The Conservative Lie About Moral Relativity

Periodically leftists get blamed for creating a moral relativism that is destroying society. Here’s one Marcy caught:

And here’s a piece from Dan Dreezner, tongue-in-cheek, but still:

Traditionally, commentators have tended to assume that those articulating “there are no facts, just opinion” views came from the left. No longer!

Well, those commentators can just fuck right off.

1. Patrick Chovanec seems to think the dominant class never thought of using its position to control the definition of facts, and to write history to show that they deserve to be dominant until philosophers and then leftists started talking about the nature of truth. [1] Rightists say the left is responsible for the decline of morality for pointing out that the dominant class are self-serving liars and haters.

Political conservatives deflect with harpy shrieks that the left denies the existence of all facts and history. No. Leftists deny the fabrications of the dominant class. Lefties reject the facts that the tobacco industry created denying that cigarettes cause lung cancer. Lefties deny the manufactured facts about climate change spread by the fossil fuel industry. Why, some lefties even deny the truth of Parson Weems’ stories about George Washington.

There have always been people who contested the facts asserted by the dominant class; for example, Galileo. The Catholic Church made him deny his own factual observations on the ground that he must be wrong because he contradicted their interpretation of the Bible. That contradicted the claim of the church hierarchy that it possessed the sole power to interpret scripture. This is mirrored by the decision of Catholic prelates to handle child rapist priests in-house rather than through the justice system.

The right wing thinks academics are leftists. These scholars are writing histories that recover and include the voices of working people in the labor movement and other dissidents who are canceled by the dominant class in their histories. [2] Making new factual observations and finding old records to incorporate into histories is the exact opposite of denying the existence of facts and histories.

2. In this post I take up a not so post-modern view of facts and truth, that espoused by Charles Sanders Peirce and Henry James. Truth is a property of our beliefs: do they correspond with reality in ways that are useful for some human purpose. Peirce and James and other pragmatists do not deny that there are facts. They know that things exist in the world, separate from individual human beings. But they deny the existence of non-corporeal things that only a few people can perceive. They reject the Platonic idea of the “forms” external to the reality we can experience directly or indirectly. They say that what we can sense is all there is for us of that external reality. [3]

Those who take the other view insist that there are absolutes like the Platonic Ideal Chair of which the chair I’m sitting in is merely an exemplar. But that’s just pretend. What they mean is that there is an external source for absolute morality. In the US, most of them mean that their Christian Bible establishes absolute morality, and anyone who questions that is wrecking society.

A lesser person that I am might point out that it’s a strange religion that teaches that character is the only important factor in voting for president, so adherents must not vote for any Clinton; but also teaches that a different adulterer and liar who is also a corrupt businessman is an instrument of the Almighty, and that it’s sinful to believe otherwise.

I’ll just say I can’t understand why anyone would pay attention so someone claiming that they are receiving directions from the Almighty, directions no one else can perceive. [3] For example, when people tell us they killed their children because God told them to, we consider them criminal or insane. Why is it different when similar people abuse our LGBTQ brothers and sisters because God told them to? [4] Why should they be allowed to enact laws to enshrine their hate-filled views like the laws that wrecked the life of the genius Alan Turing? So, yes. Some lefties and lots of other people really do reject the idea of absolute morals.

3. Conservatives are convinced that if there is no source for absolute morals, no God, then everything is permitted, as Dostoevsky puts it in The Brothers Karamazov. This is a shocking proposition. It implies that people will only act morally if there is some form of punishment or reward. But that is not the way we live. We are all raised to understand our obligations and responsibilities in our families, in our schools and in society at large. We know the rules, and we know why we have those rules. This is true of Pakistani Muslims, Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Indian Hindus, Chinese Confucianists, US atheists, and Bolivian Catholics, Native Americans, in fact, in avery society ever. There are customs, mores, rules of etiquette, rules about food, hierarchies of respect, funerary customs, laws, and institutions to teach and enforce all of these and more.

This is from an essay by Richard Rorty titled Moral Relativism, 1996.

