Posted on (guest-blogging for, September 20, 2004.


I disagree with many liberals on lots of things.  (I’m mostly a libertarian, with some conservative sympathies.)  But one common criticism of liberals -- that they, unlike conservatives, practice “moral relativism” -- is unsound.  It tends to hide the real argument, usually a substantive disagreement about a particular moral question, behind a supposedly neutral methodological criticism.  It’s a distraction, and an unfair one.


Moral distinctions:  To begin with, we need to acknowledge that everyone, liberal, conservative, libertarian, or whatever else, draws moral distinctions, including ones that look like exceptions from general rules.  Liberals may distinguish some race discrimination against whites, which they call affirmative action, from race discrimination against nonwhites.  I think this is the wrong distinction, but it’s not “moral relativism”:  Moral rules are sometimes more complex than simple three-word phrases such as “race discrimination bad.”


Conservatives, for instance, generally believe that killing humans is wrong -- except when done in self-defense, or when executing a just death penalty, or in war, or in some other situations.  There’s nothing “morally relativist” about that.  It’s just an acknowledgment that moral questions are complex, and require distinctions within the category of killing.  In fact, some of the people who would have the most absolutist anti-killing rule are generally on the left: pacifists who oppose all capital punishment, all war, and even all individual self-defense.  This failure to recognize moral exceptions to moral rules makes the pacifists wrong, not right.


Likewise, liberals aren’t inherently wrongheaded moral relativists simply because they distinguish some race discrimination from other race discrimination, or some lies under oath (e.g., about sex) from other lies.  I may disagree with them about the particular moral rules they apply.  But there’s nothing inherently mistaken about their underlying moral method, which is what the charge of “moral relativism” suggests.


End justifying the means:  Some people I’ve talked to suggest that liberals are “morally relativist” because they’re more likely to say that the end justifies the means -- that some otherwise bad things are worth doing because they’ll lead to a brighter tomorrow or help the downtrodden or what have you.


But is this view really more common among liberals than conservatives?  Most conservatives, for instance, tend to support the use of military force (in many situations) more than most liberals.  Yet in war, we necessarily do many things that would be wrong if there weren’t such an important practical reason: knowingly kill innocent civilians, as an inevitable side effect of attacks on military targets, knowingly destroy property owned by innocent civilians, raise taxes to fund the war, lie to the public generally about some plans in order to better deceive the enemy, and so on.


Likewise, to effectively enforce the laws (something conservatives are usually quite firm on), we make exceptions from what would otherwise be moral principles:  I have the right to keep strangers off my property, but not when the police arrive with a valid search warrant (even if I’m innocent, and the police are looking for evidence of others’ crimes).  I have the right not to go where I don’t want to go, or not say what I don’t want to say, except when I get a subpoena ordering me to testify.


Some ends do justify some means, in the sense that some of our moral principles (don’t kill, don’t let people trespass on others’ property) operate differently depending on whether there’s a pressing social need to do something (fight a war, enforce the law).  We can surely criticize others for their moral errors in deciding which ends justify which means.  But I don’t think we can criticize liberals on the grounds that they are more likely to say the ends justify the means, or on the grounds that “the ends justify the means” is inherently an immoral position.


“Who are we to judge?”  Some of my readers complain that liberals are moral relativists because liberals often say “Who are we to judge?,” for instance “I think abortion is wrong, but who am I to judge a woman’s decision?”  And liberals do seem to use that rhetorical device somewhat more often than conservatives.  (Liberals also often say things like “Don’t impose your morality on others.”)


But most of us, liberal or conservative, divide issues into several categories.  In one category we put actions that are so wrong that we think they should be coercively outlawed -- murder, rape, and the like.  Liberals surely recognize this category; in fact, some liberals would populate it with actions such as “paying an unfairly low wage” or “firing an employee without very good cause” or “raising a tenant’s rent too much” that conservatives would exclude from the category.  So when liberals say “Don’t impose your morality on others,” they are being imprecise -- they just mean don’t impose some sorts of morality on others.


In a second category we put things that we think are wrong but shouldn’t be legally judged and punished.  It’s wrong to refuse to socialize with people of a certain race, but there shouldn’t be a law prohibiting such social discrimination.  It’s wrong to break up with your fiancee in a callous way, but we shouldn’t have the government stopping people from doing that.  It’s wrong to waste your life in idleness or to squander your potential, but the law shouldn’t impose forced labor.


