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24.4.06

Moral Relativism: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Conservatives complain a lot about moral relativism. And in fact there are a fair number of liberals who espouse moral relativism as a meta-principle (even though most of them are moral absolutists in practice). But I think a good bit of the blame for the existence of liberal moral relativists can be laid at the feet of the very conservatives who complain about it.

At the present moment, conservatism has mixed success in dominating the actual content of society's moral beliefs. But it has been much more successful in dominating the framework in which we discuss morality. They way it has set up that framework has had the unintended consequence of producing adherence to moral relativism.

Most people would prefer to believe both 1) there are moral absolutes, and 2) thus-and-such is morally right/wrong. Conservatives have been very successful in promoting the idea that there is a logical link between #1 and the conservative version of #2. Their intent is that liberals would then see that continuing to adhere to #1 obliges them to give up their liberal version of #2.

But in practice, people's adherence to their specific moral beliefs (being embedded in their concrete way of life) is stronger than their adherence to abstract principles. So many liberals will protect their adherence to a liberal version of #2 by espousing moral relativism. This move is helped along by the fact that the liberal version of #2 is more permissive (often confused with relativism) than the conservative version. The liberal version is also more abstractly universalistic (dependent on higher-order principles that may work out differently in different contexts) while the conservative is more specifically universalistic (mandating similar specific actions for all people), a distinction which can also be confused with relativism.

The best solution -- which I and many other liberals espouse -- is to reject the connection between #1 and the conservative #2. That is, we believe that (to the best of our knowledge) the liberal #2 is an absolute moral code.

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