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September 18, 2004

Liberalism and moral relativism

Eugene Volokh argues that liberals aren't really moral relativists and Matt Yglesias follows up with a thoughtful reply. See Brian Weatherson's post at Crooked Timber for further commentary.

I think what we're trying to do is explain an odd phenonomenon, namely the tendency of conservatives believe that liberals are moral relativists. It is odd that some conservatives believe both that liberals are moral relativists and that they are scheming to foist their gay/vegetarian/pacifist/socialist moral agenda on everyone else.

There are several explanations for the perceived link between liberalism and relativism. Matt already talked about the observed correlation between secularism and relativism. Conservatives may have observed that people who abandon religion sometimes become relativists instead of adopting a secular moral theory. Alternatively, if they believe that their religion is the source of all morality, and that liberals are overwhelmingly secular or ecumenical, then they may conclude that liberals lack absolute moral standards and must therefore be relativists.

I think there's a deeper explanation for the confusion, though. Liberal ethics is sometimes confused with relativism because the two theories give the same advice in some cases, albeit for very different reasons. The conservative bogeyman relativist is someone who thinks that everyone creates their own "moral reality" and that nobody can judge anybody. When speaking casually, liberals sometimes say things that could be uncharitably construed as relativistic. We say things like "Who are you to judge what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home?" or "How dare those religious fanatics impose their morality on me?" These statements aren't really relativistic because they're backed by unarticulated premises. When liberals don't accept the argument for the moral superiority of one option over another, they counsel people to choose whichever one they like. This, to conservatives, may sound like relativism.

Let's say a conservative is arguing that gay sex is wrong. As a non-relativist liberal, I dispute that claim. I'm not taking a relativist position that gay sex is wrong for him, but right for other people. Instead, I'm claiming that the conservative has his moral facts wrong. In this non-relativistic vein, I will offer arguments to to show that consensual gay sex and consensual straight sex are morally equivalent. If neither option is morally preferable, it follows that individuals should be free to make whatever choices they want. Superficiallly, this position might look like relativism because it offers no moral guidance in choosing what kind of sex to have.

Likewise with abortion. Liberals argue that a woman has the right to decide to terminate her pregnancy. The standard line is that the choice between early abortion and gestation is a choice between morally equivalent alternatives. Unlike relativists, liberals maintain the moral equivalence holds regardless of the prevailing cultural norms or the preferences of the individual.

Pro-lifers are taking the position that gestation is right and abortion is wrong. Pro-choice liberals argue non-relativistically that both abortion and gestation are morally permissible, and further, that that the pregnant woman has the right to make the final decision about her pregnancy. A relativist might say that a mother's desires determine whether an abortion is the right thing for her to do. Liberals argue that a mother has an objective right to choose (even if she doesn't believe it), and that she has this right in virtue of the non-relative fact that abortion is morally equivalent to gestation.


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I've been wondering about this: What is the normative system that people in analytical philosophy ( tend to )use? Specifically, what do you use?

I admit to a shallow understanding of analytical philosophy but I do know that normative claims are neither synthetic nor analytical. So, does "liberal" mean Mill, Berlin, Popper etc or Dworkin, Rorty etc?

I must confess that neither my middle aged brain, nor my particular education equips me to pursue this discussion in the welter of philosophical terminology in which it is expressed.

But I, as a liberal Buddhist, and, I think, the conservative Christian could point out that this welter of hairsplitting distinctions is precisely the problem with what is called, as a shorthand, "moral relativism".

Everybody has moral beliefs and makes moral assertions. The question is what justifies such assertions. From the standpoint of the religious, the only justification the secular have to bring to the table is, "Because I happen to think so." or, perhaps, "Because the people I admire happen to think so."

The blizzard of philosophical terminology surrounding this seems, from the religious viewpoint, to be a mere smokescreen disguising the naked egotism of the true moral premise as expressed above.


Plato demonstrated long ago that the religous are no better placed than the secular in defending their moral judgments (in the Euthyphro).

Clearly, both secular and religious people can give reasons for their ordinary moral judgments. But, it is true, that if the judgment is fundamental enough ("It is wrong to humiliate someone for pleasure."), then a secular person can't provide *further* justificaiton if somebody genuinely asks her to. The secular person would just have to stop the discussion.

