Relativism and the Bomb



Frequent Catallarchy commenter Joe Miller, a philosophy professor at UNCP, continues the discussion of moral relativism.

In a previous post, Jonathan defends the conservative interpretation of moral relativism, offering the following thought experiment:

Consider:

Case A: Smith lies to his wife while having an affair with another woman.

Case B: Jones lies to Nazis about Jews hidden in his attic.

While both cases above involve lying - the intentional deceit of another - most people would be understanding of Jones’s actions and not Smith’s. When conservatives make the claim of “moral relativism", they are saying that in comparing the cases above, to judge Smith and Jones as having the same degree of immorality, would be to falsely equalize the circumstances in which their acts of lying took place. It would be giving the same moral weight to Smith’s innocent wife and Nazis. It would be to rank Smith’s goals of infidelity alongside Jones’s goals of protecting innocent lives. The “relativism” comes from a refusal to judge different circumstances and goals at different locations on an universal moral scale.

Jonathan’s thought experiment does carry some rhetorical force. I’m not convinced, however, that it actually defends conservative views of moral relativism. Or, perhaps more to the point, if this really is what conservatives mean by ‘moral relativism,’ then Johnson is right: conservatives really do use the term incorrectly.

In the Wikipedia article that Jonathan quotes, moral relativism is defined as “the position that moral propositions do not reflect absolute or universal truths.” That is true as far as it goes. But I don’t think that Jonathan’s example really gets at that claim. The pair of examples that he gives (the adulterer and the Nazi-at-the-door) involve two actions that have different sets of circumstances. But relativism isn’t a claim about the ways in which circumstances can affect actions. The relativist argues, rather, that moral principles themselves differ from one group to another. In other words, a moral relativist would be one who would hold something like the following:

Case A: Smith lies to his wife while having an affair with another woman.

Case B: Jones lies to his wife while having an affair with another woman.

Jones’ action is morally permissible because Jones, who is French, comes from a culture that accepts infidelity as a normal part of life. Smith’s action, however, is morally wrong because Smith, who is a Mormon, comes from a society that denounces infidelity.

For a relativist, then, the moral principle itself is different depending on a person’s particular position. Jonathan’s case doesn’t deal with different moral principles, though. We all agree that lying is, all things considered, a prima facie wrong. The disagreement, though, is whether Jones’ and Smith’s actions are properly governed by the “don’t lie” rule.

One need not be a relativist to make this point, though. An absolutist can still acknowledge that a rule that says, simply, “don’t lie” is probably too simple to be a useful moral rule. Kant quite famously disagrees with this point, but far from being a relativist, Kant is typically criticized for being too much of an absolutist. Indeed, if Jonathan is right in thinking that conservatives really do define moral relativism in the way that he suggests, then conservatives have the case exactly backward. Jonathan’s criticism is really against absolutists and not against relativists at all.

Indeed, I think that, to characterize Jacob Lyles's original argument as a debate between moral relativism and moral absolutism is to use a faulty framework. The debate is really better thought of as a dispute between consequentialist and non-consequentialists. Jonathan’s arguments for Truman’s dropping the bomb are entirely consequentialist in form. He refers to the number of lives potentially lost in a ground invasion, the likelihood that Japan would continue the war, Japanese treatment of subjugated peoples and so on. All of these (important) points are related to the consequences of continuing a conventional war against Japan. Similarly, his points about bin Laden are also consequentialist: he intends to start a war and establish fundamentalist Islamic states.

One avenue of disagreement, then, can be purely in consequentialist terms. One might, for instance, dispute whether Japan truly was willing to continue the war, whether the Japanese overtures to the Soviets to negotiate a settlement were legitimate, and so forth. But notice that this is not moral relativism at all; to take this route is to agree on moral principles (i.e., that one ought to perform the act with the best set of consequences) while disagreeing only on what action would, in fact, have produced the better set of consequences. This disagreement here is empirical, not really moral at all.

A second avenue for disagreement would be to dispute the moral principle itself. That is, one might reject Jonathan’s consequentialist framework entirely, and insist instead on a deontological approach to the question. Michael Walzer, for instance, argues in this sort of way, claiming a principled distinction between combatants and noncombatants and arguing that deliberately targeting the latter is morally impermissible. Walzer would (and does) hold that Truman’s dropping the bomb was an act of terrorism. But Walzer isn’t a moral relativist; he applies the same moral principle to Truman and to bin Laden. That’s the very opposite of relativism.