In his more recent book Thick and Thin, [Michael] Walzer argues that we should not think of the customs and institutions of particular societies as accidental accretions around a common core of universal moral rationality, the transcultural moral law. Rather, we should think of the thick set of customs and institutions as prior, and as what commands moral allegiance. The thin morality which can be abstracted out of the various thick moralities is not made up of the commandments of a universally shared human faculty called ‘reason’. Such thin resemblances between these thick moralities as may exist are contingent, as contingent as the resemblances between the adaptive organs of diverse biological species. [5]

In other words, we can’t reason our way to an absolute morality, any more than we can have it handed to us by people claiming they know the will of the Ineffable. We inherit a morality by osmosis and direct teaching, and we inherit ways of judging our actions based on that morality. That suffices for many. But we can learn about other cultures and their moralities, and we can make value judgments about both our own and other cultures. Further, we are able to question our own standards for judging moralities. As Rorty puts it,

The pragmatist view of what opponents of pragmatism call ‘firm moral principles’ is that such principles are abbreviations of past practices – ways of summing up the habits of the ancestors we most admire. P. xxix.

I don’t admire those of my ancestors who thought that enslaved people are not human beings, or that Jews are cursed, or that women are chattel or that the LGBTQ community is an abomination. I admire my ancestors who fought against those firm moral principles, trying to wreck the morality taught by the then dominant class.

[1] I discuss this use of power to create a kind of reality here, with links to other aspects of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas. Of course, my citation to a French scholar makes me utterly irrelevant.

[2] For example, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the US and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, both of which I highly recommend.

[3] For a different view, see Thomas Merton’s book Mystics and Zen Masters.

[4] I urge readers to consider Kierkegaard’s Fear And Trembling carefully. And maybe watch the excellent 1991 movie The Rapture.

[5] Philosophy and Social Hope, p. viii, at xxxi; it’s aimed at lay readers, and is very accessible. On the subject of what Walzer calls transcultural moral law, see Karen Armstrong’s book, The Great Transformation. I liked this book, but reviewers are less favorable. Roughly, Armstrong discusses the idea of The Axial Age, put forward by Karl Jaspers, noting similar reactions across cultures to the dislocations of the period 1000-200 BCE.

41 replies
      • Ed Walker says:

        Do you think so? I think it’s true for some people, but I think most of us share and try to live decently, and when we don’t we feel a bit ashamed. Politicians are a different sotry. I fear Republicans have elected a really unpleasant group of politicians, many of whose motives and behavior are ugly.

        • cavenewt says:

          “I think it’s true for some people, but I think most of us share and try to live decently, and when we don’t we feel a bit ashamed.” And the opposite of that is a sociopath, someone with no empathy or conscience.

          We must have an awful lot of sociopaths in government right now. I mean, how could Mitch McConnell sleep at night, otherwise?

    • Vince says:

      “have people really forgotten Karl Rove and ‘we make our own reality’ already?”

      That baton has been passed to Kellyanne Conway and her “alternative facts”.

      • rip says:

        Not sure that KKKRove has really faded away. Kellyanne may be an acollyte but the old forces of evil are still kickin.

          • Mooser says:

            It’s the moral relativism of melodrama, in which everything must be in accord with Scripture. That is, the script of a TV show or movie. Bible hardly enters into it, except as a prop.

      • Mary says:

        Yes, and she deserves to be shamed in public and at her Catholic masses for bragging in her book about helping her girlfriends get abortions. If it’s OK for them and Trump mistresses, it’s OK for the rest of us.

        • bmaz says:

          Hi “Mary”, could you please use a more differentiated name other than “Mary”? First off, that is an incredibly common name. Like if I used “Bob”.

          Secondly, that is a hallowed name here that will once, and forever, be reserved for our former collaborator, Mary. Please participate freely and often, but distinguish the name.

          The handle of “Mary” is taken and retired forever,

          • MCM says:

            Thanks! I will now use a different name. I just saw your request and had already posted another comment under “Mary.” Sorry for the inconvenience.

            • bmaz says:

              No problems whatsoever, and thank you.

              We appreciate all Mary’s here. And, seriously, thank you for being part of the discussion and effort here.

    • I am sam says:

      Well my 32 years working for NASA must have been in vain.

      Just today (11/30):
      Can there now be any doubt that the current Republican (so-called) Party is the most brainless collection to ever pollute this planet? A recent Economist/You Gov poll found 53% to 47% that today’s Republicans said Trump was a better leader than Lincoln! On the other hand, 75% to 25% of the country said just the opposite. The worst president in the history of the country is now boasting of beating “Honest Abe”.
      Here is hoping that the Republicans go the way of the Federalist, Whigs, and Know-Nothing Party—their predecessors. For the country’s survival, it must come soon. Then the current White House squatter can take his place below Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.

      • Cathy says:

        All is not lost! As some Republicans continue to engage in what I increasingly wonder might be a reverse gaslight of the President, the governor of Georgia may dare to put Republican interests in his state above pandering to the President’s impeachment paranoia: According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution yesterday,

        “Gov. Brian Kemp plans to tap financial executive Kelly Loeffler for a U.S. Senate seat next week as he pushes to expand the Georgia GOP’s appeal to women who have fled the party in recent years.

