At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Moral Relativism and the Left Reconsidered

posted by Jack Kerwick

Among many on the right, the belief that their opponents on the left are “moral relativists” dies hard.  But die it must, for not only is this not true, it is about as far from the truth as it can get. 

“Moral relativism” is an ambiguous concept; this is the first thing of which to take note.  The second is that in spite of the ease and frequency with which it springs from people’s lips, very few people are comfortable identifying themselves as proponents of any doctrine so called.

The standard textbook treatment of “moral relativism” identifies three distinct theories with it: ethical subjectivism, conventionalism, and historical relativism.

Ethical subjectivism is the doctrine that the validity of moral judgments is determined by or relative to the individual or subject. So, although the respective positions of two people over, say, the moral standing of abortion, are mutually incompatible—one person claims that it is immoral while the other denies this—neither can be said to be more or less correct than the other, for both points of view are equally legitimate. 

Conventionalism is the position that the validity of moral determinations is relative to, not the individual subject, but the conventions of the culture from within the framework of which they are made.  If, then, two contemporary cultures like, say, the West and Islam, advance mutually incompatible views on, for example, the proper treatment of women, it is inappropriate to conclude from this one view is any better or worse than the other in any categorical sense, for both views are fine and good relative to their own standards.

Historical relativism, though similar to conventionalism, isn’t quite the same thing as it.  The historical relativist insists that the validity of moral judgments is relative to time.  What this implies is that even though Americans in the 21st century need not be persuaded that slavery is morally contemptible while our ancestors—including some Americans—thought otherwise, neither generation is more or less enlightened than the other on this (or any other) issue, for every generation judges and should be judged by its own standards.

Their differences aside, common to these versions of relativism is a rejection of the proposition that there are moral truths that transcend considerations of place and time, truths whose jurisdiction extends over all people.

It is my settled judgment that in spite of the clumsiness with which some leftists speak, the leftist is decidedly, emphatically, not a moral relativist. 

If the notion that there are any human beings who have somehow or other succeeded in freeing themselves entirely from all moral concerns is inconceivable, how much more so must we find the conventional right-wing wisdom that expects us to accept that countless millions of our moralistic brethren on the left don’t “care for” or “believe in” morality.  As one conservative writer once said, morality is like the air we breathe.  Everyone—including the most narcissistic among us—makes moral judgments. 

From the time of his emergence as an identifiable character, the leftist has been distinguished by his obsession with ameliorating or even eliminating material inequalities.  As many thinkers on the right, from Ludwig von Mises to Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman to Thomas Sowell, have long observed, this obsession finds expression in a moral vision notable for its robustness.  As the title of Sowell’s exposition of standard leftist morality—The Quest for Cosmic Justice—makes abundantly clear, the leftist holds as robust, comprehensive, grandiose, and, well, ambitious a morality as any that we will find.  

The French Revolutionaries were, quite literally, the original leftists, and it was in response to the Revolution that conservatism as a distinctive intellectual tradition emerged via Edmund Burke.  Yet far from accusing his opponents of denying the objectivity of morality or anything of the kind, Burke rather chided them for their moral absolutism!  “The Rights,” not of Englishmen or Frenchmen, but of Man belonged to a metaphysics that Burke eschewed for both its abstractness and its unconditional character.

Of these radicals, Burke writes:

“Whilst they are possessed by these notions, it is vain to talk to them of the practice of their ancestors, the fundamental laws of their country, the fixed form of a Constitution whose merits are confirmed by the solid test of long experience…They…have wrought under ground a mine that will blow up, at one grand explosion, all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of Parliament.”

The French Revolutionaries have “‘the rights of man.’ Against these there can be no prescription; against these no argument is binding: these admit no temperament and no compromise: anything withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice.”         

As an antidote to this trans-historical morality Burke advanced a morality centered in the local and the particular—i.e. in tradition.  And in so doing, he set a precedent that conservatives—and most rightists—have followed ever since. 

Yet there are even more obvious considerations that put the lie to the idea that leftists are moral relativists.  While he may attempt to dismiss his opponent’s morality by accounting for it in exclusively psychological, cultural, or historical terms, the leftist most certainly does not regard his morality along these lines.  Anyone with any doubts on this score only need ask themselves: Would a leftist suggest that his preference for equality is no better or worse than another’s preference for inequality?  Is it fathomable that the leftist would ever say something like: “Hey, racism may be immoral for us but that doesn’t mean that it has to be immoral for others?” 

