The Dishonest and Hypocritical Assault on “Moral Relativism”


A few days ago I was leafing through an old issue of Reader’s Digest when one particular article leaped off the page and smacked me in the head. Now mind you, this issue was published in 1994, before the magazine underwent its transformation into a reasonable, fairly balanced compendium of reading material.  In those days, it still had one foot stuck in the muck of the John Birch fantasyland it had been mired in for decades. This same issue denounced those evil “trial lawyers” for defending citizens against corporate malfeasance, praised regressive Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, and trashed President Clinton — the latter action a more or less recurring feature at the time.

But the essay that especially rattled my noggin on this occasion was much more insidious: it was a classic embodiment of the ill-informed and highly disingenuous war that is often waged against what is commonly called moral relativism. Without presuming to analyze the ramifications of relativism itself (a task that would be far beyond the scope of this discussion or this blog), it’s instructive to examine this 24-year-old screed, because it employs tactics of propaganda that still are very much in use today, and are likely to be 24 years from now.

The piece is a condensation of a speech by the late Michael Novak, who was a frequent contributor to National Reviewwhich is already at least a couple of strikes against him. The title, as conferred by RD,  is All Things Are Not Relative, which is somewhat ambiguous. Did the editors mean to say “Not all things are relative”? If so, that makes sense: two plus two is always equal to four, no matter what the commodity. But if taken literally as written, the statement implies that nothing is relative, which is patently false.  The heat of a person with fever is very different from the heat of a cup of coffee, which is very different from the heat of molten metal.

But of course Novak was addressing morality in particular. His point was that some actions are always right and others always wrong. He was professing to be a moral absolutist. But the thing is, those who claim to be moral absolutists really aren’t; or at least, there are possible circumstances under which they wouldn’t be. More to the point, their denunciations of moral relativism are generally misguided, dishonest and/or hypocritical — as Novak’s address so potently attests.

Ominous Warnings

But before we get to the meat of the matter, let’s pay attention to the ominous signals he sends out, as many propagandists and polemicists do. We don’t have to wait long. The alarm bells start resounding right from the get-go:

Many enlightened people love to say that they are cynical, that ours is a cynical age. They flatter themselves: they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. Ours is not an age of unbelief. It is an age of arrogant gullibility.

Wow. That’s quite an impressive series of false equivalences. Apparently equating relativism with cynicism, he then equates cynicism with skepticism and skepticism with passionate conviction and passionate conviction with gullibility. You’re half expecting him to equate gullibility with bestiality. And he’s just getting warmed up. The very next sentence gives an example of this “gullibility”:

Think how many believed in fascism and socialism.

This is a technique I call yoking, which means that you casually link something your audience will know is bad (fascism) with something you want them to believe is bad (socialism). It’s a good bet that Novak, like many “conservatives”, didn’t really get what either fascism or socialism was all about. And that he equated socialism with communism with totalitarianism. Note also the use of the past tense — believed — as if under the impression that both fascism and socialism are obsolete.

And what else are people “gullible” about?

Think how many people, today, believe in global warming or a coming ice age — and think how many believe in both!

This is a twofer. First, he’s trying to discredit legitimate science that he doesn’t care for (global warming) by yoking it with pseudoscience (“a coming ice age”). He’s also pushing a myth: contrary to what anti-sciencers often claim, the scientific establishment has never embraced the concept of “global cooling”. And in all likelihood, literally no one has ever believed in both at once. Novak has a valid point about “arrogant gullibility”, but he is quite confused about who is being arrogantly gullible.

It is the next two sentences that provide the most disturbing signals of all:

One thing our “intellectual betters” never lack is passionate belief. “There are as many truths as there are people”, these ardent intellectuals preach.

This sneering contempt for “intellectuals” is no mere fluke. He repeats it at least once more (“The people know this, while the intellectuals do not” — nice touch, contrasting intellectuals with people), in addition to his already expressed smug presumptions about climate science and “enlightened people”. Anti-intellectualism is a chilling trait of right-wing extremism, including the very fascism that he professes to abhor. The frequent claim is that by teaching students facts that do not support right-wing ideology, professors are “indoctrinating” them into “liberalism”. Just recently, Fox “News” declared that colleges are “literally destroying the country”. There is nothing new about such a sentiment. It was all the rage in America during the McCarthy era. It was trendy in Nazi Germany. And in other repressive societies before that. At this writing, such a tide of anti-intellectualism has engulfed America that millions of people believe an extremely shallow, infantile reality TV personality makes a suitable world leader.

The meat of the matter

And what heresy of the “poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism” are these nefarious thinking people guilty of spreading?

“Follow your feelings. Believe what seems right to you. Do as you please.”