I think that the reason for the confusion is the vague recognition that deontological moral theories are often a bit more absolutist than are consequentialist moral theories. That is, deontologists proscribe certain actions as categorically wrong whenever and wherever they are performed. Consequentialists, on the other hand, so not categorically rule out any particular sort of action; provided that the right consequences obtain, there is no limit to the type of action that one might morally perform. But consequentialists are still absolutists in the sense that they hold (or at least can hold) that there are universal moral truths, namely, that the right action is the one that produces the best overall set of consequences.

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To Joe: I'm curious. Do

To Joe:

I'm curious. Do these same leftists reject universalist arguments for U.S. intervention in the Kosovo war? At the time that war was very much a leftist enterprise and conservatives were on the other side. A more recent example is the Haiti intervention which was widely supported by leftists.

If so, at least a closet

If so, at least a closet imperialist who will always be welcome right here.

I can't help but think that

I can't help but think that if there were any non-liberal leftists here, Joe, they'd try to pass the buck back to you.

"You’re welcome to tar liberals with the relativism brush, but liberals don’t speak for the Left."

Scott, Fair enough. Of

Scott,

Fair enough.

Of course, I don't claim to speak for the Left, while leftists do pretty regularly claim to speak for liberalism.

I suspect that the more likely response would be to say that, insofar as I accept universal, non-culturally based moral truths, I'm really a closet imperialist in disguise. Anyway, that's the reaction I get at academic conferences when I defend things like humanitarian intervention with universalist arguments.

Mike, _It is from this

Mike,

_It is from this liberal refusal to judge which morals are more objectively true and willingness to accept all as of equal validity, being as they do not believe in objective truth to begin with, that liberals cannot see any wrong in the actions of others other than hypocrisy, which is merely a means by which liberals are able to justify attacks on conservative objectivists._

I have to object here. Or rather, I'd like to draw a distinction. I have little patience with moral relativism of the sort that you criticize in your post. Indeed, I worry that such relativism is the inevitable consequence of what I call the post-isms (post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism). If that makes me sound like a neocon apologist, so be it. I just don't find, say, Stanley Fish's attempt to show that postmodernists aren't really relativists to be even remotely persuasive.

That said, my objection lies in the assumption that postmodernist relativism is really the heart of liberalism. I think that Fish and his ilk are better described as leftists. Liberals aren't relativists, though. We trace our origins back to Kant and Mill, both of whom were certainly universalists. I've no problem with saying that certain actions are wrong even if they are culturally approved.

You're welcome to tar leftists with the relativism brush, but leftists don't speak for liberalism.

FWIW, I think Jonathan has

FWIW, I think Jonathan has the conservative view wrong. Joes description is more accurate. The Conservative view is that there are objective truths embedded in the universe (whether that is by God, Ghu, or an accident of nature is immaterial to the point, everyone has their own preferences) and expressed through physics, chemistry, and biology in the nature of man. Some cultures have developed moral codes which hew closer to the real objective moral truth than others, and as a result, have become 'winners' in the historical contest of cultural conflict.

In Joe's example, where two adulterers, one in France, one in Utah, are judged (or rather, not judged by moral relativists), conservatives call the liberal predeliction to see the French attitude toward adultery as of equal validity to the Mormon attitude, and refusal to impose any sort of qualitative or quantitative analysis upon the consequences of each moral belief to judge which is better, as moral bankruptcy and a sign of liberal degeneracy and lack of authority to tell anyone what is right and wrong.

It is from this liberal refusal to judge which morals are more objectively true and willingness to accept all as of equal validity, being as they do not believe in objective truth to begin with, that liberals cannot see any wrong in the actions of others other than hypocrisy, which is merely a means by which liberals are able to justify attacks on conservative objectivists.

Someone once said the definition of a liberal is a person who is so fair and open minded that he won't even argue in favor of his own opinion. This is accurate today, and explains why liberals have a lot to attack, but little to propose in terms of solutions to the great problems of the day (other than tired and old disproven communist ideas), and why the are so big on hypocrisy being the greatest mortal sin of their moral universe.