In a third category we put things that we think are usually wrong, but that shouldn’t be illegal and that also turn on particular details that are very hard for outsiders to evaluate.  It’s generally wrong to be inattentive to a sick relative.  But if we see that a friend seems to be neglecting his sick father, we might be reluctant to judge him, because we might not know all the circumstances -- how much of a strain the illness is putting on him, whether there are good reasons why he and his father aren’t close, and so on.  Likewise, some conservatives may think it’s wrong for a person to kill an attacker, even in self-defense, unless the killing is absolutely necessary.  But if their friend shoots a robber, they might hesitate to judge how the friend acted, even if they suspect that maybe the friend might have been able to avoid the shooting.


When liberals say “who are we to judge?” about abortion, they aren’t really saying that no moral questions are matters for judgment.  They’re happy enough to judge killers, rapists, and many others.  Rather, this “who are we to judge?” is a somewhat imprecise way of implicitly saying -- whether rightly or wrongly -- that abortion is a question that falls in the second or third category (or the fourth category of things that aren’t wrong at all) rather than in the first.


Sources of morality:  Some charges of “moral relativism” are really charges against the nonreligious, not against liberals.  Some conservatives (though surely not all) think that any nonreligious morality is inherently weaker because it denies the existence of any external metric, such as God’s will or the Bible.


But in fact, there are both religious and nonreligious people both on the Left and the Right.  What’s more, many nonreligious people do operate using what they see as moral absolutes, such as the need to maximize human happiness, or the need to promote human flourishing, or respect for individual freedom, or what have you.


Now naturally these foundational moral principles are pretty general and abstract, and thus ambiguous in application.  But the same is true of the principles that most religious people use.  With very few exceptions, even the most devout Christians don’t literally follow all the commands of the Bible.  Leviticus condemns male homosexuality as an abomination, but it also condemns eating shellfish as an abomination (11:10).  Most Christians don’t follow the dietary rules in Leviticus -- and they may have good reason to do so, reasons based on interpretations of other parts of the Bible, or on tradition, or on their reasoning about what God must care about.  But this just means that they, like those who follow a secular moral code, must make hard moral judgments that may often lack clear textual authority.


Postmodernism and multiculturalism:  Finally, there are two strands sometimes seen in modern liberalism that do seem to be “morally relativist.”  Some on the academic Left do deny (or at least sound like they deny) the possibility of any moral judgment, while others say (at least sometimes) that it’s wrong for one culture to judge what is done within other cultures.


But these are pretty small, though occasionally vocal, parts of liberal thought.  Certainly many liberals have been among the most absolutist in their assertion of moral truth, and among the most willing to export it throughout the world.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it was often liberals more than conservatives who were interested in exporting Western individual rights principles to other cultures.  (Some, though thankfully not all, liberals turned a blind eye to the human rights failings of Communist countries, but some conservatives weren’t willing to much criticize the human rights failings of some anti-Communist countries.)  Unless my memory fails me, until recently liberals were somewhat more likely than conservatives to try to export Western standards of women’s equality to more patriarchal cultures.  And both liberals and conservatives are sometimes skeptical of the practicality of trying to impose Western principles (democracy, sex equality, freedom of religion) on other nations, even if they agree that in principle those rules are morally superior.


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I’ll say it again:  I disagree with most liberals on many things.  I think their moral and empirical judgments are often mistaken.  I think they undervalue certain human rights, such as the right to have the tools needed to defend yourself against criminals, and invent human rights that really shouldn’t be seen as human rights, such as the right to be paid some wage.  I think they also undervalue certain social interests and overvalue others.


But that’s what the debate among conservatives, libertarians, and liberals should be about:  Which moral claims are right or wrong, not whether one side is supposedly “morally relativist” or not.


Nearly all of us believe that some actions in some circumstances are immoral (killing, rape, theft), and that all of us are entitled -- either personally or through the legal system -- to impose this morality on others.  Nearly all of us believe that other actions in other circumstances should be matters for private choice.  Nearly all of us recognize that moral rules often require controversial moral distinctions and exceptions.  Let’s not pretend that the other side is in the grip of some methodological fallacy, when they’re really doing the same sort of thing that we are.