Moral Relativism Redux

My co-blogger Micha linked to a post by Charles Johnson in response to the article by Jacob Lyles comparing Harry Truman to Osama Bin Laden in which Johnson argued that conservatives often use the term "moral relativism" incorrectly. Johnson argues that questions of moral value ought to be answered from a fixed frame of reference, and that deviation from this fixed frame is what moral relativism truly is. Thus, judging Harry Truman and Osama Bin Laden by the same frame of reference - carrying out mass killing of civilians - is principled ethical reasoning, not moral relativism.

I shall attempt a defense of the conservative argument. First, from Wikipedia:

Moral relativism is the position that moral propositions do not reflect absolute or universal truths. It not only holds that ethical judgments emerge from social customs and personal preferences, but also that there is no single standard by which to assess an ethical proposition's truth. Many relativists see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries. Some would even suggest that one person's ethical judgments or acts cannot be judged by another, though most relativists propound a more limited version of the theory.

Some moral relativists — for example, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) — hold that a personal and subjective moral core lies at the foundation of our moral acts. They believe that public morality is a reflection of social convention, and that only personal, subjective morality is truly authentic.


Case A: Smith lies to his wife while having an affair with another woman.

Case B: Jones lies to Nazis about Jews hidden in his attic.

While both cases above involve lying - the intentional deceit of another - most people would be understanding of Jones's actions and not Smith's. When conservatives make the claim of "moral relativism", they are saying that in comparing the cases above, to judge Smith and Jones as having the same degree of immorality, would be to falsely equalize the circumstances in which their acts of lying took place. It would be giving the same moral weight to Smith's innocent wife and Nazis. It would be to rank Smith's goals of infidelity alongside Jones's goals of protecting innocent lives. The "relativism" comes from a refusal to judge different circumstances and goals at different locations on an universal moral scale.

Just as most people empathize with Jones's act of lying based on his predicament, conservatives accept Truman's decision as a difficult yet ultimately necessary one to bring an end to the war and prevent greater suffering. The Japanese were engaged in a war of conquest and had started the war with the US by attacking Pearl Harbor. They had engaged in zealous defense at Okinawa a month earlier including kamikaze attacks. A land invasion would have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, if not more, on both sides. Emperor Hirohito was largely influenced by a group of military advisors who had no intention of surrendering without preserving the old imperialistic order. Up to 400,000 civilians a month were dying in other nations at the time under Japanese rule. The Japanese were carrying out war crimes against Chinese, Koreans, and Mongolians among others, including atrocities such as live vivisection. Truman's decision was intended to bring an end to the abhorrent condition of war and bring the process of negotiation of peace closer. The sooner that happened, the more lives would be saved, at the cost of the lives lost by the bombing.

On the other hand, Bin Laden objections are the presence of US troops in the Middle East, support for Israel, and the depraved American culture. His ultimate objective is to create an Islamic superstate to re-establish a Sharia law caliphate. His actions were intended to start a war, not end one.

Equalizing the actions of Bin Laden and Truman is moral relativism because it fails to acknowledge the circumstances surrounding their actions and the objectives they had in mind on a single standard of morality. Unless one is a moral absolutist, it's quite obvious that there are times, rare though they may be, when we would choose to do things that we ordinarily regard as immoral - such as lie - to prevent consequences that we find abhorrent. Even strict natural rights libertarians would choose to violate some rights when the negatives consquences of not doing so would be sufficiently large, such as in lifeboat situations. If we recognize that real-life moral dilemmas can be difficult, that there may not always be an obvious correct answer, and that ethics sometimes involves a palette composed solely of shades of gray, then it's clear that equating Truman's actions with those of Bin Laden is absurd.

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Stefan, clever. I believe

Stefan, clever. I believe that everyone who's actually interested can search the comments for "Iran" to determine what I am referring to. Those who aren't can enjoy us all sniping at each other.