"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 3, 2013

Relativism–The Left’s Moral Failing

In an article in The Atlantic (5.3.13) Conor Friedersdorf quotes political philosopher Matt Lewis referring to what is perhaps the most essential difference between the Left and the Right in America:
In The Week, columnist Matt Lewis, a conservative who's regularly willing to criticize the right, explains why, despite his occasional frustrations, he isn't tempted to defect. "I am repelled by the Left's worldview, which implicitly argues that morality is subjective," he states. "This is a natural outcome of a rejection of the numinous, but it's an idea that has consequences. When there are no moral absolutes, we make policy decisions based on efficiency instead of compassion. Or we make decisions based on our own individualistic needs, not on what is right or good."
It is easy to pick quarrels with this philosophy.  How can conservatives be pro-life and for the death penalty? Or for continued Guantanamo detention and individual rights? Pro-free trade and anti-immigration? However calling out these apparent inconsistencies is mere quibbling and missing the essential point.  Conservatives start with the assumption that there is an absolute moral certainty that comes to us from Judeo-Christian tradition; but that application of moral principles or laws will always be subject to temporal interpretation. 

In the 19th Century Protestant theologians concluded that abortion was always wrong, as was fornication, adultery, and religious heresy.  In Elizabethan times money-lending – usury – was wrong and against Christian principles; intemperate death penalties were within the prerogative of kings and part of their divine right; and death in an age of short life spans was less of an examined consequence of action as it is now.

In other words, conservatives today, just as theologians and religious clerics of time past start from the principle of moral absolutes – the existence of a moral code deciphered from Scripture and Christian tradition as objectively as possible given constantly changing socio-political environments.  The Bible will always be the source of moral guidance, and it is the absolute, even if interpretations may differ over time.

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Liberals, however, start from the assumption that there are no moral absolutes whatsoever; no Scripture, tradition, or religious principles which must guide human behavior.  All is relative, the product of Man and society. There are no sacred texts, no absolutes, no oracles at Delphi.  Morality, if it exists at all, is a social construct devised by men to serve community self-interest.  It has no attribution of a higher good or a higher order.  It is not the point from which the laws of a civil society descend. 

If laws and regulations have a relationship to a primary moral source – such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – this apparent reference to a higher spiritual plane (rights “endowed by our Creator”) is in fact, nothing of the sort.  It is a reference to a prevailing socio-cultural norm – the Enlightenment – which had its own historical reference, but nothing else.  The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are merely ‘texts’ which can be deconstructed for meaning according to prevailing secular currents of the time.

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There is no question of contradictions within this liberal philosophy within which anything goes.  Abortion is right but war is wrong for two completely different reasons.  There is no obligation to go back to a Biblical injunction (“Thou shalt not kill”) and decide how, when, and under what circumstances it should be applied.  It all depends on context.  There are right wars when killing is justified and wrong wars when it is not.  There is a right to abortion because of the higher good of gender equality. 

This streak of moral absolutism – or at least the use of a traditional religious touchstone against which actions are judged – extends far beyond the political sphere.  ‘Progressive’ academics insist that there is no difference between Shakespeare and automobile Owners’ Manuals because of cultural relativism and a lack of absolutes.  Shakespeare was no monumental genius with talent and insight beyond the reach of most men.  He was determined by his birth, his times, the history which preceded him, and the dynamics of Elizabethan England.  An Owners’ Manual is similarly a document which registers technological progress and records it in a moment of time.

Progressives quite naturally equate all cultures – both the most primitive Amazon tribe and the most developed Western European society are equal.  They differ only because of the vagaries of the flow of history.  Europeans would be still wearing nose rings if it hadn’t been for accidents of migration, climate, disease, and current. 

Conservatives, of course, again returning to their absolute Christian roots, disagree.  If Christ really was the Savior of mankind, the model for all human behavior; and if God the Father ruled with ferocity and with an uncompromising demand for obedience, then the savages in the jungle who are still ignorant of these truths cannot be the equal of those who have heard God’s words, obeyed His injunctions, and behaved according to his moral precepts.

Liberals have always favored groups over individuals.  Since there is no relationship between God and Man – even if God exists, the only intervention he ever had in human events was to break up the rack with his cue ball; to set the world in motion and withdraw. Groups are social formations necessary to order a chaotic world.  Human associations are the be-all and end-all of our time on earth.  Not so for conservatives who believe that God not only created Man in his own image, but who by so doing has valued the individual above any group.  Fundamentalist Protestants go so far as to believe that God and his human creations talk to each other, not via some social intermediary, but directly.  More traditional Protestants believe that God created individuals, not groups. 

Freedom and liberty are important not as social constructs, but as religious principles.  Only if one is free from secular influences and institutions, such as government, can one find a direct pathway to God.

Friedersdorf, in his search for contradictions in a theory of moral absolutism, misunderstands the fundamental principles that motivate conservative thinkers. There are no contradictions, nor inconsistencies; but only imperfect attempts to apply an absolute moral code. There is no lack of examples in the Bible of men and women who have tried to justify their behavior by a subjective interpretation of God’s law; or who have sought to interpret Biblical teaching to suit their own ends.  Human beings are nothing if not fallible; but the constant recourse to immutable principles is what limits this fallibility.

A world of total relativism will always be a drifting, anchorless one.  There are enough examples of human venality, greed, and self-serving violence to suggest that without some overarching moral code the dereliction would be far worse.
If Lewis doesn't think the examples I've offered prove moral subjectivity, fair enough. But if his standard of what constitutes non-absolutism is more exacting -- as would be reasonable -- what is it, and when has the left transgressed against it in a way that the right hasn't? I'd be surprised if he could persuasively argue for the conclusion he states, but perhaps I am missing something.
You are not just missing something, Mr. Friedersdorf. You are missing everything.

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