A religious person could say, "Because Buddha said so." But if Buddha is a good guide, it is because Buddha's moral statements conform to the moral truth, not because moral truth is what Buddha (or Jesus) says.

A fundamentalist religious person could, at least, claim an epistemological advantage over a secular person on moral truths, because the fundamentalist believes that we can uncritically determine moral truth from their favoured texts. But a religious liberal, pretty much by definition, doesn't have this option.

Unless you are an absolutist, you are a relativist, non?

Repeated, unwanted advances on a person are wrong, but I still want more cops working in Homocide.

To someone who has the thousands year dead guy named El, a.k.a. God, from which their absolutism comes, all other absolutisms can be brushed aside as meaningless.

Using your example, gay sex is not identical with straight sex, if only for the most obvious reasons, and therefore I will argue for the braindead that you are actually saying...

The two types of sex are so close, to you, as to be indistinguishable, but my absolutism specifically mentions guys lying down with guys, and eating shellfish, and they are abominations in the eyes of a many thousands year dead guy they called El.

You may think you are correctly stating the Pro-life case, but everytime I've seen it argued, they say that the blastocyst is a LIFE, and therefore termination is MURDER.

In this way the people who wish to control the loony-god-worshipping-electorate can claim "My opponent has supported 40 million murders, more than Hitler!"

And, at least in private, they do make this claim.

Joseph Marshall wrote:

The question is what justifies such assertions. From the standpoint of the religious, the only justification the secular have to bring to the table is, "Because I happen to think so." or, perhaps, "Because the people I admire happen to think so."

From the standpoint of all religious people? I think those religious people willing to have an honest argument would quickly notice that the theory that secular people justify their moral theories with "because I or someone I admire happens to think so" is not true in general. They would notice that many secular people present arguments that try to explain why their moral theories are true. For these people, the justification comes from argument and from how well a particular moral theory solves a moral problem. The honest religious person might note that a secularist's moral theories are always tentative and that the secularist can change their position when a better moral theory comes along. The honest religious person would have to conclude from this that the secularist moral theories are not ego driven. Quite the reverse.

I think that you underestimate the extent to which liberals really are relativists on the subject of abortion. Most liberal politicians (John Kerry included) take the position "I personally believe that abortion is wrong but others have a right to be guided by their own consciences on the subject." That sounds like "Abortion is wrong for me, but it may not be wrong for you, if your conscience tells you otherwise" -- which is classic relativism. But abortion is a unique case, I think: liberals aren't relativists in general.

I suspect that in the current political climate, the charge of relativism is based, not on the assumption that liberals don't believe in God (many of them do), but rather on the fact that liberals don't believe in the Devil. Liberals want to understand why people do bad things -- break the law, engage in terrorism, etc. Conservatives tend to assume that explaining bad acts inevitably leads to excusing them, and indeed to excusing them in a relativist spirit, as permissible from the point-of-view of the perpetrators. That's why there is so little discussion in the U.S. about the causes of Islamist terrorism: we mustn't try to explain the perspective from which it arises, lest we appear to excuse it as permissible from that perspective.

The Devil -- who appears in our current political discourse in the de-personified form of "Evil" -- serves as a surd place-holder for the explanations that conservatives refuse to entertain. The Devil is that to which all bad acts must be attributed precisely so as not to be explained in human terms. Liberals don't believe in the Devil, then, because they want to understand how human beings come to commit bad acts. Conservatives therefore suspect them of a willingness to excuse just about anything -- a suspicion that they express by saying that liberals are relativists.

Brian, it seems to me that your argument would still fall under the category of "Because the people I admire say so."

For what would be the premises from which the secular would derive their arguments but those of other human beings in whom they believe? The premises of any ethical point of view are clearly not derivable from the world of our senses, and are not intuitively obvious.

As to "because Buddha says so",we Buddhists are explicitly enjoined to "contemplate" the Dharma, meaning by that putting it to intellectual test rather than merely taking it on faith.

In fact, there are clear a priori premises from which Buddhist ethics derives, the principle one being rebirth through multiple lives.