This is a glaring straw man, one that is used quite frequently to attack relativism by those who profess to know better.  Nor is it limited to American ideologues. The year preceding the publication of the RD article, England’s National Curriculum Council Chairman David Pascall, discussing what children should be taught in school, stated:

(T)here is a difference between right and wrong. That is an absolute…We’re also saying that there is a series of moral absolutes which sets out a basic framework of how we live in a civilised society. And these are unexceptional things [i.e., there are no exceptions]…Too often there has been the attitude in the 70’s and the 80’s that these things are a matter of opinion, that we shouldn’t hinder the child’s self-expression. I’m saying that’s not good enough.

Here the straw man is expressed in terms of suggesting that moral relativism is tantamount to declaring that morality is a mere matter of “opinion” and “self-expression”. By the way, it’s common, and always has been, for professed absolutists to ascribe blame for the supposed current state of moral corruption to the supposed excesses of a previous generation — its most frequent incarnation at present is the popular game of Blame The Sixties.

It’s certainly true, and always has been, that there are many people (all too many of them in positions of power) who do as they please without regard to consequences. It’s also true that there are many people (all too many of them in the media) who are willing to substitute opinion for fact. But neither of these behaviors is moral relativism. The former is just amorality, the latter is demagoguery. And both are quite often indulged in by people who present themselves as moral absolutists.

Moral relativism, in a nutshell, is the recognition that specific circumstances influence what course of action is right or wrong. It does not automatically negate the concept of moral absolutism, because it theoretically would be possible to compile a list of the most moral choices for every possible type of situation — though it would be a lengthy and detailed list, to be sure. The point, however, is that contrary to what the supposed absolutists claim, virtually all of us exercise relativism in our moral judgments.

Take what is perhaps the most basic rule of conduct of them all: the taboo against taking another human life. That’s a universal and timeless tenet. Rumor has it that it was even engraved in stone once upon a time. And yet nearly everyone would make an exception to it under the right conditions — even those who insist they wouldn’t don’t really know for certain until the crisis arrives.  Most of us would be willing to take a life if our own lives were in jeopardy. At the very least, we would be willing to exonerate someone who does — the legal system has long made allowances for justifiable homicide.

More proactively, there is the classic hypothetical scenario of having an opportunity to assassinate Hitler, and thereby preventing millions of deaths. Even if you couldn’t personally bring yourself to pull the trigger, chances are you would excuse someone who did. (See also the classic philosopher’s thought experiment known as the trolley problem.)

Many people also believe taking a life is justified on grounds of mercy. But avowed moral absolutists generally frown on this. At the same time, many of them support capital punishment. Even worse, they support aggressive warfare that kills and maims thousands of innocent people, including children.

The best policy?

Another solid rule of conduct is honesty — David Pascall mentions it as one of the absolutes that should be stressed to children. We all know that honesty is the best policy, right? But while there may never be a justification for being dishonest in your deeds, there often are justifications for minor verbal lies.  (It’s still a good idea to encourage kids to tell the truth, because they have not yet developed the faculties for determining exceptions, and rarely encounter incidents when exceptions are warranted.) There are evil and malicious lies, there are self-serving lies, there are defensive lies, there are little white lies, and there are lies that are not only harmless but merciful and benevolent. As the poet William Blake put it:

A truth that’s told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent.

Sometimes telling the absolute and literal truth is cruel and unnecessary. I recall reading about a soldier during World War II who came upon the body of a friend of his who clearly had been captured by the enemy, then tortured and mutilated before they killed him. Later, he volunteered for the difficult task of informing his buddy’s parents that their son had died in combat. When he did so, he told them that the death was quick and without suffering. To have done otherwise would would have been to compound their already immense anguish. What kind of person would consider it the moral high ground to give those grieving parents the grisly details when they asked how their son died?

Or to return to Nazi Germany, suppose you, living there and then, were asked by the authorities if you’d seen any members of a certain family. You know that this family is Jewish. You know they are hiding. You know exactly where. And you know that they’ll all be killed if discovered. Would you tell the truth? Or save their lives?

In cases such as these, two moral directives come into conflict; thus logic dictates that the more moral choice is the one that does least harm — which in both these instances is, by far, to tell the benevolent lie. If you chose to tell the truth instead you might well be called an absolutist at following rules. And perhaps you would maintain that since lying involves more direct agency, you would be a moral absolutist as well. But that’s evasive and delusional. In both cases, you would have chosen the course of action that clearly resulted in the greater harm by far, and declared it to be morally superior. If that isn’t relativism, there’s no such thing.

It might be difficult or impossible to come up with a set of circumstances under which, say, adultery would be the “right” thing to do. But it’s a lapse of weakness that happens to the best of people, rather than an offense of calculated malice; and unless you truly believe that it should be dealt with as harshly as cold-blooded murder, then I regret to inform you that you too are a relativist. Likewise if you do not believe that an individual who succumbs to the temptation once and regrets it is just as guilty as one who does it repeatedly and willfully with no remorse.