        The appointment would defy President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders who have repeatedly urged the governor to appoint U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a four-term congressman who is one of the president’s staunchest defenders in Washington. (”

        Although this doesn’t imply that Gov. Kemp is embracing cross-party priorities, if he follows through it suggests he’s ready to move past Trump. :-)

  1. John Paul Jones says:

    “There are customs, mores, rules of etiquette, rules about food, hierarchies of respect, funerary customs, laws, and institutions to teach and enforce all of these [rules] and more.”

    If so, then it is indeed the case that morality (to the extent noted above) is based on fear of punishment, that is, the punishment of exclusion from the community. Not the same thing as supposed divine punishment, I admit, but still, sharing the same roots.

    Excellent post and nice to see Michael Walzer cited, as he is one of my favourite writers.

    • skua says:

      I am in agreement with all of your post, except for your use of, “If so, then”.

      That phrase allows for, “But if that is not the case, as really it might not be because what can we really know? “.

      Which leads directly to, ” There are no facts, just opinions”.

      • skua says:

        Should be, “But if that is not the case, as really it might not be because, “What can we really know? “, then….”

        • John Paul Jones says:

          Hmm. Unclear locution on my part. All I meant to say was something along the lines of if x is the case [social rules are ultimately based on fear of exclusion] then it follows that the older idea [social rules are based on fear of divine punishment] has some truth, except that in pre-modern societies, the exclusions/punishments are legitimated by appeals to supposed divinities. I didn’t intend to allow for relativism in the sense discussed in the article. My own experience of pomo relativists is that they are extremely flexible, and that if you corner them on one argument, they will simply shift their grounds to another, i.e., an academic form of what-aboutism.

    • Ed Walker says:

      That certainly isn’t what I intended. I think people learn a habitus, as Bourdieu called it, that becomes part of who they are. They act morally because that is who they are. This isn’t necessarily what the law demands, as we know about marijuana. It’s also true that a good bit of social control is set up by the dominant class. And of course there are sociopaths, too many of them for the good of society. In the end, though, I intended to say that society teaches us how to act and we do it.

  2. Yohei72 says:

    Well said.

    I can think of nothing more morally relativist than the apparent attitude of many Christians and Jews (largely conservative-leaning) that the horrifically brutal actions carried out and/or commanded by the God in their scriptures are okay, because, well, it’s God. When God does it, then it’s right.

    Come to think of it, that kind of looks like the template for Nixon and Trump’s shared belief that if the President does it or commands it, then it isn’t a crime.

  3. Eureka says:

    Thanks for the rock-and-roll, Ed.

    This seems like a perfect place to “situate” Frank Luntz’s recent pragmatic gaslighting crisis with his comrades-in-arms:

    Frank Luntz (11:31 PM ET- 25 Nov 2019):

    “It’s comments like this from @TuckerCarlson that make me wonder who my friends are and who my enemies are – it makes me wonder whether the world has gone insane. I know who I support; Ukraine is an imperfect ally but Russia is a perfect enemy.[embedded clip]”

    “I don’t understand why some people would rather take the word of a dictator committed to America’s destruction than that of the people who risk their lives to protect our nation. This Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks to the men and women of the @FBI, @CIA, and the intel services.”

  4. Mitch Neher says:

    Mr. Walker (paraphrasing Pierce and James) said, “Truth is a property of our beliefs: do they correspond with reality in ways that are useful for some human purpose.”

    This may very well be the crux of the biscuit. Is belief subject to command? And, if so, then to whose commands are our beliefs subject (or to be subjected)? Shall we subject our beliefs to reality, and only to reality (taken in its excessively literal sense as the thing-ish-ness of the world)?

    I have reason to believe that Love is not subject to command. Does that make me an unbeliever in Love or an unbeliever in The Commander? I seriously doubt that any of “the best things in life” (that are further held to be Free) are subject to command.

    For experimental purposes, “I hereby command you all to understand me (even if, or especially whenever, I do not understand myself).”

    Oops! Simon didn’t say, “Simon says, ‘Please?'”

  5. sproggit says:

    Off-Topic: more evidence of a highly suspect DoJ decision:-

    The TLDR; is – The Department of Justice had been investigating AT&T, Verizon and the GSM association over the charge that they had been conspiring to limit eSIM technology, a capability that makes it easier for mobile phone users to switch between networks. The companies under investigation decided to voluntarily stop their restrictive practices, so the DoJ decided to close the investigation after finding “no evidence of wrongdoing”.