In a sense, the Buddhist has to take this on trust because we are in one life and cannot see beyond it. It is like being in a room with two locked doors. However, since we will die, if rebirth is true, we do not, ultimately, even have to take that on trust. But starting from that premise, Buddhist ethics are quite simple: Results = Actions x Time.

This ethical view may be incorrect (though obviously I don't think so), but it is certainly both clear and simple, which the views of the secular do not appear to me to be, unless we regard ethics as essentially a matter of personal taste.

This is correct. I think the key is the sometime tendency to conflate "Morality" with "ethics pertaining to sex."

David Velleman,
Isn't the "conservative" suspicion of explanations of bad acts potentially warranted, though? It seems to me that you are attributing to the conservative the following position:

(a) Any complete explanation of a wrong act would nullify its blameworthiness. Or: Any blameworthy act must be at least partly inexplicable.
(b) But many acts which we call "wrong" are indeed blameworthy.
(c) Thus, a complete explanation of the sorts of acts mentioned in (b) is impossible. Any attempt at a complete explanation of one of these acts is destined to fail.
And perhaps, (d):
(d) Liberals' attempts at explanation of wrong acts are meant to produce *complete* explanations of them. Therefore, whenever a liberal claims to have explained a wrong act, that liberal is mistaken or lying: Her "explanation" has to be false in some part, because (given (a)-(c)), a full explanation of a (truly) wrong act is impossible.

I take (a) through (c) to be potentially definsible. (d), of course, may be interpreted as a rather uncharitable construal of liberals' attempts at explanation. But I think a merely partial explanation of something can only yield partial understanding. Thus if liberals' attempts at explanation are designed to produce full understanding, then it seems (d) is fair enough: the liberals' attempts at explanation *are* attempts at "complete explanation."

David --

Distinguish explanation from justification and premise (a) fails.
Why should an act's being blameworthy depend on its being inexplicable?

More importantly, I think it's wrong to say that liberals want "complete" explanations. For example: There are conditions in the Muslim world that have led a significant number of young people to resort to extremes of violence. There is enough of a pattern to make it reasonable to look for a general explanation, in terms of social, economic, and political conditions that are leading young people in the direction of terrorism. No one believes that this explanation will tell us exactly why some particular individuals actually take that direction while their friends and neighbors do not. So no one is looking for a complete explanation. A very incomplete explanation will do, if what we're interested in is stopping the violence rather than simply railing against it.

David Velleman,

Here's one example of an argument designed to show that an act's being blameworthy depends on its being inexplicable:

(1) Suppose a "complete explanation" of some event shows us why the event "had to happen." For instance, suppose a complete explanation of event A provides a set of conditions for event A such that (a) these conditions were met at the time of the event and (b) the conditions are sufficient for the occurrence of event A. In that case, a complete explanation of event A implies the existence of conditions given which the explained event "could not have been otherwise."

(2) If we assume that "freedom" consists in the ability to have done otherwise, then any act for which a complete explanation (given the above understanding of explanation) is available is not a free act.

(3) But we ordinarily require an act to be free in order for it to be eligible for blame (or praise).

(4) Thus, any completely explicable act is not blameworthy. An act must be at least partly inexplicable in order for it to be blameworthy.

I don't want to claim that this argument succeeds; I only want to claim that it is not an obviously mistaken argument. Obviously much is unsaid in this short argument, but it shows at least one way someone could try to defend premise (a).

Well, Haven't read any Strauss but have read a lot of Nietzsche, and I can kinda get to what I hear about Strauss from problems with Nietzsche.

I once joked that a Nietzschean wants his personal preferences to become laws of nature. I can say child molesters are bad or wrong, but what I really mean is that I don't like them, and I would prefer that nobody else like them either.
But "I don't like child molesters." is not a very powerful argument to use to convince another to share my values. I am not a relativist, because I vastly prefer that people share my values. But values as personal project doesn't allow for shared values, but just coincidental values.

So I guess a Nietzschean should lie about the source of his values in search of rhetorical effectiveness, and become some kind of Straussian.

