Monday, July 6, 2009

Defending moral relativism

I’ve been reading Hans-Georg Moeller’s The Holy Fool: the case for amorality. Moeller, whose notion of the holy fool comes from Daoism, defends a radical version of negative ethics, which arises, he says, from a “disgust with ethics and its failures.” Given such a viewpoint, you would think that Moeller would be sympathetic to moral relativism.

Yet, in the midst of arguing for amorality, Moeller is careful to say that he is not a moral relativist. It is as if moral relativism is in itself a kind of contagious failure. Myself, if I am anything, I’m a moral relativist, even though I rarely recognize moral relativism in the way it is usually constructed in philosophy. It is usually assumed that if you are a moral relativist, you cannot, for some reason, condemn people who exist in another moral perspective. This, to my mind, is very weird. If you are a moral relativist, why should you pledge yourself to a universalist notion of respecting other moral perspectives? In fact, such a pledge is one possible way of constructing a moral perspective, but not, of course, the only one. Moral relativism, as I understand it, derives its power from anthropological relativism – the refusal to assume that cultures sort themselves hierarchically in terms of some value. But the refusal to assume this sorting occurs, of course, within a discourse about culture. It occurs at the intellectual level in which one studies cultures. Within cultures as historical entities, it doesn’t exist at all. Historically, cultures are always sorting themselves both inside and outside – inside, by way of changes in the symbolic mediations of the members of the culture, and outside, by way of expansions, retreats, stances of neutrality, etc. The Spanish culture sorted itself out with the Mixteca-Aztec culture by trying to destroy the latter, for instance.

Similarly, the moral relativist could well believe that the perspective in which he or she exists should sort itself out with another perspective by destroying it. Meanwhile, internally, the moral perspective, insofar as one aspect of it is actual culture practices, is of course under tension as well. All the moral relativist has to claim is legitimacy with regard to the perspective he embraces. What the moral relativist gives up is the idea that he has access to an absolute perspective. If morality is a way of making us feel good about condemning people, then I have plenty of moral equipment for condemning, say, Hitler, without condemning Hitler absolutely. The demand for an absolute here seems to mean either one of two things. It is the demand that Hitler is not just evil, but really really evil – it is an intensifier. Or it is the demand that there be no moral perspective in which Hitler could justify himself. Of course, the latter is historically falsified – we know quite well that Nazis thought that they were morally justified, which is why they acted the way they did. So what is the absolute demand really for? I think it is for a justification of annulling, or killing, Nazis. But such justification could easily be constructed in one moral perspective without being constructed in all of them.

Obviously, my version of moral relativism isn’t that thing philosophers like to attack when they claim that moral relativism is saying morality is an individual taste. Or the “you believe x and I believe y” by which people agree to disagree. However, the motive for moral relativism does arise from things like agreeing to disagree, or holding a value as a taste. The moral relativist can doubt that morality is individualistic in the sense that it is unlikely any individual creates a morality, any more than any individual creates a language, but the underlying notion that there are different moral perspectives which, perhaps, don’t compete in some agreed upon way to win is the insight that first animates the thought that morality could be relative. In that sense, taste and differences about taste are the most powerful models for the liberal utopian immpulse - the impulse to construct a tolerant society. This liberalism undoubtedly nurtures contemporary moral relativism, even though most moral relativists keep their heads down - as it is one of those terms that is supposed to be damning.

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