral relativism when they don’t want to pass judgement on a moral question – it’s fashionable, I guess, to “keep an open mind,” but I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who was truly a moral relativist.

  68. pigwiggle,

    Thats just not the situation. The army and marine casualties are not from direct ingagement of an enemy but rather from IED and car bombs.

    That still doesn’t demonstrate your point; what methodology they use is not per se an indication of support or lack thereof. Indeed, most insurgencies historically have never required that the native population take up arms, indeed, that would be counter-productive, since the insurgency depends on a friendly, if non-hostile, local population to blend into and otherwise support them materially.

    I think it is clear that these are the actions of a minority tring to derail efforts to put Iraq back on its feet.

    No, no matter how many times you repeat, it is not clear that is the case.

  69. Tim Higgins,

    Unwittingly you have stumbled upon what moral relativism is; a theory where moral decisions are left up entirely to individuals.

  70. “a theory where moral decisions are left up entirely to individuals.”

    How could it be otherwise? Even religious people all interpret the supposed word of God differently and choose which edicts of their religion to follow.

  71. pigwiggle,

    Just to give you a feel for things in Iraq, consider that in August there was an average of 87 attacks per day against US forces; and this was before the current uptick that Bush, etc. have acknowledged.

  72. fyodor,

    A moral absolutist would argue that moral is not derived from individuals, but from something external to the individual (a deity) or fixed in human nature (biology). Higgins’ argument seemed to comtemplate that humans had some choice in the matter; that morality is derived from an individual’s impressions or thoughts on particular events, experiences, etc.

  73. And to repeat the old cliche that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is the ultimate example of if not only moral relativism but moral nihilism.

    Here’s another clich?: History is written by the victors. I wonder who the victors will be.

    I wasn’t making a moral judgment. I was talking about Moore’s “Orwellian language” and referring to the probability that many among the 2,000,000 people of Sadr City (for example) do not see the Mehdi Army the same way you do.

    Trying to understand someone doesn’t mean having sympathy for the means he chooses to achieve his ends. I’m beginning to think that many of those Westerners who are being accused of defending some “right to mutilate females” are simply trying to understand the practise. They’re probably not guilty of “moral relativism” at all.

    Black slavery in America makes sense if many people did not at the time consider black people fully human. The Holocaust is less surprising if one is aware of the “cancer on the body of Germany” belief. Trying to understand and explain these things doesn’t make one an apologist for them.

    At least two other recent threads here have played with the same sort of theme. One was about whether language “causes” thought. In the other, someone wrote something to the effect that “I don’t want to ‘understand’ the terrorists, I want to kill them.” With the word “understand” dripping with irony. As if understanding were EVER a bad thing.

    (I have a horrible confession to make. I have a basic understanding of how E coli work. Does that make me an E-coli apologist?)

    And clich?s are very often true. That’s why they’re clich?s.

    This is what happens in the wake of a war, the loser is occupied while the country is put in some semblance of order.

    From your point of view, was it “right” for the French Resistance to kill the German occupiers? Would it have been “right” for the Berliners to kill American occupiers? Soviet ones? Did Berliners even consider the Americans “occupiers”?

    What “semblance of order” is Iraq being put in right now? Do you think some pro-American (hm) Iraqis consider their occupiers inept?

    …your so-called “freedom fighters” beheading three Kurds

    I consider that statement downright dishonest.

    Where were these freedom fighters when Iraq was under Sadam?

    Are you referring to “mine”, or to the Shia who rose up, foolishly expecting American help?

    ————?
    Warning: The following contains some sarcasm.
    ————?

    To clarify (as if it weren’t already clear enough, but what the heck, reading levels here seem to be abominably low. Despite paeans to Sisyphus cleaning the Aegean stables only to find little Eros lying in a pile of Minotaur poop):

    My moral code in a nutshell (another clich?)–> Never violate fundamental human rights. Don’t do to others what you do not want them to do to you.

    And… The end does not justify the means.

    ——–?
    ps – Aquinas was the student of Albertus Magnus, who was first introduced to Aristotle through the writings of Al Farabi.

    pps – I don’t really know how E coli work. It just sounded good.

  74. Jason sez,

    “And… The end does not justify the means.”

    Is wrong. The answer to Machiavelli’s

    “The ends justify the means”

    is

    “The means are the ends”

    Gibbon

  75. >A few clicks of the mental gears, of course, would
    >make it obvious that the underlying position
    >wasn’t: “all judgements about sexual ethics are
    >equally valid” but rather “the right view of sexual
    >ethics entails that there’s nothing wrong with
    >practice X.”