Christian Conservatives happen to also implicitly believe that whatever particular interpretation of the bible they hew to is 'obviously' the more objectively true one, but that is a matter of internal bias and not relevant. However, I believe it is because conservatives share with most libertarians an affection for the idea of objective truth that there remain strong ties between the two groups, while generally liberals tend to have great antipathy for libertarians, outside of ACLU meetings...

"We all agree that lying is,

"We all agree that lying is, all things considered, a prima facie wrong."

I don't agree at all. (For what its worth, which probably isn't much, and merely as a point of libertarian interest, neither does Murray Rothbard)

I think post gets the "moral

I think post gets the "moral relativism" definition more on, especially with the French Smith Vs Mormon Jones argument.

When conservatives yell "moral relativism" they are condemning people for saying, for example, its okay that some cultures practice misogyny because it's in their culture.

I don't think moral relativism applies to the Hiroshima decision -- I don't think anyone is making the case that nuking (even if they support it) was justified because it was acceptable in American culture.

This post accurately assesses that the original post by Jonathan with Adulterer Smith Vs Nazi Jones was not really about moral relativism, but rather an argument of context. And, this applies to the Hiroshima decision, whose proponents state that the context (refusal to surrender, pains of invasion) makes the bombing a correct decision.

The debate then is not whether Bin Laden is good (we all know he's bad, both his actions and goals are bad), it's whether Truman (with bad actions and good goals) was good. I vote "bad," others vote "good." But the question is one of context, not relativism.

"FWIW, I think that Rothbard (and Rand) were just deeply confused on this point. Both want to have some sort of an absolutist principle but then situate it withing a contextualist framework. The result is that they issue moral claims like, “Never lie…unless you really should.” This attempt to have it both ways is doomed to internal inconsistency."

I think the only moral principle Rand advocated was that initiating force against another human was morally wrong. Lying didn't really show up in that, except indirectly in the cases you specify.

Jones would be morally right (or at the very least not wrong) regardless of lying because he prevented the initiation of force (by the Nazis) against a human (the Jews in the attic).

Smith the adulterer would not be morally wrong, except unless his marriage contract disallowed such deception (initiation of force through breaking of contract). Moral absolutists could of course still agree that this reflected poor character and made him an asshole. :)

It is this secondary value judgment which is covered by the culture, and is definitely relativistic and subjective. In Joe Miller's point, it would be the assessment that the French Smith was a fine guy, while the Mormon Jones was a cad.

Paul, The problem that I

Paul,

The problem that I have with the route you take is that I have trouble seeing how it leads to anything other than Kantian absolutism. If I'm required always to respect autonomy, then what that really boils down to, it seems, is that I must get consent (whether actual or hypothetical) to my actions. Lying, however, precludes the very possibility of giving or withholding consent. Thus, if what we are interested in is the protection of autonomy, I won't be permitted to lie to anyone ever. After all, if it's autonomy that I must respect, well, then I have to respect that Nazi's autonomy, too. (That's not to say I can't try to stop him or punish him. I just can't lie to him.)

I'm not sure that we're ever going to completely agree on this, as I'm not really a deontologist at all. As a consequentialist, I think that _prima facie_ prohibitions on actions are about as strong as we can get. In fact, I would put respect for autonomy as a _prima facie_ good, as well. I think that some circumstances can justify overriding autonomy, provided that the cause is great enough.

Of course I'm inclined to agree with you that lying isn't intrinsically wrong at all. Usually, though, it has bad consequences, and thus there is value in calling lying a _prima facie_ wrong.

Joe, I broadly agree with

Joe,

I broadly agree with you but think that your saying that lying is a prima facie wrong is itself confused. I think we can dispense with this notion of lying being wrong at all and instead I would recommend that what is important is respecting the (broadly libertarianly conceived) autonomy of other people. Lying may either promote (lying to Nazi's about Jews in the attic) or undermine (lying to your wife about an affair) this respect for autonomy but is not, in itself, of any moral concern.

Paul, FWIW, I think that

Paul,

FWIW, I think that Rothbard (and Rand) were just deeply confused on this point. Both want to have some sort of an absolutist principle but then situate it withing a contextualist framework. The result is that they issue moral claims like, "Never lie...unless you really should." This attempt to have it both ways is doomed to internal inconsistency.

At the end of the day, though, I'm not sure that what I'm saying is all that different from what Rothbard and Rand wanted to say, namely, that there are some circumstances in which lying is not just acceptable, but actually required. That's what it means to say that lying is a _prima facie_ wrong. There is a presumption of its wrongness, but that presumption can be overridden in the face of good sets of reasons.