Big truths?

In contrast to what he presents as the toxic fog of relativism, Novak presents his version of three eternal and immutable truths.

First, truth matters.

That’s rather tautological, but certainly accurate if we’re talking about Truth with a capital “T” — as mentioned, there are times when telling verbal lies is not only excusable but preferable in the interests of Truth. Trouble is, avowed moral absolutists, while touting truthfulness, often support political figures who not only lie flagrantly and inexcusably, but are quite dishonest in their actions as well. These have included Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and most egregiously of all, the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant. All big heroes of “absolutists”.

Second, for all its faults, democracy is always better for individuals and minorities than dictatorship.

Absolutely. But again, the irony is that while preaching this, “absolutists” frequently lend their enthusiastic support to those (see above roster) who undermine democracy and try to eliminate checks and balances, through such dictatorial means as nepotism and cronyism, vote suppression, gerrymandering, court stacking, propaganda, and trying to squelch free media.

And third, for all its deficiencies, capitalism is better than socialism for the poor…

This is blatant revisionism. Capitalism has had millennia to state its case; but for all its benefits, it has been very frequently accompanied by a severe and oppressive economic caste structure, with poverty and misery at one end and greed and exploitation at the other.  The concept of socialism is also rooted in antiquity — it’s even strongly hinted at in that Bible that so many “absolutists” claim to live by. But socialism as we know it is a rather modern development. And while it isn’t perfect, it already has had some impressive successes, whether viewed in terms of prosperity, equality, liberty or opportunity. Moreover, it’s a false dichotomy even to contrast socialism and capitalism. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, many societies have adopted elements of both, including the U.S.A., which has applied certain socialistic principles since its inception. None of this is particularly relevant to a discussion of moral relativism, except that Novak’s evocation is yet another illustration of how “absolutists” are willing to distort and even invent facts.

Gems in the dung heap

Although Novak’s little oration is mostly awful and gets so many things wrong, he also manages, somehow, to sneak in a few words of wisdom. This passage in particular is spot on:

Humans are the only creatures who, by instinct, do not blindly obey the laws of their nature. Instead, humans enjoy the ability to master their passions, their bigotries, their ignorance. Where 250 million citizens are guided by an “inner” policeman — a conscience — the number of real policemen can be few. Among people without this inner policeman, there aren’t enough policemen in the world to make society civil.

Bingo. Yet “absolutists” often seem unable to grasp that this “inner policeman” truly is of inner origin. Every healthily functioning human has this conscience, fueled by empathy, and guided by another human faculty, the power of reason, that enables us to apply the so-called Golden Rule, which is the only moral principle you’ll ever really need.  (The Golden Rule itself must be interpreted in relative terms; you have a right to be a masochist, but that doesn’t mean you have a right to be an undiscriminating sadist.) That is, assuming you have empathy, a conscience, and the power of reason. Unfortunately, some people don’t. Which is why societies need behavioral codes. I would suggest to Mr. Pascall that the school teachers in England and elsewhere should be less concerned with hammering rules into the skulls of children, and more concerned with instilling in them those character traits that will render such rules superfluous, and cause those children when grown to be less likely to violate said rules.

“Absolutists” often operate on the apparent presumption that our “inner policeman” is installed in us by an outside source — e.g., legal and/or religious authority. But the law sometimes goes astray. Religion does so rather frequently. Both have been used to defend bigotry and discrimination of every conceivable variety, and even slavery and genocide.

It is evident both from Novak’s background and his remarks in this address that he regards Christian dogma as the ultimate source of moral guidance. Which is especially preposterous considering that Christians can’t even agree among themselves about such mundane matters as whether it’s morally defensible to work on Sunday. Or is it Saturday? They preach honesty and integrity and yet they revere a Sacred Text that makes a hero of a character who swindles his own father and cheats his brother out of a “blessing”. They frequently lend their enthusiastic support to political figures (see above roster) who lie frequently and maliciously, and commit many acts of low character — even while excoriating Bill Clinton for fibbing about his sex life. They even lie rather often themselves; among other things, they spread many untruths about abortion, which they just know to be evil, and which they just know everyone else should be forced to believe is evil too, even though their Sacred Text reports that on at least one occasion God instructed somebody on how to induce one. Novak specifically was a member of the Catholic church, which has denounced women as immoral for using birth control, while being systematically complicit in the sexual abuse of children.

In short, when “absolutists” rail against moral relativism, they aren’t really railing against moral relativism. They are relativists themselves. And they are choosing to attack people for being relativists of a different flavor. Or more accurately, they are choosing to attack people for other reasons, and are just using relativism as a pretext. And in doing so, they are not above distorting and lying. And flaming hypocrisy.