Saturday, September 18, 2004

The Moral Relativism Frame

Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy, one of the blogosphere's most overrated blogs, sparks a discussion on moral relativism and liberalism with this post. When reading this discussion, the first thing to do is ignore the philosophical points. Volokh's philosophical statements are interesting and true, but ultimately irrelevant, for the reasons that I will discuss in a moment, and Matthew Yglesias' display an ignorance of ethical theories that one would not expect from someone who recently received a degree in philosophy from Harvard, so there's really no point in paying attention to this part of the debate (which means you can ignore entirely the contribution at Crooked Timber, which is almost completely devoted to Yglesias' dilettantish philosophical digression). Instead, as Kevin Drum notes, the real issue is the "common sense" view of moral relativism, and why so many conservatives (and even some liberals) associated it with liberalsm.

So what is the common sense concept of "moral relativism?" Most believe moral relativism to be the position that all moral values are equally valuable, or that all ethical views are equally valuable. The type of relativism most likely to be discussed by non-philosophers is cultural relativism, in which (according to the common sense view of moral relativism) the ethical systems of all cultures are equally valuable. The question raised by Volokh's post is whether these labels apply to liberals. The answer, of course, is that these labels (with their "common sense" meanings) don't really apply to anyone. There is no one who believes, and certainly no one who acts on the belief, that all moral values are equally valuable. That's just silly, and probably humanly impossible. It is true, as Volokh says, that both liberals and conservatives are always situationalists to some degree (though often in the guise of a deontological ethics where the morally-relevant concepts, e.g. the concept of murder, are defined in such a way that they mask the situationalist aspects the ethical system), but situationalists are not necessarily relativists. Liberals aren't cultural relativists, either. While cultural relativism is very popular in anthropology, even there it does not hold that all ethical systems are equally valuable. Instead, it is a methodological stance that involves approaching all cultures from an objective, non-evaluative standpoint when describing them scientifically. The truth is that in many cases, liberals are as far from moral relativism, and cultural relativism in particular, as one can be, believing as they do in things like universal human rights, and universal concepts of cruelty (a point that Volokh notes in his original post, but which isn't mentioned in any of the responses).

So why are liberals shackled with the "moral relativist" label? I think there are several reasons. The primary reason, however, is framing. Conservatives believe in strict moral principles (though they don't always act on those beliefs). One way to villify their opponents is to cast them as people who are morally corrupt, and from the conservative perspective, one way to be morally corrupt is not to recognize the conservative moral system as the one true, empirically verifiable, absolute, and perhaps divinely inspired moral system. This also explains the view of liberals as atheists (rather than the other way around, as Yglesias suggests). While the vast majority of liberals in the United States are Christians, it is rhetorically expedient for conservatives to frame them as secularists, or even atheists, because it implies a lack of moral integrity. If the one true and absolute moral system is divinely inspired, and you don't believe in the divine, how can you be truly moral? You can't, of course.

While it should be obvious that liberals are not "common sense" moral relativists, liberals rarely do anything to counter the perception that they are are. Tolerance is a concept central to contemporary liberalism, but liberals rarely express it very well. Tolerance is never the view that all cultural practices should be treated as equal. Liberals would not be liberals if they believed that the exploitation and marginalization of women in Arab cultures, or other forms of cruelty justified through religious or cultural institutions, are moral. However, this is the view that conservatives attribute to them, and one rarely hears liberals attempting to debunk this misrepresentation. This is yet another example of conservatives being master framers, and liberals being lost in the rhetorical sea. In an almost ironic sense, then, it's the conservatives who've embraced the world-view most like relativism (see here), and have used it to frame liberals as relativists. Liberals, because of their more anti-relativistic world-view, have had a hard time countering the conservative framing.

8 comments:

roger said...

I'm glad you linked this to tolerance, because I think it is that issue that has been historically constitutive of liberalism. Voltaire and the philosophe attack on intolerance in France -- which was an attack on the state's right to dictate belief -- has been absorbed completely by the liberal tradition. As this attack scaled down to smaller units of governance -- business, the family, schools -- it brings up more upsetting questions as to the legitimacy of any authority. From another angle, this is identical to the claims Anthony Giddens makes about the whole project of modernity -- the production of models of judicial fairness and equality, for instance, that get adopted in extra-judicial settings, such as personal relations.

The liberal irony is that tolerance for cultural diversity, which takes place on a macro level, is, on the micro level, consistent with just the kind of relationship politics that Giddens explains. Which is why liberalism couldn't really be accepted by, say, those who would want to preserve a culture of keeping women subordinate. While on the macro level the expression of this position would be tolerated, on the micro level it would be systematically subverted. On the other hand, the conservative anxiety about strengthening the coercive powers of what it identifies as traditional moral centers -- the father, the CEO, the president -- is much more consistent with keeping women in subordinate positions.

Chris said...

I like the point you make in the first paragraph, and I would add that it creates unsettling questions that go even further than the legitimacy of authority. It questions the legitimacy, and basis, for all of society's institutions, and even our language and ethos.

The reason I included tolerance in a post on moral relativism is that more often than not, conservatives link the two. In their minds, tolerance is an all or nothing approach (which is not unusual for them), and therefore tolerance for other world views necessarily means tolerance for Arab violence and misogyny, or Hitler's anti-semitism (one of their favorite examples). Of course, if liberals are honest with themselvs, they will admit that tolerance of cultural diversity does create conflicts at the points where tolerance and our basic liberal principle of avoiding human cruelty are at odds with each other. The challenge is to avoid throwing out Islam altogether, while criticizing and acting against the violence produced among its fringe groups, or its misogynistic practices. For the conservative, these sorts of conflicts are unresovable.

Conservatives have so many reasons to find tolerance aversive that it is not surprising that they would frame it as being one of the worst possible views from the conservative perspective, namely moral relativism. The fact that liberals do not do more to deflate this straw man frame is a discredit to the rhetorical skills of liberals in general. Hopefully Lakoff and others will help us with this.

paperwight said...

Hmmm. Yes, you did say that, in a far more erudite way than I did.

I'm trying very hard to be more of a bully, less of a gentleman on these matters, under the general notion that pounding the table with your shoe will at least get people to listen to the next sentence or so.

Chris said...

I like your way better. My way is really just as much of a problem as the way you (and I, strangely enough) are criticizing. It just makes people want to debate the point further, instead of actually learning how to turn the silly frame on its ass.

James said...

I think you're right here but I just wanted to clairfy one thing. You say "Liberals would not be liberals if they believed that the exploitation and marginalization of women in Arab cultures, or other forms of cruelty justified through religious or cultural institutions, are moral." and I just really want to know what basis they do this. Is is simply because of some more fundamental level like sexual differences are more important than cultural differences?

Thanks!

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