NB. This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Star on Nov 7, 2017
From William Buckley to Allan Bloom to Rush Limbaugh, the right has long accused liberals of embracing moral relativism — the view that in ethical matters there exists no truth. According to the critique, liberals’ live-and-let-live attitude on a variety of issues, from abortion to euthanasia to drug legalization, has been underpinned by this belief that in moral issues no choice can be considered right or wrong.
The resulting inability to condemn one stance and praise another, so goes the charge, has been detrimental to the moral fabric of the nation.
In light of this longstanding critique of relativism, it’s been odd to see Republicans in recent days embrace the doctrine in their defense of chief of staff John Kelly’s remarks about slavery and the Civil War. Asked to comment about the controversy over the removal of Confederate statues, Kelly replied: “It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War. And men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had to make their stand.”
The moral relativist nature of these remarks could not be clearer. One tenet of moral relativism is that moral judgments are conditioned by their historical and cultural circumstances, and so cannot be judged outside of those circumstances. By contrast, for the moral absolutist, moral judgments are true in all times and places.
The Christian who believes that homosexuality is immoral does not think that its widespread practice in Greek and Roman society made it morally justified, nor does he conclude that the fact that an individual may have chosen homosexual behavior in good conscience relieves him from moral blame.
By contrast for Kelly and his defenders, the fact that advocates of slavery were acting on behalf of a dominant value scheme of the time (“loyalty”) and doing so in good conscience absolves them of moral censure. In other words, the moral judgment that is universally accepted as true today — that those who advocate slavery are moral monsters — is, according to this position, false when applied to those who advocated for slavery during the Civil War.
This, as I have already pointed out, is the definition of moral relativism.
Actually, this newfound moral relativism on the right is a natural extension of another doctrine it has embraced, what might be called “epistemological relativism.” Whereas moral relativism declares there is no truth in the ethical realm, epistemological relativism states that there exists no truth in the factual realm, and can be seen in everything from Donald Trump’s ability to assert patently false claims such as that he saw thousands of people in New Jersey cheering after 9/11 to Kellyanne Conway’s world of “alternative facts.”
Now, I have no objection with the right’s embrace of moral relativism. The fact that philosophers are still arguing about it some 2,500 years after Protagoras first espoused it demonstrates the doctrine’s staying power. But it seems not asking too much to insist it be consistent.
If holding a belief in good conscience is morally exculpatory, as in the case of those who advocated for slavery during the Civil War, this should save from condemnation those who support abortion rights in good conscience and a whole list of other moral positions that Republicans disagree with. Such a stance would not only assure logical coherence. It would go a long way to calming down the atmosphere that created the controversy over Kelly’s remarks in the first place.