Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Morality of Relativism

Doing a stint at AOTP, our friend Cernig (of Newshoggers reknown) has a truly beautiful post on the history of what is perjoratively called moral relativism, and what it can teach us about the shared history of classical American political thought ranging from libertarianism to liberalism to Burkean conservatism to anarchism. Cernig's piece comes remarkably close to my own views, and is the very definition of a "Read the Whole Thing" post - especially if you have any interest in restoring the primacy of the classical American political tradition.

Cernig begins:

I did absorb enough moral philosophy to understand that the broad mainstream of modern Western political thought - libertarians, liberals, small-c conservatives and even anarchists - held a rather different conception of moral truth from that of the authoritarian streams - communism, fascism and religious conservativism. For the latter, moral certainty is easy to come by. It is handed down from an Invisible Friend who is never wrong or arrived at intuitively via a faith that they, and they alone, have access to Platonic truths about morality in unalloyed form. For the rest of us, its a bit harder to come by such certainty - we have to actually think about it a

Cernig goes on to discuss Wittgenstein and two Scots near and dear to libertarianism - Mill and Smith, amongst others. He argues that although as a practical matter the purpose of politics is the legislation of morality, as a normative matter the sole morality that should matter is the Golden Rule ("do unto others....") and its corrollary ("don't allow others to do unto you as you wouldn't do to them"). (See Note 1, below). This is because human knowledge is finite, and morality thus cannot be intuitively known except by reliance on an "Invisible Friend," be it the Bible, a political leader, or an author. Thus, he argues, "moral relativism is the only rational method of moral enquiry, one that doesn’t rely a priori on magical and mysterious access to Invisible Friends, be they deity or platonic form."

Cernig concludes:

This intellectual framework, arising out of moral relativism and the political theory which logically must follow from it, is the shared heritage of liberals, libertarians, moderate conservatives and even anarchists. We do not, however, share any of that heritage with those who appeal to Invisible Friends of various kinds for their moral authority. They all share an authoritarian outlook arising from their reliance on dogmatic and external unapproachables, whether on hard Left or hard Right, which cannot ever be compatible with our shared theories of liberty, freedom or morality.

Cernig's post is fertile territory for a lot of my own political philosophy.

Most importantly, Cernig's post focuses on the argument that "moral relativism" is the foundation upon which liberty and individual freedoms are based. I think this point is well-taken, particularly considering that humans and the whole of human accumulated knowledge are by definition, finite; however, somewhere in the universe exists an infinite entity, whether that entity be the universe, God, or something else. (See Note 2 below)

Where I struggle, however, is with the use of the term "moral relativism" to describe the humility that accepts the limits of human knowledge in a universe where an infinite entity exists. This may be due to my own discomfort with the way in which it is usually used as a perjorative, but I also think the term "moral relativism" is inaccurate. The point at which Cernig is driving, which is a beautiful point, is that while morality (aka "absolute truth") may in fact exist (and perhaps does exist by definition), it is unknowable with certainty due to the finite nature of human knowledge. Thus, humans can only act morally to the extent of their own frame of reference, and to advance their own happiness (not to be confused with pleasure - the two are not always or even often the same).

But that does not mean we give up the search for absolute truth or morality, unknowable as it may be. Rather our understanding that absolute truth exists but cannot be known with certainty causes us to constantly inquire as to the nature of that absolute truth, constantly seeking it out while simultaneously recognizing that our uncertainty leaves us in no position to order others what to do short of recognizing the Golden Rule and its corrollary, versions of which, to my knowledge, exist in all or nearly all human cultures throughout recorded history.

In this way, so-called "moral relativists" are not "relativists" at all - instead, our morality is entirely formed on the Golden Rule and its corrollary. The difference is that this morality recognizes that truth, to the extent it can be attained, can only be attained through rational inquiry. As such, the Golden Rule is the central morality, as it is necessary to protect and respect rational inquiry and the search for truth (by definition "doing unto others" in a way you would not have "done unto you" acts contrary to one's own, albeit limited, understanding of truth). Far from being "relativists," we seek to act consistently with this one rational and universal moral principle without exception (though, as fallible humans, we no doubt occasionally fail in that task).

Instead, I would posit, those that would seek to impose the will of their "Invisible Friend" on others through the use of government (or other forcible means) are the real relativists. In so doing, these groups must of necessity violate the Golden Rule, which, as I said, is perhaps universally accepted in some form or another. Their justification for violating the Golden Rule in order to impose their personal moral vision on others? The "Invisible Friend" said so. This to me is the very essence of true relativism, one in which any rule is subject to violation as long as some knowable (and therefore finite) entity says so, and in which morality is entirely based on the whims of that knowable (and therefore finite) entity. In such a system, truth and morality exist only to the extent of the source entity - they do not exist independent of the source entity.

This is of course hardly a novel point I am making. Indeed, in addition to Enlightment and post-Enlightenment thinkers, the argument that truth/morality exist independent of an "Invisible Friend" and that basing truth/morality on such an "Invisible Friend" is the truly relativist position dates at least to Socrates.

NOTE 1: My first inclination was to disagree with Cernig's statement that legislation of morality is the purpose of politics, until I realized that this was a positive rather than normative statement. As a matter of practical description, I think Cernig's probably right - as a practical matter, politics is almost entirely about legislating morality (i.e., using the power of government to punish perceived immoral behavior, whether it be through wealth redistribution, criminal punishment, or civil liability, the purpose of politics is to punish the so-called "evil-doers" and reward those deemed "good" by the ruling class). On a normative level, however, Cernig's really arguing that the sole purpose of politics "should" be enforcement of the Golden Rule and its corrollary- i.e., the Golden Rule and its corrollary are the only morality with which government "should" be concerned. On this point, you'd be hard-pressed to find a true libertarian who disagreed (and ultimately, I think most anarchists would also agree, though they would likely point out - with justification - that the very concept of government violates the Golden Rule).

NOTE 2: At the risk of sounding like a stoned physics/astronomy student, I'd point out that perhaps the only thing that is certain is that there exists, somewhere, some infinite entity. Whether that entity is the universe, God, or something entirely else, it is perhaps impossible to conceive of a physical space with defined boundaries that does not exist within some greater physical/spiritual/whatever space. Eventually you have to get to some entity outside of which nothing exists, which therefore lacks any definable boundaries and is therefore, literally, infinite. Once you accept that something infinite exists, than absolute certainty becomes literally impossible since you must always concede that your certainty is based solely on your own finite experience or on the experience of some defined, finite, culture. Thus, the whole of human experience can teach us, literally, only an infinitessimal portion of truth and morality.