Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Comment on George Weigel's views on moral relativism in Europe, and the 'iron cage of relativism'

My last post linked to George Weigel's new Commentary article on moral relativism in Europe. It is an exceptionally interesting article - superbly written as with all George writes. However, my own view of moral relativism is somewhat different. This is to say merely, perhaps, that I am not a Catholic - I don't just mean not literally a baptized Catholic, but that my moral perceptions on this are significantly different from the Catholic thought that underlies George's article.

Moral relativism has gotten a bad rap for the last couple of decades, from three quite different sources. One is, of course, conservative moralists - Catholics most prominently, but many others besides. I don't just mean pulpit teaching or popular moralizing, but the genuine intellectuals - of which George Weigel is a world class leader. For this group, moral relativism presents, at bottom, the temptation to genuine moral nihilism, the consequence of a world without any objective standards of right and wrong, on any topic.

The second is left-wing progressive universalism - the leftwing secular religion of human rights. It, too, is deeply unhappy with genuine moral relativism, since by definition it deprives rights claims of their status as universals. The human rights movement has responded in various ways - some purely legal-positivist, saying, whatever the ultimate moral status of rights, they are the law. Or contractualist - these rights are essentially agreed to by the political community as a matter of law. Mostly, to judge by recent literature from the intellectuals of the human rights movement, it has simply agreed that the conversation on the ultimate justification for universal rights can be declared over - by fiat, unfortunately - and that it is a bit of a bore and boorish for anyone to raise it seriously.

The collective decision of the intellectuals of the human rights movement to turn off the discussion of the justification of rights as, fundamentally, boringly unfashionable has had the very bad effect, however, of depriving the human rights movement of sound grounds on which to resist its own gradual evolution from a movement about liberal rights to a movement of multiculturalism itself. The growing distaste, for example, of the human rights movement to have to defend free expression - well, okay, okay, if really, really pressed, we suppose we'll have to say that censorship is bad, but only after extensive lectures on why self-censorship is good - is strong evidence. The human rights movement is absolutist in many of its pronouncements but - because it has eschewed liberal foundations in favor of legally narrow ones - it turns out to be a sort of serial absolutist - absolutely absolute about whatever it says today, but just as absolute when it says something different tomorrow. Which is how the robust, liberal, unabashed defense of free expression by such groups as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International somehow fell out of fashion. Liberalism was yesterday's absolutism; cultural sensitivity and multiculturalism are today's. But "depend upon it, sir," as Dr. Johnson would say, the commitment to multiculturalism as a matter of absolute rights is, well, absolute.

The third is much more under the surface even of intellectual culture, much more narrowly philosophical in tone, but with powerful implications. After all, during the 1950s and 60s, conventional Anglo-American moral philosophy accepted largely without dissent that value judgments had to be relative to something - a person, a culture, something. It was largely the efforts of the great moral philosopher Philippa Foot who raised serious, serious problems with the relativist accounts - problems that reached beyond simply an appeal to religious belief or even to natural law as such. It was this largely unheralded work that undermined the unquestioned doctrine of relativism and put it on the defensive - it did not necessarily establish natural law or neo-Aristotleanism or anything else as the necessary answer, but it certainly undermined the foundations of secular relativism. I am always surprised that Christian theologians do not more often acknowledge this debt.

(It also bears noting that relativism, as a philosophical doctrine, rather than merely a cultural trope, is far from being without powerful arguments on its behalf. The backlash against it has tended to ignore and not engage with the genuinely powerful philosophical arguments that can be made for it. I am not a relativist, but I think it is a philosophical position more caricatured these days than argued for. To be sure, much of the attack upon it is really directed at it in less logically rigorous disciplines - anthropology, sociology, etc., and in the popular culture. But it is a mistake to argue against moral relativism in its vulgar forms and assume that one has vanquished much more sophisticated and morally attractive versions of it. It also should be said that as an attack upon natural law and other doctrines favored by Catholic thinkers in particular, relativism forces an important debate over the limits of what can be said to be objectively right and wrong - the natural law position, that is, has its own problems.)

But the problem of Europe is only partly a problem of relativism. Yes, relativism is a problem if it genuinely means that one believes in nothing - nothing is worth defending or fighting for - a fact that matters if one's enemies are themselves true and fanatic believers. This is sometimes presented as a problem of nihilism - that is how Camus treats it in The Rebel - but in contemporary Western societies, it is not so much nihilism as decadence. Nihilism is a matter of infinite permission - nothing is prohibited, everything is permitted - but it is an active permission, it requires some action to prove it. Whereas decadence is a matter of infinite indulgence. Nihilism is really a very tough ethic, a surprisingly action-demanding ethic - whereas decadence is a pose, for poseurs, and it is fundamentally passive and narcissistic, in the precise sense that Jackson Lears once remarked, in an obituary essay upon the late Christopher Lasch - nacrcissism, Lears said (I paraphrase from memory, from an essay in the New Republic, I believe), is not self-love, it is rather the inability to distinguish self from everything else in the hall of mirrors that makes up our image saturated society.

The real problem with relativism - the real problem in Europe and, alas, increasingly in the US as well - is when it migrates into multiculturalism. The migration is as follows. It is not that society breaks down into a bunch of rampant libertines. This is what Catholic prelates and intellectuals tend to think - including, I think, the current Pope - but this is not the genuine risk. The risk, rather, is that if moral action is essentially arbitrary - relative to a culture and a society - then it creates an open invitation to those who have power to impose their morality. Why not, after all? If one is as good as another it may as well be my morality, if I have the political will and power to do so. Islam on the march - a syncretic religion of traditional piety and Western multiculturalism fueled by resentiment - has noticed; hence the one-way political ratchet noted by Fred Siegel. I always demand the 'right' to do as I will, then use demands for sensitivity and the exploitation of 'rights' to make sure that you can no longer do what you will. That is a deeply Western exploitation of relativism in the service not of libertinism, but religious authoritarianism. Multiculturalism is the expression of the move from all are equally valid to "we're going to do it our way."

In a Times Literary Supplement essay on this subject (reviewing, however strange it may seem, a Star Trek movie featuring the dreaded Borg - but recall, Star Trek championed, however ambiguously, the Prime Directive, no interference in native cultures, all are equally valid, relativism, in a word), I called this the "iron cage of relativism." That is the real risk of moral relvativism - its invitation to moral and political arbitrariness.

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