To say something like, "Lying is absolutely wrong--in some circumstances" is to say something that is, on its face, absurd. One gets the same outcome by holding that lying is a _prima facie_ wrong, and has the added virtue that one can hold the position without trying to reconcile p with not-p.

Well put.

Well put.

Joe, that was a well

Joe, that was a well thought-out post, and I think you made your point better than Jonathan made his point.

Leonard, Relativism, I

Leonard,

Relativism, I think, would mean that we thought that Smith and Jones were covered by different moral principles entirely. What you describe is something more analogous to Jonathan's example, in which the same basic action might be moral or immoral depending on the circumstances. I suspect that you and I disagree about the morality of Jones' actions. It doesn't mean that either of us is a relativist. It does mean that we both agree that stealing is a _prima facie_ wrong, but disagree about what kinds of reasons can override the _prima facie_ wrongness of stealing.

Here is another moral

Here is another moral situation for your consideration:

Case A: Smith takes money from you at gunpoint.

Case B: Jones takes money from you at gunpoint.

Smith’s action is morally wrong because theft is morally wrong. Jones’ action is morally permissible, even though theft is morally wrong, because Jones is an agent of the state, and the state asserts that you owe it taxes for your defense, even though you have never consented to these taxes, and do not want the defense offered.

You may imagine, if you wish, that Smith holds a formal vote to authorize himself to take your money before doing so, and is willing to show you a warrant to that effect.

Is this moral relativism?

David, I'm not really aware

David,

I'm not really aware that all that many leftists actually supported Kosovo. To be sure, a fair number of liberals did approve of Kosovo. I'm thinking here of people like Walzer and Hitchens. But leftists (Chomsky, say, or Edward Said) were quite critical of Kosovo, arguing that it was imperialism all over again. Maybe I'm just not aware of all the leftists who supported Clinton in Kosovo, but I suspect that the 'leftists' you have in mind are really liberals who hold universalists principles not the postmodernist leftists I was complaining about.

Joe: "The relativist argues,

Joe:
"The relativist argues, rather, that moral principles themselves differ from one group to another."

The underlying critique that I understood from Jonathan's post was that Truman acted in self-defense (or rather, defense of his nation and his military), and Bin Laden acted aggressively rather than in self-defense: he initiated force. So when someone equalizes the actions of Bin Laden and Truman, one explanation of why they are doing this is that they are rejecting the absolute idea of morality which I just described, which condemns Bin Laden's action as aggression and defends Truman's action as defensive, and replacing it with a relativistic morality, according to which we must judge Bin Laden in his own light (or not at all) and Truman in his own light (or not at all), and since Bin Laden considers himself justified as does Truman, then we must equalize them as far as the background of their actions goes. Judging Bin Laden from Bin Laden's own perspective, or not at all, seems to be moral relativism, since one is applying the moral principles of Bin Laden and his group to their own action, or worse: one is *refusing* to apply *any* moral principles to that aspect of the question on the grounds that one is in no position to judge him, not being in his group.

That aspect of the moral analysis, that failure to distinguish Truman from Bin Laden on this point, can be explained as a result of moral relativism.

Joe:
"Jonathan’s arguments for Truman’s dropping the bomb are entirely consequentialist in form."

That may be so. However, one can easily draw the non-consequentialist distinction that Truman was acting in self-defense, and Bin Laden was acting aggressively. Bin Laden was starting a fight in order to damage others and Truman was ending a fight in order to limit damage to his own, i.e., in self-defense. And the right of self-defense is not a consequentialist right. While it is true that the success of self-defense is defense of the self and therefore is a consequence, that does not make the right to self-defense consequentialist, any more than the right not to be murdered is consequentialist (the right not to be murdered, if exercised successfully, leads to the consequence of not being murdered, and yet one hopefully does not argue that the right not to be murdered can exist only in a consequentialist theory of rights). A deontological theory of rights that neglects the right to self-defense is dangerously incomplete.