    Where have I heard that phrase before recently?

    (p.s. Hope it’s OK to post the odd off-topic comment like this. How I miss Groklaw…)

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    In his time at Princeton, Wharton, and Columbia, much touted economist and China watcher Chovanec must have never read Orwell, or Faulkner.

    “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

    “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

    A rightwinger since high school, he did find time early in his career to be an intern at Reagan’s White House and to work for William Crystol on his Project for the Republican Future, which suggests he knows more about myth-making than history.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Absolute truths:

    1. Christopher Columbus was a great man, he discovered America.
    2. He was kind to the natives. The gold he sought was in their souls.
    3. His aim, like that of all imperialism, was to bring the heathen into the body of Christ.
    4. When he arrived [in the Caribbean], North America was empty, a terra nullus, waiting for [white] Europeans to make it productive.
    5. Slavery was a boon to the slave.
    6. America’s destiny was to help the native – and slave – and to civilize and tame the West, and then the world.

    When Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States first came out, some of that was still taught, appropriately, as gospel. Lynne Cheney would have it be so now. But once you open someone’s eyes, it’s hard for them not to see.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      A lot of those ideas were perpetuated in school, others in church or church-related, ethnic, social, and service organizations.

      Lynne Cheney has worked hard for a generation to keep Texas textbooks dominated by a history of exalted white men, deprived of their biases, prejudices, and more controversial peers. Publishers, adopting an NPR-ish least controversial version, use the Texas variant in most US markets, giving her efforts wider reach.

      Italian-Americans promoted the good Columbus theme as a defense to the anti-immigration policies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which targeted the wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Columbus Day came to pass c. 1934, following decades of violence.

      The Feds sought to whitewash immigrants after both the First and Second World Wars. People and post office-mandated place names were simplified and anglicized. Immigrants were shorn of their culture and history, the better to become white middle class Amurikans. (Similar processes used across the globe.)

      Here’s a nice background comment from Ed, c. 2017.

      • Cathy says:

        “Lynne Cheney has worked hard for a generation to keep Texas textbooks dominated by a history of exalted white men…Publishers…use the Texas variant in most US markets, giving her efforts wider reach.”

        Exactly why the reluctance of national Democratic leadership to put resources into Texas has seemed strategically short-sighted these last several years. The conservatives’ investment in local politics over a generation has proved strategic and pernicious. Some of us are fighting back by attempting to raise a generation that refuses to look into the gaslight, to accept it as the sun. (h/t C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair)

    • J R in WV says:

      that list of spurious “facts” complies with much of what I learned in Southern WV coal town schools. Then I went away to a liberal arts college (Dickenson, in Carllisle PA) where I took an American History class that taught actual facts, and had a reading list of 6 or 7 books.

      What an eye opener!! Changed my life. Wounded Knee, Trail of Tears, etc.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Wounded Knee – 20 Medals of Honor handed out for that, for killing unmounted women, children, and old men in the middle of a South Dakota winter in 1890 – with the help of a battery of light artillery. The army must have needed to end its Indian wars with a splash.

        Elizabeth Warren and other sponsors are trying to take those medals away, as part of re-aligning the past to bring it a little closer to reality. The movement to do that is about two decades old. Congress expressed its “deep regret” for the massacre a decade before that.

        Warren will take a lot of flack from the right for that, so I hope she’s doing it for the right reasons. Then again, she’ll take a lot of flack from the right just for getting up in the morning.

      • Eureka says:

        Hi JR, I don’t know if the local Carlisle Indian School was still a buried shame when you were studying, but there’s been a lot of open and press-covered talk about it lately, with remains being repatriated. I wanted to add that ongoing-coda to your nice comment:

        Lots of recent articles can be found/linked here:

        inquirer carlisle indian school at DuckDuckGo

        Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center

    • Eureka says:

      Ava DuVernay had a beautiful thing going on twitter earlier today: #TheBodyRemembers. If you look at the provisional map she links, it’s covered in overlaps of overlaps as opposed to discrete, hard-lined jurisdictions like present-day US maps:

      Ava DuVernay: “As I gather with family today in Compton, I stand on land of the Tongva nation. What Indigenous Territory are you on? Find out at [link given below]. Then use #TheBodyRemembers to honor the tribe + celebrate the acclaimed Indigenous drama now on @Netflix via @ARRAYNow.” | Our home on native land

  8. BobCon says:

    There’s a lot of overlap between this complaint and campus wars in general, going back to Buckley and Yale and no doubt before that.