These questions are rhetorical.  “Racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” and, in short, every other evil that constitutes the galaxy of Politically Correct sins the leftist treats as categorically immoral. 

But, one may object, that the leftist isn’t consistent in applying his moral standards, that, say, he tolerates black-on-white “racism” while forbidding white-on-black “racism” proves that my assessment fails and he is, after all, the relativist that his rivals say he is. 

Interestingly, the reasoning of this criticism is exactly the same reasoning upon which the case for moral relativism relies!  The conclusion that moral judgments are always relative is typically rooted in the observation that people and whole cultures apply, or at least appear to apply, different moral standards to morally comparable situations. Similarly, the conclusion that the leftist is a relativist is here inferred from the premise that he applies, or at least appears to apply, different moral standards to morally comparable situations.  However, neither of these two arguments works. 

For one, if the leftist is a moral relativist for acting inconsistently, then we are all relativists, for there is no one among us who is immune to the charge of inconsistency.  The leftist may be inadvertently inconsistent, hypocritical, unwise, or cowardly.  Yet from the selectivity with which he extends his principles we are not justified in concluding that he is a relativist. 

Secondly, even when he is aware of this charge, the leftist is ready to meet it.  Sticking with the forgoing example, he has been laboring inexhaustibly for decades trying to convince us—and himself, doubtless—that in spite of surface appearances, the hostility that blacks have shown against whites, like the preferential treatment policies—“affirmative action”—that discriminate in favor of blacks and against whites, are not instances of “racism.”  Blacks, by virtue of their unique history of “oppression” in America, the leftist tells, are justifiably hostile toward whites and are owed “special consideration.” 

No, the leftist is no moral relativist.  Quite the contrary: he is a moral absolutist.      

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 


Examining Obama’s idea of “Fundamental Transformation”

posted by Jack Kerwick

Since he has been elected president, commentators on the right have debated amongst themselves as to what Barack Obama honestly expects to gain from his policies.  One school of thought, represented by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, swears that the president seeks nothing more or less than the destruction of America.  The other school, of which Michael Medved is a key representative, insists that Obama has nothing but the best interests of the country at heart—however misplaced his mind on this matter may be.   

From which of these two positions should we choose?

Obama himself gave us more than a few hints regarding the correct answer to this question.   Setting aside everything else we know about him, we need only turn our attention back to the presidential campaign of 2008 when then Senator Obama proudly pledged to “fundamentally transform” America in the event of his election.

Even though a transformation involves change, it is a mistake to identify it with change as such.  Still, to comprehend the nature of a transformation, we must begin our inquiry with an examination of the concept of change. Fortunately, for our sake, we have a millennia-old philosophical tradition at our disposal, a tradition that stems back 2,600 years to classical Greece and that helped define Western civilization. 

From its inception, the themes of change and permanence have more or less determined the character of Western philosophy.  For this, we have the “pre-Socratic” philosophers to thank.  Parmenides, for example, thought that change must be an illusion, for change is identity-extinguishing.  This reasoning is sound.  Think about it: we know that two things are two things and not the same thing because each possesses properties that the other lacks.  But whatever changes has properties at one moment that it lacks at the next.  If change were real, then, we wouldn’t be able to identify anything.  Yet we can identify things.  Thus, change must be an illusion.

Heraclitus, in contrast, argued for just the opposite position: it is permanence that is illusory; change is the only reality.  We witness change all around us.   However, in spite of his disagreement with Parmenides over the nature of reality, that Heraclitus shared his belief that change precludes identity is gotten from his famous declaration that “one cannot step in the same river twice!”   

These early partisans of permanence and change, respectively, deserve gratitude for getting this conversation underway. Yet, thankfully, the conception of identity as exact sameness underlying their conflict has been revisited—and rejected—by subsequent generations of thinkers.  The most plausible candidate for identity, one that resonates with our “common sense” intuitions, conceives identity in terms of continuity.  On this view, something is the same thing at one moment as it is at the next, not if it never endures change, but if the changes that it undergoes are continuous with one another and, hence, capable of being assimilated.

