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 views.) 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 [EMAIL PROTECTED] http://highsorcery.com/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/volokh