In response to David Velleman's 2nd comment (which went up while I was writing my last one):

I put the conservative's argument in terms of "complete" explanations, but of course some weaker forms of explanation may do the same or similar job. It stands to reason that the better the explanation of some action, the fewer alternative courses of action can be said to have been possible for the agent. So as one's explanation gets better and better, (one could argue that) the agent's freedom is lessened and lessened. Her freedom probably does not have to be chipped away entirely for her action to be excused. So it's possible that even if liberals are not searching for "complete" explanations of wrong acts, whatever sort of explanation they are searching for is enough to nullify the responsibility of the agent. Again, I do not want to suggest that in fact the conservative is right in thinking this; I only want to say that this line of argument deserves, or might deserve, serious consideration.

As for your particular example of extreme violence in the Muslim world, I agree that not only is the sort of explanation you mention necessary to solve the problem of extreme violence, it also probably does no harm to the freedom of the actors involved. So the conservative's line of argument in that case fails (probably). But there may be other examples in which the conservative has a case to make.

What's a cute blonde like you doing in the midst of all these big words?


Why does reincarnation (if true) make any difference to the validity of moral premises?

If we posit reincarnation plus punishment/reward for acts in past lives, then we have a *prudential* reason to behave (just as we do if we have a single life followed by heaven/hell). But this is not a *moral* reason to behave, since we don't consider it morally praiseworthy to do a good deed with the knowledge that we will be repaid with interest.

Secular people (who are not coextensive with liberals, of course), by definition, do not believe that there is some super-human entity or principle rewarding and punishing us for the morality of our acts. But that isn't moral relativism. It just means there is no necessary relationship between the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.

As for Kerry on abortion, isn't he just saying that there are acts which individuals should not do, but that the state should not ban? In his case, abortion is one of those acts, and conservatives mostly disagree, but surely they agree that there is such a category.

"What's a cute blonde like you doing in the midst of all these big words?"

Sometimes I doubt some feminists' claims that women are seen as objects. Such messages make me doubt less and less.

Let's take an example, Gareth: A man is a chronic abuser of alcohol and dies of cirhosis of the liver. In the Buddhist view what we call "unskillful action" has resulted in his personal suffering and untimely death.

All moral problems can be viewed this way, according to Buddhism. In that sense, the "right" thing to do is exactly the "smart" thing to do because all acts have ultimate moral consequences directly for the person who commits them, though these may take several lives to manifest.

The cause and effect relations surrounding our alcoholic are clear because they are strong enough to manifest in one lifetime.

In the Buddhist view, we are generating so many causal consequences by our actions in any one life that the ultimate effects often manifest several lives later. This is how we explain the When Bad Things Happen To Good People problem.
And we would all act, morally, upon this knowledge if we were "smart" enough to see how this process works.

In other words, the assumption of prior and future lives is necessary to the Buddhist explanation of moral problems, which is purely one of "karma, cause, and effect", but not particularly to any other point of view on these matters.


So, if I go and kill someone, he must deserve it for what he did in some other life?

I've gotta say that I think all of this in depth (psycho)analysis of conservatives' tendency to believe that liberals are moral relativism seems over the top to me. I think the phenomenon is much easier to explain. Liberals are framed as moral relativists because moral relativism is the most pernicious perspective one can imagine, short of nihilism (another category into which conservatives often dump liberals), from the conservative moral perspective. Sure, they can come up with evidence for this frame - an oversimplified representation of multiculturalism, tolerance, secularism, and other liberal principles - but when it comes down to it, I don't think any of these are the reasons why conservatives call liberals "moral relativists." Conservatives do so because it creates the maximal contrast between their moral world view and that of liberals.

The most obvious reason for adopting this view is that there is no evidence whatsoever that liberals are the sorts of "moral relativists" that Joe Schmoe Conservative believes they are (which is not to say that there aren't expressivist or otherwise non-cognitivist liberals, but a.) neither of those are types of relativism and b.) Joe Schmoe Conservative has never heard of either). Joe Schmoe believes that "moral relativism" amounts to the belief that anything goes, ethically. Quite obviously, liberals do not believe this, and conservatives are well aware of this, as they spend a good chunk of their time fighting against legislation aimed at acheiving liberal ethical goals (e.g., affirmative action, universal health care, women's and gay rights, and the like).