    But generally, the post being responded to isn’t
    as forthright as “my view is the right one, and
    it says that practice X is not wrong”. The post
    being responded to usually is selling it’s
    viewpoint as simple tolerance, and opposing ones
    as intolerance.

    So it makes perfect sense to illustrate the
    absurdity of that sales pitch.

  76. There is a legitimate concern when one’s stated ethical principles are applied inconsistently. There is also a point to be made when a moral argument is employed, but not as a categorical imperative.

    These two types of arguments are perfectly valid, but they are lumped together with non points such as the ones Julian points out. I agree that the term ‘relativism’ is over used, but there may be a poorly articulated baby in that there bathwater sometimes.

  77. A moral absolutist would argue that moral is not derived from individuals, but from something external to the individual (a deity) or fixed in human nature (biology).

    But when pressed for some legitimacy or proof of the deity or the science, there still isn’t absolute knowledge of either and therefore the absolutist’s argument falls apart.

  78. Jason Bourne,

    A moral absolutist may very well argue that morality is not derived from individuals, but it obviously is. Even if one credits a divine source for one’s beliefs, it’s quite clear from abundant evidence that individuals all take different messages from this avowed source, so different that the role individuals play in the process of determining what is moral or not is clearly much more significant than whatever role this universal font of wisdom may play. In other words, there are as many moral codes as there are individuals, since no two individuals agree on absolutely everything. Therefore, it’s quite clear that individuals are playing significant roles in and are the ultimate arbiters of what moral codes they adopt. A moral absolutis may believe his moral code is supported by something outside of himself, but since likely no one else in the world will agree entirely on that moral code, including other so-called moral absolutists, what meaning is there even to such a stance? It’s just a silly way of saying I’m right and you’re wrong that sidesteps the need for reason.

  79. Jason-

    “If they largely remain on base, do not infiltrate the more hostile areas”

    You are wrong, the marines engage the insurgents daily. I know a marine that is in Fallujah doing this every day. your explanation for a relatively low rate of attrition was that the US military is hiding in fortified well guarded bases and when they venture out are well protected. This notion is absurd on its face, this would only be an occupation in the strictest sense. For IED and car bombs to work the military must be mixed with the population.

    “Indeed, most insurgencies historically have never required that the native population take up arms”

    We must be confused about our definitions, I took insurgency to mean a popular uprising. If you are indicating here that foreign fighters are responsible for the insurgency this lend credence to “fly paper” rational for the war. Better to fight these terrorists in say Iraq than in the US. However, from what I have observed it seems that foreign fighters are a small part of the insurgency (it is rare that there are reports of dead insurgents with foreign ID, unlike the beginning of the war). The insurgency seems to be comprised mostly of Sunni’s from and around Tikrit and Fallujah, likely those that were in Sadam’s republican guard or had much to loose from a transfer of power to the population as a whole. North Iraq which is home to about 20% of the population (all Kurds) does not have a comperable number of attacks relative to the Sunni triangle. Address my point about Sistani and Sadre. al-Sadre was most certainly a home grown uprising, only to be put in place by the will of the greater majority. There was a huge amount of hostility toward his hijacking of the Ali shrine. From the tactics, geography, and clan affiliation I think it is clear that the majority of the insurgents are the remnants of the old guard. The kind of money and weapons confiscated in Tikrit, Fallujah, and Baghdad could only have come from the old government.

    “‘I think it is clear that these are the actions of a minority tring to derail efforts to put Iraq back on its feet.’No, no matter how many times you repeat, it is not clear that is the case.”

    Come on, look at the tactics and targets. Why would a homegrown insurgency attack the UN and aid groups? Well orchestrated attacks on police and clerics are most certainly meant to cripple security and foment religious and ethnic violence.

  80. fyodor,

    A moral absolutist may very well argue that morality is not derived from individuals, but it obviously is.

    That’s for you and the moral absolutist to hash out.

  81. pigwiggle,

    For IED and car bombs to work the military must be mixed with the population.

    Yes, a certain percentage has to; but not the vast majority.

    We must be confused about our definitions, I took insurgency to mean a popular uprising.

    A popular uprising need not be an entire population in arms (and generally is not such); indeed, historically speaking, most insurgencies have only taken into their ranks a minority of a friendly population.

    If you are indicating here that foreign fighters are responsible for the insurgency this lend credence to “fly paper” rational for the war.

    No, I am not indicating that.

    Come on, look at the tactics and targets. Why would a homegrown insurgency attack the UN and aid groups?

    Because they are soft targets, and their exit makes life harder for the U.S. And your statement does not undermine the statement it was meant to respond to.

