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3 March 2021

Why social liberals are not moral relativists

Liberalism permits different ways of living, but such permissiveness is still predicated on universal moral truths.

By Thomas Hurka

In a 2019 speech defending a traditional, religiously based morality as the foundation for a healthy society, the then US attorney-general William Barr, a devout Catholic, decried “the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism”. Other conservatives such as the late political theorist Allan Bloom have also claimed the liberal views they oppose involve a relativist denial of objective moral truth. Some progressives may indeed say “values are relative”. Is Barr right that on the political left, moral relativism is becoming a “new orthodoxy”?

Moral relativism says there are no universal moral truths – truths that apply to all people, everywhere. Its cultural iteration says that what’s right in a given culture depends on that culture’s moral code or what it believes is right. This means moral requirements can vary between cultures; what’s right in California may be wrong in Afghanistan.

But Barr seems more worried by what we might call personal relativism, which says that what’s right for an individual depends on what that individual thinks is right. Unlike cultural relativism, this more radical view doesn’t even allow members of your own culture to criticise you if you do what you think is right. If you believe something is right, that makes it right for you.

Yet almost no one accepts either kind of relativism. It would mean believing that if a culture or an individual thinks rape or torturing children is acceptable, then it’s acceptable for them. It implies that racism and homophobia are OK for those who think they’re OK. Do any progressives think that? Nor will many agree that if one culture thinks enslaving another is its right, it can’t be criticised for doing so. Virtually everyone makes universal moral claims about public acts, ones that affect other people, and especially about those that harm others.

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Conservatives like Barr can’t credibly deny this, but they may retreat to a narrower charge: that liberals are relativists about private acts. A traditional morality of the kind Barr defends makes many claims about behaviour that doesn’t affect other people, except, say, your family or intimates. It sets standards for private life, ones that separate moral from immoral ways of acting when you’re on your own, or when you’re engaging with others in ways they agree to. But a progressive morality rejects those traditional standards, finding nothing morally wrong in most consensual private acts.

Conservatives may say this makes a progressive view relativist about private behaviour, and that this is both objectionable in itself and undermines any claims progressives make about public acts. A sound public morality, they may argue, must be grounded in a private morality, in duties just about the self. A liberal view that rejects those duties therefore lacks the needed foundation for public duties: the relativism at liberal morality’s core infects the whole.

Traditional private morality contains prohibitions about, for example, sex: it may say gay sex is wrong, as is any sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Suicide, too, may be regarded as a sin, so even voluntary euthanasia should be banned. But although a liberal view rejects these prohibitions and doesn’t regard these private acts as morally wrong, that doesn’t make it relativist.

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In the 1960s it was common to speak of a new “permissive” morality, and that’s a good description. A liberal view says gay sex isn’t wrong – it’s morally permitted, as is straight sex and, in fact, any sex that all participants consent to. If you’re in intolerable pain, ending your life is permitted, as is helping someone in pain to end theirs. For many acts in the private sphere, liberals say, each of two choices, either to do something or not to, is morally allowed.

But this is a universal, not a relativist, claim. It says that for everyone, whatever their beliefs, or their culture’s beliefs, both gay and straight sex are morally permitted. They’re not permitted because someone thinks they are; they’re just permitted, for everyone, everywhere.

If you or your culture think gay sex is wrong, relativism says gay sex is wrong for you. In contrast, the liberal view I’m describing says gay sex is permitted for you just as it is for anyone else; and if you think it’s wrong, you’re mistaken about a universal moral truth. If you act on your belief and avoid gay sex that’s perfectly OK, because not having gay sex is also permitted. But your belief is false, just as it would be if you thought gay sex were morally required.

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We tend to think of morality as issuing commands and prohibitions – Moses didn’t give his people the Ten Permissions – but morality also allows things. Trivially, it lets you choose your hairstyle; there’s nothing morally wrong about having a mullet. More seriously, if you could save two strangers’ lives by sacrificing your own, morality permits you to do that, but it also permits you not to. In cases like this morality allows you to care more about your own life and so again frees you to make either of two choices. A progressive private morality simply grants more of these permissions.

And a progressive morality can perfectly well ground public duties, though of a distinctively liberal kind. It can say that whenever someone is permitted to make a choice, others are forbidden to interfere with that choice or prevent them from making it.

Thus rape is wrong in part because it prevents the other person from deciding, as they’re morally permitted to, not to have sex with someone. By the same token, though, if a state criminalises gay sex, that too prevents people from doing something morally permitted and is wrong – hence liberals’ opposition to such laws.

For liberals, everyone has the right to make certain choices in their private lives, and others are required, as a matter of public morality, to respect that right. It’s wrong to force someone to do what they’re permitted not to do. In the liberal view, just as in the conservative view, a universal public duty rests on a universal truth about private morality. But this truth is now one that permits rather than forbids things.

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If all this is true, why do some progressives say relativist-sounding things that invite a charge like Barr’s? They may be making, in a slightly misleading way, several claims that aren’t relativist but can sound as though they are.

By “values are relative”, for example, liberals may mean only to emphasise that people’s beliefs about morality differ, both between cultures and within a single one, and that we should take account of this in our moral thinking. Recognising this plurality can make us less prone to assume, dogmatically, that our particular moral convictions capture the whole of universal moral truth. Maybe some other culture or person has insights we lack; maybe the most adequate moral view combines some elements from ours with some from theirs.

Sometimes the differences between cultures are simply a matter of the conventional ways they express a shared moral value. In one culture people show respect for each other by taking off their hats, while in another they do so by keeping their heads covered. Here it may be true that the “right” thing to do with headgear differs between these cultures, but that’s not a relativist claim because it concerns only the arbitrary specification of a universal value of respect.

A final issue concerns blame. Consider someone who did something that we think is wrong but lived in a culture where it was widely accepted and thought proper – say, someone who owned slaves in ancient Greece. It can seem unfair to blame them for this – how could they know slavery is wrong? – and some may express this by saying slave-owning wasn’t wrong for them. But we needn’t, and shouldn’t, say that. You can act wrongly and not deserve blame because you had an excuse. Better to say slave-owning was wrong in Greece, as it’s wrong everywhere, but those who did it then weren’t entirely to blame.

These superficially similar or relativist-sounding views aside, virtually no one accepts moral relativism. Yet it’s convenient to conservatives like Barr to say progressives do. After all, it’s appealing to present yourself as defending not one view of universal right and wrong against competing views, but objective morality as a whole against those who, wickedly and dangerously, reject it.

Thomas Hurka is University Professor and Jackman Distinguished Chair in Philosophical Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of “Virtue, Vice, and Value” and “The Best Things in Life.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.