It is important to note that this conception of identity excludes radical or transformative change.   The person I am today bears few similarities to the person I was at two years-old, but the fact of the matter remains that I am the same person.  That is, I can justifiably point to the picture of the two year-old on the mantle and claim: “That’s me when I was a baby.”  Although the cumulative effect of the countless changes that I have undergone over the span of my life have produced a 39 year-old with characteristics dramatically different from those possessed by the two year-old I once was, these changes have been gradual and continuous with one another. 

If, however, all of my memories, my very history, were suddenly to be eliminated and replaced by the experiences of another, then I would be “fundamentally transformed” into that other.  This, though, is but another way of saying that the person who I have always been would cease to exist.  To put it even more starkly, the “fundamental transformation” of anything is simply—and literally—its death.

So, paradoxically, “fundamental transformation” is beyond change altogether. Change is experienced in the process of dying, it is true, but since the dead experience nothing, the event of death can’t be said to be a change at all, for there no longer is a subject to suffer the change.  In other words, transforming consists of radical change(s) but the transformation is beyond change.

Anyone with any doubts on this score should ask himself how his wife would respond if he expressed his wish to fundamentally transform her.  The answer to this question is obvious.  Most spouses, at least those in moderately successful marriages, recognize the need to make some changes in themselves.  But the desire to fundamentally transform one’s spouse is nothing other than the desire for a new spouse.

With these considerations in mind, it should now be clear that President Obama does indeed wish to destroy America.  It isn’t that he longs for destruction for its own sake. His aim is to destroy the country that we have inherited and to forge from its ashes a new America of his leftist imagination.  No doubt, Obama genuinely believes that this new America in which material resources are more “equitably” distributed among racial and other groups is morally superior the status quo.  He no doubt believes that we will all be better off for it.

However, while he may be devoid of malice, our President’s promise to fundamentally transform our country is the promise to replace it with another.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American

“WeinerGate”: A Moral Distraction

posted by Jack Kerwick

While Republicans and Democrats generally have a difficult time finding agreement on details, something close to a genuinely bi-partisan consensus over the Anthony Weiner situation seems to be forming. 

The recently married New York Congressman who repeatedly insisted on his innocence with respect to the charge that he sent naked photos of his genitalia to young women now admits that he had been lying.  Both Democrats and Republicans are calling for him to resign.  That Weiner lied and that his sophomoric and dishonorable conduct disgraced the Congress are the standard reasons given in support of this verdict.  

Before saying another word, let me assure the reader that Congressman Weiner doesn’t rank high in my affections.  From the relatively little that I know about him, in fact, I can safely say that even before this latest revelation concerning his character broke, I found him a most unlikable person.  And, of course, his politics I detest. 

Still—and perhaps this is a character defect on my part—I find this whole episode of little interest.  In fact, if Weiner isn’t guilty of any Congressional Ethics violations, I don’t even think that he should necessarily step down (however appealing the prospect of there being one less Democrat resolved to further undermine what’s left of the Constitutional Republic bequeathed to us by our Founders undoubtedly is).

My reasoning is actually quite simple.

No genuine lover of the kind of liberty that our Constitution was originally designed to secure could possibly look upon Weiner’s most recent actions with a fraction of the contempt that he reserves for, say, most of the agenda of both of our national political parties. 

Even had Weiner been making regular visits to brothels, this wouldn’t in the least jeopardize our liberty.  On the other hand, politicians who: wage interminable, undeclared wars and deploy the resources in blood and treasure of their constituents toward the end of constructing “democracies” in nations throughout the world; refuse to secure America’s borders against nothing less than an invasion of third-world aliens; favor the interests of the members of some races over those of others under the guises of either justice or diversity (i.e. “affirmative action”); support Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and literally countless other policies designed to redistribute income and wealth from some to others, such politicians do indeed pose the greatest threat to our liberty.

In other words, while my disdain for adultery is second to none, and while I would be the last person to email photos of my naked genitalia to anyone, including my wife, I would rather every one of our elected representatives engage in this sort of conduct than continue their perennial campaign to rid this association that we call America of every last vestige of its civil character.  Vis-à-vis my liberty as an American, I infinitely prefer Weiner the sex pervert (or whatever we decide to call him) to Weiner the socialist, for while the former is obsessed with revealing pictures of his private parts, the latter—along with his fellow travelers in politics—is obsessed with compelling an entire country to part with more and more of their freedom in exchange with his vision of “social justice.” 

