Moral Relativism

by Gene Callahan

I’ve long been chagrined about the fact that, whenever someone points out that it was wrong, say, for the United States to annihilate a quarter of a million civilians in Japan in 1945, that person is accused, by some “patriot,” of “moral relativism,” as if condemning an act equally whoever does it is “relativism”! So I was very happy to see Glenn Greenwald making the same point today:

“Perhaps the ultimate confusion is that ‘the Left’ has long been accused of ‘moral relativism’ for pointing out the use of these terms when the essence of ‘moral relativism’ is judging an act not based on what it is, but on who is doing it. It’s the adolescent self-love of believing that ‘X, by definition, is good when I do it and bad when you do it.'”

13 thoughts on “Moral Relativism

  1. A related objection I would make is to moral reductionism: killing is bad, therefore everyone who kills is bad.

    Is it equally bad to drop atomic weapons on civilians in the middle of war as it is to drop them on civilians in the middle of peace time? Soldiers in war? Soldiers in peace time? Are these all the same?

    Is it equally bad to drop them after days of warning, or with no warning?

    I don’t hold the view “X is righteous therefore all X does is righteous” but I equally reject silly reductionist arguments which eschew context entirely, and in so doing create a false sense of moral equivalence around all actions by all people at all times.

  2. Gene, you leave out Japan’s horrendous conduct in China and its treatment of prisoners and subject peoples everywhere. I think revenge was appropriate, with the US as its instrument. This is not moral relativism; it is morality, even if you do not approve of it. Also, if Japan had not been grievously damaged/punished, would it have followed such a benign post-war course as it did? Bushido was discredited and eliminated by the painful and absolute defeat that was inflicted upon its adherents.

  3. “Revenge” no doubt counts as an expression of morality if just any motive that matters to one deeply and isn’t simply about satisfying immediate impulses counts as an expression of morality. But that seems to me to be just the sort of relativism Gene and Glenn are both declaiming against. If the claim, instead, is that revenge is morally appropriate, that Gene, Glenn, and I should endorse it, my response is: prove it. Revenge doesn’t, in fact, offer anything of value to the person seeking it. It can produce emotional satisfaction, but unless you really want to maintain that killing people is justified because it makes you feel better, that doesn’t seem like an especially good argument. Either the feelings point (like emotions we want to take seriously) to objective realities or they don’t. Since revenge as such (I ignore deterrent effects here, since deterrence is a distinguishable moral justification for inflicting great harm) doesn’t confer any actual benefit on the person seeking it, I suggest that the feelings likely don’t point to any objective reality, and so aren’t taking seriously as guides to action in this case.

    Even if you do think revenge is a credible motive for action, the collectivist logic of assuming that an undifferentiated mass of ordinary people should be targeted in revenge for their leaders’ behavior is puzzling. All those injured by the policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama during the past eight years certainly aren’t justified in attacking any of those reading and contributing to this blog. I’mt not sure what makes the residents of Hiroshima in 1945 any different from us in that respect.

    The just war tradition, from at least Augustine to the present, has maintained that targeting noncombatants was always wrong. And it has suggested (in its best expression) that imposing the risk that someone will be harmed by a side-effect of a legitimate military use of force is justifiable only if the person imposing the risk would not resent the imposition of a similar risk on herself or her loved ones. I don’t see how the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could pass muster, on any interpretation, under either of these standards.

    The just war tradition, from at least Augustine to the present

  4. “A related objection I would make is to moral reductionism: killing is bad, therefore everyone who kills is bad.”

    Yes, that would be bad moral reasoning. But just who is guilty of it?

  5. Chris,

    1) What Gary said.

    2) Are you really to say that, because some Japanese soldiers behaved terribly in Nanking it was A-OK to melt into an undifferentiated goop some Japanese babies who had not even been alive when the atrocity occurred?

  6. Either way people can put up their pretend morality when there are no evidence for it. Morality is subjective and even moral relativism has its problems.

  7. “It’s the adolescent self-love of believing that ‘X, by definition, is good when I do it and bad when you do it.’”

    Let’s try a hypothetical example of adolescent self-love. One dark night Frank opens an unlocked door to an unknown residence, creeps up the steps and walks into a bedroom that contain Mary and Bill. Frank pulls out his gun and shoots Mary dead. Before he can turn to aim his gun at Bill, Bill has leaped out of bed and wrestles Frank to the ground. Bill is able to disarm Frank and shoot Frank dead.

    In both cases X has occur. X being shooting someone dead. Is it adolescent self-love on my part to think that when Bill did X it was GOOD and when Frank did X it was BAD? Or should we condemn act X equally whomever does it?

  8. Tom, Frank and Bill did not both do any single X. Frank murdered someone, while Bill shot someone in self-defense.

    Did you think somebody was denying such distinctions?

  9. Yes, that was the whole point of Glenn Greenwald’s article.

    Example: Greenwald cites a BBC article under the heading of “State Sponsors of Terrorism” that Iran is funding Hezbollah and an article by from the Irish Times under the title of “Peace loving nations” that the US is funding Israel. It is only my “adolescent self-love of believing that ‘X, by definition, is good when I [Israel] do[es] it and bad when you [Iran] do[es] it.”

    Never mind that Israel is acting out of self defense and Hezbollah and Iran deny Israel’s right to exist and seeks its destruction.

  10. Sure, Tom. Never mind that it is the US that are actually invading and attacking countries in the Middle East, and never mind that it is actually Israel that has uninspected nuclear facilities and refuses to submit to IAEA inspections and has repeatedly bombed its neighbors. What we should mind is that in your fantasy world a country that has not attacked anyone in several centuries is “the aggressor.”

  11. What Greenwald described is malignant narcissism. Not necessarily “self-love”, but rather an inability to see things outside of oneself objectively. Thus “conservatives” and other authoritarians really do believe it’s different when “we” do it. I can’t help but recommend Erich Fromm’s analysis of narcissism and authoritarianism. It’s like reading a prophetic description of today’s neo-conservatives: They are at once “sadistic” via their destructiveness (war) and desire to control others domestically, and “masochistic” in that they relish in, and demand subordination to authority. (the State, god, etc)Fromm wrote (in Escape From Freedom) that this sort of personality oscillates between sadism and masochism. I’ve always wondered if his work would appeal to libertarians. I think it should for more reasons than I’ll get into here, but he was a socialist, and so I suspect blacklisted to many by default. He did a lot of work on human destructiveness, and was decidedly anti-war.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s