  82. The Dude abides.

  83. What’s really funny is that the people who make charges of “moral relativism” are the very same people who like to complain about “moral equivalence”: the practice of judging the U.S. by the same moral absolutes as everyone else.

  84. In light of the direction of the thread, it’s probably worth distinguishing two problems: One is whether there *are* some objective or universal moral facts–moral propositions (“you shouldn’t kill toddlers” or whatever) that are true with respect to all persons, irrespective of culture or other individuating features. A separate question is the extent to which we have access to those if they do exist. So, for instance, someone could write down a complicated equation, such that nobody’s ever solved that exact equation before. I can think there *is* a definite (right, objective) solution to it, but also that it’s beyond my powers to find it.

  85. Kevin Carson,

    We’re special; the rules don’t apply to us. 🙂

  86. Jason Bourne,

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding what relativism is. I’ve always taken it to mean a belief that there are no universal mores – that one person may have their beliefs about what is and is not moral, and another may have other beliefs, but that it was impossible to reconcile them in a “this one is right, this one is wrong” sort of way.

    What I was trying to say was that I find that most people who superficially embrace moral relativism (as I described it above) don’t really believe in it – they definitely believe in certain universal morals, but use moral relativist poses to defend claims that X is not immoral.

    But unless I am mistaken about what moral relativism is, I don’t think that what I offered previously happens upon a definition of it – I think it is just as I described it: a moral absolutism under which the absolute source of moral rightness is internal.

  87. Speaking of the direction of this thread, when is H&R in general going to be back running on all cylinders?

  88. Tim Higgins,

    Yes, there are a few different definitions of “moral relativism” being bandied about here; perhaps its definition is relative! 🙂

    You seem to be taking the position that there really is no moral relativism, which on the surface is diametrically opposed to my (mostly ignored 🙁 position that there really is no moral absolutism. But then, perhaps they’re two ways of saying the same thing, that whatever moral choices and judgments we make, there’s not really this big insurmountable divide pitting the righteous on one side against the willy nilly nihilists on the other.

    FWIW, I think the idea that morality can be looked at as absolute and yet we all perpetually disagree on what it is and/or how to apply it is a rather amusing paradox. Even the killing of toddlers is okayed as long as it’s done by “us” which makes it justified as part of a scheme that is preferable to the status quo alternative.

  89. “One is whether there *are* some objective or universal moral facts–moral propositions (“you shouldn’t kill toddlers” or whatever) that are true with respect to all persons, irrespective of culture or other individuating features.”

    This has always been my problem with Kantian ethics. It is all well and good to say that if everybody killed toddlers, we’d be in a bad place, but I find that most ethical problems resist that kind of analysis. The general ethic always winds up consumed in numerous but salient details. What of the Vietnam experience of the bomb-strapped toddler? When we ask “What if everyone did it,” we are ignoring the complexity of the ‘it’ in question most of the time.

    My armchair position is that while many people hold values that they defend inconsistently, there is probably no ethic that overarches all value weightings of all people. I can say that because I put great weight on human liberty, the overthrowing of a tyrant is a good. If someone else places much less to zero weight on liberty, I don’t know why they should care about that argument, though.

    I suspect, therefore, that we can only use reason to analyze stated values for consistency with policies or actions as in, ‘you say you value liberty, but you are really seeking to enhance the liberty of some at the expense of liberty for others.’ This can cause us to reconsider our value weightings and possibly adjust our policy preferences. However, once we get to the point where, yep, I consistently like liberty and yep, that other guy consistently likes stability, all ethical arguments dissolve and we are left with consequences only to talk about. It is really value preferences that are being discussed no matter how universal we try to make the language.

  90. fyodor,

    There are those – objectivists – who simply state moral absolutes come from the universe; they are physical constants in other words.

  91. Jason Ligon:
    I think you’re mixing up the kind of universality I’m talking about (it’s immoral for anyone to act in manner X, even if their culture or whatever says it’s OK) with Kant’s universalization test (it’s moral to act in manner X only if you could will that everyone act in manner X); they’re distinct. You could hold the first kind of “universal” position without being a Kantian.

    Tim Higgins:
    I think you’re on to something there. Often when people use relativist language vis a vis some contested behavior, what they really mean to claim is not that morality per se is “all relative” but rather something like: “This isn’t really a moral question, but a matter of preference or ettiquette; it’s not *wrong* as such, but part of a more broadly personal or cultural question about how it’s best to live.”