    I’ve always been struck by the eagerness with which nominally liberal outlets like the NY Times, Harpers and the Atlantic have been publishing essentially the same thinly reported complaint for decades. I went to one of the colleges which occasionally gets mentioned as a PoMo hotbed, and I am always astonished how such an essentially UMC suburban student body gets portrayed that way.

    I have the sneaking suspicion it usually links back to late teen anxieties of student journalists about being excluded from a clique. Which of course happens, but maybe it’s about time James Bennet accepted most of those Gaulois smoking Derrida quoters in English 101 are now glib, mostly vapid lawyers like Howard on Better Call Saul.

  9. observiter says:

    The drive to keep the masses ignorant of the truth is nothing new indeed. I remember, back in high school there was a substitute teacher for a few days who spoke about this. I’ve never forgotten. It is to the powerful’s advantage to: (1) keep people locked in to low paying jobs, typically more than one job, so that they have minimal time to pay attention to anything else but their job(s); and (2) keep people uneducated so that their understanding of more than the basics is minimalized.

    Related and wondering — When did the Church’s interest in education of the masses shift?

    • Anne G Aldridge says:

      If you mean the Catholic Church, it didn’t really shift. What I learned living in Italy was that it was Mussolini who started pushing public education. Simple reason: it’s hard to put together a modern army when recruits born a few km apart speak slightly different dialects, and recruits from 100 km apart can’t communicate at all. And hardly any of them can read. I was told that Mussolini moved teachers around the country to places where they didn’t speak the local dialect, thereby pushing standard Italian (Florentine dialect).
      Today education in Italy up to age 16 is obligatory.
      Protestant churches pushed education for theological reasons, same as the Jews. In Italy this started with the Waldensians in the 12th century.

  10. e.a.f. says:

    eventually a preponderance of allegation will make a fact, so said one of my bosses back in the 1980s.

    when I read history books as a kid, I did wonder where the women were. It was like there were only men. history books in Canada about the explorers, Hudson Bay Company, politicians, all men. It was like women didn’t exist, but i knew they did, who else would take care of the houses, hey it was the 50s.

    then I started looking at who wrote the books and that was by men. At 9 I tried to figure out who made up the stuff about the world. then later I realized why they called it history, its always his story. Then one evening on t.v. , I saw an American politician named Barbara Jordan and realized I was listening to one of the smartest people I’d ever heard. Would watch her on t.v when ever i could. I realized there was a whole other truth out there.

    When Shirley Chisholm was elected to Congress, she spoke a truth I understood. Now when you consider I lived in Canada, and only saw these women on tv from time to time, some might wonder how they could have had the impact on me they did. Perhaps it was the truth they spoke and they were so much smarter than the men around them.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Even feral Ohio state Republican legislators know that it is medically impossible to remove an ectopic pregnancy and re-implant it in the womb. Left untreated, an ectopic pregnancy is usually fatal.

    Yet, in order to make a splash among anti-abortion groups and their pocketbooks, these Republicans have introduced a bill that would mandate it. Doctors who refuse to attempt the impossible would face a charge of “abortion murder.”

    Presumably, that novel crime would be for failing to attempt the re-implantation. Deaths that happen for not treating the ectopic pregnancy or because the forced procedure failed, well, shit happens. The doctors would be OK, though.

    Under current law, abortion is legal throughout the US. But the right is determined to give the Supreme Court their choice of cases to use as the basis for outlawing or severely curtailing it. Crap like this seems intended to make that choice seem right and just by comparison. In fact, the Court’s conservative majority would be throwing out nearly fifty years of precedent and women’s civil and reproductive rights.

  12. observiter says:

    “Under current law, abortion is legal throughout the US. But the right is determined to give the Supreme Court their choice of cases to use as the basis for outlawing or severely curtailing it.”

    Gosh, where oh where are those freedom-loving right wing libertarians.

  13. Mosswings says:

    With respect, in reading through the entire Twitter thread including the cited comments by Chovanec, I don’t see where he holds the perspective that the powerful didn’t used to create the truth that suited them. On the contrary, he seems to be playing devil’s advocate in demonstration of the position that ’twas ever thus.

    The entirety of marketing and advertising is using the power of monetary and creative resources to create a useful “truth” that sells things. Politicians and the powerful – in all spheres of influence, small and large, have know this since the dawn of time. The closest thing we’ve come to living by the verifiable truth has been the scientific method – but its scope is limited to the observable and corruptible by ideology believed to be nonintersectional with it, or the pursuit of patronage.

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