Support Denmark, Defend Freedom

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Relatively Fabulous?

Over at Tapped, Matt Yglesias seems to think he's back in freshman philo:
I don't want this to be misunderstood, but I'm a moral relativist. Or, rather, I reject moral realism, the view that "moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true." This is a much-debated philosophical issue, but in punditland, it's just a term of abuse. Ergo, Fred Siegel writing in Blueprint about the least-significant challenge currently facing America -- college professors who are too left-wing for Siegel's taste:
If, as Michel Foucault told the Berkeley faculty in 1983, "There is no universal criterion which permits us to say, this category of power relations are bad and those are good," then there is no way to prefer a liberal society to fascism, communism, or Islamism.

Tragically, I don't have time for a full-throated defense of my meta-ethical views at the moment. But this kind of claim, oft-made, is clearly false. Is there a universal criterion by which I judge whether I like chocolate ice cream better than vanilla ice cream? Presumably not. Is there, therefore no way to prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream? Obiously, no; people are walking around with preferences about this as we speak, and it's fine. Similarly, letting the ontological chips fall where they may, the purported objective superiority of liberal societies to Islamism doesn't play an actual role in Siegel's preference for liberal societies.

Sometimes, you face a question that you think has an objective answer like "How much should we care about budget deficits?" What you're supposed to do in those circumstances is look at the evidence in an even-handed and objective way. The big issues of political commitment don't work like that at all. Siegel didn't go learn Arabic fluently, then read the Koran (it says you should only read it in Arabic), then study the works of Sayyid Qutb and other Islamist commentators, and then objectively weigh those arguments against the great names of liberal political thought in an open-minded and unprejudiced way before deciding, "Yes, those Islamists are all wrong!" That would be dumb, and nobody lives their life like that. Nevertheless, if you asked Siegel to explain his preference for liberal societies, I'm sure he could muster some reasons in much the way that I can. Islamists do a lot of stuff that seems cruel and repugnant -- sawing off peoples' heads, for example or stoning gay people to death. Is that "really" wrong? Do I need to check? Deduce it from first principles? If I can't come up with an airtight argument against head-sawing within the next fifteen minutes, does that throw everything into doubt? Again, that's silly; nobody thinks that.

First of all, I'll wager that there's no such thing as a absolute moral relativist, if you'll pardon the expression. Everybody has at least one moral position they are convinced is not debatable. In the West, claims of moral relativism are usually just pseudo-intellectual excuses for deriding one's own culture or political system: for example, refusing to categorically state that the Western ideal of liberal society is morally superior to Taliban-style theocracy would be considered "nuanced" and "sophisticated." At best, one should say, as Yglesias does, that liberalism is preferable to Talibanism, because who are we to judge the morality of crushing homosexuals under walls or sexually mutilating young girls? Get it? It's just like ice cream! (I guess college professors everywhere use the same analogies, because I heard the same crap at Columbia.) We saw the same thing during the Cold War, when many on the left (and many Europeans) saw the US and the USSR as just two sides of the same coin.

In contrast, call the Soviet Union an "evil empire," refer to the situation in North Korea as "evil," or call terrorists "evil-doers," and you are immediately the subject of scorn and derision. How simple-minded you have to be to call something evil.

Of course, these are the same people who called for divestment from South Africa, the same people who think universal health care is a "right," the same people who believe that abortion is a woman's right. It doesn't matter here whether these stances are right or wrong, what matters is that they all assume a universal and absolute morality: "My body, my choice" is hardly a statement of "preference."

I also find it odd that many of the same people who won't objectively judge Castro or Kim Jong-il (or Saddam, for that matter) have absolutely no problem saying that Republicans are evil. But I'm weird that way. This always reminds me of the scene in Revenge of the Sith in which Obi-Wan tells Anakin that "Only the Sith speak in absolutes," and then ten seconds later says "The Emperor is evil."

Obi-Wan Yglesias needs to grow up a bit.

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home