In spite of all of the confused rhetoric to the contrary, in an association of free persons there is no place for political “leaders.”  I suppose it is my recognition of this fact that accounts for why I am neither disappointed nor outraged upon hearing of politicians who embroil themselves in sex scandals and the like.  The self-governing agents who compose an association of free persons relish in their individuality, their capacity to embark upon the pursuits of their choosing—not in those of which political “leaders” who, being government office-holders, must of necessity compel them to engage.  

In selecting representatives, character counts, for sure, but character encompasses quite a bit.  The legal or constitutional order that we authorize our elected representatives to safeguard demands, first and foremost, men and women who are resolved to insure that ours remains a nation of laws, not one of policy.  To put this point another way, considered just as elected representatives, holders of government office are artificial persons, persons constituted solely by the laws that authorize their existence in the first place.  And what this means is that while their personal or “private” character defects might be something of a sign as to how they will govern, they aren’t necessarily so.  At any rate, such considerations pale in comparison to whether candidates are committed to truly “upholding” the Constitution and the laws that justify their being as elected representatives.

Any reader disposed to reject my analysis should attend to the following brief thought experiment.  Whatever one’s opinion of Ron Paul, no one could or even would think to accuse him of favoring “Big” or unconstitutional government.  Now, suppose, contra to reality, Paul had as checkered a marital history as, say, Donald Trump.  If, though, Paul was the Republican presidential candidate running against Barack Obama, a man with an apparently stellar marital and familial background, could there really be any doubt as to whom the “moral conservative” would endorse?  For all of that, I don’t think that there is hardly a “moral conservative” alive who wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump over Obama, if these were his only two choices. 

Sex scandals of the sort at the center of which Weiner currently finds himself distract us from the real immorality of which every lover of liberty should have the utmost concern: the disregard, and even disdain, that our elected representatives have for the Constitution that they have pledged to preserve.  

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

The Mad Doctor, or Mad Medved?

posted by Jack Kerwick

In his, “Ron Paul, Hookers, and Heroin,” nationally syndicated talk show host Michael Medved has once more indulged his obsession with Ron Paul.

Paul is a “crackpot,” Medved says, because of his insistence “that government has no more right to interfere with prostitution or heroin than it does to limit the right of the people to ‘practice their religion and say their prayers’….” 

It is correct that during the first Republican presidential primary debate in South Carolina, Paul did indeed analogize the federal government’s relation to drug use and prostitution to its relationship to the practice of religion.  Just as Americans have long recognized that their liberty to practice or refrain from practicing any religion of their choice requires that all other Americans be equally at liberty to make this same kind of choice, so too should they realize that the liberty to engage in the “personal habits” of one’s choosing depends upon others being able to do the same.  “You know, it’s amazing,” Paul remarks, “that we want freedom to pick our future in a spiritual way but not when it comes to our personal habits.”

And what this in turn implies is that just as our Constitution prohibits the federal government from interfering in the exercise of religion, so too should it be read as proscribing the federal government’s interference with such “personal habits” as recreational drug use and prostitution. 

This is “[a] First Amendment type issue,” Paul declares, that, in the interest of protecting “liberty across the board,” should be turned over exclusively to the states to manage.  

For these remarks, Medved bombards Paul with a litany of ad hominem attacks.  In addition to calling him a “crackpot,” he refers to him as “the Mad Doctor” and attempts to besmirch Paul by accusing him of “proudly” associating with such disreputable types as 9/11 Truthers and “Holocaust denying neo-Nazis.”  Paul, Medved continues, used the first Republican primary debate as an opportunity to “stake out exclusive territory on the lunatic libertarian fringe.”  He is “addle-brained,” a “crotchety candidate,” a “sad caricature of conservative and libertarian ideology,” and “reckless.”  Paul’s “logic” is not only “rotten,” but “putrefying” at its “core.”  And just to be sure that his profound insights into the intellectual and moral dimensions of Paul’s character haven’t been lost upon the reader, Medved wraps up his brilliant case for Paul’s institutionalization by referring to him as “Dr. Demento.”

For the last 12 years, from the time I began working on my master’s degree in philosophy, I have taught various course in philosophy, from ethics to political philosophy, philosophy of law to philosophy of art, world religions to logic. Had a student of mine submitted a paper as poorly reasoned, as fallacy ridden, as Medved’s article on Paul, he would not have fared well.

