Posted by Eugene Volokh:
Moral relativism:

   Conservatives often accuse liberals of "moral relativism." Now I
   surely disagree with most liberals on many specific moral issues. But
   I'm puzzled about exactly what the commonly heard charge of moral
   relativism in general, as opposed to a charge of moral error on a
   particular issue, means.

   I take it that it can't be that liberals don't believe in moral
   principles. They surely do: Most liberals, for instance, believe that
   race discrimination is wrong, rape is wrong, murder is wrong, legal
   interference with a woman's right to get an abortion (at least until a
   certain gestational age) is wrong, and so on.

   Now it's true that, to liberals, some of these principles admit of
   exceptions -- but surely this is true of conservatives, too. Liberals,
   conservatives, and libertarians both agree, for instance, that killing
   is generally bad, but the definition of when killing is evil and when
   it's permissible (or even laudable) necessarily has to be pretty
   nuanced, so that it properly treats killing in self-defense, killing
   in war, and the like. In fact, some liberals of the pacifist stripe
   may employ a more nearly absolute prohibition on killing (at least of
   born humans) than conservatives do -- in my view, that's their moral
   error, but it's not an error of moral relativism.

   Likewise, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians endorse what one
   might call "situational ethics" at least in the banal sense that the
   morality of certain actions turns not just on the simple three-word
   summary of the act ("X killed Y") but also on aspects of the
   situation: Did X have moral justification to kill Y? Did X have some
   excuse, for instance that he sincerely believed that Y was about to
   kill him, though he was regrettably mistaken? Are there other reasons
   why we would say that X's actions aren't as evil as some other similar
   actions, for instance because X is a 5-year-old who couldn't really
   understand what he was doing? (Many liberals might set the threshold
   for when a child is too young to be fully tasked with the moral weight
   of his actions differently than conservatives, but I take it that all
   of us would have some such threshold.) Or might there be something
   significant about X's motives that diminishes, even if it doesn't
   eliminate, his moral culpability, for instance because X beat someone
   up because of a genuine provocation (e.g., the beating victim had
   insulted X's daughter) as opposed to for money or because of a
   cold-blooded desire to inflict pain?

   It's true that some people do employ a sort of cultural relativism, in
   which actions are made right or wrong by the country or culture in
   which they happen. This is far from a purely liberal principle,
   though; in fact, sometimes it's liberals who are most universalist in
   their calls for human rights. Moreover, while I'm generally not wild
   about this approach, it seems to me that at least as to some things it
   does make sense: Separation of church and state is a good principle
   (at least in some interpretations) for the U.S., but I'm not sure that
   it should necessarily be equally applied to other countries (for
   instance, to require England to entirely disestablish Anglicanism).
   But in any event, this is too tangential a matter, and a matter too
   divorced from the liberal/conservative divide, to be what the "moral
   relativism" claims are all about.

   So is there anything to this charge about liberals being "moral
   relativists," or at least being so materially more often than
   conservatives? (I'm not asking whether isolated liberals have at times
   made truly moral relativist arguments, whatever they may be, but
   rather whether liberals generally are more likely to endorse such

   Or is this just a neutral-sounding allegation that really masks
   disagreement on specific contested moral issues? And if it's the
   latter, wouldn't it be more candid and more helpful to specifically
   say "I think liberals make this moral error on this subject for this
   reason," rather than levying empty accusations of "moral relativism"?

Volokh mailing list

Reply via email to