Even the examples often mentioned, like John Kerry's personal belief that abortion is wrong, but unwillingness to make it illegal, must be twisted and oversimplified to even look like that sort of moral relativism. Kerry's position doesn't imply that anything goes, or even that abortion is wrong for some people and not for others. Instead, it implies that while Kerry that abortion is wrong, this belief does not outweigh his belief that a woman has a right to choose what she does with her own body (a position held by many libertarians, whom anyone would be hard pressed to call "moral relativists"). If this is moral relativism, then the conservative belief that certain types of speech (e.g., racist hate speech) are wrong, but should not be made illegal is so as well. Instead, this sort of view implies an obvious absolutist moral perspective in which some moral principles (right to self-determination, free speech) are more fundamental than others, and that when these more fundamental principles come into conflict with less fundamental ones, the more fundamental always trump the less so.

If even a little thought suffices to show that liberals are not moral relativists (in the everday, non-scholarly sense of moral relativism), then I think the most obvious reason why conservatives think they are is that the liberal moral view has been framed that way. The fault lies not in what liberals do, but in conservative rhetorical conventions, which many conservatives buy unthinkingly. The "evidence" for these conventions is an afterthought. This explanation, if true, is important because it shows that trying to make reasoned arguments about why secularism, multiculturalism, tolerance, etc., are not moral relativist positions won't do anything to change the conservative perception of liberals as moral relativists. Instead, we liberals will have to attack this perception with frames of our own.


I'm not sure all Buddhists accept the reactionary view of karma you put forward. Certainly, the Buddha opposed the Hindu caste system, which is easily justified on your reasoning.

If you're right, then the world is already perfectly just as it is, so how can you be a liberal? Those people in Darfur (or Tibet) are just paying for the bad things they did in the past. Maybe they were sexist cretins like Cypherpunk in former lives.

A secular person accepts that the smart thing to do and the right thing to do aren't always the same, but that we *should* do the right thing, even if it doesn't pay. What's the contradiction in that? Why should the universe pay us back our moral investments with interest?

"So, if I go and kill someone, he must deserve it for what he did in some other life?"

"I'm not sure all Buddhists accept the reactionary view of karma you put forward. Certainly, the Buddha opposed the Hindu caste system, which is easily justified on your reasoning."

Well all I can tell you is that I have learned this view from Buddhist monks who have received literally years of extensive training in the primary texts of the Dharma.

One thing which I have perhaps not made clear enough is that this is not a matter of anybody "deserving" anything, nor is is it a matter of any sort of absolute mechanistic determinism.

What my teachers tell me is as I stated it above. Results = Action x Time. Most karmic processes do not "ripen" immediately, and the time they will take is indeterminate, because many parallel karmic processes are at work at once. Moreover, the longer it takes an action to ripen the more potent the effect. So there only a relative relation of potency between the action and the result, not an absolute one.

However, this process can be interrupted if the traditional "antidotes" are applied. (They are too complicated to detail here, unfortunately, but they essentially amount to cultivating a religious life and understanding one's own mind.)

This is why one must look BOTH to former and future lives to understand Buddhist ethics. The above comments do not, I think, do this.

Buddhists often describe an act as a seed, which, when it is a small sprout can be easily pulled up, but when it is a gigantic tree is not so easy to get rid of.

A bad result that is on your doorstep may be unavoidable, but one that has not yet arrived can be forestalled. There is nothing in this view that states that our current conditions are fixed and hopeless, though it may take some time to transform them.

The point, for a Buddhist, is not about "justifying" anything or "blaming" anybody for what happens to them because they "deserve" it for doing something in their past.

The point is how to turn this process, which everybody must deal with on some level, around so that one may achieve both temporary and, ultimately, permanent happiness in one's future--as well as how to help others do the same.

Just one final point: I think it might be interesting to try to imagine arguments the liberal can come up with to show that the conservative is a relativist. For instance, conservatives who oppose the minimum wage might say that the choice between paying your workers a low wage and paying them a higher wage is a choice between morally equivalent alternatives. If the liberal's maintenance of a moral equivalence between abortion and gestation makes her a relativist, then the conservative's maintenance of a moral equivalence between paying a higher and a lower wage should make her a relativist too.

I have a suspicion that (American) liberals and conservatives share a roughly similar moral methodology, epistemology and semantics. If that is the case, then for any argument aiming to show that liberals are relativists, there should be available an analogous argument aiming to show that conservatives are relativists too.

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