  92. I’m surprised that this debate isn’t getting anywhere.

  93. Jason Bourne,

    Well, it takes all kinds! 🙂

  94. “I think you’re mixing up the kind of universality I’m talking about (it’s immoral for anyone to act in manner X, even if their culture or whatever says it’s OK) with Kant’s universalization test (it’s moral to act in manner X only if you could will that everyone act in manner X);”

    That is fair, since I hadn’t to this point considered them separate arguments. Let me see if I can get at the distinction:

    A Kantian says “X is immoral.” I ask why, and our Kantian says “because we would will that no one engage in X categorically.” I respond that such might be the case, but once we bring the specificity of X into light, we can see that we have limited ourselves to analysis after the fact. X, it turns out, is a unique event, with a unique history and unique boundary conditions that define it. I suggest to the Kantian that he has a morality that is not at all prescriptive for future actions.

    A Sanchezian Universalist suggests “Y is immoral irrespective of individuating circumstances.” I ask why. Where does the universality come from?

    I haven’t thought about the distinction much, but I think I am suggesting that since claims of morality are rooted in the value weightings of the people making the claim, universality of both types necessarily goes out the window.

    Or something like that …

  95. Relativism: Two examples-

    Physical relativity: Standing in the isle on a flying plane holding a tennis ball. Throw ball in air. Ball moves up and down relative to your and the planes movement. Not the ground. But the plane is moving relative to the ground. If the planes movement is measured relative to a celestial object, for example a satelite, a different relative equation.

    Social relativity: Plato/Socrates example (from Phaedrus? don’t have my books with me) Each mans property is his own and he should retain it. (I assume we are all in agreement on that) However, in socrates example, what if he is drunk? Should we take his sword away till he sobbers? (Modern example, a person has a car, but I take his keys when he gets drunk at a bar, and can’t reasonable operate his vehicle) Whether or not I take his keys is RELATIVE to the situation. If he is sober…I am a thief. If he is drunk, I am doing him a favor.

    PH101

    There was a question concerning when the apes take over. When did we apes not take over? I thought we hairless apes farily dominated the planet? Ho Hum.

  96. On the pigwiggle/Bourne Iraq to-do; which seems to have sprung from the me/Steve kerfluffle…

    piggy: You do seem to have an extremely strict definition of “popular uprising”–one that only some kind of WWII-style pan-societal mobilization could satisfy. In practically every armed conflict ever, the overwhelming majority of folks were not in arms. The point is that if the insurgents are tacitly supported, or even tolerated, by a plurality of the civilians, we’re in deep do-do.

    In any case, I doubt it’s anywhere near so simple. In a lawless situation like Iraq, there’s any number of players–Shiites as well as Sunni’s, with their own agendas/vendettas. Not only have you got the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea (etc ad nauseum) going after each other as well as the Romans; you’ve also got nascent organized crime, plus plain old criminals, spawning all over the place. None of this is good for us.

    m

  97. I would say Skeptikos is backing what I’ve been saying all along. In fact, now that I’ve finally had time to RTFA, seems Volokh makes the same point himself (although he calls making this point banal, well phooey!). He also seems to call the specific type of relativism that Julian is focusing on “cultural relativism,” which I’d say is a more descriptive and singular term for it. Interestingly, Volokh also backs my point that such cultural relativism should not be universally dismissed out of hand.

    Without specifying examples of conservatives using this familiar barb, it’s difficult to say how exactly they’re intending to use it. From memory, I would venture to guess they mean essentially nothing by it except to express a certain existential nausea at the sense of moral decay and collapse they feel because we don’t all condemn gay sex like everyone was assumed to in the past. Too bad for them.

  98. Multi-cultural relativism:

    I say my culture is superior. Nice statement. How to prove it? Survive and thrive. But, what if I assert that it is only multicultural relativism that makes my culture great? No?

    I love music. As far as I can tell, 90% of the music I like finds it’s roots in Afro-latin rythms. Not from the “western” culture.

    Einstein? German Jew.

    Gandi refered to american philosophers, etc…

    Bugs Bunny. According to Chuck Jones, he was the african hare god. Streets in the neigborhood I was in yesterday? Native american names. The city I live in? Once again Native american. My Culture? Driven by western Ideals, absorbing and testing the ideals of humanity. Keeping some, discarding others. (Relative to thier success and our preferences)

    My heritage…English, Scottish, Irish, German, African, Native American, Italian, Swedish…and I dozen others I don’t know. Relative to the genetic human species. I fit no subgroup other than human. Relative to other mammals, I am a primate.

  99. This same criticism can be made, today, of “liberated” Iraq. . . .

    Yes, and the US prosecuted the soldiers involved in the prison scandal.

    How many of Saddam’s torturers were punished by Saddam? For torturing, I mean (I’m sure he butchered some of them for other reasons).

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