Joe:
"claiming a principled distinction between combatants and noncombatants and arguing that deliberately targeting the latter is morally impermissible"

That may however be a flawed moral principle. The right of self defense does open up certain actions that are otherwise closed. For example, normally I have no right to shoot my friend Paul. But if he is about to shoot me, then at that point I have the right to shoot Paul. Well, if one thing that is normally wrong becomes permissible by reason of self defense, then possibly other things do as well, so long as they *contribute to self defense*. That is of course a criterion in terms of consequence, but to call it consequentialist would be to call the right of self-defense itself consequentialist, since the right of self-defense extends to actions that have the consequence of defending oneself.

At least I would hope that the right of self-defense is limited to consequentialist theories of rights.

Good point on

Good point on Kosovo...though it was more than fair number of liberals who supported it. The vast majority of Democrats in the House and Senate voted to approve funding for the war. In any case, itis true that some of the Michael Moore types did oppose the Kosovo War. I would guess that the Haiti and Liberia interventions have far more leftist suport.

Constant, _Judging Bin Laden

Constant,

_Judging Bin Laden from Bin Laden’s own perspective, or not at all, seems to be moral relativism, since one is applying the moral principles of Bin Laden and his group to their own action, or worse: one is refusing to apply any moral principles to that aspect of the question on the grounds that one is in no position to judge him, not being in his group._

I agree with you that this sort of move would count as moral relativism. I’m not so sure, however, that this is what Jonathan was saying in his post in defending a conservative view of moral relativism. His point seemed to be that moral relativism meant failing to take context into account. That isn’t relativism at all. What you describe is relativism, as it holds bin Laden and Truman to different moral standards. I suspect that this is what conservatives criticize when they attack moral relativism, or at least this is what they _ought_ to be attacking when they attack moral relativism.

_However, one can easily draw the non-consequentialist distinction that Truman was acting in self-defense, and Bin Laden was acting aggressively._

Yes, certainly one can construct a non-consequentialist defense of Truman’s action. I don’t think that such defenses are likely to be terribly convincing, personally. The right to self-defense, while clearly a non-consequentialist principle, would seem to justify responding to aggression. The right to self-defense, in other words, is a principle of _jus ad bellum_; it explains when it is that we are justified in going to war. The problem here is that what we’re talking about is not a _jus ad bellum_ question. We’re talking here about _jus in bello_, or justice in war. The right to self-defense may well justify my using force, but I don’t see that it justifies the unlimited right to do whatever I want to defend myself.

To move to a domestic analogy, let’s suppose that I attack you, and let’s further suppose that I happen to be very determined and far superior to you in fighting ability (not likely, but bear with me). So, rather than fight me, you decide to go beat up my wife. Now that strikes me as being completely unjustified. After all, she really is only tangentially related to the conflict. Sure, she might support me, and sure she might fix the dinners that provide me with the energy to attack you, and maybe she even has a job that pays for my martial arts classes. Still, the fact that I attacked you doesn’t seem to give you the right to attack her in response.

Perhaps we _could_ construct a non-consequentialist argument that would allow you the right to unlimited warfare. The principle of self-defense, though, isn’t going to provide that argument by itself. And it’s pretty hard to see what a non-consequentialist argument that allows for the direct targeting of civilians is going to look like.

_Well, if one thing that is normally wrong becomes permissible by reason of self defense, then possibly other things do as well, so long as they contribute to self defense. That is of course a criterion in terms of consequence, but to call it consequentialist would be to call the right of self-defense itself consequentialist, since the right of self-defense extends to actions that have the consequence of defending oneself._

Now you are starting to get at the distinction between _jus ad bellum_ and _jus in bello_. Your argument is a bit slippery, though. Why is ‘contribute to self defense’ the proper criterion? After all, lots of things _could_ contribute to self defense. I could, say, embark on a policy of destroying all enemy hospitals. Or I could design a biological agent that would specifically target women of the ethnicity of my enemy, rendering them all infertile. That would, eventually, ensure that I win the war, no?

The point is, lots of pretty horribly things might possibly contribute to self defense. It’s unclear why (or that) we would want to allow all of those things.

More importantly, though, once you start making such an argument, you are indeed making consequentialist arguments. You’re right that the principle of self-defense is non-consequentialist. But as I argued above, the principle of self-defense only gets you a justification for _jus ad bellum_. Since what we’re now talking about is _jus in bello_, the principle of self-defense isn’t really doing any more work. You need to give some additional argument for why you are justified in performing certain types of actions. And so far, the only argument you’ve sketched for that is a consequentialist one.