However, once we turn to the shoddiness of the talk show host’s arguments against Paul, it is not difficult to understand why he had to resort to abusive name calling.   

Medved makes two arguments against Paul’s point of view. 

First, he charges the Texas congressman with inconsistency: if the First Amendment proscribes the feds from interfering with transactions involving drugs and sex, then it as well proscribes the states from so doing, for in 1925, the Supreme Court “federalized Bill of Rights protections.” 

As I already pointed out, Paul did not say that this was a First Amendment issue.  What he said is that it is a “First Amendment type” issue.  The First Amendment proscribes the federal government from interfering with the practice of religion.  Because religion is a “personal habit,” as Paul says, and personal habits are exercises in liberty, the “personal habits” of drug usage and prostitution should also be protected from the federal government.  In other words, while neither the letter of the First Amendment nor the Bill of Rights generally mentions drug usage and prostitution, the spirit of “liberty across the board” for the sake of which the Constitution and, specifically, the Bill of Rights exists demands that the federal government relinquish its tentacles from “the personal habits” of citizens. 

There is another way to meet Medved’s charge of inconsistency.  Paul could always reject as genuinely constitutional the Supreme Court decision to which Medved alludes.  After all, the U.S. Supreme Court is a branch of the federal government.  That the federal government, then, presumes to dictate to the states that they are as equally obliged as itself to observe the Bill of Rights could only be seen by Constitutionalists like Paul as but another instance of the federal government’s extended project of undermining the liberty of the states. 

To put this more bluntly, Paul could say to Medved that the latter begs the question.  It is as if a Christian tried to convince a Jew that Jesus really was the Messiah by alluding to the New Testament—a document that Jews reject as divinely inspired. 

Medved’s second charge against Paul is much weaker than the first. Paul’s “lunatic libertarian” position, Medved asserts, centers on the “provocative (and preposterous) claim that the First Amendment and ‘protection of liberty across the board’ forbid limitations on even the most dangerous drugs.” 

Either a lack of charity or a lack of rudimentary logic on Medved’s part could have given rise to such a straw man.  When Paul claims that Constitutional liberty precludes the criminalization of drugs and prostitution, contra Medved, he is most certainly not claiming that it precludes “limitations on even the most dangerous drugs.” 

After setting up his wild distortion of Paul’s position, Medved proceeds to point out that the legalization of “perhaps the most commonly practiced ‘personal habit’ in American culture,” alcohol consumption, “hasn’t stopped authorities from limiting the hours of bar service or, in numerous ‘dry’ counties or states, prohibiting the marketing of liquor altogether….”  Medved has really nailed Paul here!  Well, actually, he hasn’t.  The truth is that a call for the legalization of currently illegal drugs is no more a call for a literally laissez faire approach to their sale, distribution, and use than is a call for the continual legalization of a legal drug like alcohol synonymous with a demand to abolish all regulations on its sale, distribution, and use.

Medved either cannot or will not grasp these not too terribly fine distinctions, for he continues this theme of Paul’s “libertarian instinct to condemn as unconstitutional any governmental role in the economy….”  As if arguing with himself, Medved then responds to his own straw man with but another fallacy, what logicians since Aristotle have called “the complex question,” a rhetorical question designed to assert precisely that which needs to be argued: “Would anyone claim that protecting liberty guaranteed a right to advertise some phony, falsely packaged ‘miracle cure’ for cancer that did significant harm to those who purchased it, or for a public market to offer dead cats labeled as ground sirloin?”

I wish I could say that I am as guilty of misconstruing Medved’s position as he is guilty of misrepresenting Paul’s.  But, sadly, this really is as good—or bad—as it gets for Medved’s argument.  He apparently really thinks that Paul’s invocations of liberty for a smaller, more constitutional government, is an argument for the practical abolition of government.  In reality, though, libertarians like Paul recognize the need for and desirability of a strong government capable of doing many things, among the most important of which is safeguarding citizens against exactly the kind of fraud and deceit to which Medved alludes.

And, as I hoped to show here, this is just the kind of fraud and deceit of which Medved’s attempt to pass off his analysis of Ron Paul as anything other than a piece of fiction convicts him. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

originally published at The New American

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