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.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Truth and Facts

Until the Enlightenment, everyone thought that there were Absolute Truths. It was the only way to understand the physical, social and psychological state in which humans existed. God spoke to humans and established the Absolute Truth. Those who trespassed against that Truth were burned at the stake, as Giordano Bruno, or exiled. That was true of all religions and all philosophers too.

That view has never died out. It’s the root of fundamentalisms of all denominations, and even among quasi-believers it is widely held. I think is is a core principle of conservatism, at least in practice. For example they all seem to believe in the Absolute Truth that tax cuts are always the solution to any perceived problem. And neoliberals assert it too, at least in their public statements; who knows what, if anything they actually believe or if there is an authentic neoliberal self that has a principle that doesn’t involve money or power.

It’s important to note that not all religions today teach that they are in possession of Absolute Truth. From its beginning, for example, the Jews did not name or describe the Almighty. They knew they were not like the Almighty, and thus could not expect to understand the nature of the Almighty. In the same way, Catholics who accept the teachings of Vatican II know that even the moral guidance of the Pope is subject to the considered judgment of the People of God. Catholics do not surrender their moral agency. Instead, dogma is guided by the lived experience of the faithful believer.

It seems odd that anyone would claim to speak for the Almighty, but people always have and still do. Some claim to know the will of the Almighty from an ancient text or because they heard it from someone who they believe speaks for the Almighty in our time. Still others claim the authority to interpret those texts as a guide to living in a society vastly different from that in which they were first written down.

It’s a small step from believing that one knows the will of the Almighty to believing that some social practice is ordained by the Almighty. It’s another small step to believe some theory of society or economics or politics reflects the will of the Almighty. It’s easy to see how this practice infects and affects vast numbers of people.

The struggle among these people is for dominance in the definitions of Absolute Truth. It isn’t just preachers and religious leaders who try to create Absolute Truths, there are plenty of politicians and others whose interests are served by linking their projects to Absolute Truth. Obviously this struggle doesn’t take place in the realm of reason, because absolutes are not subject to reason, or to argument, or to persuasion of any external kind. The truth is a whole, and the believers hold that whole. As an example, the Nazis tried to root out “Jewish Physics”, embodied by Albert Einstein, as anti-Aryan. Einstein was a theorist, not an experimenter, and the guy driving this absurd idea was an Aryan experimenter.

In contrast to the absolutists, a lot of people began to lose that certainty at the time of the Enlightenment. By the early 1900s, most thinking people were trying to come to grips with the absence of certainty. The members of the Frankfurt School certainly did not believe in Absolute Truth. Here’s Martin Jay:

… Dialectics probed the “force-field,” to use an expression of Adorno’s, between consciousness and being, subject and object. It did not, indeed could not, pretend to have discovered ontological first principles. It rejected the extremes of nominalism and realism and remained willing to operate in a perpetual state of suspended judgment.

Hence the crucial importance of mediation (Vermittlung) for a correct theory of society. No facet of social reality could be understood by the observer as final or complete in itself. There were no social “facts,” as the positivists believed, which were the substratum of a social theory. Instead, there was a constant interplay of particular and universal, of “moment”* and totality.
P. 54, emphasis added..

One way to think about this point of view is to recognize that scientific theories are subject to massive revision. That’s the point of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s a painful process, but necessary for science. If that’s true for our best and most focused practical thinking, it’s impossible to imagine that there are Absolute Truths about human beings and their intricate social relations and their personal projects and desires. Dialectics, mediation, neither will uncover universal truths.

This general view has been common for some time among academics. Here’s a nice example provided by Andrew Bacevich. It’s a speech given by Carl Becker in his capacity as president of the American Historical Association in 1931. Becker defines history as “… the memory of things said and done.” Those memories may include things witnessed or said or done by a person, and it may include other people’s memories passed along in writing or otherwise, and it may include true, false and mixed memories. He explains that “For all practical purposes history is, for us and for the time being, what we know it to be.”

Throughout the speech, he compares the professional historian to Mr. Everyman, the average person in the street.

In constructing this more remote and far-flung pattern of remembered things, Mr. Everyman works with something of the freedom of a creative artist; the history which he imaginatively recreates as an artificial extension of his personal experience will inevitably be an engaging blend of fact and fancy, a mythical adaptation of that which actually happened.

We can see this process when we look at how the myths of slavery and the Confederacy were generated purposefully by those with something to gain, as Ibram Kendi shows in Stamped From The Beginning. The process continues today as the true believers on the Texas School Board work to erase from our collective memory the vicious brutality of slavery and to replace it with the absurd view that slaves were happy under the whip of their white owners.

The Frankfort School teaches that all our ideas and theories should be tested by what Jay calls the tribunal of reason. According to Jay, they didn’t have a clear definition of “reason” or of “truth”. As he explains, the dialectic is great for attacking existing ideas, but it won’t establish any truths itself.

Jay says that the Frankfurt School “…remained willing to operate in a perpetual state of suspended judgment.” That’s fine for analysis, but at some point, you have to act. It seems to me he is saying that the role of reason is to make sure that when you act you are making the best possible choice about the act, and about the goal of the act. And that is a good description of praxis.

I won’t go further, because the contributions of the Frankfurt School in understanding society and working towards a better society do not depend on it. One such contribution, the concept of the Authoritarian Personality, deals directly with the true believers.